ALBANY — A Republican gubernatorial candidate on Monday called for hearings on why the Cuomo administration spent millions of taxpayers’ dollars on the controversial “I Love NY” highway signs that federal officials have ordered taken down.
Sen. John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse) said it was Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s hubris that led the state to not only spend $8 million on the signs but also to use transportation funds marked for emergencies to erect them before the July 4 holiday in 2016.
“Think of that, we’ve got roads and bridges that are in bad shape. Some are dangerous. We’ve got the subway in New York City, going off the tracks. Emergency funds are needed for those kinds of things,” DeFrancisco said of his Democrat rival. “He used them for these signs because he wanted them up when he wanted them up.”
DeFrancisco held a news conference along an exit road from the Albany International Airport where several of the signs are stationed. Last week after a long-running dispute, the Federal Highway Administration officials said New York would be penalized $14 million if it didn’t remove the signs, which the feds say violate laws for what can and cannot be placed on road signs. The billboards often promoted state tourism websites, such as “Taste NY,” rather than providing specific information for travelers.
The Cuomo administration capitulated Friday, saying it would remove the signs. But officials said they planned to launch a new tourism-sign campaign if federal officials approve. DeFrancisco said he wants hearings to examine why emergency funds were used and whether the state’s economic-development fund should reimburse roads and bridges funds
Federal officials previously denied New York’s request to erect the signs, but the state put them up anyway. On Long Island, the billboards can be found on the Long Island Expressway, the Meadowbrook Parkway and other roads.
A state Department of Transportation spokesman contended the signs helped boost tourism, but didn’t address directly DeFrancisco’s complaints about the use of emergency funds.
“DOT makes road signs and the senator should know that since this program was included in the budgets he voted for,” Joe Morrissey, agency spokesman, said in an email. “We know he’s running for governor, but this sort of nonsensical grandstanding should be left at the door.”
Federal officials said they would consider a proposal to allow new signs to go up, Federal Highway Administration spokesman Doug Hecox said in an emailed statement Monday after he said he only learned about the state’s new tourism campaign from Newsday on Friday.
“We look forward to working with NYSDOT to ensure New York’s signage complies with safety standards to qualify for federal funding.”
When asked Monday for more details on the new tourism campaign and the replacement roadway signs, Morrissey said the new effort was only in the “development phase,” so he could not say when the existing signs would be taken down, how much it would cost to remove them or what the new signs would cost or look like.
“New York State is launching a new campaign this summer to support the $105 billion tourism industry,” Morrissey said. “It will emphasize destinations, attractions and activities for every member of the family to enjoy during the warm weather months.”
He added, “We are in the development phase of this new marketing effort and will continue coordinating with FHWA [the Federal Highway Administration] as part of that process.”
With Lisa Irizarry