Cuomo Transportation Record Mixes Big Projects, Big Needs

ALBANY (AP) -
Gov. Andrew Cuomo inspects the start of construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge last year.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo inspects the start of construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge last year.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo likes to build stuff. He once said he might have been an engineer if he hadn’t gone into politics, and counts the new Tappan Zee Bridge as a signature accomplishment when it comes to infrastructure.

Yet despite significant work on roads, bridges and airports, the Democratic governor has yet to hit all his goals or fully address the state’s complex and expensive transportation needs.

“We face a lot of challenges. We have decades of disinvestment in roads, bridges, airports, transit,” said Richard Barone, director of transportation programs at the Regional Plan Association, which studies transit needs across the tri-state area. “The governor is in a tough spot because he must balance the needs of all of New York state.”

The Associated Press examined transportation proposals from Cuomo’s first four years in office to see what the Democrat has said and where those promises stand:

Airports

“We need to modernize JFK and LaGuardia; we have talked about it for too long. We will assume management responsibility from the Port Authority for construction at JFK and LaGuardia airports.” — Cuomo, 2014.

Stung by criticisms of the city’s outdated airports, including Vice President Joe Biden’s comparison of LaGuardia to “what one might find in a third-world country,” Cuomo and other officials have responded.

The Port Authority’s capital plan includes $8 billion over the next 10 years to improve the region’s three airports.

But a much-anticipated $3.6 billion renovation of LaGuardia’s aging central terminal is on hold while the Port Authority waits for Cuomo’s office to choose a winner of an airport design competition, a contest the governor announced with much fanfare several months ago.

“The point of the design competition is basically the holistic approach for the next 50 years for the entire airport,” said Port Authority spokesman Chris Valens.

At a board meeting last month, Port Authority commissioners said they could not choose a developer for the work until the governor’s office chose a winner for the competition. There were grumblings of disapproval among some commissioners, who worry the design competition is delaying the renovation.

The board has until the end of April to choose a developer. Meanwhile, Cuomo’s office says it is in the process of choosing finalists, but would not provide a timetable for a decision.

One of Cuomo’s latest proposals, a $450 million rail link from Manhattan to LaGuardia, won immediate praise from many travelers but also prompted questions from lawmakers about who would pay for the project and whether Cuomo underestimated the cost.

Roads and Bridges

“We will improve or replace more than 100 bridges. And we will finally build a new the Tappan Zee Bridge — because 15 years of planning is too long. We will repair 2,000 miles worth of roads.” — Cuomo, 2012.

Cuomo’s NY Works program has replaced or upgraded 121 bridges and repaved 2,157 miles of roads. Two of the largest bridge projects are ongoing: a $550 million replacement for the Kosciuszko Bridge in New York City and $148 million in upgrades to the Patroon Island Bridge in Albany.

Another program is using federal funds to protect 105 bridges vulnerable to flood damage. Eighty bridges have been approved for $278 million so far. Flood damage is a real threat: a 1987 Thruway bridge collapse blamed on erosion killed 10.

The $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson is slated to open in 2018. It’s one of the most expensive public works projects in U.S. history.

“The Tappan Zee was a big problem and he took it on,” Barone said of Cuomo. “That’s a big accomplishment.”

Subway Resiliency

“When we built the New York City transit system, we didn’t envision floods that could fill the subway system. … We now have to re-imagine the subway system where you can close all of those openings, and we’re going through that with a $5 billion massive plan.” — Cuomo, 2014.

As part of that $5 billion plan, Cuomo referenced an “experimental inflatable plug” that could be used to keep flood waters out of subway tunnels. The problem is the idea just doesn’t hold water, according to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

“It doesn’t work in terms of where it traps water,” said MTA spokesman Stephen Morello. “All the way down in the tunnel is the wrong place to stop the water.”

That said, the MTA is working with people who create heavy-duty inflatable technology to create smaller devices that could help plug up more than 500 points of entry throughout the subway system that are vulnerable to water, Morello said. That includes sidewalk grates, station entrances, manhole covers and air vents.

The MTA is also looking at different types of barriers and gates that would keep the water out and signed an $11.5 million contract last week with a company that will install flexible gate covers to prevent water from entering about two dozen subway stations, most of them in lower Manhattan. Construction contracts for closures at all water-prone openings will be awarded by November, Morello said.

The MTA has already completed $885 million in post-Sandy recovery work, which includes rebuilding underwater subway tubes and repairing signals, building better drainage and pumping capabilities and improving tracks and communications on subways, bridges, tunnels and commuter railroads. An additional $1.8 billion in contracts for recovery work has been awarded, and more than $4.4 billion has been undertaken in design work across the system.

Metro-North Expansion

“We will open a new spur for the Metro-North Railroad to provide more resiliency and direct access to Penn Station, which will also at the same time build four new stations to bring transit options to the Bronx.” — Cuomo, 2014.

The MTA’s plan to extend Metro-North Railroad to Penn Station — involving three miles of new railroad tracks and four new train stations — is part of its $32 billion five-year capital program, which is currently only half-funded. Cuomo has pledged $250 million in his proposed budget specifically for the project, but the total estimated cost is $750 million.

Even if the funding is approved, the project wouldn’t come to fruition for nearly a decade. Metro-North trains could not begin running to Penn Station until the MTA can clear out space at the overcrowded terminal. When the MTA’s east side access project is finished, Long Island Rail Road trains will begin chugging into Grand Central Terminal.

Estimated completion for that project? Late 2022.