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Infrastructure Investments that Make Sense

Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Citizens Union

For More on Helping New York's Economy

Paying Attention to Cities By Jonathan Bowles
After years of federal policies neglecting urban areas, Barack Obama has sent some encouraging signals that he understands their importance. Certainly, New York could use a helping hand. The director of the Center for an Urban Future lays out some ideas for what the president could do to aid New York.

An $825 Billion First Step By James Parrott
The stimulus package proposed by Congress is key to halting the economy's downward spiral but it will not solve all our problems. Economist James Parrott of the Fiscal Policy Institute looks at what the package would do -- and what more needs to be done.

Using the Crisis to Prevent the Next One By J. Mijin Cha
The current turmoil can help us reduce our dependence on Wall Street and create good "green collar" jobs that help fuel a resurgence of the middle class. The director of campaign research at the Urban Agenda explains how.

From Gas-Guzzling Cars to Clean Buses By Charles Stone
Simply lending funds to struggling auto companies won't spur economic growth. Instead, an economist suggests, the government should create a voucher program to deploy the resources of the auto companies, spur investment -- and help the environment.

Previous Articles
A Federal Stimulus for City Parks By Anne Schwartz
Advocates hope that President Obama and Congress will recognize that funding parks would not only improve the quality of life and the environment but also spur investment and raise real estate values.

Stimulus Money: The Downturn's Silver Lining? By Graham Beck
The stimulus package could offer more federal funds for transportation projects. The MTA is making its list, but there are sure to be lots of restrictions -- and competition.

With the Obama team taking office and the Senate formally introducing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, momentum is building for the stimulus package. But with Americans taking a dim view of the bank bailout only months after it was approved, Congress and the new administration must ensure the stimulus bill really solves the problems. America needs more than an $875 billion morning-after pill for our fiscal difficulties: We need to redefine our infrastructure.

New York City offers a number of possibilities for the kinds of projects the stimulus package could fund. Here are some examples in three key areas.


With its dense population and old electricity transmission grid, the Northeast cries out for energy investment. As a large coastal city, New York offers a good road map to what many cities need: access to more renewable sources and investment in pathways and transmission to fix our failing grid.

Recycle Grease

President Barack Obama's proposal to "spend $150 billion over 10 years to advance the next generation of biofuels and fuel infrastructure" could help New York recycle the millions of gallons of waste grease generated in its nearly 1,000 school cafeterias, more than three dozen hospitals and scores of City University sites. Reclaiming this grease could create jobs and help power transit and school buses, ferries and much of the municipal vehicle fleet.

Investing in Wind

The more than 8.5 million residents on geographical Long Island (including Brooklyn and Queens, as well as Nassau and Suffolk counties) are precariously linked to the North American grid. Queens has suffered two major blackouts in the last five years. Yet, so far the whole island has done little to tap the resource of offshore wind.

As "Cape Wind" proposes, Queens, Brooklyn and the rest of New York City should be a primary beneficiary of large-scale investment in wind power. In addition to the massive construction needed to build and install the windmills, the investment in new and more reliable transmission capacity would boost places like Oak Point in the Bronx, making them a focal point of next generation of infrastructure.

Freight Connections

Nestled between Port Morris and Hunts Point, Oak Point is across the water and a bit northwest of LaGuardia Airport. This area of the Bronx is already the site of a number of key connections between Long Island and the continental United States, including the Triboro and Hell Gate Bridges and underwater transmission cables linking the Bronx and with power plants in Queens.

Now Oak Point could become a focal point for new Cross Harbor Freight Transportation investments under consideration by the Port Authority.

This underutilized railroad yard has been trapped in political fighting for more than a decade, but it should become a waterfront rail hub that could serve as a national model for other urban areas.

On the shore, it could include a barge-to-rail transfer facility for trucks, containers, and ferries to North Brother Island and even to Lower Manhattan. Below ground, power tubes and transmission lines would better connect Long Island and the rest of North America. This would help avoid the energy supply interruptions that hit seven states in 2003 and the grid failures that caused the Queens blackout of 2006.

A real infrastructure plan would build in redundancy and leave extra capacity for the next generation of communications and energy innovation.


The stimulus package calls for the creation of a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank, seeded with $50 billion over its first 10 years. A number of major arteries in New York City could be models for using these funds creatively.

