When it comes to a comprehensive transportation policy for New York State, few governors in recent years have been able or willing to put forward a plan. By many accounts, Eliot Spitzer was on the verge of one before his sex scandal torpedoed his tenure, and before him, George Pataki played a part in launching East Side Access and was, through circumstances out of his control, instrumental in the post-9/11 transit investments in Lower Manhattan, for better or worse. Cuomo, a self-professed car guy through and through, hasn’t paid much attention to transit but seems to be formulating a cohesive policy with a peculiar theme.
Until this week, Cuomo’s major transportation projects in the New York City region concerned a bridge and an airport. The bridge is the Tappan Zee replacement — a project without a consensus or clear funding plan. Even still, upstate New Yorkers are miffed that the new bridge doesn’t include rail, and Cuomo pushed this project through because, as he’s said, he’s personally afraid the bridge will collapse. The other project is the half-baked Willets Point-Laguardia Airtrain proposal (and the more fully baked multi-billion-dollar overhaul and modernization of the decrepit airport).
And then everything exploded this week. As part of his whirlwind tour in advance of his State of the State speech, Cuomo has unveiled some major transit and transportation investments. Today’s official announcement concerned Long Island. Despite constant NIMBY opposition, Gov. Cuomo has announced support for the LIRR Third Track proposal as well as money to study an automotive cross-Long Island Sound tunnel that is unlikely to ever see the light of day.
“Long Island’s future prosperity depends on a modern transportation network that eases congestion on our roads, improves service on the LIRR, helps this region’s economy and preserves the character of these great communities,” the governor said in remarks. “This is a robust and comprehensive agenda to do just that and help build a brighter tomorrow for Nassau and Suffolk residents.”
The governor’s third track proposal is, he said, designed to assuage concerns over previous plans. This is a 9.8 mile extension between Floral Park and Hicksville that is built, by and large, on pre-existing right of way. The mileage reduction from over 11 reduces property acquisition totals so that only 20 would involve residences. How much this will cost or how it will be funded remains to be seen, and why it wasn’t included in the revised version of the MTA capital plan that was published in October is an open question. The LIRR hasn’t been a particularly zealous advocate for this third track plan, but the MTA spoke in its favor yesterday
“Our efforts to expand the Main Line will support transit-oriented development around Long Island and make it easier for Long Island to attract businesses and employees. This isn’t experimental,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said. “It’s a well understood direct correlation that we’ve seen happen already in the region served by Metro-North. When there is train capacity to allow New York City residents to ‘reverse commute’ to suburban jobs, people take that opportunity and the job growth follows.”
Later in the day, Andrew Tangel of The Wall Street Journal broke the news that Cuomo also plans to support a Penn Station overhaul. He will become the fourth or fifth governor to throw his weight behind the Moynihan Station plan, but it’s not yet clear what Cuomo’s motivation is here. As Tangel tells it, “Among the goals of Mr. Cuomo’s plan, [sources] said, is to introduce more air and natural light and improved passenger flow into what critics liken to a dank basement maze marked by confusing signs and underwhelming dining options.”
For now, Tangel’s report is all we have on Penn Station. We don’t know the extent of the plan; we don’t know the cost; we don’t know how New York State and its taxpayers are going to pay for this project. We also don’t know if it includes a trans-Hudson Tunnel. It should. In fact, no overhaul of Penn Station should happen without the guarantee of a new tunnel, and as dingy and cramped as Penn Station is, underwhelming dining options isn’t a particularly compelling impetus to spend billions without addressing the city’s transit capacity crisis.
And therein lies the rub. As you may have noticed by now, all of Cuomo’s projects involve improving certain elements of getting into and out of New York City. They do not address what happens to everyone once these people are within New York City, and outside of some lukewarm promise to fund the MTA’s capital plan (likely by increasing the MTA’s ability to take on debt), Cuomo has done nothing to address subway capacity or interborough travel. Once you’re here (or, as Cuomo is more likely to conceptualize it, once you’re leaving), his job is done, and travel within the five boroughs is someone else’s problem.
As Cuomo put in comments to reporters on Tuesday, he is drawing his inspiration from those who got things done, but it’s a dangerous parallel. When asked if his plans were pipe dreams, he retorted in part “Was Robert Moses a pipe dream?” We may need someone who can deliver projects and funding on the scale Moses could, but we also need someone with a vision more encompassing, tolerant and holistic than Moses’ ever was. Cuomo is getting people into New York City. He has to get them through and around New York City too, and so far, he hasn’t. That’s not a particularly appealing theme when it comes to a comprehensive transportation policy for New York State.