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Loving The City's Infrastructure -- And Explaining How It Works

by Gotham Gazette Staff, Feb 13, 2006

Gotham Gazette's Reading NYC Book Club met with city official Kate Ascher (she is executive vice president for infrastructure at the Economic Development Corporation) to discuss her book "The Works: Anatomy of a City." An edited transcript is below.

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Gotham Gazette: What inspired you to do a picture book about the city's infrastructure?

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Kate Ascher: I love infrastructure. Big things, and the way things work, have always interested me.

I didn't really think about writing a book until after 9/11 when in the newspaper you found a lot of these info-graphics about the bathtub at the World Trade Center, and the slurry wall, and the Verizon building that came tumbling down. And I remember thinking about David Macaulay's book The Way Things Work, and I went around looking for a book that had all this stuff in it. There hadn't been anything written that was at all similar since 1950, and even that book was not graphic at all. It was all engineer's prose about how the subways work; it was very dense. I thought this would be much more accessible to a lot of people.

Gotham Gazette: Was there one thing that you found particularly surprising that people did not know about the city's infrastructure after 9/11?

Kate Ascher: I guess it was some basic stuff about the trade center, how it was built, and stuff I knew from having worked at the Port Authority. People seemed horrified that in one fell swoop all these systems could go out. But it could happen anywhere, particularly in lower Manhattan. Everything is just built on everything else.

Gotham Gazette: You write in the introduction to the book that New York City is more dependent on infrastructure than other city in the world. Can you elaborate?

Kate Ascher: Every city is pretty reliant on infrastructure; I think what we have is more communal infrastructure. We tend to rely on these integrated systems like the steam system or the central sewage system because we're such a dense, vertical city.

The city can't really function without elevators, and it can't function without a subway, which both rely on electricity. I guess you could make an argument that we're more dependent on power than other cities, where people can at least get in and out of their house without electric power.

Gotham Gazette: Is there anything that our density allows us to do that you couldn't do in a less dense city?

Kate Ascher: You certainly wouldn't see the value of things like massive subway systems in a less dense city. It does make us more energy efficient.


1.) What percentage of pedestrian cross walk buttons actually work?

a) 92
b) 70
c) 25
d) none work; they're just for show

2.) How many miles does a subway car travel on average between breakdowns?

a) 8
b) 5,000
c) 10,000, except for trains that have routes on elevated tracks. They break down about twice as often.
d) 100,000

3.) What percentage of the country's maritime trade comes through New York's ports?

a) none; there are no active ports any more.
b) 5 percent; the harbor is too shallow for all but the smallest ships.
c) 12 percent, but most of this goes through New Jersey.
d) 20 percent; it's still the largest port in the country.

4.) When will the city's third water tunnel be completed?

a) It's already in operation; they finished in 1960
b) By the end of the year
c) In about fifteen years
d) They're going to get started on it once they finish the Second Avenue Subway

5.) Which of the following statements is not true
a) New York City uses more electricity than the nation of Austria
b) The average New Yorker consumes half the amount of energy that the average American does.
c) New York's energy delivery system is about 10 times as reliable as the average US system.
d) The subway is the city's largest electricity consumer.

• • • • • •

Scroll down for correct answers.

Gotham Gazette: Do you think that as a whole New York is better served by its infrastructure, or worse served? Or is that even a fair question?

Kate Ascher: I would argue that our infrastructure is probably as good as almost any city. What I think is really interesting about it is that it is so very old. It was designed 100 years ago, when the city was a fraction of what it is now. It really seemed to have lived up to the task of expanding to accommodate twice the number of people, three times the number of people.

Gotham Gazette: Are there places where we can see it getting stretched?

Kate Ascher: I can't offhand think of an example that is a weak spot in our infrastructure. But my guess is without investment now there will be some things that will be creaking and breaking down soon. The water system is a great example of something that has been identified as needing investment, and the investment is being made in a third water tunnel. Were that not underway, that could be a real vulnerability.


Gotham Gazette: The third water tunnel is one of several big projects you outline in the book. Can you talk about which projects are the biggest, and tell us about them?

