Power failure: Cuomo's $106M bridge light show fades to black

Critics instead questioned why Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Cuomo-controlled agency which owns the bridges) would spend money on optics. Meanwhile, complaints about subway delays that were almost daily and poor service escalated in 2017, during what was known as the Summer of Hell.Cuomos administration explanations about the payment for the project were repeatedly changed and the effort was silently halted half a century after it was started.POLITICO has now released documents that show taxpayers spent $106million on the project. This includes $37million for LED lights. After the project was abandoned, those 4-year-old LED lights still sit in a warehouse with no practical use.It is terrible that $106 million of taxpayer funds was spent on a project that should never have been approved, stated state Senator Liz Krueger, a prominent Democratic lawmaker and chair of the Senate Finance Committee. I am still glad that the project was stopped.After POLITICO asked Rich Azzopardi about the plans and how much money had been spent, Cuomo spokeswoman Rich Azzopardi confirmed that the effort would continue. He cited the potential benefits of bridge lightings in San Francisco and attractions in London and Paris as proof.Azzopardi stated that this project will boost tourism and help rebuild an important part of New York's economy. Although he acknowledged that Covid-19 and other infrastructure plans had taken precedence, he said that the Harbor of Lights project was still a great idea and that he intends to see it through.Krueger was told about the governor's desire to revive the project. She said that she doesn't believe it's an efficient use of public money and worries about the disruption to New York City residents if the project is actually implemented.Krueger stated in an interview that they didn't recall the stupid idea until you were there.At the grand opening of Kosciuszko Bridge, which connects Brooklyn and Queens in New York City on April 27, 2017, a performance of "New York Harbor of Lights” is performed. Kathy Willens/AP PhotoCuomo is known for his penchant to focus on aesthetics, and get involved in the details of the New York mega-projects he takes on as his own. Three-term Governor Cuomo has compared himself to Robert Moses, boasting about his record of building large-scale projects such as the Mario M. Cuomo bridge across the Hudson River and Moynihan Train Hall.Cuomo is currently facing multiple investigations into misconduct allegations and other scandals related to his administration. One of these could lead to Cuomo's impeachment.It is not the first time that taxpayers have been held responsible for problems in projects supposedly intended to increase New York's tourism profile. The state spent millions to install I LOVE NEW YORK signs along highways, only to be told by federal officials that they were illegal. Cuomo was also reported to have been involved in the mid-stream change of tile color for MTA tunnels at a multimillion dollar cost.The Mario Cuomo Bridge is another. Cuomos' inaugural ride over the span, which replaces the Tappan Zee bridge, was a great success. However, there was no acknowledgment that an ongoing investigation was underway into possible structural problems.The effects of the bridge lighting project went far beyond the costs of the equipment, which was never used. It took so long for the effort to come to a conclusion, that the New York Power Authority, a key agency in the undertaking, had to bear the project costs for years. This left it unable to sell long-term bonds.NYPA is the agency that claims the bridge project was within its mandate.The economic development and energy efficiency project is part of a larger transformational plan to reimagine New York's tunnels and bridges for the 21st Century. However, it was put on hold because of other priorities and the pandemic. Sue Craig, a spokesperson for NYPA, stated in a statement that the project was put on hold before the pandemic.Craig stated that we remain committed to working together with our government partners to invest strategically in modernizing our infrastructure, improving transportation, and advancing cutting-edge technology and innovation that benefit all New Yorkers as well as our economy.John Kaehny (executive director of Reinvent Albany), said that there is serious concern about the lack of transparency and approval by the NYPA or MTA boards. He stated that the Legislature should investigate the secret spending and that the matter should be included in the ongoing investigation into impeachment.Kaehny stated that this was something that came out of the governor's head. If a governor can call up any agency and tell them to spend $37million off the budget, how does that make a functioning democracy?Cuomos' recent grumbling over the Gateway Program which includes a plan for rebuilding the Hudson River rail tunnel, which he and others believe is essential to the region's economy, contrasts sharply with Cuomos's free spending on a project without any practical purpose.The project was delayed for many years while President Donald Trump was at the White House. Cuomo appears to be having reservations about New York's $13 billion share of the tunnel bill now that it is time to move forward with an easier federal government.Cuomo stated recently that if the federal government wants do stupid, they could do stupid with their money. This was after years of repeatedly pressing Trump's administration to take action on Gateway. We are not going to make stupid decisions with our money.Shifting explanationsCuomos Bridge Lighting Project was overseen by the Power Authority. It is responsible for the state's hydropower dams. The Authority also has strong cash flows.The Power Authority provides energy efficiency services to government agencies it supplies power. This includes design, construction, and installation of LED lighting to lower your energy bills. NYPA customers include the MTA, which receives low-cost electricity. The agency employs it as it attempts to reduce energy consumption with more efficient lighting.NYPA uses contractors to complete the work. It then charges its customers a fee as well as a low interest rate to cover the capital cost over several year. The goal of investments is to reduce monthly energy bills by enough to result in net savings.The MTA would not be able to save money by using flashy bridge lights. NYPA had already collaborated with the MTA to install more efficient LEDs for its bridges. NYPA also funded other large Cuomo projects, including funding lights and screen displays at Moynihan Train Hall. This former post office was transformed into an extension