There was a time when Americans understood that paying for bridges, airports, trains and power plants helps boost the economy in the long run.
It is time to return to that optimistic attitude, a panel of government leaders said on Jan. 23 at the Lincoln Center campus.
“Making Cities Work: The Future of New York’s Public Infrastructure,” a breakfast panel at Pope Auditorium, was the second in Fordham’s Urban Dialogues Lecture Series. The inaugural event was held in September at the Morgan Library.
Richard Ravitch, former lieutenant governor of New York and former chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, moderated of a panel that featured:
• Patrick J, Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey;
• Joseph J. Lhota, head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and
• Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the New York Power Authority.
Foye noted that urbanization is on the ascent, declaring that “Brooklyn is the new Hicksville, and Queens is the new Stony Brook.”
“Those trends are likely to continue, and it’s going to make mass transit even more important,” he said.
“Population growth in the New York City region is likely to be people who are even greater consumers of mass transit services, so we’ve got to make sure, as a region, we make the investments to service those citizens.”
Lhoto echoed Foye, noting that by 2035, New York will grow by an estimated 1 to 1.5 million people, putting tremendous strain on a subway system that already is operating near capacity.
At the same time, aid from the state and federal government is decreasing, which has necessitated toll increases that hurt businesses, Lhoto acknowledged. He said he was actively working to reduce bloat within the MTA, to show that the agency is sharing in the burden. He also pointed out that the subway system is more than 100 years old and has never been fully renovated.
“If a real estate developer were to buy a 100-year-old building, the first thing they would do is knock it down and start from scratch. Or if it’s landmarked, they would gut it from the inside as best they could and start from scratch,” he said.
“I don’t have that luxury.”
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There is also a severe disconnect in the value of the agency’s services, as evidenced by a state senator who told Lhoto during his confirmation hearing that the senator was going to spend his entire time in the senate trying to eliminate taxpayer funding for the MTA.
“There’s an unbelievable desire on the part of most Americans—and this is a bizarre concept—that the services they receive from their government should be free, and that [the services]should cost as much as they do in other countries,” he said.
Foye lamented how long it takes to get things done, pointing out a New York Times story that detailed how iPhones are built in China because that nation can produce them much more quickly.
“We’re too slow to get projects permitted, to get replacement projects permitted, and for construction to begin, and it’s a depressant on economic growth,” Foye said. “We’ve got to figure out a way, without compromising the environment, to move projects along quicker.”
Quiniones likewise spoke of the need for investment. A 500-megawatt natural gas powered plant recently opened in Queens, and a 660-megawatt transmission line is being laid across the Hudson River, but there are many power plants that are 40 to 60 years old.
“We have excess power upstate, but we have congestion points, especially in the Utica-Albany area and in the Hudson Valley area. If we can unclog those congestion points, we can shift excess cheaper power from upstate into downstate,” he said.
So where will we be in five years? Foye predicted that future projects will be funded by an increasingly sophisticated use of private capital in a way that has occurred for decades in Europe and Asian markets.
“I believe that, as Churchill said, ultimately Americans will do the right thing and there will be a consensus that we need to spend on infrastructure, and the New York region’s importance to the national economy will be taken into account,” he said.
Lhota looks forward to the completion of projects such as the extension of the 7 subway line to the far West Side, the opening of the new Fulton Street subway station and the opening of the Second Avenue subway, which is sorely needed.
“The 4, 5 and 6 trains, on a daily basis, have more people traveling on them than the entire Chicago Transit Authority, Atlanta’s MARTA system and the Washington Metro system,” he said.
Quiniones said he foresees more integration of wind farms upstate into the energy grid. On top of the 1,300 megawatts that already are online, he predicted that another 6,700 megawatts would be added. More imports of hydroelectric power from Canada could be on the way, as well as increased energy efficiency
“The technology choices and technology and infrastructure investments that we will make in the energy sector of the next 10 years will define what the power sector will look like for the next 40, 50 years. So it’ll be a crucial time for investing.”