Hurricane Sandy was a moment of reckoning for the city, and that reckoning has begun. The general consensus is that the city and the state must build back better, stronger and quite likely differently than before. Are sea walls appropriate? Should we let people live on barrier islands? What kind of improvements should be made to our transportation infrastructure, and how?
These are among the questions our leaders will be grappling with, and to help answer them, Gov. Cuomo has just announced three new commissions, NYS 2100, NYS Respond and NYS Ready. The commissioners are a who’s who of business, infrastructure, environmental, planning, utilities and emergency preparedness professionals and experts. As Gov. Cuomo made clear, their job is neither simple nor easy.
It’s starting to seem like Mayor Bloomberg is the only one who doesn’t think storm barriers are a worthwhile investment. Not only do Governor Cuomo, MTA chief Joe Lhota and both Jerry Nadler and Chuck Schumer think it’s a good idea, but so do 80 percent of New York City voters, according to a new Quinnipiac poll out today.
They were asked, specifically, if it was worth spending billions—no exact amount, or source of funds beyond the federal and state governments was given—on new waterfront infrastructure. Only 14 percent thought it was not worth the cost. Support was even higher when the pollsters asked if the cost was justified it if the storm protections could “reduce the cost of disruption and restoration.” Then, 88 percent supported the new infrastructure, compared to 6 percent who did not support.
“Millions of New Yorkers have stories” from the hurricane, Council Speaker Christine Quinn declared this morning during a soaring, post-Sandy speech at the Association for a Better New York. Among those stories was Ms. Quinn’s own.
It was an emotional moment that came during what was otherwise a wonky, if powerful, policy-laden address to the city’s business leaders during which the council speaker (and presumptive mayoral candidate) called for at least $20 billion in new infrastructure across the five boroughs to protect against future disasters. The story, from the summers of Ms. Quinn’s youth, underscored her belief that the city must seize upon this disaster to create a stronger (or at least drier) future.
“My grandfather came over on a boat from Ireland with a third grade education and worked his way up through the ranks of the Fire Department,” Ms. Quinn explained. “Rockaway Beach offered him a chance to rent a bungalow in the summer, to afford a little place on the ocean just like the rich people he saw in the magazines. It was his own piece of the American Dream.”
How many more lives will be lost and how much damage will it take for us to realize that Sandy was part of a continuing menacing pattern of extreme weather events that are here to stay? In 2005 it was Katrina, last year Irene and now Sandy. But around the world, extreme weather has crippled nations and destroyed property since 2000. You may think this has been going on forever, since the time of Noah, but this destruction has been escalating, with more damage every year than any similar span in recorded history.
Insurance losses in the U.S. averaged $9 billion in the 1980s. Katrina alone cost nearly $100 billion, with an average of nearly $40 billion a year in the 2000s. If we include Japan, the destruction to the globe in the last couple of years is unparalleled. Is this global warming or something else? No matter what the cause, there is a clear pattern of severe weather causing catastrophic human losses. This pattern, according to the National Research Council, is going to continue. We have to do more than hope it won’t happen here (wherever here is). The data indicates that a disaster is coming to you, or near you, in the near future, if you live in an urbanized coastal area. More than 60 percent of all Americans do.
So, what to do?
Planes Trains & Automobiles
MTA chairman and CEO Joe Lhota has thrown his support behind Governor Andrew Cuomo’s call for stronger infrastructure to protect New York City from future natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy.
This may not be surprising—after all, the governor is Mr. Lhota’s boss—but their unanimity on the matter will lend extra support to the idea of improving the city’s defenses against future floods and rising sea levels. That support is especially important when Mayor Bloomberg has so far dismissed calls for strengthened infrastructure around the city.
Make No Small Plans
New York has a history of governors who were master builders, Rockefeller, Smith, Carey, Pataki and both Roosevelts among them. Add Andrew Cuomo to that list. While Mayor Bloomberg has so far refused to consider building new infrastructure to help protect New York City from future natural disasters, Gov. Cuomo strongly declared last night that it is his intention to do so.
“I think we have to look at the bigger things,” he said at a press briefing yesterday evening. The Observer had asked if he was leaning toward small fixes, like new MTA vents to keep out rainwater, or more grandiose plans, like building locks and storm gates in the harbor (a practice that is popular in Europe). The governor clearly fell into the latter camp, and much of the reason seems to be because he fears this is only the beginning of problems from these natural disasters. After all, he has spent his first two years in office cleaning up after two hurricanes.
“I do not believe these extreme weather patterns are going to end; I do not believe, anymore, that this is once in a lifetime, once in a hundred years, once in a generation or just a fluke,” the governor said. “It’s happening more and more, with more and more frequency. This is just statistics and probability. You look at the number of devastating floods, the number of devastating fires, the number of extreme weather patterns is going up. That is a fact. That is a fact.”
Remember shovel ready projects? Thought they were so 2009? Well, you’d be wrong, at least here in New York, where Mayor Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn and the ever financially creative City Comptroller John Liu have done some juggling with the city’s capital construction program to fast track $1 billion worth of infrastructure work. These projects will begin in the coming months, rather than in the coming years. Let’s hear it for putting people to work.
Planes Trains & Automobiles
The MTA, nor its allies, will stand idly by as a state judge knocks down the payroll tax providing the transit agency nearly $2 billion a year in fund. Yesterday, they rallied at Grand Central Terminal to insist the tax does not conflict with the state constitution and they will be launching a vigorous appeals.
“For the eight and half million passengers who ride with us every single day, and for everybody in the New York metropolitan area, the transportation mobility tax is a key component of the transportation system that drives the economy of New York City, of Long Island and of our New York suburbs,” Mr. Lhota declared. “In fact, it drives the entire economy of the state of New York. Without the service that the MTA provides, New York would choke on its own traffic.”
Planes Trains & Automobiles
Earmarks! Even when Congress won’t spend them, the government will.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today that the Department of Transportation will return $473 million in unspent highway earmarks to the states for projects to improve infrastructure and create jobs.
“These idle earmarks have sat on the shelf as our infrastructure continued to age and our construction workers sat on the sidelines,” Mr. LaHood said. “That ends today.”
Last year, The Observer lamented an infrastructural ambivalence on the part of governors on both sides of the Hudson, and wondered if the great states of New York and New Jersey had not finally given up the ghost of shovels in the ground begun grandly, if problematically, by Robert Moses nearly a century ago.
Governor Andrew Cuomo assuaged some of those fears with his grand visions for investment premiered at this year’s state of the state. While those proposal have been met with sometimes mixed reviews—Really, another casino? Will an Aqueduct convention center work? Where’s the mass transit?—it has at least restored some faith in the govenor’s willingness to build.
Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced the 15-member board of a new infrastructure bank, and in so doing, invoked the name of Robert Moses, both grandly and problematically.