to Penn Station.Krueger stated that the governor found money in NYPA to fund a project that wasn't budgeted. Is that how state funds should be used? No. I believe there should be more transparency and participation.According to public data about completed NYPA efficiency projects, the Harbor Lights project's $100 million price tag makes it the most expensive NYPA project.When questions were raised about the wisdom and costs of the lighting project, the governor's administration provided new explanations as to how NYPA would repay Harbor Lights.In October 2016, the governor announced the light-show plan. In December, the president of MTA Tunnels and Bridges approved $6 million for the design of the project.Officials of the MTA did not sign any subsequent agreements to repay repayment. Craig stated that NYPA was able to move forward with a master service agreement for energy efficiency, which was established in the early 1990s.At a January 2017 NYPA trustee meeting, they were informed that the MTA would eventually pay for the project.NYPA's contractor LiRo, a construction company, was able to continue work on the light display despite not having a formal repayment agreement. Subcontractors did electrical work on bridges in 2017, according to invoices. Phillips ordered lights in March.According to a spokesperson, the MTA was facing service problems and other capital needs that left it in dire straits. In July 2017, the MTA stated that the project was not being funded by them.The story changed again. Empire State Development, the state's umbrella economic development corporation would provide funds as the flashing lights were a major tourist attraction. A spokesperson for NYPA stated that funding would be provided by state infrastructure funds and economic development funds in December 2017.The bridge lights were connected to work on MTA bridges such as cashless tolling or security towers. Board members expressed concern at the lack of information and drew criticism. According to a spokesperson for NYPA, the authority was also working on a conduit system that would be used for security purposes.After receiving complaints, the state Authorities Budget Office investigated the matter and provided fiduciary training for MTA board members.Repayment questionsAccording to one NYPA former official, the lack of clarity about how NYPA would get reimbursed for the $100million spent on the unfinished project had serious consequences. This burden effectively stopped the agency from obtaining long-term financing.Genevieve Fabela, former Treasurer of NYPA, stated that employees were forbidden from discussing externally the cost of bridge lights.Fabela sent an email explaining that the agency was unable to issue public bonds from 2017 to 2019. This was due in part because it failed the disclosure requirements. Before settling an employment case against the authority, she discussed the matter with POLITICO.Fabela stated that it was a well-known issue to our banks counterparts who asked us whenever we planned to go to market to issue new debt. There was a lot of callable, expensive debt that we had on our books and it was up for refinance. My entire tenure as treasurer required me to tell a story about why we were not coming to market.NYPA issued $1 billion worth of bonds in 2020. The last time NYPA offered long-term bonds back in 2015 was 2015. NYPA plans to make more capital investments.Craig stated that the authority disclosed the project to financial reports and other securities transactions. He also noted that the authority had issued debt in the previous years. According to documents, NYPA used shorter-term notes that had lower disclosure requirements at that time.According to financial statements, the authority used part of the 2020 bond revenue to pay off higher-interest debts and to finance short-term borrowings.Kaehny stated that short-term commercial papers require less research and due diligence. They have strict disclosure requirements for regular bonds ratings.Kaehny stated that short-term borrowing can also be done in smaller amounts. Kaehny said that spending on lighting projects raises concerns about NYPA's independence and internal controls. He said that if it stopped NYPA from making capital investments, then that is also a problem.He said that it was about jamming up Power Authority, which is an important agency to combat global warming.NYPA made capital investments in its transmission system and hydropower plants over the past few years. It also increased funding for energy efficiency programs. Craig stated that NYPA received its full repayment from the state infrastructure and capital funds for the Harbor Lights project. The last transfer was made in the early 2021. Freeman Klopott, spokesperson for the State Division of Budget, confirmed the repayment.Cuomos cost escalationCuomos involvement in the bridge lighting project was evident right from its conception. His office worked hard to speed up the project's completion and kept it on track. At one point, the deadline was moved up to four months from June 2018 to Feb 2018.In January 2017, the governors office was presented with cost and design options by LiRo, NYPA, and the MTA for the bridges. According to the documents, NYPA was approved by the governors office less than a week later to proceed with a more costly design for three bridges.This decision saw the cost of the project increase by $80 million, from $138 million up to $216 million. This number was expected to rise further to meet the accelerated timeline.Officials from Cuomo sought to minimize the $216 million estimate, which was confirmed in newly released documents. POLITICO reported that an internal estimate was made at that time of even more than $350million.There are thousands of pages of invoices, purchase order and work orders that show that LiRo, along with its contractors, did many hours of engineering, design and construction work on the MTAs bridges prior to the project being put on hold.NYPA reacted to mounting criticisms and questions about the bridge lighting project by ordering LirRo, its lead contractor, to cancel Phillips' lighting order in July 2017.According to a December 2017 correspondence, Phillips, NYPA and LiRo had a dispute. They agreed to have some equipment repurposed, and that the rest be transferred to a warehouse. Phillips was eventually paid by NYPA through LiRo for several thousand lights, and related equipment.Craig stated in an email that NYPA had paid $770,000 for the storage of the material.It is not clear what will happen to these LED bridge lights.Craig said that the materials are stored. Craig wrote that the materials are still in good working order and that there are many other uses for them.