Third Water Tunnel

Kate Ascher: The water tunnel is the biggest project of all, and you can actually see some of the shaft work on the West Side not far from Penn Station. That project won't be done until 2020. Eventually it's going to bring water to the city.

It's been going on for decades; I'm not sure when it was started.

Book Club Member Jim Matthews: I actually worked on that when I was in school, at the field office at Roosevelt Island. That was 1986. At that point, we were rounding up the first phase of construction. They had the line already built from the Bronx down to Roosevelt Island.

Gotham Gazette
: Will we get anything new when that is finished, or will that just keep the service from deteriorating?

Kate Ascher: The two main water tunnels serving the city lose many thousands or millions of gallons of water that just pour out of them each day because they are leaking. But they can't really attack those leaks, and do the maintenance work that is required, until there is a backup system.

I'm not an expert on this, but as I understand it the tunnels essentially can't be maintained, can't be checked, because we're so dependent on them. Nobody wants to shut off the water moving through the tunnels because we're reliant on them, but also in part because they're afraid the tunnels may implode when that pressure is removed.

So the idea is to have this third water tunnel, start using it, and then be able to take those other tunnels out of service to be maintained in turn.

New Bridges, Old Bridges

That’s probably the biggest capital project underway, but there are plans afoot to build a new bridge connecting Staten Island and New Jersey to replace the Goethels Bridge, which is aging.

The city is also selling the Willis Avenue Bridge, one of the little bridges that goes across from the Bronx to Manhattan. I guess anyone who wants it can take it free if they can comply to the constraints about keeping it intact and paying for it to be moved. It is being replaced.

Gotham Gazette: So what they're offering up in the Willis Avenue Bridge is free scrap metal, essentially?

Kate Ascher: If you want a big souvenir and you have a place to put it. It's not a small undertaking, and the city's not going to pay for it to be preserved, because the city doesn't really care.

Deepening New York Harbor

Gotham Gazette: Another project that you write about in the book is the deepening of the harbor. Can you talk about what that project is and why it's necessary?

Kate Ascher: I could talk for a very long time about that; I spent about five years of my life fighting with the Army Corps of Engineers about it.

The deepening of the harbor is not something that's happening just now. It has been happening pretty consistently since the beginning of the century, since the natural depth of the harbor is 17 feet. It's sandy, because the silt comes down the Hudson. This was fine when you had little skiffs and rowboats but as soon as you began to have bigger steam ships and cargo ships it wasn't deep enough.

Now they've gotten to the point where to get down deeper in a lot of the areas that are the shallowest you basically hit sheer rock, so you can't just dredge it up with a dredge. You have to go in and blast the rock to smithereens and then literally pick the rock up and dispose of it in a certain way. Mostly this is being done for the ships coming into the harbor and headed to Newark Bay, which are the biggest container ships that require the most depth.

It's a very big project. The cost of deepening the harbor from 45 to 50 feet – and then the corps will look at taking it down from 50 to 55 feet – is in the billions of dollars. It's funded two-thirds by the federal government, and then there's a local part that the Port Authority usually pays. At some point last year there were 70 pieces of dredging equipment in the harbor working on this project, which was the largest fleet of dredging equipment anywhere in the world.

There are some real noise issues with Staten Island, because some of this is in the Kill Van Kull, which is the channel that runs between Bayonne and Staten Island. Apparently they have to let all the neighbors know when they're going to blast so people don’t think it's an earthquake. It's pretty cool.

Raising the Bayonne Bridge

A related project that has not been formalized is the raising of the roadway on the Bayonne Bridge. A few big container ships have nicked the bridge, which is just a little bit too low, as they ride through the Kill van Kull. So the Port Authority has been looking at the costs and the physical requirements associated with raising the bridge ten feet or twenty feet.

They plan basically to keep the arches the same and lift the roadway. But it's not that easy; it will cost $200 or $300 million to do that. What kind of annoys me is that there are five ships in the world that need that extra height. That's a lot of money for some private companies to have greater efficiencies.

