Let’s talk for a few minutes about the Governor, New York City bridges and another Cuomo-inspired idea to turn those bridges into a coordinated light show in part in order to attract tourists to the city. This has been an ongoing plan of the Governor’s for a while, and similar to the backward AirTrain, it’s a top-down plan that does nothing to address fundamental issues of mobility plaguing New York while showing Cuomo’s misplaced priorities. And someone has to pay for it.
Enter Dana Rubinstein and her piece in Politico:
Before a spring meltdown turned into a full-on “summer of hell” for the city’s subways, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was proudly promoting a project to outfit the region’s bridges with pulsating, multi-colored LED lights that could provide choreographed light shows in concert with the city’s skyscrapers. “So, literally, you’ll have bridges all across the New York City area that are choreographed — nothing like this has been done on the planet,” Cuomo told reporters in January.
Now, amid daily reports of infrastructure failures and the governor’s sliding poll numbers, the Cuomo administration will not even say how much the lighting scheme will cost — except to dispute early, internal estimates it could cost more than $350 million — or where that money will come from. “This is definitively NOT being paid for by the MTA,” emailed Cuomo spokesman Jon Weinstein.
The project, part of a broader plan called “New York Crossings,” would outfit the MTA’s seven bridges and two tunnels — and the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge — with pulsating, multicolored LED lights that can be choreographed with each other, with the Empire State Building and with One World Trade. But if not the MTA, who will be paying for it? “We are considering options,” Weinstein said, “but as it is a project to generate tourism and economic development, and uses technology for energy efficiency, it will be financed by [the New York Power Authority] and parts of the project could likely be funded by [Empire State Development].”
That may come as a surprise to board members of the New York Power Authority, who discussed an MTA lighting project at their meeting in January. They were told the project would be paid for by the MTA, which, like the Power Authority, is effectively controlled by the governor. In March, the NYPA board was presented with unaudited financial reports showing an LED lighting project for the MTA was slated to cost $216 million. That the MTA would foot the bill was also the understanding within the agency, according to two knowledgeable sources. Those sources also said the MTA has been working to mitigate costs in order to make the project more politically palatable.
Later in the day, the mayor finally took a stand supporting subway riders (who also happen to be his constituents).”I can tell you that people who ride the subway are not interested in a light show,” Bill de Blasio said to reporters. In response, toward the end of the day, the Governor’s press team issued a legally incorrect statement claiming all capital funding relating to the subway is the responsibility of the city, and this debate seemed destined to become another battle in the war between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio. The only casualties, besides the two politicians’ reputations as adults, are their overlapping constituents.
— Zack Fink (@ZackFinkNews) July 19, 2017
Politically in-fighting aside, the dust-up over the lights and Cuomo’s continued support for this show misplaced priorities and bad incentives. First, while I believe it’s ridiculous for Cuomo to tout the tourism benefits — who wants to stand near the Newtown Creek a mile from a subway stop watching traffic on the city’s most congested highway passes through the Kosciuszko Bridge? — bridge lights can and do drive visitors elsewhere. It’s not patently absurd on its face; it’s just the wrong transit priority and will incentivize bad behavior as it will lead to more cars on the road as people drive around looking at bridges. (See for instance this amusing exchange between SI Advance’s Anna Sanders and her parents.)
But it also highlights Cuomo’s fundamental misunderstanding of what’s important right now. The subway system is falling apart, and millions of New Yorkers — and visitors — can’t get around as easily and as reliably as they used to. This will have a much more negative impact on the city’s economy than the LED light show Cuomo wants to install on MTA bridges around the city. That no one knows who will pay for this or how much it will cost at a time when Cuomo’s pet projects are already draining other transit resources that should be available to address the subway crisis is icing on the cake. For now, the focus should be on shoring up mass transit. The light shows can wait.