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Andrew Cuomo

Why Won’t the “New York Works Fund” Pay for Transit?

Andrew Cuomo's big infrastructure push, the New York Works Fund, won't include transit projects. Why? Photo via Wikimedia.

Despite the fact that over one quarter of the state's population takes transit to work, Governor Andrew Cuomo's marquee infrastructure program won't invest in public transportation. With so much still unknown about the governor's "New York Works Fund" -- including very basic information about how it will be structured -- the reason why Cuomo is excluding transit remains elusive.

State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald confirmed that transit won't be included in the fund at a legislative hearing two weeks ago. According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger asked McDonald whether any transit projects would be eligible for the fund. "McDonald answered in the negative," reported Tri-State's Nadine Lemmon.

"The senator thinks it would be tragic if the state did not prioritize significant investment in both upstate and downstate mass transportation maintenance, modernization and expansion," said a spokesperson for Krueger, who confirmed Tri-State's account.

While the fund won't include transit, it will provide funding for highways, bridges, municipal water systems, dams, and even state parks and historic sites. In his State of the State address this January, Cuomo said the fund would "master plan, coordinate, leverage, and accelerate capital investment," and "leverage state investment by a multiple of 20-to-1."

Exactly what the fund is, however, isn't at all clear. "There's no legislation or language," explained Tammy Gamerman, a senior research associate with the Citizens Budget Commission who's been following the New York Works Fund. Right now, she explained, the "New York Works Fund" label doesn't refer to an actual fund so much as a way of conceptually packaging infrastructure spending. "It's a way of thinking about different infrastructure investments together, rather than as separate."

The governor's office has not responded to Streetsblog requests for an explanation of how the New York Works Fund is set up. "The governor hasn't revealed exactly what will be done or and how much of it was scheduled to be done anyway by repackaging of existing aid to minimize new spending," reported the Associated Press last month.

The biggest unanswered questions involve Cuomo's promise to leverage state investment with 20 private dollars for every public dollar. The private sector needs to make a return on its investment, of course, and alternative financing doesn't eliminate the need to actually fund infrastructure investments. If Cuomo isn't willing to pay for roadwork with a gas tax increase or tolls, it's not clear how the private sector would be compensated.

As Elizabeth Lynam, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, told the AP: "It's hard to fit the number together right now and know where all this financing capacity is going to come from. It's not as though everything out there is free. Somebody is going to have to pay for it somewhere along the line."

At the same time, Cuomo is also billing the reconstruction of the Tappan Zee Bridge as a New York Works Fund project, although it won't be receiving any private financing. What defines a New York Works Fund project, in other words, seems flexible at this point.

So if the New York Works Fund is so far just an act of political branding, why is the Cuomo administration proactively declaring transit ineligible for the funds?

It's possible that the fund will be structured in a way that precludes its use for transit, whether for legal or financial reasons. Gamerman, however, said she hadn't heard of any such obstacle. "I don't think there's any structural reason for it," she said. "I think they chose to keep transit separate."

The Cuomo administration has also chosen not to fund the remaining three years of the MTA's capital program, a far more significant fiscal decision. That left the MTA $9 billion short of what it needs to pay for badly-needed system repairs and the ongoing expansion of the system. Even if the New York Works Fund were to include transit, it's impossible that the fund as currently imagined could close that enormous gap. The New York Works Fund is of less concern to New York City transit riders than the need for a new revenue stream to pay for the MTA capital program.

Even so, it's worth keeping an eye on how the New York Works Fund takes shape. Depending on what the fund actually turns into, it has the potential to be one more way the Cuomo administration shortchanges the state's transit riders.

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