Governor Andrew Cuomo raised eyebrows earlier this month when he proclaimed that "the future is mass transportation"—only to announce that 30 subway stations would be shut down for months at a time in the name of new signage and lighting. Also on the docket, he proclaimed, is system-wide Wi-Fi by the end of the year, cellphone service in 2017, and hundreds of USB charging stations on subway cars.
"The governor's speech had some substantive stuff and some stuff that's kind of silly, and none of it's funded," said Nick Sifuentes of the Riders Alliance. "Whether it's cosmetic or substantive, there's just no money."
Sifuentes was among a group of transit advocates—from the Straphangers Campaign and Tri-State Transportation Campaign in addition to the Riders Alliance—who gathered outside the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday to critique the language of Governor Cuomo's 2016-17 budget proposal. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio announced in October that they had finally come to an agreement on funding for the 2015-2019 MTA capital plan—$2.5 billion from the City, and $8.3 billion from the State. The Governor's budget reiterates this commitment, but without a specific timeframe for the payout—an omission advocates deem crucial. From the budget proposal [emphasis ours]:
The additional funds provided by the state... shall be scheduled and made available to pay for the costs of the capital program after MTA capital resources planned for the Capital Program, not including additional city and state funds, have been exhausted, or when MTA capital resources planned for the capital plan are not available.
From the advocates' perspective, the language in Cuomo's budget is too vague for comfort. "It's basically governance by press release," Sifuentes said. "Cuomo basically wrote a big IOU and the IOU has no date on it."
Reached for comment, both the Governor's office and the MTA confirmed that the budget proposal—yet to be approved by the State legislature—doesn't include a set date for when funds would be allocated. However, both offices insisted that the proposal is "iron-clad" in its eventual funding commitment.
Jamison Dague, a researcher for the Citizens Budget Commission, said this afternoon that there's truth to both sides of the argument. On the one hand, the budget's language does technically back up Cuomo's funding commitment. On the other hand, "It does punt on how and when.... The State sort of made themselves a funder of last resort."
"The Governor has not included anything about where the money will come from," Dague added. "They could require the MTA to borrow from them. The concern is that the State wouldn't support [the MTA's] debt in the future." In other words, the current language doesn't protect the MTA from future debt if the State decides to loan its $8.3 billion, rather than grant it.
According to the MTA, State funding will be "necessary"—i.e. the $8.3 billion will become available—as soon as the agency has committed the remainder of its 2010-2014 Capital Plan. This could take a while, although the agency did not confirm how long exactly. The process of allocating MTA capital funds is slow by nature, since the agency has to decide what projects to prioritize before tackling the logistics of getting shovels into the dirt. In June, a report from the Independent Budget Office revealed that about $10 billion of the MTA's previous plan was still available for allocation.
This, of course, does not mean that the MTA is sitting around burning money. MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg said in June that, without full Capital Plan funding, "the MTA will be forced to make difficult choices between key priorities such as buying new subway cars, rail cars and buses, replacing tracks and rebuilding switches, installing more countdown clocks and extending the Second Avenue Subway into East Harlem."