Andrew M. Cuomo is a governor in a hurry, and in many respects New York State has benefited from his impatience for getting things done. Western New York certainly has, as the region springs to life because of projects Cuomo has championed.
Yet, it is possible to go too fast, or try too hard, and that is what is occurring as Cuomo scrambles for funding to complete the necessary but enormously expensive task of building a new Tappan Zee Bridge across the Hudson River and demolishing the existing one.
The administration has orchestrated a raid on federal funds used to make low-cost or free loans to municipalities and water districts upgrading their clean water infrastructure. Yet, in late June, the state Environmental Facilities Corp., which oversees the fund for New York, approved that raid, authorizing a $511 million loan to the state Thruway Authority for bridge-related projects. It’s not known if the loan is legal or if it will stand up to scrutiny, but at a minimum it presents a clear threat to communities with critical issues for which this fund was meant.
The deteriorated bridge, which crosses the Hudson River at virtually its widest point, must be replaced. With an estimated price tag of $3.9 billion, some creative financing for this project is bound to be necessary to keep tolls affordable. But pilfering from a fund meant to protect the state’s clean water supplies is too big a stretch with too high a price – at least not without closer examination.
The state is defending the loan. In a letter last week to the regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Joseph Martens said the loan was well within the “EPA’s history of encouraging innovation.” Martens, who is commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation as well as chairman of the Environmental Facilities Corp.’s board of directors, insisted that “the fact that a loan is either unconventional or new is not a negative.” That’s true, though it doesn’t answer the fundamental issues of legality and appropriateness.
Cuomo is in a hurry. He has been on a mission to accomplish tasks in New York that have lagged for years and even decades, including improvements at the Peace Bridge and a new economy for Western New York. That takes effort and it takes shaking up stale bureaucracies. This region is clearly the better for it.
But this is a moment to take a breath. The process of pursuing this questionable loan has had virtually no public input and no serious vetting of any kind. Perhaps the loan represents the best of a range of bad choices and needs to be adopted. But that’s impossible to know today.
The process is continuing. The loan must still be approved by the Thruway Authority board and the Public Authorities Control Board, where any one of its three voting members could reject the loan.
It’s not clear that’s what should happen, but without further clarification of the issues, it’s the only responsible choice.