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Andrew Cuomo

Cuomo’s $27 Billion Transportation Plan Needs Some Sunlight

Governor Andrew Cuomo's Department of Transportation has billions of dollars at its disposal to spend on capital projects but doesn't tell the public what it plans to do with the money. A bipartisan bill in both houses of the state legislature aims to change that.

Current state law lets New York Governor Cuomo determine state DOT's list of capital projects before the state legislature has gotten a chance to see it. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr
Current law lets the Cuomo administration determine how state DOT will spend billions before the public gets a chance to weigh in. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr
Governor Cuomo signed an climate-change ambitious law. But he loves his SUVs. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

Unlike the MTA capital plan, which is open to public scrutiny, the state DOT's project list for its five-year capital program remains a mystery, even after the state legislature approved $27 billion dollars for it in April.

The process used to be more open, with the legislature and governor openly discussing the DOT's annual list of projects. But that basic level of transparency ended some years ago, said Tri-State Transportation Campaign New York Director Nadine Lemmon. Now when legislators ask for the project list, the Cuomo administration fails to deliver it.

The opaque process makes it harder to hold the governor's office and the state DOT accountable. For the last few years, for instance, Tri-State has called on the Cuomo administration to dedicate $20 million annually to complete streets projects. Without a list of projects, there's no way to know if that request has been met. Lemmon said she's had to piece together the DOT's project list from press releases and recent statements by Cuomo and his staff.

A project list that's shielded from scrutiny is more susceptible to political horse-trading and less likely to reflect public priorities. "There is some public value to seeing [the list] before it gets passed," Lemmon said. "[Otherwise] it’s behind closed doors. It’s subject to all the terrible things that could happen in a political process."

On Friday, the Albany Times Union editorial board blasted the budgeting approach. The lack of transparency "makes these decisions too easily subject to unhealthy considerations -- like political rewards and punishments," the paper wrote. "While it may not take the politics out of the process altogether, opening these spending decisions to greater public scrutiny would certainly help. If there’s nothing to hide, there’s no reason to keep it secret."

A bipartisan bill from State Senator Andrew Lanza and Assembly Member Nily Rozic aims to open up the process. Their legislation (A9872-A/S7608-A) -- which has 37 co-sponsors in the Assembly and 18 in the Senate -- would require state DOT to publish a list of projects every October, prior to the state budget process. It would also compel state DOT to release five-year and 20-year capital plans this October, then again every five years when the MTA submits its own capital plan.

That would reestablish a public process for the state's transportation spending -- and allow the public to weigh in. Right now, everyone is left in the dark.

"We don't believe there's any other state in the union that does this," said Lemmon.

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