Keep focus on reform and the key projects

Some fights in politics are good to have and can lead to a better solution, and some expose all that is wrong with the system. There’s one of each kind shaping up in Albany.

The State Assembly’s selection of a new state comptroller is evidence that Governor Eliot Spitzer’s goal of reforming Albany’s dysfunctional ways will be daunting. The beginning of a long-overdue debate about the merits of large transportation projects, including a Downtown rail link to the L.I.R.R. and J.F.K. Airport, the Second Ave. subway, the 7 line subway extension and others, is welcome and should lead to the best uses of the limited transportation money.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s instincts were right when he joined Spitzer and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno to set up an independent panel of former state and city comptrollers to recommended the best candidates to serve out the four-year term of Alan Hevesi. Spitzer made it clear at the panel announcement that the three ex-comptrollers would pick up to five candidates. When Silver and other legislators didn’t like the panel’s picks, they backed out of the deal and picked one of their own, Assemblymember Tom DiNapoli.

Nearly all of the Senate Democrats and the Assembly Republicans, admirably, voted for one of the panel selections. This may bode well for future reform since Spitzer is rumored to be close to leading a Democratic takeover of the Senate. Silver, who has been Downtown’s strongest and most effective advocate since 9/11, remains a Spitzer supporter and we hope he joins the governor’s effort to make the needed changes. In order for the governor to reduce the influence of special interests, increase accountability in Albany and end gerrymandering of state and federal districts, he is going to need Silver. Speaker Silver also needs to show that he will not stand in the way of necessary reform in Albany. The comptroller bait and switch was not a propitious beginning.

On transportation, Silver is trying to convince Spitzer to support the commuter-rail link Downtown. President Bush recently shifted $2 billion of unused 9/11-related tax credits to Lower Manhattan transportation projects and it seems likely to pass the now-Democratically controlled Congress. Downtown took the hardest economic hit from 9/11 and the $2 billion must be spent to help Lower Manhattan, whether with the rail link or not.

Link supporters, including the mayor, point to the economic development it would spawn in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica, Queens. Opponents say it is a corporate-driven boondoggle that will not serve enough people to justify a $6 billion investment — although the Sierra Club, certainly no tool of Wall St., supports the idea of building a tunnel Downtown for the L.I.R.R., at least.

 The rail link, the Downtown section of the Second Ave. subway and all of the other transportation projects under consideration must be evaluated closely not only for projected ridership but also for the economic activity they will generate. Now that’s a debate that’s well worth having.