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Transportation Officials Discuss Infrastructure Funding

From left to right: Amtrak's Jane Brophy, Albany International Airport CEO Phil Calderone, Times Union Editor Casey Seiler, Albany Port District Commission's Megan Daly, CDTA's Carm Basile
Lucas Willard
From left to right: Amtrak's Jane Brophy, Albany International Airport CEO Phil Calderone, Times Union Editor Casey Seiler, Albany Port District Commission's Megan Daly, CDTA's Carm Basile

As lawmakers in Washington debate a sweeping infrastructure plan, leaders of transportation systems in the Capital Region are discussing their plans for a potential boost in federal funding.

The pandemic has presented new challenges to transportation and infrastructure systems.

In panel discussion Thursday hosted by the Rensselaer County Chamber of Commerce and the Albany International Airport, the question was asked: what would you do with an infusion of federal infrastructure money?

Albany County Airport Authority CEO Phil Calderone discussed the airport’s hopes for an expansion of its terminal, to accommodate the needs of all travelers while allowing for social distancing.

“Children’s recreation room, a family center, an updated business center that meets the needs of the community and attracting businesses clients, so improving our terminal. But we also need to – and I think the pandemic has highlighted this – find ways to diversify our revenue so we’re not just dependent or so dependent on federal funding. So we need, for example, to expand our cargo facilities,” said Calderone.

In a changing climate, the Port of Albany is preparing for an offshore wind tower manufacture facility. Megan Daly, Chief Commerce Officer of the Albany Port District Commission, said her wish would be to use federal funding to expand the port to accommodate higher capacity commerce.

“So where we might have been building a wharf that was 1,200 pounds per square foot, for the off-shore wind they need mega capacity at 3,000 to 6,000 pounds per square foot for a wharf. So where an upgrade may have been $20 million – we thought that was substantial – it’s now $40 to $60 million to build a similar piece of infrastructure but with that heavier capacity. But these new opportunities will create more jobs, more of a destination in this region,” said Daly.

The pandemic has caused a shortage of school bus drivers and other workers in jobs that require commercial drivers’ licenses. CEO Carm Basile said the Capital District Transportation Authority could use federal funding to help address the drive shortage.

“We’re starting to talk about us being a regional hiring, recruiting, training center. And then we can dispatch, if you will, bus operators to the North Colonie school district, or the Bethlehem school district, to Yankee Trails, Brown Coach, to wherever it might be, and, again, I think that’s a way for us to bring resources to the community,” said Basile.

Amtrak, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, needs to adapt if it wants to be around another 50 years, according to Jane Brophy, Amtrak’s Senior Manager for Government Affairs and Corporation Communications. She pointed to one project that needs attention close to home, a critical piece of the Empire Corridor line.

“Back in your own backyard here, the Livingston Avenue Bridge, which is a 100-plus-year-old bridge that brings trains across the Hudson River. It’s a movable bridge, so that creates challenges in the design going forward. We’re all well aware of the want and desire for pedestrian access over that bridge,” said Brophy.

But as the panel outlined how they’d like to spend federal infrastructure money, there was also agreement on the need for a change in policy to improve how funding is distributed.

According to Brophy, Amtrak, which relies heavily on federal funding, can see projects move at a slow pace.

“Part of the problem that we have had as an organization is that we are funded every five years. We don’t have a steady mechanism like the Highway Trust Fund. So we are constantly talking to our legislators about creating some sort of stable funding source for us so that we can manage these billion dollar projects more than one at a time and know that we can move them along every year, so that’s a real challenge,” said Brophy.

Basile also wants to see more flexibility with federal funding to improve public transit.

“I’m certainly the farthest thing from a policy wonk, but I think it’s time that we start to talk about who are we, what do we want to be rather than just throw trillions of dollars at problems. That will help, it will help a lot. But until we change this and make our transportation network a lot more flexible and nimble and able to react to changes…look at what happened during the pandemic. The one thing we learned is when you give us money and say, ‘Go out and fix the problem,’ we fix the problem,” said Basile.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.