Lawmakers push for street, highway repairs

Work continues on the Route 11 Bridge over CSX rail road track in Dekalb, Monday, July 8, 2019, the $8.2 million project is scheduled to be completed in December. Christopher Lenney/Watertown Daily Times

ALBANY — State lawmakers questioned leading transportation officials Tuesday in the first of several hearings about the proposed 2021-22 budget after requests from localities for years to increase state funding to improve local streets and highways.

The joint Legislature commenced 13 days of bicameral hearings on the state’s proposed $192.9 billion 2021-22 spending plan Tuesday.

State officials project a $39 billion revenue loss over four years because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including losses of $11.5 billion in Fiscal Year 2021 and $9.8 billion in FY 2022. New York’s revenue shortfall will mount to $39 billion over four years.

Assemblymembers and senators on both sides of the aisle asked state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez why Consolidated Local Street and Highway Improvement Program funding has remained flat at $477.8 million annually for nearly a decade, and Extreme Winter Recovery Reimbursement funds were eliminated this year.

“CHIPS hasn’t seen an increase in so many years,” said Sen. Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, who chairs the Transportation Committee. “It is essential we prioritize this. The communities across the state are clamoring for it.

“Why are these held flat? ...Why are we not prioritizing roads and bridges to more of a degree?”

Dominguez argued the state allocates more than $1 billion annually to fund local projects, including CHIPS, pave NY and Bridge NY funding, with $700 million directly provided to municipalities.

“While we continue to work, this reflects the incredible amount of investment statewide we continue to make in all communities across the state,” she said.

Assemblyman William Magnarelli, D-Syracuse, also pressed the commissioner on the need for increased support for roads and bridges.

The commissioner directed the assemblyman to other DOT programs she said provide additional funding to localities for infrastructure maintenance and improvements.

“I hear what you’re saying, but at the same time, you have to listen to what I’m saying,” Magnarelli replied. “The need for additional funds is real. The amount of roads and bridges that have to be maintained, especially across the state in upstate, rural areas, is incredible. So there’s an awful lot of mileage and an awful lot of bridges to maintain.”

The commissioner did not specifically address the flat CHIPS funding, or removal of Extreme Winter Recovery Reimbursement funds.

Several lawmakers requested and pushed Dominguez for an updated report of completed and in-process DOT projects and their location. Many expressed concern about the withdrawal depending on state finances.

“If the Department of Transportation is [contracting] a project, it means we’re completing a project,” she said. “If we’re going through the contractual process, once we start, we’re going all the way through to conclusion.

“You can tell by the investment we’re making this year it’s full speed ahead.”

Magnarelli reiterated the request Tuesday and also asked to see a compilation of the 100 bridge projects Cuomo touted as recently completed improvements.

“We really do want to work with your transportation department to get some kind of a list that we can take a look at and understand where the projects are how they are going and where they are being done,” he said to the DOT commissioner. “I look forward to working with you on that.”

The department formerly released an annual report on highway, lane and bridge conditions throughout the state, Magnarelli said.

Dominguez, who became DOT commissioner in early 2020, did not answer why the department no longer releases the report, but assured lawmakers state roads and bridges are safe, with hands-on bridge inspections every two years.

Earlier this month, Cuomo announced a $306 billion five-year infrastructure investment plan with projects to expand the state’s transportation and mass-transit systems across New York — similar to President and former Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic New Deal programs enacted in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression.

If the state gets $15 billion in federal aid, upstate airports will be rebuilt, with 40% added train capacity and at least eight additional underground tracks to Penn Station and the building of new affordable housing, schools and hundreds of green energy projects encompassing wind, solar and more.

The budget supports the DOT’s two-year $11.9 billion capital plan, Dominguez said, if the state receives adequate aid from Washington.

“They have failed to provide adequate resources to a state that produces approximately 8% of the nation’s [Gross Domestic Product] and contributes approximately $23 billion more annually to Washington than it receives,” she said. “...In addition to basic fairness, the state also seeks federal assistance to reimagine, rebuild and renew New York. After all, for the nation to prosper, New York must remain strong and vibrant. We must continue to modernize our public transportation systems; we must continue to transform our airport, freight rail and seaport infrastructure; and we must continue to build and renew roads and bridges in every community of this great state.”

The Transportation Department will spend all funding from last year’s capital plan, to total the forecasted $11.9 billion, by the end of the 2021-22 fiscal year.

Slated projects to modernize state infrastructure include construction of the Albany Skyway, construction of the new eastbound ramp on Interstate 690 and completion of Rochester’s Riverway Project with a total overhaul of the I-390/I-490 interchange.

Dominguez said the state’s infrastructure plans will create thousands of jobs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has pleaded for direct federal aid to local governments nationwide since late last spring to help offset multi-billion-dollar deficits plaguing each state.

Assemblymembers and Senators questioned officials for many hours Tuesday, extending into the evening, from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the New York State Thruway Authority, state associations representing town and county highway superintendents, general contractors, union representatives and others regarding the state’s complex system of roads, tunnels, railways and bridges.

Tuesday’s hearing started with nearly four hours of testimony and questioning with Metropolitan Transportation Authority President Patrick Foye and MTA NYC Transit Interim President Sarah Feinberg.

The state’s proposed budget supports the MTA’s five-year $51.5 billion capital plan, depending on New York’s amount of federal funding in subsequent COVID-19 relief packages.

Many downstate lawmakers from New York City, Long Island, Westchester and Orange counties and the surrounding metropolitan area expressed concerns about proposals to increase bus, subway and train fares or cutting Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road availability and services.

The MTA has a roughly $8 billion revenue gap after receiving more than $4 billion in federal aid from the bill Congress passed in December.

Foye would not make promises or commitments to any lawmaker Tuesday as details of agency cuts to transportation services and layoffs accompanied with fare increases remains unknown without federal action.

“We are in desperate shape,” Foye said. “We’re going to have to take dramatic, draconian actions to balance the books. It’s going to affect every consumer, every agency... These are desperate times and we may have to take draconian actions.”

Metro-North ridership continues to be down more than 81%, and Long Island Rail Road ridership is down at least 76%, Foye said.

Upstate transit is down more than 9%.

Eliminating all fares would create an annual $6 billion revenue gap for the MTA, Foye said.

Several train lines continue to shut overnight as the MTA persists with rigorous cleaning and disinfecting protocols put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

A few lawmakers asked for scientific evidence supporting the thorough and expensive cleaning, as health experts have reported COVID-19 spread is mainly airborne, not transmitted on surfaces.

The thorough disinfecting process has cost the agency roughly $300 million to date, Foye said. Officials expect the cost to be reimbursed by the federal government as a pandemic-related expense.

About 75% of surveyed MTA passengers said the agency’s disinfecting protocol was a main factor in resuming taking public transportation while the pandemic continues.

The Legislature is scheduled to continue with a budget hearing focusing on environmental conservation at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday.

*Editor’s note: This story corrects an earlier version that misspelled state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez’s last name.

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