ALBANY — As government problems go, it’s not a bad one to have: How should New York spend a $5 billion surplus? The options are all bigticket items. The $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge replacement. Schools. Upgrades to New York City subways. Statewide broadband access. Highways, water and sewer projects. The money comes from big settlements with banks and insurance companies like BNP Paribas SA and Bank of America Corp. For a state with a long list of needs and wants, the windfall provides an unexpected opportunity to invest in something big. But in Albany, even $5 billion only goes so far, and the battle over how to spend it is already brewing.
“A lot of people are lustfully eyeing that pile of cash,” said Michael Elmendorf, president of the Associated General Contractors of New York State, who wants the money to go to fix crumbling roads, bridges and other infrastructure. “It’s a unique situation. You’ve got this pile of found money.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has said the surplus should support “one-time allocations” — and not expensive new programs that would need to be supported in future years.
He has specifically proposed $500 million for expanded broadband access throughout the state, $500 million in tax relief for school districts and local governments that consolidate services, and $1.5 billion for upstate economic development.
“What we won’t do is use this one-shot funding to satisfy unsustainable and short-sighted special interest demands now with no plan to pay for it in future years,” said spokeswoman Melissa DeRosa.
Roads, bridges and other types of infrastructure are at the top of the list for many. The American Society of Civil Engineers says 60 percent of the state’s roads are in poor or mediocre condition.
“Our local communities could use funding for highways, for bridges,” said Senate Republican Leader Dean Skelos of Long Island. “That’s where our focus should be.”
One very expensive project looms large in the discussion: the $3.9 billion span being built to replace the aging Tappan Zee Bridge. Using some of the surplus on the project could reduce tolls on the bridge, which are predicted to increase from $4.75 per trip to $10 or more.
New York City’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority, meanwhile, needs at least $15 billion to fully fund its ambitious $32 billion, five-year expansion and upgrade plan.
Then there are the state’s 403 dams deemed to be “high-hazard,” the nearly 3,000 deficient bridges and $75 billion in projected water and sewer projects that need to be completed in the next 20 years.
The decision is likely to be made early next year when lawmakers and Cuomo take up the state budget.
Richard Ravitch, a government finance expert who served as lieutenant governor and chairman of the MTA, said the money should be divided up on projects around the state. But not just any projects: for upstate, highways, water projects and the Tappan Zee Bridge. For downstate, the MTA, he said.
“One-shot revenue, one shot-expenditures,” he said. “It should be spent on infrastructure.”