Testimony of Kate Slevin
Senate Standing Committee on Transportation hearing on NYS Department of Transportation 2010-2015 capital program

November 19, 2009

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am Kate Slevin, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional policy watchdog organization working for a more balanced and equitable regional transportation network.

Transportation funding is critical for our region, for our mobility, economy growth, job retention and creation, and our environment. But not every transportation investment is created equal. Some projects, like mass transit expansion and bridge maintenance, align spending decisions with efforts to reduce our impact on the environment, improve safety, provide transportation choices and create green jobs. Others, like building wider roads and interchanges, are expensive and often run counter to other policy goals.

With our infrastructure crumbling and transportation funds dwindling, NYS DOT has no choice but to be smart and innovative with its decisions, policies and programs.

The agency has a responsibility to be shrewd with its investments, but it’s the State’s responsibility to provide it with adequate funding so it can do its job.

We cannot let the fiscal crisis stop us from investing in our infrastructure. A November 17th Bob Herbert column in the New York Times summarized our current situation well:

“In 20 years, will today’s toddlers be traveling on bridges and roads that are in even worse shape than today’s? Will they endure mammoth traffic jams that start earlier and end later? Will their water supplies be clean and safe? Will the promise of clean energy visionaries be realized, or will we still be fouling the environment with carbon filth to the benefit of traditional energy conglomerates and foreign regimes that in many cases wish us anything but good?

The answers to these and many other related questions will depend to a great extent on decisions we make now (even in the midst of very tough economic times) about the American infrastructure.

We’re trundling along in the infrastructure equivalent of a jalopy, with bridges rotting and falling down, while other nations, our competitors in the global economy, are building efficient, high-speed, high-performance infrastructure platforms to power their 21st-century economies.”

Our review of the NYS DOT’s capital program shows the agency is generally (albeit slowly) progressing toward a more sustainable transportation policy, but the agency still has some distance to travel before it is an agency delivering 21 st century transportation solutions. Our review also finds an agency that is struggling to pay for projects, and will face tremendous challenges ahead without additional resources. I offer a summary of our comments below. We have also submitted more extensive written comments.

Removal of Sheridan Expressway project highlights misplaced priorities.
The Tri-State Transportation Campaign and other members of the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance (http://www.southbronxvision.org/ ) including Nos Quedamos, Pratt Center for Community Development, Sustainable South Bronx, and Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, are disappointed that the New York State Department of Transportation's 2010 – 2015 Capital Plan removes funding for the Bruckner/Sheridan Expressway project, allocating only $2 million - presumably to finish the studies already underway.  One of the current options being studied for the Sheridan project includes the removal of the highway and the use of the 28-acre footprint for badly needed affordable housing and mixed-use development.  The redevelopment plan could serve as an important green jobs program for NYC and would open access to the Concrete Plant Park and the planned Starlight Park along the Bronx River.  The plan also improves access to the Hunts Point food markets and other industry by constructing a new interchange from the Bruckner Expressway, an addition that largely removes truck traffic from residential streets in Hunts Point. 

Use funds allocated for the Deegan Expressway for the Sheridan project.
While the Sheridan project is postponed, at least $266 million is allocated for a project that will add auxiliary lanes to a portion of the Deegan and expand the on and off ramps at 138 th St. from one to two lanes. The project is listed as a rehabilitation project when in fact it includes expansion of highways through communities with some of the highest asthma rates in the country. The Deegan project as designed is opposed by Congressman Jose Serrano, Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr., Department of City Planning, and members of the local community. We request that the Deegan project be reduced in scope and size - to an actual rehabilitation project- and funds be reprioritized for the Sheridan project.

A true fix-it-first investment strategy is critical.
The Deegan example proves that the State must ensure DOT is pursuing a true fix-it-first strategy. Most of New York’s highway and bridge funds are indeed used for maintenance and repair instead of highway expansion (90% of the agency’s overall program is for maintenance of existing infrastructure). However, as is the case with the Deegan, NYS DOT often plans large or over built rehabilitation projects under the guise of “bringing the roadway up to modern design standards.” While certain modern design changes can help improve safety, spending millions of dollars, in some cases hundreds of millions, to simply widen interchanges, intersections, or build additional lanes does not make sense. Such projects often do little to solve congestion in the long-run, and come with very high price tags at a time when we have no money to waste. We ask the State Senate to heavily scrutinize any large projects, especially those that include auxiliary lanes or interchange expansions.

