Future infrastructure projects in New York City won’t be funded without creativity, political leadership and transparency, a panel of experts said on Sept. 20.
“Making Cities Work,” the inaugural event in Fordham’s Urban Dialogues Lecture Series, brought together leaders from the private and public sectors do debate the issue at the Morgan Library.
Presented by the urban studies program and made possible by a gift from Frank Sciame, chairman and CEO of the Sciame Organizations, the forum attempted to answer a vexing question: How can the city maintain and upgrade its infrastructure in a time of fiscal uncertainty?
Moderator Sam Roberts, urban affairs correspondent for The New York Times, opened the evening by recalling the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The New York state senator once bemoaned that the Empire State Building was built in only 15 months while current large-scale building projects take years, if they are done at all.
“I asked him, ‘What do we lack that those people possessed?’ Moynihan replied, ‘Confidence. If you start thinking that you’ve been outperformed by your predecessors, you’ve begun to lose confidence,’” Roberts said.
Richard Ravitch, former lieutenant governor of New York and former chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, echoed that sense of urgency. He said that the government will be engaged for the next few years in “deleveraging our economy,” and that the cost of improving the city’s infrastructure should be borne by people who rely on it.
“Anyone who suggests that there can be a significant increase in infrastructure investment without exacting user charges on the people who use these services is kidding himself and kidding the public,” he said.
Christopher Ward, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, blamed the loss of the “pragmatic center” in the American conversation about how to spend money.
The passenger facility charge to rebuild airports has been set at $4.50 for more than 10 years, Ward said. Bringing the charge in line with inflation would raise it to $7.
A proposal by President Obama to allow individual airports to set the charge—instead of Congress—could have netted the Port Authority as much as $2 billion, he said. But the president’s proposal never made it out of Congress.
“That’s the kind of practical fundraising capacity that could happen without a dramatic change in political leadership,” Ward said.
Kevin Burke, chairman, president and COO of the Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., said the public often resists new projects because it doesn’t understand their benefits.
“The primary benefit of a project should not be jobs. If the primary benefit of a roads project is jobs, why don’t we buy one cobblestone, line up a lot of people and have them pass it around, and then 99.99 percent of the cost will be labor?” he said.
“I’ve been in the city a long time, and the air is a lot cleaner. The subways are great today compared to when I was growing up,” Burke said. “I don’t think people appreciate that, and they don’t see the benefits. We need to explain that better.”
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Ravitch cautioned that bridges, roads and trains might have to deteriorate more before people in power make hard decisions about replacing or improving them.
“In 1979, I had the backing of the corporate leadership in New York, because real estate values in the city are profoundly affected by the quality of the public infrastructure, particularly the subway system,” he said.
He cited Ronald Reagan’s 4-cent-per-gallon increase in the federal gas tax in 1981 as an example of how public support of infrastructure can be done right. A penny-per-gallon of that increase was dedicated to mass transit. At the time, it was the largest infusion of money ever into public transit.
“Regan’s proposal to raise the gas tax 4 cents when through Congress like a knife through butter, and because I was chairman of the MTA at the time, I was at the White House for the bill signing,” he said.
“A reporter asked, ‘President Reagan, how could you—someone who was elected on a ticket of no new taxes—impose a 4 cent-per-gallon tax on gasoline?’ Regan looked at the reporter and said, ‘It isn’t a tax, it’s a user charge,’ and the issue was never raised again,” Ravitch recalled.
The idea of infrastructure planning on a regional level split the panel, with Burke and Kathy Caldwell, president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, favoring ideas such as PlaNYC.
Ravitch and Ward, however, agreed that in the current economic climate, it is more important to focus on a few strong priorities.
Ward also took exception to a suggestion by audience member Henry Stern, the former New York City Parks and Recreation Commissioner, that public employee health benefits and pensions should be secured before additional taxes are levied for infrastructure.
“There are high-performing economies that have a level of public funding for infrastructure, whether or you want to call it user fees or taxes,” Ward said.
“There’s this misnomer that the only way we can create value is by cutting, cutting, cutting, and if you raise anything, you’re destabilizing the economy.”