Statement by Howie Hawkins, June 17, 2014
Pete Seeger must have rolled over in his grave Monday when Governor Cuomo announced a half-billion dollars from a state clean water fund will be diverted to the $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge project. That money was meant for drinking water, sewage, and other clean-water projects. In the 1960s, the recently deceased folk singer pioneered the movement to clean up the Hudson River. Many have urged that the reconstructed bridge be named after him.
Cuomo has no business raiding the Clean Water State Revolving Fund of the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) to clean up the mess this construction project will make. That clean up should be financed from other sources.
Cuomo added insult to injury by saying the clean water money would reduce tolls on the new bridge. So clean water money is to be used for yet another subsidy to car and truck transportation when we should be prioritizing clean, energy-efficient electrified rail transportation. The project as conceived misses the opportunity to include rail transit across the new bridge for the 680,000 residents of Rockland and Orange counties who have very limited mass transit to New York City. All that Cuomo has offered to date is a mere $20 million for a watered-down version of Bus Rapid Transit as a project separate from the bridge reconstruction, with any future expansion of bus or rail transit delayed until after the bridge project is completed in 2018.
EFC President Matt Driscoll's claim that this loan will not divert from other clean water projects is hard to believe from my city of Syracuse. We have had nearly 300 water main breaks so far this year. The sewers are just as old, with lots of breaks and cave-ins, overflows when it rains, and backups into homes and businesses. When the Mayor of Syracuse asked Governor Cuomo for just $16.5 million for emergency infrastructure repairs in this year's budget, he did not come through for us.
Syracuse is not the only city or town in dire need of grants and low-cost financing for water and sewer upgrades. A 2008 Department of Health report found that 95 percent of the projects submitted for inclusion in EFC's Drinking Water State Revolving Fund program were unfunded due to a lack of available funds. A 2012 Comptroller's report projected investment shortfalls of $39 billion for the state’s drinking water systems and $36 billion for municipal wastewater systems over 20 years.
Driscoll also said the EFC is financing this project because the Thruway Authority's credit rating was recently downgraded, raising its borrowing costs on Wall Street. That just underscores the need for the state bank I am calling for to bypass the sizable cuts taken by Wall Street middlemen. A state-owned public bank could finance projects like this, with interest returning to the state instead of Wall Street, saving money for both taxpayers and toll-payers.
The state-owned Bank of North Dakota provides the model. Established in 1919, it takes deposits of state tax revenues and makes loans for infrastructure projects, businesses, farms, homes, and college educations. It has been profitable every year since the 1945 and just reported its tenth straight year of record profits. The earnings are split between expanding the bank's capital base and funding the state's general fund in a decision negotiated each year between the state legislature and the bank's Governing Board. The bank's contributions to the general fund in recent years have been on a par with the oil and gas tax revenues of that state's oil boom.
A public bank would be far better way to finance this public works project than raiding the clean water fund or throwing ourselves at the mercy of the giant banks on Wall Street. I wish Pete Seeger were still with us to write a protest song about this outrage.