Champlain Bridge proves DOT must do a better job of ensuring our infrastructure is safe.
The Champlain Bridge near Crown Point was closed abruptly this fall after DOT engineers proclaimed it unsafe and beyond repair. This is a failure of the agency. Acting Commissioner Stanley Gee must do a better job to ensure dollars are spent in a manner that prioritizes New York resident’s safety.

The NYS DOT estimates over 110 bridges are in worse condition than the Lake Champlain Bridge and 1500 additional bridges will become deficient within the next five years without significant investment. Not investing in these will have terrible consequences on our safety and our economy. The State must raise the money necessary to maintain these bridges, and DOT must embark on strict and effective oversight and project prioritization to ensure this doesn’t happen again, with more dire consequences.

Ensure state highways in New York City are used more efficiently; opposition to SIE bus lane expansion unless current HOV inclusion is repealed.
The capital program allocates $80 million for the next phase of the Staten Island Expressway bus lane from Slosson Ave to Victory Blvd. While we have previously supported construction of the SIE bus lane, we do not support additional phases of the project. NYS DOT has opened the existing bus lanes in each direction to cars with two or more passengers during rush hours. This move is illegal and is unsafe — the additional lanes were built to accommodate buses, not cars. Bus riders have also complained to the Staten Island Advance that cars slow their daily commutes. Until the existing situation is remedied – the lanes return to bus only or the NYS DOT conducts the necessary environmental reviews to investigate air, water, and health impacts of allowing HOVs in the lane- we oppose additional segments of the project.

The NYS DOT should implement southbound bus/HOV3 lane on the Gowanus Expressway, a goal listed in NYC DOT’s Sustainable Streets Index 2009 Progress Report. We could not find a line item for this project in the capital program.

Support for smart growth corridor planning program.
The NYS DOT’s capital program includes $25 million for “community and corridor land use planning initiatives” that will provide technical assistance and land use planning for three to five corridor investment strategies and 50 smaller “livable community planning grants.”  The program has increased from $12 million since its first appearance in the agency’s proposed 2008 capital program.  TSTC has encouraged NYSDOT to take this step since NJDOT announced a similar program in 2003 and we are very pleased to see the agency’s commitment to this program.

In fact, we believe all large road projects in the state should all go through this program, including those for Route 347, Route 110 and 25 on Long Island. Without a coordinated approach that addresses the root cause of congestion—development patterns that increase the reliance on the car-- these transportation projects will do little to reduce congestion in the longrun.

Pass Complete Streets legislation (A8587, S5711) and protect walkers and cyclists.
A recent Transportation for America report, co-authored by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, found that pedestrians accounted for over 31% of all NYC metropolitan area (NYC, Long Island, Northern NJ) traffic fatalities, yet New York State spent only 1% of its $5.6 billion in federal transportation dollars for pedestrian safety projects between 2005 and 2008.  A related Tri-State Transportation Campaign analysis found that older pedestrians face greater risk than their younger counterparts.

Senator Dilan, we commend your leadership to improve safety on our roadways by sponsoring the Senate Bill 5711, or the Complete Streets legislation (A8587, S5711). This bill would ensure roads are safe for all users, including walkers, cyclists, transit riders, drivers, senior citizens, and children. We hope you will make the bill a priority in coming months.

We hope you will consider strengthening the language of S5711 by dedicating a modest proportion of flexible federal funds towards biking and walking projects.

For example, dedicating 20% of New York State’s Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funding apportionments could generate $32 million a year for biking and walking programs. 20% of Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP) funding would provide $7.6 million. Both these federal funding programs are underutilized by NYS DOT.

In addition, NY State DOT must implement and expand its SafeSeniors program. The program began a year ago to address senior pedestrian safety issues on the two most dangerous roads in the region for pedestrians – Hempstead Turnpike and Sunrise Highway on Long Island- but the program has no designated funding and the agency’s plans to expand it are moving at a snail’s pace.

Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project missing; funding for Kosciuszko Bridge replacement unclear.
Also conspicuously missing from the NYS DOT capital program is funding for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, which would replace the vital artery between Westchester and Rockland Counties and add transit to the 30-mile corridor between Suffern and Port Chester. This is a project we strongly support because it could provide a backbone for future development in the Hudson Valley, protect existing open space from sprawl development, and reduce congestion. Why is there no funding for this project? Where is funding to complete the ongoing environmental review?

The status of Kosciuszko Bridge funding is unclear—it is both listed as a funded project (at $404 million) and one that needs additional resources. This project is vital to maintain safety, improve traffic flow, and build bike and pedestrian connections between Brooklyn and Queens.

