The End of the Road: The Decline of New York’s Infrastructure

Written by Adam Janos on . Posted in Energy, Environment, Transportation.

New York is stuck in a rut.

The conditions of New York’s already troubled highways, dams, roads and water systems have grown worse over the past four years, according to the American Society for Civil Engineers.

While the United States as a whole has shown marginal improvement in the ASCE’s latest infrastructure report card— up from a “D” grade in 2009 to a “D+” in 2013—New York is failing to bring its aging infrastructure into the 21st century.

“The tab is due, plain and simple,” said Clark Barrineau, a spokesman for the ASCE. But while New York’s infrastructure—like that of the rest of the country— is suffering from disrepair, Barrineau said that he is cautiously optimistic about the potential for it to improve as the state rebuilds in the aftermath of the devastation caused by Hurricane Irene, Tropical Storm Lee and Superstorm Sandy.

“You’re about to make tremendous investments in infrastructure,” he said. “You’re about to rebuild things that failed.”

For example, Mayor Bloomberg’s “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” plan has been lauded for its forward-thinking, proactive approach to climate change, although questions have been raised about how to fund everything in the plan. And while new infrastructure may provide buffers against storm surges and combat rising temperatures, the tunnels and pipes that conduct the drinking- and wastewater that flows underground every day continue to deteriorate.

According to the ASCE, New York’s drinking water infrastructure needs $27 billion dollars in improvements over the next 20 years. The wastewater system will need an additional $29.7 billion during that same time span.

Katherine Nadeau, policy director for the Environmental Advocates of New York, said that the state’s aging infrastructure, which ranks among the oldest in the country, presents serious challenges.

“Every day we have untreated sewage flowing into our waterways,” Nadeau said. “That’s a public health hazard. It’s a major amount of money, and at least right now in most places it’s a problem that’s not directly in front of people’s eyes every day. Until and unless there’s a major problem, it’s not something we’re constantly confronted with, but if we don’t act now, we will be.”

Awareness is a major component of the fight for new water infrastructure. In 2012 Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Sewage Notification Act, which mandates that sewage treatment plants inform the public within 24 hours of raw sewage overflows via the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s website. But as long as the state is unable to come up with the near-$60 billion needed to repair its water systems, Nadeau contends that constant sewage cleanup, compounded with ever-leaking pipes, will continue to drive the costs of fixing them skyward.

The status of New York’s roadways is similarly dismal. According to the ASCE, 60 percent of New York’s roadways are in “mediocre to poor” condition, and 27.1 per-cent of bridges are “functionally obsolete.” A separate report by Transportation for America entitled “The Fix We’re In: The State of Our Bridges” ranked New York the seventeenth-worst state for bridge conditions. Worse still, since 2011 New York has downgraded 61 bridges to “structurally deficient.” Only Oklahoma, with 77 bridge downgrades, received lower marks.

A 2009 report by the state comptroller broke down some of the reasons behind these rapidly declining numbers. The Dedicated Highway and Bridge Trust Fund, which was created in 1991, relied on highway taxes, petroleum taxes, and Department of Motor Vehicle revenues to pay for improvements to the state’s roads and bridges. However, by 1993 the government began diverting these funding streams to pay for “state agency operations” unaffiliated with road projects, and instead started issuing interest-laden bonds to cover the costs of highway and bridge projects for the Thruway Authority.

The comptroller’s report found that debt service was taking up an increasing share of the Fund’s resources. Or, as Robert Sinclair, a spokesman for AAA New York, put it: “We’re spending 72 cents on the dollar just repaying these bonds.”

Debt service grew from zero percent in 1993 to 30.5 percent of the fund by 2009. And as long as bonds continue to be issued, Sinclair believes that number will grow.

“It’s being done because of the distinct lack of political will on behalf of the Legislature to bring this program back into solvency,” Sinclair said. “It’ll require some kind of tax, some new funding source, something. With it, we’ll be able to update the condition our roads and bridges.”

Of course, there are still some signs of improvement. The ASCE report touted the completion of a new Lake Champlain Bridge connecting New York to Vermont and New York City’s massive ongoing project to build a new water tunnel and improve its water systems.

Initial construction for a badly needed replacement to the Tappan Zee Bridge has also begun, a project that is slated for completion by 2017. The new bridge is being funded with federal and state dollars, although questions about how it will all ultimately be fully paid for reflect the underlying problems facing New York’s infrastructure overall.

“All of our infrastructure is connected,” Barrineau said. “And across the board, the country is doing a bad job.”

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