New York State aims to 'rebuild' transit ways

Gov. Mario M. Cuomo (D) hopes that the promise of repairing highways, fixing bridges, and shoring up piers in a port will be just the ''right stuff'' to pass a $1.25 billion ''rebuild New York'' transportation levy Nov. 8.

By putting the bond proposal before voters, who just a few months ago were told the state was struggling to balance its budget, the governor is relying on economic self-interest and widespread awareness that the state's infrastructure can no longer be ignored.

''Taxes would be difficult to raise politically,'' says Steve Morello, spokesman for Governor Cuomo. ''Having to raise taxes in any state can serve as a disincentive to the goal of attracting new industry. Good transportation is important to both new and old business. Borrowing, rather than raising taxes, to repair the road infrastructure, is a lot less hurtful.''

Getting general bond levies passed in heavily taxed New York tests more than a governor's leadership, says Mr. Morello. It also demands a bipartisan ability to share power with the state's three distinct power centers: New York City, the suburbs surrounding the city (including Long Island), and upstate - everywhere else.

Of the last seven levies presented to voters, four have been turned down. The most recent to be defeated was for prison construction to ease inmate overcrowding. The Nov. 8 bond proposal targets what proponents and opponents agree are badly needed repairs on roads and bridges throughout the Empire State.

Learning from the last levy loss, the Cuomo administration has crafted a transportation package that represents a pragmatic political compromise.

Part of the compromise with the Republican-dominated state Senate was to make sure that a local spending provision be included in the levy. The prison levy only dealt with state facilities and omitted county and city jails. The local spending provision won support from the political leadership of the Legislature, as well as New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, and county executives throughout the state.

But though the governor is saying the levy will ''put New York voters in the driver's seat,'' the New York Automobile Association warns taxpayers against being taken for a ride that they are already paying for. From the outset, the automobile association has opposed the bond issue. It is the only major opponent in the state.

''We believe the levy is financially foolish,'' says Peter Hahn, vice-president of the 1.3 million-member organization. ''Recent new state taxes on oil companies, increases in driver's licenses and registration fees could provide in three years what the governor proposes to borrow. If the money were being spent for transportation, there would be no need for a new levy.''

New York State residents pay 30 cents in total gasoline taxes, after the federal levy is added, says Mr. Hahn. He points to neighboring New Jersey, which only pays a total of 17 cents. The nationwide average is 21 cents. ''Enough money is already being collected, but it is being diverted in lieu of general revenue taxes,'' says Hahn.

Along with a newsletter to its membership urging a no vote, the automobile association will ask newspapers and televsion stations to editorialize against the bond issue.

''New York's bond rating is single A,'' says Mrs. Claire Cohen, a munincipal bond analyst for Moody's, a private bond rating agency. ''It's not one of your higher ratings in the country and it means they must pay a higher interest on borrowings.''

Since there are no major electoral races and no other major issues on the ballot, voter turnout is expected to be light. The Cuomo administration had named a bipartisan private committe to work for passage of the measure.

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