State transport funding in Albany budget will have ongoing effects in the mid-Hudson

| Times Herald-Record

Regardless of what decisions the three men in a room ultimately make this week about funding transportation in the state’s 2016-17 budget, the repercussions will ricochet across New York for years.

The decisions, after all, aren’t just about what gets funded and what doesn’t in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed $145 billion budget, but how and when the state will foot the bills beyond the 2016-17 fiscal year.

The resolution is especially fraught for pocketbooks in the mid-Hudson, where the interests of the state Department of Transportation, the New York State Thruway Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority intersect.

Here’s what taxpayers should watch as the governor and legislative leaders horse-trade their way to a budget before Friday’s deadline:

Department of Transportation

Legislators have been focused on achieving parity between the DOT’s proposed $22 billion five-year capital plan and the MTA’s proposed $26 billion five-year capital plan – between upstate and downstate.

“Will it be a fair transportation program to all? Yes,’’ promised Cuomo on Friday.

Will it? The administration has yet to release the list of projects it proposes to fund in the DOT’s capital plan and is unlikely to before the budget is passed.

Will Orange County finally see the money for the reconfiguration of Route 17’s Exit 131 in Central Valley, money the governor redirected “upstate” in 2013?

And will Sullivan County see this major construction project at the Route 17/Thruway interchange unfolding over the first years of the Montreign Resort Casino?

“The opaque and unregulated process for developing the DOT capital plan must change,’’ said Nadine Lemmon, director of New York policy for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, in her testimony at hearings in January.

In arguing for a law that will allow the public – and legislators – to review the plan before its adoption, Lemmon pointed out the projects in the two-year DOT capital plan that was adopted last year are still a mystery.

Cuomo’s proposed budget also leaves the allocation for the Consolidated Highway Improvement Program, or CHIPs, basically unchanged at $518 million despite it being the primary source of support for municipal road and bridge programs – programs that maintain more than half of the state’s bridges and more than three-quarters of its highway miles.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Cuomo agreed to contribute $8.3 billion to the MTA’s capital plan in October, after his staff wheedled down the ask from $32 billion and after he extracted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to pony up $2.5 billion.

But he put an IOU in the budget instead of money, igniting a firestorm among transit advocates, and gave de Blasio the green light to follow suit. Basically, the budget says the MTA has to exhaust its own resources before turning to the state for money, say, to pay the interest on ever-increasing indebtedness.

“The only way the state could support the capital plan would be to borrow money, and it can’t borrow because it’s too close to its debit limit – but the MTA is not,” said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy.

When this bill eventually comes due, it’s possible the MTA’s and/or the state’s financial condition will require fare increases, service cuts and/or a new stream of revenue such as the payroll tax that followed the 2007-08 recession and is still reviled in the Hudson Valley.

“They’ll decide what they need when they get there,’’ said McMahon. “And the cost will be higher.”

McMahon advocated last year that Cuomo split the $4.3 billion windfall that the state got in bank settlement funds between the MTA and the DOT for pay-as-you-go use on capital projects to break the cycle of borrowing.

The DOT’s budget, for example, included debt service on past CHIPs borrowing last year to the tune of $538 million, or more than the program awarded to municipalities.

New York State Thruway Authority

Cuomo wants to channel another $700 million in bank settlement funds – on top of last year’s $1.3 billion – to the Thruway Authority to support construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge and other projects and keep tolls flat through 2020.

And he wants to channel $340 million from the same pot into a tax credit for the Thruway’s most frequent users – the majority of whom are downstate residents.

“For some reason I can’t understand, the governor thinks the Thruway Authority can sponsor one of the biggest infrastructure projects in the country ($3.9 billion) and not impact price,’’ said McMahon. “Who’s he kidding? All this does is put off the inevitable toll increases.”

Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, worried that keeping tolls artificially low would only undermine attempts to establish bus rapid transit in the Tappan Zee corridor – another project of uncertain status in the proposed budget.

“It’s not only poor public policy,’’ said Vanterpool. “It also proves there’s still no financial plan for paying for the new bridge.”

© 2016 Times Herald-Record