Connecting Brooklyn to the World

Atlantic Avenue is a critical transportation link whose best days lie ahead. As Brooklyn Heights slides down to Red Hook, the avenue's 19th century rowhouses are still home to many small businesses and residents. Buses running along this busy corridor connect downtown Brooklyn to the waterfront.

Atlantic Avenue ends at Upper New York Bay. Across the harbor, lie the huge towers of Lower Manhattan and Jersey City. Atlantic Avenue could help link those centers and downtown Brooklyn and Long Island. Historic street cars could connect the New York City Transit Museum with Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Ferries for Freight

With the Brooklyn Queens Expressway overhead, the foot of Atlantic Avenue could serve as a hub for cross-harbor shipping via truck ferry or barge to New Jersey ports. An all-water connection to Long Island from New Jersey would mean fewer trucks rumbling across Canal Street or the Staten Island Expressway.

With major rehabilitation planned for the Brooklyn Bridge in 2010, more traffic will use the already overburdened Manhattan Bridge. Plans to begin construction on a new Goethals Bridge in 2012 may also exacerbate congestion woes.

While a truck ferry may be somewhat expensive to operate, it could offer more consistent travel times than jammed road bridges. That means lower costs for fuel, fewer noxious truck emissions, and less wear and tear on bridges and highways.

If the vision for better mobility along the East Coast includes a network of freight ferries (often called "Short Sea Shipping") dozens of new ferry and barge transportation hubs will need to be created at places like 58th Street in Brooklyn along Newtown Creek in Queens and even 34th Street in Manhattan.


Infrastructure may be the backbone of development, but the muscle is all labor. While contractors and builders lobby for expansion and upgrade of bridges, highways and waterfronts, large-scale physical development takes time to ramp up. In the meantime, the glut of office space only grows as its value shrinks. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Cubicles to Classrooms

A labor force must be nourished with education and training. Professional, technical and vocational skills are all needed. In New York schools scramble for space.

So, let's convert commercial buildings into educational facilities. What once were offices can become classroom. Former trading floors can be school auditoriums.

The stimulus plan seeks to invest in "green technologies" such as energy efficiency, weatherization and renewable energy development. We could jumpstart the innovation by giving owners of private buildings grants to cover some portion of their retrofit costs, provided these buildings are adapted for schools that will provide related instruction, research and training.

Preparing for the New Economy

While it may take a while for Americans to get back to work, let's make it easy for them to go to school in the meantime, with grants and loans for promising fields of study. Labor unions and small businesses could receive payroll tax credits or grants to create or expand apprenticeship programs. After all, there is a good chance that the labor force we need 10 years from now may look very different than the one we have right now.


The stimulus will succeed only if it brings new funding mechanisms, both to seed its programs and to help maintain our public infrastructure and public institutions for the future.

With the sharp decline in gas prices, there is no better time to increase a federal tax on fuels to help fund the stimulus and better maintain our infrastructure in the future. According to the Energy Information Administration, U.S. cars and trucks consume close to 390 million gallons of gasoline per day. Every 15-cent a gallon increase in the federal gas tax would generate $20 billion in revenues a year. With a 50-cent tax increase, we could generate well over $600 billion in the first 10 years. After the stimulus is paid off, we could start to repeal the tax.

Ultimately our infrastructure isn't just concrete and steel embedded. It is also the power we generate and the people who keep it all moving forward. Together they enable us to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world. To keep that, though, requires hard work. And because our infrastructure has been so neglected - even in the good times - we have to be especially careful about the investments we make in the years ahead.

Carter Craft, a licensed U.S. Coast Guard captain, is an urban planner working in the private sector.

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Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

History Of Arab New York

When Arabs, many of them Syrian Christians, first came to New York around 1870, they settled on Washington Street, in the shadow of where the World Trade Center would be put up a century later.

Since then, there have been many strands of Arab immigration. Arab Christians, Arab Muslims and Muslims from south Asia and Africa as well as the Middle East and North Africa have made their presence felt in neighborhoods throughout New York, opening shops, founding churches and mosques and entering the commercial life of the city. These communities have received increased attention, much of it unwelcome, since September 11.


The immigration of Arabs came in two waves. The first arrived between the 1870s and the 1920s, when new laws cut off much of the influx to the United States. The second large group of arrivals entered after immigration laws changed again in 1965.

