August 23, 2013

Editorial: Cuomo must sign transit lockbox bill


---- — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has always claimed that accountability is a priority of his administration, so we call on him now to sign the “transit lockbox” bill that is sitting on his desk.

Refusal to do so impacts transportation companies across the state, including Nova Bus and Bombardier here in the North Country.

This is all about New York “borrowing” money from supposedly dedicated funds to use it for a purpose that was not intended: balancing the state budget.

In the past, we have protested use of Environmental Protection Fund assets for this purpose, and the same thing has been happening with certain taxes and fees that are supposed to be used for transit-related funding.

Advocates for the lockbox bill say the state recently diverted $280 million from the fund, leading to major service cuts in the industry. It has happened other times in the past, as well.

The bill that has been passed unanimously by both houses of the New York State Legislature doesn’t actually stop the state from taking the money; only a constitutional amendment would do that. What it does is mandate accountability.

It says that if the money is diverted, the New York State Division of Budget has to report on how the change will impact riders and transit providers.

A version of the bill first passed in 2011 — at that time applying only to the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s dedicated funding — but Cuomo eliminated the section requiring the impact statement.

The bill that passed in this year’s legislative session — again unanimously — was amended to expand far beyond the Metropolitan Transit Authority; it now includes the dedicated funds supporting more than 130 transit agencies across the state.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has a substantial economic impact on the North Country because of the numerous contracts it has awarded to local manufacturers Bombardier and Nova Bus.

A recent report, “Built in New York: The Economic Impact of MTA Capital Program Investment on New York State,” links 8,714 jobs and $1.1 billion in economic impact with that agency alone. Hundreds of those jobs and a generous share of that money bolster the economy of our area.

It makes sense for the state to assess the potential harm created by taking the transit money from its assigned purpose. More than 60 groups have urged the governor to sign the bill, and they aren’t all transit-company representatives. Organizations representing senior citizens, bicyclists, voters and the environment are among the diverse supporters of this bill.

The stakes are high in ensuring that money that is supposed to go to transportation agencies arrives at its intended stop.

If it doesn’t, taxpayers deserve to know why.