Albany Agenda

Jeremy Cooney lays out his new transportation vision for New York

The state Senate Transportation Committee chair will have an ally in Congress to help with funding.

State Sen. Jeremy Cooney talks about his new role leading the Transportation Committee and the state of legal pot in New York.

State Sen. Jeremy Cooney talks about his new role leading the Transportation Committee and the state of legal pot in New York. NYS Senate Media Services

State Sen. Jeremy Cooney was recently named the new state Senate Transportation Committee chair, taking over for former state Sen. Tim Kennedy who recently won a seat in Congress. The Rochester-based lawmaker said he has a lot to learn but that his background, as someone who has lived in several regions of the state and sampled all of its transit options, gives him a unique perspective as he plans to add his voice to the state’s transportation plans.

Though the idea of new technology excites Cooney, it goes beyond a fancy new rail line or expanded airport terminals. In his eyes, transportation can be used as a tool, like affordable housing, to empower New Yorkers economically and give them more options.

The new gig is sure to take up more of his time, but he has been outspoken on cannabis before and intends to keep an eye on how the industry develops in the state. The recent shakeup at the Office of Cannabis Management caught his eye, not for the leadership changes but for the new understanding of its failings. Even so, he retains faith that the agency can right itself on the back of a talented staff and strong support from the rest of the government. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are you looking forward to as the new Transportation Committee chair?

Well, I’ve been on the Transportation Committee since 2021 and am familiar with the issues and really appreciate the good work of state Sen. Tim Kennedy who had been chairman since I was elected. But really, I think what I’m excited about, in terms of adding my own experience and perspective to it, is being more intentional about how transportation plays a key role in anti-poverty work and equity, and this is especially the case in upstate New York, where we see a lot of the new employment centers that the state focuses on, such as Micron, located outside of our center cities. And we know that Syracuse, like Rochester, has one of the highest child poverty rates, highest concentrations of poverty, and that’s because most of the folks who are living in those center cities are primarily Black and brown populations who are underemployed, or if they are employed, they’re working minimum wage jobs. But the jobs that are coming to New York, these jobs start at, you know, $50,000-$60,000, without requiring two- or four-year college degrees. So the question is, how do we get folks that opportunity to get to those employment centers, especially if they don’t own a vehicle, or they’re mobility challenged, and transportation becomes the linchpin? And so whether we’re talking about investing in public transit systems, whether we’re talking about getting people who live outside of New York state to come back, and we do that by looking at our housing crisis in New York state and recognizing that we don’t have to build, necessarily, more high-rises in New York City, though we should do that, but we should also build in the Hudson Valley and in the Capitol region, Central and Western New York, and look at transportation mechanisms to make that more appealing to people who live in New York City. I used to live in New York City and my wife used to live in New York City. She’s from Long Island, right? If we had high-speed rail, connecting Toronto to New York City, and that’s not too much of a pipe dream anymore, that could be a real way to open up upstate New York, and our housing market to New York City and downstate markets. So for me, transportation becomes an opportunity to become a more growth-centered state than New York currently is. And that’s pretty exciting.

Do you think upstate mass transit is given enough importance?

It’s not given as much importance as the challenges that are faced upstate are not necessarily as well known. So for example, when talking about public transportation, I have to remind a lot of my colleagues that in Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester or Albany, generally, you’re talking about an above-ground public transit option, a bus, and if you miss the bus, depending on where you’re trying to go, it could be upward of 35-45 minutes before the next bus appears. When you’re dealing with children, or you’re carrying groceries, that’s a real quality-of-life factor and when you’re in the city, you miss the train, and you’re underground and you’re frustrated that you have to wait 10-12 minutes. That’s a much different experience and so resources should be invested in parts of our state, and upstate cities in the Southern Tier and in the Hudson Valley, where they don’t necessarily have a public bus service to really make sure that the opportunity to get to work, or to get to buy groceries or a doctor’s appointment is feasible. So obviously now, a lot of my role will be allocating resources, but also educating my colleagues about the needs across New York City and New York state. I think the same goes for our airports and recognizing that a lot of people in our population in New York state, whether you live upstate or downstate, are much more transient, and much, much more willing to travel than in previous years. So getting more direct flights from New York City, but also from my neck of the woods, here in Rochester, to destinations is going to be really important, and that our companies or businesses are looking for that when making decisions about where to locate. So these are other kinds of mechanisms to help grow jobs, and help keep people in New York state.

It does seem like upstate New York quietly has a diverse collection of transit options. Do you see even more investments going toward some of the smaller airports in the region with an eye toward creating mini-transportation hubs?

