A streamlined way to build projects runs into New York politics

Governor, mayor still cannot seem to get in sync
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Brooklyn United Marching Band at the grand opening of the first span of the Kosciuszko Bridge.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the Brooklyn United Marching Band at the grand opening of the first span of the Kosciuszko Bridge.

By now, it has been well established that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio diverge on many issues, leading to sharp words over who is to blame for subway delays, competing plans for financing affordable housing and even a disagreement over saving a beloved white-tailed deer.

But even on an issue that they do agree on, the governor and the mayor still cannot seem to get in sync. Take an unexciting, but important, streamlined approach to designing and building infrastructure that can save time and money.

Cuomo and de Blasio both embrace it. But in separate efforts this year, the two leaders have tried and failed to persuade state lawmakers in Albany to authorize a broad expansion of this “design-build” approach, which bundles together the design and construction phases of a project instead of carrying them out separately. A 2011 state law authorized design-build for only five state agencies and authorities.

Cuomo had proposed expanding that design-build authority to all state agencies and counties — except for New York City — in his executive budget in January. State lawmakers agreed to renew it only for the state entities that already had it and to extend its use to eight specific state building projects, including a theme park and a state police forensic laboratory.

Meanwhile, the city received nothing, despite a direct request from de Blasio during a budget hearing before state lawmakers in February. “We have been asking for this authority since Day 1,” said Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the mayor. “This should be a no-brainer.”

The design-build process has raised concerns among some state labor leaders and construction industry groups who have influence over Albany lawmakers. Expanding its use, they have said, could result in a more subjective selection process for contracts and less government oversight and could displace union members as more work is contracted out by government agencies rather than done in-house.

Now as the Albany legislative session ticks down, city officials are making a last-ditch effort. At their urging, the Senate and state Assembly are considering a proposal to allow the design-build approach for eight city projects. An alternative version would narrow that down to just two, including the rehabilitation of a critical 1.5-mile stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

For some political observers and transportation advocates, however, the larger fight has already been lost. Douglas Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said the governor and mayor, both Democrats, were yet again unable to put aside their differences to present a united front.

“If they had worked together, something would have happened,” Muzzio said. “They played a lose-lose game, and they both didn’t get what they wanted.”

Jon Weinstein, a spokesman for the governor, said New York City had not been included in the governor’s executive budget because state lawmakers had been reluctant in the past to expand design-build authority to the city. But during later budget negotiations, he added, the governor indicated that he was willing to include the city.

“Governor Cuomo is the single biggest proponent of expanding design-build in New York state because it has consistently saved time and taxpayer money on major infrastructure projects,” Weinstein said. “In the past, the legislature has rejected expansions of design-build for local governments, and unfortunately they did so again this year.”

The design-build approach has been increasingly used around the country to build roads, bridges, schools and hospitals. In 2016, state transportation agencies reported more than 1,300 design-build projects, compared with 140 in 2002, according to the Design-Build Institute of America, an industry group. New York is one of only eight states where it remains a limited option.

So while design-build’s benefits have been lauded by state officials in replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge in Tarrytown and the Kosciuszko Bridge linking Brooklyn and Queens, it remains out of reach for city agencies. The approach has received broad support from city business and industry leaders. Even some state labor groups have withdrawn their opposition to expanding it in the city — though they still oppose it in the rest of state — after city officials guaranteed job protections for union workers.

“I’m dumbfounded that we are not able to have this option when we can see — it has been demonstrated in all 50 states — that it works,” said Feniosky Peña-Mora, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Design and Construction.

Polly Trottenberg, the city transportation commissioner, said using design-build for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway project would save $113.4 million in taxpayer dollars and shorten construction by two years.

“I think we’re making a good case, and everyone in the city and the state can now see great examples of design-build,” she said.

A spokesman for Assembly leaders said they were reviewing the proposals. Assemblyman Michael Benedetto, a Bronx Democrat who is sponsoring them, said he was hopeful. “We think we can get basic agreement,” he said.

But the state Senate may be tougher, since de Blasio has strained relations with Republican Senate leaders after working unsuccessfully to end their majority in 2014. A spokesman for Senate leaders did not respond to inquiries.

“In Albany, things often get linked together,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, a government watchdog group. Still, he added, one or both of the design-build bills could pass in the last-minute torrent of legislation Albany insiders call “the big ugly.”

Mitchell L. Moss, the director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, said that such infrastructure issues — though critically important — tended to be seen as unglamorous and took a back seat to more pressing political issues such as the mayor’s effort to retain control of the city school system.

“Doing nothing is the way Albany operates,” he said, “so to get something done, you have to be constantly fighting for this.”

Categories: -News-

Leave a Reply