New towers are going up at the entrances of tunnels and bridges across the city, but many questions remain about what they are, how much they cost and how much was disclosed about them before they started going up.
The 25-feet-tall monoliths are MTA Gateway Towers. This week, MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said they were always meant to house Homeland Security equipment taken down when the toll plazas got replaced during a move to cashless tolling.
“They’re very important for all New Yorkers to make sure we have all types of information about who’s going through our tunnels,” Lhota said.
Neighbors like Gordon Francis are just now learning about these new state-ordered towers, which according to the MTA have the ability to read license plates and perhaps glean additional information or perform other tasks.
“They may be invading a little too much of our privacy, especially without our consented authorization,” Francis said.
The security purpose behind the towers, with their state logo and polished steel, caught government watchdogs by surprise.
John Kaehny, of Reinventing Albany, which examines state contracts, said three MTA board members told the group they knew nothing about the towers.
Kaehny said that in a press release last fall, Gov. Cuomo’s office promised revamped bridges and tunnels could “read license plates and test emerging facial recognition software.”
“The concern is that $100 million in public funds were spread out and buried in six different MTA contracts without ever being approved by the MTA board,” Kaehny said.
Lhota said the board was shown the facts in a Power Point presentation. He was asked this week if facial recognition software was part of the towers.
“I’m not at liberty to discuss that and I’m not going to put my security clearance in jeopardy or talk about what security items are in there,” Lhota said.
Government watchdogs say towers at some bridges may be even taller than 25 feet, with even more security enhancements inside that have yet to be disclosed.