Gotham Gazette: What happens when a ship nicks the bridge?

Kate Ascher: They get in trouble.

Gotham Gazette: But there hasn't been any serious physical effects?

Kate Ascher: There hasn't been. They're not going very fast.

Jim Matthews: I know a little bit about that. The ships typically hit some superstructures of the mast, which are basically big poles. They might get a little bit banged up, but nothing significant. It's not like you have in the gulf, where you have barges running into bridges all the time and knocking them off their moorings.

Kate Ascher: Many ships that come into the harbor have been designed basically to max out in height to come under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. The funnel of the Queen Mary Two, for instance, is designed to come within six or 10 feet of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge when it passes beneath its center.

"The real question is: are we being as ambitious as people were 100 years ago when they set up these very elaborate systems. I don't know that we're being as visionary about infrastructure as perhaps we should be."

I was actually at a meeting where they thought they had their calculations wrong. The bridge sinks about 10 to 20 feet in the summer when its fully loaded; it's the nature of the steel. At this meeting they thought that they hadn't taken into account that 10 to 20 foot drop, and were frightened that they were building $800 million worth of ship that couldn't come to New York. Luckily for them, they had taken it into account, but she still sails very, very close to the center of that bridge.

Other Projects

So those are the big projects. Then there are some more esoteric areas:

There's probably $500 million in the city budget to build stations where the city's garbage is going to be put into containers and put on trains or barges to be put in landfills in other states.

There's a lot of money involved now in developing a filtration plant to filter some of the city's water in Van Cortlandt Park. That was a big discussion with the community. That's been approved, and they're literally taking up the entire park, putting in the filtration plant, and then putting the park back down on top of it.

So there are some huge projects afoot, and there's always an awful lot of repair work.


Gotham Gazette: There's a conventional wisdom in New York about big projects, which is that the politics are so intractable. I was surprised to hear about some of these enormous projects that haven't seemed to spark much controversy. Did the battles just happen in the past, or are there certain types of projects that for some reason are immune to that type of politics?

Kate Ascher: Well, you can't get anything done without some kind of a battle, but it's not necessarily a citywide battle. Nothing gets done easily. I'm not sure it ever did if you look back at history.

I sometime wonder how they even created the New York City water system. They took 2,000 square miles of upstate New York and flooded dozens of communities and built these aqueducts and these reservoirs. You could never do that today -- not a prayer! But somehow they were able to do it.


Jim Matthews: One of the other projects that's underway, at least in very initial stages, is the 2nd Avenue Subway and the East Side access, which is a perfect example of one of the projects that has run into numerous problems throughout its history. It was started in the 1920s. They built a chunk of it in the 1960s and then basically abandoned it. The subway is citywide – everybody seems to have ownership of the subway, essentially. Everybody seems to be in tuned to what's going on with that. When it's a localized project, there seems to be less interest overall.

Kate Ascher: When they're localized projects -– I hate to say this, but basically it ends up in a negotiation between a city agency and a fairly finite group locally. You can work through a solution. When you work on a project like the 2nd Avenue Subway that touches communities up and down the East Side, however, it's much harder to work out a package or a deal that's going to make them happy.

Gotham Gazette: Do you think that project will ever actually happen?

Kate Ascher: I don't think it will happen in my lifetime. Look at the history: fits and starts, money put in and taken away. There just never seemed to be the will to push it forward, because politicians change, and times change.

So my guess is that it will get built in parts over an extended period of time. I don't think it will ever be what it was originally intended to be. But it may turn out to be something useful even if it's only a partial completion.

How NYC's Subway Stacks Up

Gotham Gazette: One thing your book does is compare our subway system to other systems around the world. I was wondering if you could just go into that a bit. Where are we better? Where are we not as good?

Kate Ascher: I wouldn't attempt to compare our service to the service in Paris or something like that, but what the book does do is compare the number of route miles and the number of stations. I think we have more stations than the Moscow, Japan, or London systems.