Support for rail freight and Long Island Truck Intermodal Facility.
We were pleased to see that the capital program includes $65 million for the Long Island Truck-Rail Intermodal (LITRIM) at the former Pilgrim State site in Suffolk County. A small percentage of our freight is carried by rail, and the LITRIM is a much-needed project that will reduce truck traffic throughout our region and lower the cost of goods for businesses and consumers.

Overall, we are glad to see that the program includes $340 million for freight rail and ports, since the environmental and health impacts of trucking impact communities across the state. However, the State Rail Plan completed last year recommends that NYSDOT and freight railroads invest $520 million on freight rail over the next five years. It’s not clear how these programs relate to each other -- does the capital program support the State Rail Plan, or is the state failing to meet its freight investment goals?

More funding needed for upstate and suburban bus systems, especially for operations. NYS DOT should conduct statewide bus plan, similar to State Rail Plan.
The NYS DOT capital program highlights a challenge facing upstate and suburban bus carriers: “In recent years, there has been a significant disparity in the availability of State operating revenues to support non-MTA public transportation systems.”

Only a small portion of the tax revenues collected for transit operations is dedicated to suburban and upstate systems. It makes sense to increase funding for the MTA system -- it serves the vast majority of transit riders in the state. But, we absolutely cannot ignore the needs of the riders on suburban bus systems who often face larger mobility challenges than their urban counterparts. With revenues dwindling, the dedicated source for suburban and upstate carriers is covering less than half of the state allocation to these systems. This impacts people in Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx who use Long Island Bus, Suffolk Transit, Westchester Bee-Line and Transit of Rockland.

The chart enclosed in my testimony show that without additional operating revenue, shortfalls will grow drastically in coming years.

Click for larger version.

Source: NYS DOT capital program, 2010-2015.

While the state cannot shirk its responsibility to its riders, there is also a role for the federal government in funding transit operations. Until 1998, the federal government offered modest funding for transit operations without drastic impacts on the federal government’s ability to fund capital projects. We strongly support a return of this policy, and are advocating for its return as a member of the New York State Transportation Equity Alliance, a coalition of nearly 50 organizations from across the state working to promote equity in the next federal transportation bill.

NYS DOT should also work to improve intercity travel by creating a State Bus Plan, similar to the State Rail Plan completed by former Commissioner Astrid Glynn.

Support for high speed rail and statewide rail plan.
We were pleased to see the program includes $300 million for high-speed rail, including upgrades to service from New York City to Albany and Niagara Falls and from Albany to Montreal. The overall amount is twice as high as the 2008 proposal, presumably to ensure New York has money to match any possible federal stimulus allocations.

Tri-State Transportation Campaign supports a variety of methods for paying for our transportation infrastructure, including higher gas taxes, higher auto-related fees, congestion pricing, and higher tolls.

One potential funding strategy that is not discussed enough is turning the HOV lanes on the Long Island Expressway into High Occupancy Toll lanes. HOT lanes allow cars with one person to enter HOV lanes for a modest toll, generating revenue for our transportation network.

Transparency and Accountability.
Our final, though important concern is the agency’s transparency and accountability. The agency does not do a good job of explaining projects and programs in a plain-English manner, or making documents accessible to regular people. The 180-page project list that is attached to the capital program is an example: numerous line items that are place holders for future federal funding. Project descriptions like “Bridge Repair Where and When,” or $50 million for “Local CMAQ for FY12” do not express the urgency needed given our infrastructure is crumbling and in desperate need of repair.

Some options to improve online reporting include:

Model annual reports and public documents on NYC Department of Transportation’s Annual Report and Sustainable Streets Index.

Make original database documents available online. The DOT provides PDF documents online, but this format does not allow advocates to organize or sort data. When we called NYS DOT earlier this week to receive a more useable format, like Excel, we were told one didn’t exist.  

Include a one to two sentence description of each project in the agency’s online project database, and explain which performance goal the project is helping to achieve.

Include online tracking of how much money has been spent on each project , and whether the project is progressing on time. 

Eliminate project descriptions that don’t make sense or provide little detail, like “Bridge Maintenance” or “Guidesign Panel Replacement,” or “Safety Block.”

Ensure terminology is consistent with federal project titles and abbreviations.

Thank you for your time.


Dangerous by Design press release

Press statement supporting Sheridan Expressway project

Most Dangerous Roads press release

Older Pedestrians at Risk press release

NY State Transportation Equity Alliance fact sheet