Fixing Up The City: Infrastructure Challenges Loom for Next Mayor

Written by Adam Janos & Jon Lentz on . Posted in Economic Development, Energy, Environment, Transportation.

(Photos: De Blasio Campaign via Facebook, MTA via Flickr)

This summer Mayor Michael Bloomberg laid out a comprehensive plan to protect New York City in the event of another natural disaster like Superstorm Sandy.

But it will fall to the next mayor to determine how to pay for and to what degree to implement Bloomberg’s plan—which calls for everything from flood walls to protections for the electrical grid to a new, resilient “Seaport City” neighborhood in lower Manhattan—as well as how to address countless other infrastructure needs all across the city.

The two leading mayoral candidates have lined up behind the broad outlines of Bloomberg’s post-Sandy plan, although the specifics will only become clear when one of them takes office. When Bloomberg unveiled his $19.5 billion “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan in June, Joe Lhota, now the Republican nominee for mayor, praised him for putting together a comprehensive proposal and said he would continue many parts of it. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the Democratic nominee and the front-runner in the race, also commended the Bloomberg administration’s work and called for similar investments, from expanded natural storm barriers and protections to community-based disaster planning.

De Blasio’s campaign website goes into greater detail on his infrastructure plans than Lhota’s. Among de Blasio’s goals are to “embrace green technology” and modernize the electrical grid, for example with backup solar power systems on schools; using the post-Sandy rebuilding effort to create living wage jobs; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, widely seen as a factor in increasingly disruptive storms like Sandy.

Another major area of concern for the city’s infrastructure is its mass transit system. During Sandy, Lhota was praised for his performance heading the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which responded quickly to the storm and brought subway service back within days.

But investment in mass transit continues to be a challenge. While the city’s overall budget has grown from $30 billion in 1993 to $70 billion in 2013, mass transit funding was reduced from $205 million to $105 million, said Gary LaBarbera, president of the Building and Construction Trades Council of Greater New York, a coalition of unions representing some 100,000 workers citywide.

“If mass transit is a priority, then the budget ought to reflect that, and it doesn’t right now,” LaBarbera said.

John Raskin, executive director of the advocacy group Riders Alliance, said that the highest need for mass transit improvements is in underserved neighborhoods of the outer boroughs, where commuters have to “take a bus to get to their subway.” Raskin said the expansion of Select Bus Service in those communities is integral to improving the city, “first, because it often serves a lower income community, and second, because it allows people to get out of cars by giving them a strong alternative option.”

Lhota noted that he “increased bus service in the year I was at the MTA, and we need to make sure all communities in the city of New York have access to mass transit.” The de Blasio campaign, which referred City & State to the candidate’s policy books, declined to comment.

Another cornerstone of Bloomberg’s legacy as a public health mayor is disincentivizing car ownership. From the recent Citi Bike bike-share program to Bloomberg’s 2007 environmentally conscious PlaNYC—which added ferry service and promoted pedestrian and cyclist safety— New York is less motorist-centered than it has ever been.

Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, said that the next mayor should expand on that vision by setting a multiyear goal of reaching zero traffic deaths in New York. De Blasio’s policy booklet “One New York, Rising Together” alludes to that idea, which the candidate calls Vision Zero.

Of course, the city’s roads, highways and bridges are also in need of repairs. The George Washington Bridge is the busiest in the country, and heavy truck traffic causes congestion and a great deal of wear and tear on main thoroughfares like the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, especially since the city lacks a freight rail tunnel, a perennial complaint from advocacy groups like AAA.

“We need a rail-freight tunnel,” said Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York State. “That would be the biggest game changer.”

But Sinclair is pessimistic about significant changes coming anytime soon.

“There will be more bridge collapses,” he said. “That’s probably what it’ll take to make something happen.”

De Blasio’s policy book calls for “a fully funded Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel to take thousands of trucks off local streets, create good local jobs, and make the entire region more economically competitive”—although there are few details on how it would be paid for, other than taking the fight to Washington and making the project part of the Port Authority’s strategic plan.

Despite his experience at the MTA, Lhota’s campaign website lacks any mention of transportation infrastructure needs or goals. On the campaign trail, however, Lhota has said that he would focus on “the core mission” in tackling transportation issues, including increasing traffic mobility, ensuring pedestrian safety and keeping the streets in a state of good repair. Asked about Bloomberg’s failed proposal for congestion pricing, Lhota shot down the idea on a recent radio show.

“There are lots of things that we need to do before we get to the solution of congestion pricing,” he said.

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