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Opinion

Infrastructure Investments that Make Sense

by Carter Craft, Jan 20, 2009
 


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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.

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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.

ENERGY

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.

MOBILITY

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.

EMPLOYMENT

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.

PAYING FOR IT

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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