ALBANY — The condition of New York’s roads and bridges will be put at risk and important infrastructure projects could be delayed unless the Hochul administration beefs up transportation spending, according to local government advocates.
Despite a record infusion of federal funds from last year’s infrastructure legislation, New York construction projects have been taking a financial hit due to soaring costs for materials and other inflationary forces roiling the economy, those advocates and representatives of various industry groups say.
Funding for the state Department of Transportation’s core mission, they said in a letter to Gov. Kathy Hochul, is now at its lowest levels since 2015 due to the increased costs for infrastructure projects.
“All people have to do to see what’s going on with our roads is just get in their car and see it themselves, because it’s obvious,” said Michael Elmendorf, president and CEO of Associated General Contractors of New York State. He was one of more than a dozen business leaders who joined the letter to Hochul that was also supported by the heads of local government groups.
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One reason for the urgency of the plea for more funding now, Elmendorf said, dates to a decision state officials made last year to shift some $2.6 billion away from infrastructure projects funding.
Elmendorf said that decision was “troubling.”
“At the time, we were looking at the worst decline in pavement conditions, since we have been keeping data, and we have among the worst road and bridge conditions in the country,” Elmendorf said.
Meanwhile, a variety of factors sent the cost of construction materials skyrocketing, he added.
The Jan. 17 letter to Hochul states: “It is critical that an additional $1.128B be added to the 2023-24 budget for state and local highway construction just to keep funding at the same level it was when the five-year program was initially adopted in 2022.”
From July 2020 to last July, the price of steel used in New York projects soared 115%, while fuel costs jumped 256% and the cost of asphalt increased by 77.5%, according to the groups urging a boost in funding for roads and bridges.
Sarah Brancatella, legislative director and counsel for the Association of Towns, said decisions revolving around funding New York transportation infrastructure are bound to have profound and widely-felt consequences.
“It’s not just local governments that have to deal with this problem,” Brancatella told CNHI. “This is a matter that impacts every single person in the state or who wants to come to New York to do business.”
At a personal level, if roads are not properly maintained on schedule, motorists can find themselves facing hefty repair bills, not to mention the safety risks from traveling on roads that can be hazardous, she added.
The ranking member of the Senate Transportation Committee, Sen. Peter Oberacker, R-Otsego County, said local highway departments heavily rely on state funding for roads and bridges.
Many communities have roads that need major overhauls, with new culverts and new drainage, not just superficial resurfacing to patch over the rough spots, Oberacker said.
“It looks nice to put blacktop over roads but it can be like building a house on a shaky foundation,” he observed. Just tackling the immediate needs, the senator said, can result in “throwing good money after bad.”
In an audit released last year, state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli voiced concern with how state officials were administering the Dedicated Highway and Bridge Fund, suggesting projects were being “shortchanged” because the state was steering much of the funding to pay down debt from past projects and cover the cost of state agencies.
“It is time for New York to change direction and use the money in the Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund for critical repairs and to increase pay-as-you-go projects as the fund was created to do,” DiNapoli said in a statement then.
As for federal funds New York was expecting from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, DiNapoli said, “We cannot afford to squander this historic opportunity.”
The Hochul administration is expected to release the spending plan for the state’s 2023-24 fiscal year by Feb. 1.