So it's not the largest system in terms of the number of people, but we do have some of the routes that are the longest -– like the A train that goes out to Howard Beach. We also have some very deep stations, like the A train in Washington Heights. It's not that it's bigger in volume, it's that we have more stops.

One of the things we do have that none of those systems have is that we go all night. All the systems in the world's other major cities close at one or one thirty in the morning, and reopen at five or five thirty. Ours goes all night.

"I don't think [the 2nd Avenue Subway] will happen in my lifetime. Look at the history: fits and starts, money put in and taken away. There just never seemed to be the will to push it forward, because politicians change, and times change."

Book Club Member: That's why they're so much cleaner.

Kate Ascher: It could be. It's interesting to me to think why are we so different than London, Moscow, or Paris? They have people who have to get to work in the middle of the night too.

Gotham Gazette: Any ideas why?

Kate Ascher: I don't know. I lived in London for ten years, and probably could have asked someone to find out.

Jim Matthews: They typically shut them down at night for maintenance primarily, whereas New York does the maintenance while the system is operating. When the trains aren't running on weekends, for example, that's what it means.


Book Club Member Margie Dotter: Do you know anything about the hidden subway stations?

Kate Ascher: There are a number of platforms that are around that aren't used anymore, but there are also at least half a dozen – and maybe more – unused subway stations. There's a little map in the book showing where they are.

Some of them you can see. If you stay on the 6 train – and you're not supposed to – as it comes around City Hall, you can see the old City Hall Station, the real elegant one. It's only about four cars long, so it could never handle a real train. On West Side subways up between 86th Street and 96th Street there's the 91st Street station on the 1,2, and 3 lines. You can see some dim lights and graffiti. But somebody decided it was just too close to 96th Street and 86th Street. There are a bunch of them around. They're cool.

Gotham Gazette: It seems like they should close the 18th street stop on the 1.

Kate Ascher: I'm sure there's a political constituency to keep it open.

Book Club Member: I think the closest two stops are out in Brooklyn.

Kate Ascher: Well, there's a big constituency for not closing things once they're open. But somehow they did manage to close all those stations over time, with service changes and stuff like that.

There's a lot of fun stuff with the subway, weird little infrastructure stuff that's hidden unless you work with the MTA or know someone who works there. And then there are all kinds of interesting catwalks and escape passageways. Things that are all around us, but we don't really see.

Book Club Member Did you find in the course of your research any other phantom places underground, in other systems or whatever?

Kate Ascher: Well, the word phantom is very romantic. It's basically unused stuff. When pipes go out of service for whatever reason – because they've been supplanted by some kind of other technology, or something has been moved in another direction – it's amazing how many of them are just left in situ.

There are the old tubes from the pneumatic mail system. There are sewer pipes that are not in use any more that people are thinking about using for different types of telecom service, laying cable and stuff like that. There's an awful lot.

Gotham Gazette: In your book you mention some other type of non-functional infrastructure.

Kate Ascher: There are the crosswalk buttons, and I think there are something like 3,200 of them. A quarter of them work. They once worked, and they no longer work.

There are also red light cameras that look at an intersection and take a picture of your license plate as you violate the red light. There are a relatively small number of them, maybe two dozen, maybe fifty, that work. They definitely work, because I've gotten two tickets. Two! And both of them I was like "I didn't run a red light!" And then they send you the time and a picture of your car going through the red light, so you can't argue with it.

So I know where those two are. But in addition to the however many they have that really work, they put in an additional two hundred that are total fakes, but that are meant to make you feel like you're being watched. You're not being watched, but they're a lot cheaper than having a system that has 250 live, complicated cameras with sensors. Most of those are just for show.

Gotham Gazette: Are there other things that are just for show?

Kate Ascher: I can't think of anything offhand –

Book Club Member Calvin Johnson: There are fire hydrants that are just for parking tickets. They are not hooked up to the water veins, they're just there as a revenue generating measure – for parking tickets. Or at least that's the urban legend.

Kate Ascher: That seems like a cynical view to me. There may well be ones that are not connected, but my guess is that they were once connected.

