Smith Scandal Flags $288M in Transportation “Member Items”


“I think I found another place for him to do it, too. Out of multi-modal money. . . Multi-modal money is outside the budget and it’s always around.”

State Senator Malcolm Smith explaining where a crooked real estate developer could get $500k in state road funding. Page 26 FBI Complaint

Before the Malcolm Smith scandal, few people had heard of NYSDOT’s $288 million Multi-Modal Program. That discretionary funding program mainly funds road and bridge projects “identified” by the governor and legislature outside of the regular budget.  It’s a bit murky how the Multi-Modal Program actually works.  There is no online list or description of Multi-Modal Program projects, or how much they cost, or which elected official asked for them.  The State DOT explains that Multi-Modal Program projects are “Identified in schedules agreed upon between the Governor and the Legislature in a Memorandum of Understanding” or via individual project requests.  But, these MOUs are not online.

“Member items” and other legislative discretionary spending — like the Multi-Modal Program — have been a feature of Albany and New York City corruption scandals for decades.  For this reason, Governor Cuomo has refused to fund new legislative member items and is carefully reviewing existing items.  Yet, the Multi-Modal Program, with $288 million in reappopriated funding is the largest potential source of discretionary  funds that legislators can directly steer to projects in their districts. 

According to a routine audit by the State Comptroller, as of 2011 there were 424 active projects which had been awarded Multi-Modal funds totaling $135.2m, an average of $320k per project. More recently, it appears from press accounts and government websites that Governor Cuomo has begun using Multi-Modal Program money as an important part of Regional Economic Development Council grants.  How much Multi-Modal Program funding is going to the Regional Councils  versus individual legislators favorite projects isn’t public. Historically, it appears that Multi-Modal Program Funds were used for routine, small dollar, road maintenance projects like the ones featured in this February 2008 press release on Assemblywoman Sandy Galef’s website.

Most likely, the vast bulk of Multi-Modal Program funds are used for innocuous things like fixing rough patches of pavement or old guardrails and drainage ditches. The problem is we don’t know. We don’t  know how all of these discretionary funds will be used, or have been  used and who asked for them.  The public should know how public funds are spent, especially discretionary funds that have often been subject to abuse.  As part of increasing transparency, the governor and the comptroller should put online a downloadable spreadsheet of all of the Multi-Modal Program projects, and the MOU’s authorizing them.