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Commentary By Bob McManus

Cuomo's Tappan Zee Triumph Shows He Can Fix the Subways

Cities, Cities Infrastructure & Transportation, New York City

Gov. Muscle-Car came to the party in a canary-yellow Corvette Thursday, tooling across the new Tappan Zee bridge as a brass band blurted the Clinton-Gore ’92 campaign anthem “Don’t Stop [Thinking About Tomorrow].” But it wasn’t about politics. It was about the bridge, the governor said. It was about New York.

And about Mario Matthew Cuomo, the late three-term governor of New York whom the Legislature spontaneously insisted the new bridge be named for — without the faintest hint of prompting from his son, Andrew, who now holds the office.

At least that’s Andrew’s story, and if you believe it you may be a candidate to buy the new bridge — lock, stock and undisclosed price tag.

In the end, though, the name doesn’t matter. A new Tappan Zee bridge will become partially operational this weekend — and that’s a substantial accomplishment.

Let’s pick the nits first.

Financing for the project is a state secret on a par with the Manhattan Project. Cuomo & Co. insist it’ll cost no more than $4 billion and will come unaccompanied by untoward toll increases.

Believing this requires a substantial leap of faith, given that all the relevant data is unavailable — and that cost overruns are what government does best, along with picking even the lint from taxpayers’ pockets.

Specifically, it now costs $5 to cross the Tappan Zee Bridge, and $15 to get over the George Washington. So it’s not hard to plot the trend line.

Perhaps more significantly, at least for the long term, is that while the new bridge will replace a decrepit and increasingly dangerous one, the overall project does little to address the traffic choke-points at either end of the current Tappan Zee. In this respect, the new span is a palliative, not a cure.

But as palliatives go, this one is pretty nifty. How did it happen?

“New York was not a product of evolution,” Cuomo said Thursday. “New York didn’t just happen. We” — in context, read: Me! — “built it this way.”

And he was right — insofar as he essentially did carry the bridge project alone. For better or for worse, nobody bigfoots like Andrew Mark Cuomo.

The man has mystical influence with the Legislature (see above, the Mario M. Cuomo Bridge); the official state watchdog, Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, is terrified of him; he carries the state Thruway Authority, which owns both bridges, in his cargo shorts — and he’s a past master at co-opting private-sector interest groups.

By ensuring that all work done on the bridge would be paid at union scale, he had the AFL-CIO on his side from Day One. The billions in borrowing translate into a bonanza for Wall Street.

And past alliances with New York’s ubiquitous enviro-Luddites — no litigation over Hudson River fish in exchange for no fracking? — also paid off.

Cuomo played them all like a piano — and the result is the bridge which everybody said was necessary, but which nobody thought was possible.

Score one for skulduggery.

But here’s the thing: If Andrew Cuomo is so good at this sort of interest juggling — as he obviously is — why is the MTA in such a sad state? Why are the subways crumbling? Could it be that the governor is a one-trick pony?

He’s the fellow who spent the spring absurdly declaring that the MTA isn’t even on his plate. That, somehow, New York’s incipient subway catastrophe was Mayor de Blasio’s fault. It wasn’t his finest hour.

For law and custom place the MTA — including the city’s subways — squarely in the governor’s hands. And he had spent the first seven years of his incumbency ignoring the responsibility. The results were as predictable as their implications are terrifying.

If ever an agency needed a big foot — that is, to be force-focused — it’s the MTA. Yet Cuomo, spurred to belated action, has hired two exemplary public administrators — Giuliani administration vet and former MTA chairman Joseph Lhota and Port Authority director Patrick Foye — to put the trains back on track.

Both men, again, are extraordinarily capable. But they are not mutual admirers — think scorpions in a bottle — and no obvious lines of responsibility have been drawn. Meanwhile, Cuomo continues to squabble with de Blasio over transit funding, and just about everything else.

Maybe this is because you can’t drive a yellow Corvette in a subway tunnel; photo-ops matter to Cuomo the Younger, after all. But it’s not a recipe for a transit rescue. Nor for competent governance of any sort.

The Mario M. Cuomo Bridge demonstrates that the incumbent Cuomo can get big jobs done. He delivered for the commuters; now he needs to get on the stick for the straphangers.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Bob McManus is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post