Among Democrats, Cuomo Lags Far Behind on Transit Policy

When it comes to transit, Andrew Cuomo seems to see only the costs and never the benefits.

Under Governor Andrew Cuomo, New York's transit policy is being eclipsed by states like Utah.

Responding to near-unanimous support for transit on the Tappan Zee Bridge from the Hudson Valley’s elected officials, including the county executives on both sides of the river, Cuomo spokesperson Matt Wing had this to say last week:

If the county executives are each willing to write the state a check for $1 billion for construction and over $100 million for operating costs, we will move forward with BRT. If not, the governor is committed to building a new Tappan Zee Bridge that ends a decade of delay and puts tens of thousands New Yorkers back to work now.

In other words, the state will keep picking up the tab for highways — in the FY 2012 budget, Cuomo transferred $593 million to the highway and bridge trust fund while stealing $100 million from MTA dedicated funds — but anyone who wants to build transit is on their own.

Wing’s statement reflects a governor who fundamentally thinks about transit as something that costs the state money, not something that brings economic and fiscal benefits in return.

In this case, the state’s most recent cost estimate for the BRT system is $900 million. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations by Streetsblog showed that the BRT service would save New Yorkers at least $100 million a year in weekday gas costs and time savings alone. Add in the costs of pollution, traffic crashes, and the extra infrastructure needed to sustain auto-oriented sprawl and the savings from transit are even higher.

Andrew Cuomo doesn’t see those savings, but several of his political peers do.

One of the best explanations of the fiscal sense of transit investment came from Envision Utah, a public-private campaign that helped shape growth in and around Salt Lake City. Envision Utah put forward four scenarios for the region; transit-oriented growth turned out to save $15 billion in direct infrastructure costs compared to sprawl-as-usual. Utahns got on board and the region is moving forward at rapid speed with new transit lines and transit-oriented development. The private sector chair of Envision Utah at the time was current and possibly future presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr.

Many of Cuomo’s fellow Democratic governors are also perfectly capable of discussing transit spending as a sound investment.

Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who’s already being described as a competitor for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, made his support for light rail on the Purple Line project through the D.C. suburbs a major plank of his 2010 campaign against former governor Bob Ehrlich. “Ehrlich contends that Maryland can’t afford to build two new light rail lines; O’Malley says the state can’t afford not to,” the Baltimore Sun reported at the time. “We can’t build enough roads to ease the congestion that’s coming,” O’Malley said.

In contrast, the politician calling for the local counties to assume the cost of the transit project — Andrew Cuomo’s position on the Tappan Zee — was Maryland’s leading rural Republican.

California Governor Jerry Brown is the only Democrat running a larger state than Cuomo. Despite major cost overruns on his state’s high-speed rail plans, Brown has continued to support the proposal, arguing that the cost has to be compared against the $82 billion pricetag of expanding the state’s highways and airports. “California’s high-speed rail project will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, linking California’s population centers and avoiding the huge problems of massive airport and highway expansion,” Brown told the New York Times.

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who unsuccessfully fought for a gas tax hike in 2009, is again investigating ways to increase funding for the state’s debt-wracked transit system. Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy has celebrated the state’s investment in a Hartford to New Britain busway project.

Meanwhile, Cuomo is ridiculing the cost of Tappan Zee transit, cutting dedicated transit funds and stealing from the MTA. With his refusal to acknowledge the benefits of transit investment, he’s lining up not with his fellow Democrats, and not even with the state of Utah, but with Tea Party transit-haters like Ohio Governor John Kasich, who cut all state funding for the Cincinnati Streetcar project in addition to rejecting federal rail dollars. That should go over well in 2016.

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