Cuomo: States Need to Take Lead on Infrastructure Improvements

February 11, 2020 by Dan McCue
New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo addresses the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in Washington. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – New York Gov. Mario Cuomo struck an almost whimsical note at the opening of his address on infrastructure this past weekend before the National Governors Association.

“Imagine if we had a magic wand,” said Cuomo, who was unanimously elected vice chairman of the bipartisan group last July.

“We should wave it and eliminate the word ‘infrastructure’ from the vocabulary,'” he said. “It’s just not an attractive word … and let’s be honest, maybe if we came up with a more attractive word, we could actually entice the federal government to re-enter the field.”

However, absent that bit of sleight-of-hand, Cuomo argued it’s up to the individual states to take the lead on improving the nation’s roads, rails, airports and internet delivery systems.

“While we all hope for an active federal partner, the reality is, after such a long delay, I think the best course forward is for the states to hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Cuomo told his fellow governors at the annual winter meeting in the nation’s capital.

“If the federal government decides to embark on an aggressive building program, which we all will advocate for, they’re going to look to the states for projects and they will look for projects that are ready to go, right, they’re going to turn to the states and ask for shovel-ready projects,” he said.

Cuomo blamed presidents of both parties for failing to provide the necessary funding, saying each of the last five presidents took office claiming infrastructure development was a national priority, but making “very little” progress on the follow-through.

He said federal spending on roads, airports and other transportation projects has dropped from 38 to 25 percent over the past 40 years, with the deficit in needed infrastructure funding estimated to reach $1.5 billion by 2025.

Meanwhile, Cuomo said, European countries, on average, are spending about 5% of their Gross Domestic Product annually on infrastructure projects.

“If we want to keep pace with the rest of the world, we have to update our transportation network,” Cuomo said. “If the federal government won’t do it, the states must do it as a basic matter of economic survival.”

“We know that what we build, what we modernize is the legacy that we leave behind,” he continued. “Given the state’s limited resources, the state development strategy must be targeted and have a direct connection to return on the state’s investment.”

That means that more often than not, infrastructure repairs and improvements must be tied to an economic development plan.

“In my experience in New York, either the project must be essentially self-financing or it must be part of an economic development strategy that will pay dividends to the state,” he said.

Cuomo then recalled former Vice President Joe Biden’s off-the-cuff assessment of New York’s LaGuardia Airport in 2014.

Speaking to an audience in Philadelphia, Biden had said, “If I took you and blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you’d think, ‘I must be in some third-world country.’”

When his statement drew laughter from the crowd, the vice president quickly added, “I’m not joking.”

Cuomo noted that “all the New York politicians” criticized Biden for the remark, but he went the other way.

“We can be a little defensive as a group, but in fact, the vice president was right. I said, ‘Let’s recognize the truth here. My state, every state, needs a modern airport to enter the global economic competition.’”

New York is now building a “new” LaGuardia Airport, largely through a public-private partnership. “It’s truly the only vehicle out there to get the amount of funding the state would need to make a real difference on airports,” Cuomo said.

“The new LaGuardia airport is an $8 billion project, with about one-third coming from the government and two-thirds being paid from private sources to actually build it, and when it’s done, it will be the first new airport built in the United States since the Denver airport opened in 1995,” he said.

Cuomo said after money, the other challenge that comes with undertaking major infrastructure projects is admitting what you don’t know.

The reality, he said, is “the government does not know how to build.”

“In New York, we’ve adopted a design-build approach, governed by a stable master plan,” Cuomo said. “Once we decide on a project, we bid out the design and construction to a private company, with a certain completion date, and an incentive for early delivery and penalty for late delivery.”

The governor said this approach worked particularly well when the state moved to replace an aging Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson River between Tarrytown and Nyack, New York with an all-new span.

The new bridge, which is named for Cuomo’s father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, cost $3.9 billion and was opened “on time and, after many sleepless nights, on budget” in 2017.

“Building public confidence in government’s capacity to actually complete these big projects is essential if we are to have the political will to move forward on an ambitious building agenda,” Cuomo said. 

The governor, who is now overseeing the largest building program in New York State history — a $275 billion investment in infrastructure projects in every corner of the state — said what keeps him going is an understanding of what drove New York’s original success.

With that he recalled how one of his predecessors, Gov. DeWitt Clinton, got the Erie Canal built nearly 200 years ago.

Clinton, who served in the New York state legislature and the U.S. Senate, and was mayor of New York City and governor of New York, had for years advocated building a canal in the state as part of the nation’s drive to open up the West.

Under his plan, ships would enter New York Harbor, near Manhattan Island, proceed up the Hudson River, then make a left at Albany and cross over to Buffalo and into the Great Lakes, where they could proceed west or south on any number of rivers.

Skeptics called the proposed project “Clinton’s Ditch,” and there was even a movement to impeach Clinton “on the grounds of insanity,” Cuomo said.

Despite the naysayers, the governor said, Clinton got his 400-mile canal done in seven years, “on time and on budget and that infrastructure is what made New York State. It was our commercial engine.”

“This is a country of dreamers today because we were a nation of dreamers then, people who had the skill, the tenacity and courage to actually make their visions a reality. They did it and we can do it again if we just have the wisdom to work together,” Cuomo concluded.

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