The earliest immigrants that we would call Arabs had Turkish passports because of the reach of the Ottoman Empire. But most spoke Arabic and came from Syria and what is now Lebanon. The majority were not Muslims but Catholics, divided among Maronites and Melchites. There were Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Jews. Once here, they were known as Syrians.

This is the community that settled on Washington Street. From the late 19th century until the building of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s, Manhattan's Little Syria was home to countless immigrants from Syria and Lebanon, again most of them Christian. They were bankers and publishers as well as manufacturers and importers of lace, linen, embroideries and lingerie.

Philip Kayal, a professor at Seton Hall University who wrote "New York: The Mother Colony of Arab-America, 1854-1924," said, "This community was an entrepreneurial community, it wasn1t an educated community. It had been influenced by French imperialists. They thought like Western Europeans for the most part."

When the immigrants became more affluent, they took the ferry from Whitehall Street to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. There, they found more spacious residences and created the South Ferry community, which encompassed most of the areas now called Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. By 1895, there were 30 Syrian families living in South Ferry. As more arrived, they organized churches and societies and started businesses. Many were merchants or peddlers worked in the needle trades.

What did Brooklyn think of these immigrants? One New York newspaper said, "There is not a more industrious or capable representative of the East than the Syrian. He generally brings money and lives at peace."

But the immigrants also faced discrimination, according to Mary Ann Haick DiNapoli of the Arab American Heritage Association. "There were feuds with the Irish because it was the Irish immigrants whom the Syrians were displacing as they moved into these neighborhoods." And the 1921 immigration act sharply restricted Syrian immigration.

In 1920, half of all Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in the U.S. lived in New York City. And half of those lived in South Ferry. Meanwhile, the original community on Washington Street faded until the construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s ended the community for good.

The Brooklyn Syrian community, though, entered what DiNapoli calls a golden age in the 1920s, becoming a self-sufficient ethnic neighborhood. By this time, Syrians left peddling and entered any and all industries and professions, although the needle trades continued to be key. The Syrian Lebanese community became autonomous and successful and, because of that, more assimilated. People learned English quickly and many married outside the community.

In the 1950s, most Syrian Americans moved to Bay Ridge. The old South Ferry community changed with an influx of Puerto Ricans and of people wanting to fix up the neighborhood1s elegant brownstones. But then the 1970s saw a new wave of immigrants.

According to Kayal, these newcomers were different from their predecessors. They were better educated, Muslim and from a number of countries, including Egypt, Yemen, Palestine and Jordan. This continuing influx of immigrants to New York City from numerous Arab nations, said DiNapoli, "has continued to re-ethnicize the South Ferry area more than a century after Syrians and Lebanese first settled there."


Today, Arabs in the city are part of a larger Muslim community from virtually every part of the globe. Muslim New Yorkers come from Bangladesh, India, Afghanistan and Iran, from the Balkans, from West Africa (notably Ghana, Senegal, Niger and Sierra Leone) and even from the Americas, principally Guyana and Trinidad-Tobago.

Of the estimated 600,000 Muslims in New York, about 200,000 are of Arab ancestry, according to Louis Abdulatif Cristillo of the Muslims in New York Project at Columbia University.

Arab Muslims, who have immigrated in greater number since the mid 1960s, were once a nearly invisible minority compared to Christian Arabs. But now the Muslims have become increasingly engaged in the public life of the city. They live beyond the traditional enclaves of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, and South Brooklyn, venturing out into the other boroughs to live, open businesses and become part of mixed neighborhoods.

There has been a tremendous expansion of mosques since the late 19701s, with close to 130 mosques now in the city. Muslim Arabs can purchase meat in dozens of butcher shops, send their children to 14 private schools, have litigated for the right to wear religious clothing or beards in the workplace, and have successfully lobbied the city to suspend parking rules for major Islamic holidays.

The Museum of the City of New York currently has a series of programs connected to "A Community of Many Worlds: Arab Americans in New York." The exhibition, originally scheduled for November, has been delayed until March, 2002, in light of recent events.


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Gotham Gazette the Place for Politics and Policy

Gotham Gazette is published by Citizens Union Foundation and is made possible by support from the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Altman Foundation,the Fund for the City of New York and donors to Citizens Union Foundation. Please consider supporting Citizens Union Foundation's public education programs. Critical early support to Gotham Gazette was provided by the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

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