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State should focus $5 billion surplus on upgrading neglected infrastructure

After years of pinched budgets brought on by the Great Recession and its persistent hangover, Albany is suddenly flush with cash. It’s not that the economy is suddenly producing gobs of tax revenue – although it is clearly doing better – but rather that the state has settled lawsuits that have provided it with a $5 billion bonanza.

And everyone wants a piece of it.

That’s the way politics is, but even in New York it should not be a free-for-all. There need to be rules on how this money is used.

The fundamental fact is that this money constitutes a one-time gain and cannot be responsibly used to cover recurring expenses. That’s what some advocates want, including those who seek to devote the money to ending the Gap Elimination Adjustment, the painful mechanism that reduced state aid to education when the recession strangled the flow of tax dollars into state coffers.

There are two reasons not to direct the money to that use. One is that the money is a one-shot and there are many better, more appropriate uses for it. But the other is also significant: New York already spends more on education per pupil than any other state, and for results that are no better than average. Why should taxpayers spend even more for what would be similar results?

If the state simply funnels more money into the schools, there will be no pressure on them to do better with the huge amounts of money they already have, and clearly, improvement is both possible and necessary. This should be – but probably won’t be – a non-starter in Albany.

One of the best uses for this money is on infrastructure improvements and, given the state of New York’s roads, bridges, sewer systems and more, there are many places this giant slug of revenue can be useful and appropriately directed.

Two projects come immediately to mind, including one in Western New York: the Skyway. The 61-year-old bridge, stretching 1.4 miles, is functionally obsolete and structurally deficient. It creates a winter driving hazard and is an aesthetic blight on Buffalo’s developing waterfront. In February, the Congress for New Urbanism named it one of the nation’s 10 “Freeways without a Future” – and not without reasons.

The Skyway is facing $35 million in decking and repainting costs over the next five to 10 years. Meanwhile, the state Department of Transportation’s 2008 Skyway Management Study called for spending about $117 million to rebuild the structure over the next 20 years.

Why bother? Instead, the state should devote some of its surplus to getting rid of an eyesore whose time has passed and replacing it with a surface-level span.

Another bridge project could also profitably use a share of this money: the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement now under way across the lower Hudson River. That project is expected to cost $3.9 billion, and most of the funding has yet to be identified. The fear is that tolls across the Thruway will be raised to help cover that cost, and those increases could be dramatic.

Devoting a portion of the $5 billion to the Tappan Zee project would benefit millions of downstate New Yorkers – who should still be asked to pay for some of the project through higher bridge tolls – while also potentially sparing other New Yorkers the burden of directly funding a bridge that most will never use.

There are other appropriate uses for this revenue, and it can be certain there will be a spirited debate over how to use it. That’s fine, but lawmakers and taxpayers alike should be wary of those who seek to direct this money into recurring expenses that will require identifying other revenue sources in years to come.

That’s how New York gets into trouble.