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Trump plan for LI infrastructure a step backward, critics say

February 12, 2018


Alfonso A. Castillo

President Donald Trump’s long-awaited infrastructure plan will do little to address Long Island’s road, bridge and transportation needs, in part because it relies on already-stretched local governments to kick in substantially more money for projects than they do already, experts said Monday.

The 53-page document released Monday by the White House proposes to leverage $200 billion in federal spending over the next decade to generate up to $1.5 trillion in infrastructure improvements, largely by counting on local governments to invest more and partner with private developers on projects.

The proposal would essentially reverse the current formula of having the federal government pay the lion’s share of an infrastructure project, with local governments kicking in smaller matching contributions.

“I don’t think the state and local governments are going to be able to do much more than they are doing now,” said Kevin Law, president of the Long Island Association, a business and planning group.

While crediting Trump for “trying to get the federal government back into the infrastructure game, which they largely abandoned decades ago,” Law said he hoped the president’s proposal was just the beginning of a negotiation with Congress that would result in substantially more federal investment.

“Two hundred billion spread out over 10 years and over 50 states at the end of the day is not a whole lot of money,” Law said.

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, a construction trade group, said the one piece of good news in Trump’s plan is his proposal to streamline the federal permitting process for projects so that it doesn’t take more than two years — “a big difference” for some long-discussed projects, such as the reconstruction of the Sunrise Highway/Montauk Highway merge in Oakdale.

“Some of those projects are on the drawing board for 10, 20 years. That’s ridiculous,” Herbst said. “If the rule changed, that could take place within two years.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) similarly applauded the “effort to reduce bureaucracy and expedite construction” but expressed concern that the plan “does not deliver enough to Long Island and Queens,” including in the form of sewer, water and transportation projects.

“The President’s proposal to fix our nation’s crumbling infrastructure comes with great potential for our island,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). “Nowhere is this more important than on Long Island where repairing aging bridges, roads, water systems and public transit is essential for our local economy, environment and quality of life.”

While experts agreed that there is a place for public-private partnerships in forwarding some local infrastructure efforts, they said that the model would not work for many projects that have traditionally relied heavily on federal funding, such as LIRR station rehabilitations.

“The public person — the MTA — is not asking to get paid back. But the private person is not putting in money without getting a return,” said Metropolitan Transportation Authority Board member Mitchell Pally, of Stony Brook, who pointed to the Hudson Yards development project — built over the commercially valuable Long Island Rail Road’s West Side Yards property — as a good fit for private investment. “I’m not sure it fits Hicksville.”

Trump’s public-private push could bode well for one potential megaproject on Long Island, experts said. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed tunnel or bridge across Long Island Sound could cost more than $55 billion and would likely rely heavily on private backers, who would get their money back through tolls.

Robert Sinclair Jr., spokesman for the American Automobile Association’s Northeast chapter, urged the Trump administration to champion ambitious projects such as the cross-Sound link, or a freight rail tunnel from New Jersey to Brooklyn that would ease truck traffic on Long Island.

“That would be a game-changer for the City of New York and Long Island,” said Sinclair, who pointed to ongoing rehabilitation projects at the Goethels Bridge and LaGuardia Airport as examples of successful public-private partnerships. “If it’s going to be 3p [public-private partnerships], it’s got to be done right.”

Local transportation experts also expressed concern over what Trump’s infrastructure plan could mean for Amtrak’s Gateway project, which would build a new rail tunnel across the Hudson River and make other improvements in and around Penn Station. The project, estimated to cost $25 billion or more, was fast-tracked by the Obama administration, but Trump’s administration has expressed reluctance to heavily subsidize a project “where 90 percent of the benefits go to local transit riders.”

Cuomo, on Twitter, said the federal government “must fulfill its promise to fund its half of the project before the 107-year-old Amtrak tunnels fail.” He suggested Trump’s plan is “overly complicated” and “destined to fail.”

“We know how to build,” Cuomo tweeted. “We just need the funding.”