State leaders finally got around to explaining what they have in mind for the $3.8 billion transportation bond act that will be on November's ballot, and it turns out what they have in mind is spending nine times as much. It's the Albany way.
The state's three top elected leaders on Monday released a plan for spending $34.2 billion as part of a five-year capital program that includes transportation projects as disparate as digging a new subway in Manhattan and building a second railroad bridge in Buffalo. What parts of those plans will be funded by the bond act are only loosely defined.
For example, $1.8 billion of bond-act money would help pay for highway and bridge work, but what highway and bridge work? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital program, which includes the new Second Avenue subway line as well as new subway cars, would get $1.6 billion. But the MTA's five-year capital program calls for expenditures of more than $3 billion. What part of that plan would be endangered if voters reject the bond act? Another $75 million of bond money would benefit airports and aviation facilities, again unnamed.
The problem with this approach is that voters do not know which projects will be abandoned or deferred if they reject the bond act. Money from the bond act will be comingled with several other revenue streams, such as gas-tax revenues and vehicle-registration fees, blurring the picture of what taxpayers will get for having approved the state's largest-ever bond act.
As strategy goes, it's both brilliant and dishonest. The proposal tries to appeal to more residents than would be possible if the $3.8 billion act were to rise or fall on its own merits.
But approval of this bond act could trigger projects far beyond its own size, while rejection could threaten spending all around the state. That includes Western New York, where projects include extension of Route 219 from Springville to Salamanca, work on Route 17 and replacing the CP drawbridge, which is stuck open and causing a bottleneck by forcing all rail traffic to use the only other bridge over the Buffalo River. The capital plan also includes work at Buffalo Niagara International Airport and reconstruction of Route 20 in Hamburg, Niagara Falls Boulevard in Wheatfield and Route 20A in East Aurora.
Some of these projects might not be possible if voters reject the bond act. Do you want to take that chance? State leaders, it would seem, are counting on that fear.
But there are other issues here, as well. New York carries the nation's worst debt load, and while many critics are praising the state for avoiding the non-voter-approved "back-door borrowing" for which it is famous, taxpayers might legitimately wonder if they shouldn't insist upon more discipline from Albany. Why borrow more when the state coffers are overflowing with money? Why not pay as we go on some of these projects?
The answer may lie beneath Second Avenue. A project so massive may require the kind of money only a bond act can provide, and winning approval in the State Legislature necessarily means providing goodies for other parts of the state.
What's more, upstate opinion to the contrary, New York City is a tremendous economic engine for the entire state. A new subway line may be a legitimate investment by upstaters.
But if the best Albany can do is provide a vague list of projects that are indiscriminately linked to a larger capital plan, voters have a right to view the plan with skepticism. The state is trying to browbeat them into approving this bond act.
That strategy is not only risky, it's deceitful.