I really look at this role as kind of being the chief cheerleader for infrastructure. Whether that is existing infrastructure like roads, bridges, airports, ports, ferries, as well as thinking about new infrastructure, whether that’s vertical takeoff aircraft, high-speed rail, there’s a lot of opportunity to create jobs, but also to make sure that we are staying competitive when it comes to being a transportation state. I think there have been some areas that have seen increased investment over others, and that’s OK. If there’s a strategic reason for that, I mean, Micron and their location to Syracuse requires that type of investment, that’s a good thing. But I don’t want to see a part of the state like the North Country get left behind. I mean, if we had a better rail option to the North Country from New York City, looking at the North Country as a tourism destination, could be much more economically impactful for those towns and communities above Watertown, right? So this is an opportunity to make strategic investments across the state and in New York City – it’s not just an upstate committee – to really make sure that we’re doing everything possible to leverage the assets of the state. I talked to the head of the MTA earlier and one of the commitments that we talked about was, obviously, the capital plan for the MTA, but also making sure that what’s being produced, whether we’re talking about a rail, train car or a signal system, that that gets created, and those jobs stay here in upstate New York. So everyone should benefit.

It has been reported that the MTA is behind on some of its procurement and repair goals. What can the state Legislature and your committee do to remedy that?

I have to be honest with you. It’s something I’m still learning about. I had some meetings with the MTA as well as with Sen. (Leroy) Comrie, who leads our corporations committee, and there’s some learning necessary for me to kind of better understand the scope. I can tell you that we’re coming up on the MTA capital plan next year and then obviously, part of that is about revenue and congestion pricing, which starts on June 30 this year, so kind of better understanding the resources necessary. I know I keep on hearing all these wonderful, exciting projects that the governor talks about, like the Interborough Express, and these are things that people want and are exciting, but how are we going to pay for it? And we want to make sure that we’re not just expanding and doing exciting projects without making sure that the LIRR is running on time and there’s more frequency with routes and the subway (and) make sure that they’re more accessible to all different populations and transportation needs. So there’s some kind of modernization work that’s also going to be costly that we need to find that balance for. But again, I think there are a lot of smart people who have been working on transportation issues well before me, I’m just kind of excited to be able to add my voice.

Shifting gears to the recent cannabis news, what’s your take on these developments? It sounds like the state is going to lose two members of leadership and there are some real recommendations to overhaul the state Office of Cannabis Management

I got briefed on the OCM. I was really impressed with how deep they were able to go in a short period of time, 30 days. At that briefing, I was not aware of any specific personnel changes, but really focused on the serious lack of internal controls and systems work that needed to be implemented to make OCM a truly functional state regulatory agency. I think what was said to me, and I think you’re seeing that reflected in some of the governor’s remarks today, is that there was kind of this startup culture at OCM, where they kind of built their own systems, they were trying to work in a difficult legal environment and trying to please a lot of different people. But what we resulted with was kind of a patchwork system that wasn’t very customer service-friendly, and wasn’t able to function smoothly as another regulatory agency in state government, like (the state Department of Health) or (the state Liquor Authority) would be expected to be. My reaction is I’m glad that we’ve identified the challenges. It’s not going to be a quick fix, one person’s or two persons’ removal is not going to change the immediate experience for a licensee or an applicant. But it does acknowledge that there are changes that need to be made. And as a Legislature, our role is to make sure that the resources are there to make those changes, whether it’s financial resources or policy changes to really enable them to be a much more functional state agency.

Do you think OCM has the potential to fulfill all the goals of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, it just needs dire changes?

Absolutely. First of all, there are a lot of really wonderful, smart, hardworking people who work at the agency, and they haven’t had an easy go in terms of some unanticipated legal challenges and just the nature of the beast, being a federally regulated entity as well, not the agency, but the product itself, so that’s tough. That said, I truly believe that it can work. What I want to see happen moving forward is, let’s get people into these jobs, there’s a lot of vacancies at the agency, so that there are more hands that can do the work and let’s set expectations with applicants and licensees. Part of the challenge here is that there is not a very good communication structure in place, and I mean that internally and externally. So the way we build confidence back in OCM is that we communicate reasonable expectations for timelines and for decision-making, and I’m hoping that the CCB, the Cannabis Control Board, will really prioritize that moving forward because I think that building trust within the cannabis industry is going to be about having honest conversations of what can be expected, you know, (at) a monthly meeting of the CCB. How many licenses will actually be reviewed? What’s the timeline for decision-making? What’s the capacity for processors and cultivators? I think those types of honest conversations are needed.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Back on the transportation front, just for a moment, I really want to emphasize that we’re going to be thinking bigger when it comes to transportation, and it’s important to invest in roads and bridges. There’s obviously a lot of work that needs to be done. But I really want to utilize this chairmanship to lean into some of the new technology that’s out there, and to address kind of age-old transit wish lists in a more meaningful way, and having worked for a member of Congress 20 years ago who talked about high-speed rail from upstate to downstate, it’s something where I want to pick up that mantle.

High-speed rail is definitely top of mind for you?

Definitely. I mean, we’re not going to snap our fingers and have it overnight, but we don’t have a plan to move forward, I mean there’s lots of conversations and hearings. But is there an opportunity to make a plan, to chart a route? And that will allow us to go to the federal government and explore how to access some of these dollars that are going to other states like California and Florida. Is there an opportunity for New York to be part of that conversation federally? My good friend, former Sen. Tim Kennedy, now Congressman Kennedy, I know he wants to be a good partner in that work with me.

That’s true. I guess the Legislature has a new friend in Congress.

He knows a lot about transportation issues, so we’re going to be calling and we’re not going to let him off the hook. We still have his phone number.