November 24, 2014
By Robert J. Rodriguez
We are in the midst of an infrastructure crisis. As the governor prepares the priorities of New York to be unveiled at the State of the State in January, rebuilding our infrastructure should be one of them.
In March we were reminded of the deadly consequences that can result from ignoring infrastructure when two buildings in my district were leveled by a gas-related explosion. Eight people died that day, dozens were injured, and the impact of the tragedy could be felt across the city. We learned that the infrastructure beneath those buildings was alarmingly antiquated and deficient. On average, the gas pipes were laid nearly 60 years ago, while the water mains were from the age of President Franklin Roosevelt’s last term.
The prescient work of the Center for an Urban Future “Caution Ahead” report, released just days in advance of the gas explosion—not to mention reports from New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli and former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch—alerted us to just how pervasive the problem is. And it is vast.
For decades, our bridges, roads and transportation lines have been neglected in plain sight, as have our electrical lines, water mains and gas pipes. It is estimated that New York City alone will need $47 billion over the next five years to maintain a safe and functioning infrastructure. To address their own infrastructure deficits, legislators in New Jersey are discussing an increase to the gas tax, while a planning agency in Chicago has suggested increasing the sales tax. If we don’t take action in New York, we risk placing ourselves at a competitive disadvantage and threatening the long-term growth prospects of the state.
Now is the time to think big and turn around the decades of decline in New York’s infrastructure. On this issue there is support in Albany, including backing in July from Senate Republicans, and we have an innovative governor who is known for getting things done.
First, we should utilize some of the funds available from the $5.1 billion in bank settlement funds to address our most pressing infrastructure needs. We will be introducing legislation this upcoming session that dedicates 25 percent of settlement funds, present and future, to a “lock box” infrastructure fund that will address a broad range of infrastructure needs. Decades of diverted dollars from the Highway and Bridge Trust Fund have left this infrastructure in peril and shown us the importance of safeguarding this money.
In addition, to keep New York economically competitive for new business investment, the state should use a portion of those funds to identify new sources of revenue and explore alternative financing methods. The expiration of the Design-Build Law at the end of this year provides us with an opportunity to review and strengthen that pilot program. Under a new Design-Build Law, we can develop and review approved projects, while also considering expansion to additional agencies and allowing for increased private sector and labor involvement.
Another issue is that of hidden infrastructure, such as the installation of broadband cables to equitably and responsibly provide high-speed internet access to all of our communities and businesses. In terms of our gas pipelines, it is our obligation to guarantee the safety of our residents by pushing for the accelerated replacement of leak-prone gas pipelines, and by reinforcing the stability of the energy grid.
New York should seriously consider creating its own infrastructure bank. This is an issue the governor has supported as recently as last session. The idea would be similar to the one proposed by President Barack Obama in 2011 when he was pushing for a $60 billion infrastructure bill, on which the U.S. Senate ultimately failed to vote. The fact that both New York Republicans and Democrats have voiced their support for addressing the negligent state of our infrastructure provides the climate necessary to evaluate this idea without partisan rancor.
Whatever we decide to do, we must do it now. Our crumbling infrastructure grows worse by the day, crippling our economic growth and raising the specter of more catastrophic events such as the one that occurred in my district earlier this year.
*** Robert J. Rodriguez represents the 68th Assembly District in Manhattan.
*** Originally published in the November 17, 2014 issue of CITY & STATE