There is a philosophy [behind leaving stuff in place when it stops working]. The actual cost of removing those traffic push buttons that don't work is $400 a pop. So it's not huge, but I guess they're not hurting anything. Arguably, that's different than a fire hydrant, because that is street clutter. You can imagine that if it's not working it should be taken away. But a push button on a pole?


Book Club Member Magda Adboulfadl: Can you talk a little bit about the politics of the capital budget? It's such a long-term issue being run by short-term mayors, and it seems like it would be easy to ignore. I was wondering how insulated from politics the capital budget is.

Kate Ascher: In the capital budget process there are teams of people representing each of these infrastructure interests who very clearly set out what needs to be done. You will find in this capital budget cycle that the Department of Environmental Protection is going to ask for capital funds to implement the filtration plan in Van Cortlandt Park, and to do a variety of things in Croton Reservoir. Those projects will get resourced, at least under this mayor. He's very concerned about that. I don't know that previous mayors have slashed the budget to those. I really have no indication that they have.

I guess the real question is: are we being as ambitious as people were 100 years ago when they set up these very elaborate systems. I don't know that we're being as visionary about infrastructure as perhaps we should be.

Calvin Johnson: I had a question about jurisdiction, and how many different governmental bodies you worked with in doing the research for your book – federal, state, local, public authorities – and how they all interact with each other in the city's larger infrastructure?

Kate Ascher: That's a big question. The city's infrastructure is so many different things. I broke the book up into five sections just to make iT manageable. But even within each of those sections there are so many entities.

If you take sewers, the city's Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for sewers. They have certain criteria that they have to meet for the state. But they have federal rules they have to abide by as well. I don't think that there's any area where you don't have to consider all levels of government.

One area where the states don't play a very big role is freight transportation, maritime, and aviation. That's pretty much localities and the federal government.

But every area has its unique bureaucratic mess that governs it. Sometimes it works better than other places.

"I can't think of an example of a weak spot in our infrastructure. But my guess is without investment now there will be some things that will be creaking and breaking down soon."

Calvin Johnson: Did you talk to them all in your research, or was the New York Public Library really the primary governmental body you dealt with?

Kate Ascher: Talking to knowledgeable people really helped. I had a researcher who is not here tonight, but who did most of the research.

It's amazing how much information there is over the Internet that wasn't before, and also how much information you can get from people. [You can really learn a lot] if you find someone at the MTA who is willing to help you – which is a very hard thing to do. Same with Con Ed; those are two examples of organizations that are perhaps less helpful. The city agencies themselves are very proud of what they do.

Most people were very forthcoming with information that wasn't going to create a security threat. Ten years ago probably no one would think twice if you wanted to look at what the Holland Tunnel looked like, or if you wanted a map of the steam system. Today however, you have to dig to find it.


Jim Matthews: What did you find most interesting or most surprising in putting this book together?

Kate Ascher: A lot of people have asked me that, and there wasn't just one single part of the infrastructure system that I didn't know about. I have been impressed with how farsighted the original infrastructure planners were. It doesn't matter if it's water, sewer, power, roads. The whole street grid for Manhattan was put together in 1811. It's pretty amazing that it has held up as well as it has.

But the thing that has been most surprising to me is how many people actually care about this stuff. I wrote this book because it was in my head and I wanted to do it. It's a world I lived in for several years, but it's really kind of niche stuff. It's actually been totally shocking to me – and surprising to the publisher – how many people are genuinely interested in this stuff.

I got a call from someone from the City Section of the New York Times asking me to write an article about why people in New York are so interested in infrastructure. I told her, honestly I don't know. I couldn't answer the question. She was perfectly convinced that more than in other cities people were fascinated with this stuff. That's what surprised me.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •


1. c) About 2,400 of the 3,200 crosswalk buttons in the city no longer work
2. d) 100,000 miles
3. c) 12 percent of the nation's freight comes through New York's port, making it the country's third largest by tonnage
4. c) The third water tunnel is slated to be finished around 2020
5. a) New York used slightly less energy than Austria, and a bit more than Portugal or Chile.

• • • • • • • • • • • • • •



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