Last night, the New York Times ran a local reaction story that seemed pretty typical for those who’ve grown accustomed to following development and infrastructure in the region. Times reporters questioned local residents about Governor Cuomo’s plan to replace the Sheridan Expressway with a more neighborhood friendly boulevard and, predictably, found a range of opinions. Many loved the idea, others expressed concerns. Among those who weren’t so sure, a common refrain was used: Is this the best way to spend $1.8 billion?
That’s a good question.
Over the past few years, government agencies have invested considerable capital in planning for a wide range of infrastructure and development projects, some of which are fairly controversial. Here is a list of some of the notable ones:
- Governor Cuomo’s $1 billion LaGuardia Airtrain plan
- Mayor DeBlasio’s $8 billion plan to build or preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing
- Governor Cuomo’s plan to renovate Penn Station
- Governor Cuomo’s $1.4 billion Central Brooklyn Revitalization Plan
- The Mayor’s $2 billion Brooklyn-Queens Connector Streetcar
- The Mayor’s $325 million Ferry Plan
- The Port Authority’s $1.7 billion PATH expansion to Newark
- The Port Authority’s $10 billion bus terminal rehab
This list isn’t all inclusive, both the MTA and the Port Authority have extensive capital plans that include billions more for other large capital projects.
But the aforementioned projects account for over $26 billion dollars in capital investment into the region’s housing and transportation infrastructure, and there is one problem: No credible group outside of the proposing agency has carefully vetted each proposal, to ensure that its property thought out, and weighed it against other regional priorities.
Without vetting, how do we know which projects are good ideas or which ones have been properly thought through? How can we tell which projects are actually a good use of tax funds? How can we understand the proposal in the broader context of regional strategic plans and needs?
The result is a capital construction program that is subject to the whims of politicians, and lacks credibility. The Governor’s AirTrain proposal, for example, has been pushed through the Port Authority, was the result of a surprise announcement, and has been uniformly criticized for being a waste of tax dollars. The train connection would not actually reduce trip times, it would be faster for most to continue taking the bus.
Only a interstate commission, staffed with regional planners, and chaired by both governors, with representation from the requisite agencies (MTA, New Jersey Transit, Port Authority, EDC etc) would have the ability to plan, consider, vet and prioritize projects.
Such a commission should be tasked with producing a master plan backed by strategic goals and regional priorities for housing, parks and transportation. The commission should work closely with neighborhoods, utilizing a community based planning process that would the scale of projects with the individual considerations of locals.
The result would be a comprehensive regional plan, which ensures that, if adhered to, only the projects with the highest return on investment are built. It would also empower and reassure voters who continue to ask the age old question: Is this the best use of our money?