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Conference examines state's infrastructure needs

Gov. Andrew Cuomo attends an event earlier this year at the site of the Tappan Zee Bridge. (file photo)

State lawmakers say they want to act quickly to spend the state’s growing $5 billion surplus on an infrastructure fund to fix up roads and bridges, among other things. At a think tank sponsored conference on the state’s infrastructure, participants said there are deep needs and they warn lawmakers not to spend the money frivolously.  

Speakers at the event, sponsored by the Empire Center, say New York has some major infrastructure needs, including financing of a new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Thruway and a $15 billion deficit in the MTA budget. According to Frank Moretti, with the Washington-based non-profit known as TRIP, at least half of the state's roads are in need of repair.

“Nearly half are in poor or mediocre condition,” said Moretti. “As you move into the poor category, the repairs become significantly more costly.”

Nicole Gelinas, a business journalist and fellow at the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute, has been studying the finances surrounding the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has yet to release a detailed financial plan, even though construction is underway, saying there are too many variables.

Gelinas says if the state wants to pay for the project, estimated at $4 billion, it will have to raise tolls three times higher than the current rate of $5.00.

“The Tappan Zee Bridge replacement really threatens to overwhelm the Thruway’s capital plan over the next decade,” Gelinas said.  

She says it would have made more sense to begin raising the tolls gradually, as the construction began, instead of potentially socking motorists with a huge toll increase when the bridge is finished. Some of Cuomo’s top aides recommended the toll climb to $14, but the governor said at the time that was too high.

Legislative leaders in Albany recently for meetings said they would like to divvy up the surplus before the end of the year, and not put it into the general fund of the state budget.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he’d like to see a one-time investment in infrastructure.

In the past, governors and legislative leaders have divided up similar pots of money and exercised complete control over how the funds are spent, often using them to reward favored lawmakers by financing projects in their districts, in a process derided in the past as pork barrel spending.

EJ McMahon, president of the Empire Center, warns lawmakers not to be tempted to resort to those past habits.

“The danger is that they will create pots of capital pork, in the worst case,” McMahon said.

McMahon says it’s a positive development that the lawmakers, as well as Cuomo, want to spend the one-time windfall surplus from bank settlements over the financial crisis on one-time expenses.  

“The key question going forward is how do they define infrastructure,” McMahon said. “In the past, the legislature has defined infrastructure rather broadly.”

He says the state’s current capital budget includes funds for economic development that offers subsidies for corporations, as well as a poorly defined $700 million kitty that can be used for any government affiliated building, including college campuses.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.