Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Every year major legislation is passed in Washington that has a significant impact on many things in New York City, including the waterfront. If forces in the city as well as Albany worked more closely together this impact could be dramatically more positive than it is now.

The U.S. House recently voted to approve the Transportation Equity Act, a law that sets funding levels for virtually all transportation projects throughout the country for the next six years. Given that the average household spends 19 percent of its income on transportation, more than on any other expense except housing, one would think this critical legislation would be a rallying point for the New York delegation as it once was. In fact, the law would not exist in its present form were it not for the vision and leadership of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan who authored the original bill in 1991. That year, what had long been known as the "Highway Bill" was reconceived and rewritten to encompass all modes of transportation - in addition to cars and trucks -- bicycles, boats, trains, and traffic calming devices such as speed bumps were incorporated into our federal funding formulas for how we spend gas tax revenues.

Since that time, critical funding has come to the city for such diverse projects as the Long Island Railroad East Side Access, the Second Ave subway, the citywide Bicycle Network, Soundview Park Greenway, and a slew of new ferry terminals all under construction including St. George, Whitehall Street, and Pier 79 on Manhattan's west side.

In Washington, the House's version of the Transportation Bill will now have to be resolved with the Senate's version ($318 Billion) and the President's ($247 billion) before the current deadline expires April 30 (it's already been extended twice). The president came in with the lowest number because it was felt that, given the current economic climate, nothing more would be affordable without an increase in the gas tax--a non-starter in an election year. Of course, the Texas Transportation Institute's 2003 Urban Mobility Study shows that congestion in the nation's 75 largest urban areas has increased again this year, as it has in every area every year since 1982. While today's papers decry "expensive" gas, in relative terms it is as cheap as it has been in three decades, and all it is giving us is more traffic congestion.

While the focus of many people is on land-side transportation, the reality is that with global trade at all-time high levels, the land transit is only half of the picture. The nation's seaports currently handle 95 percent of our international trade, and virtually every one of them has access problems on both the waterside and landside.

With 1.3 billion tons of cargo valued at $764 billion moving through U.S. ports each year, our infrastructure is ever-strained to meet the growing demands of international trade. The Port of New York and New Jersey handles nearly 12 percent of this amount, meaning that one of every eight dollars in port commerce nationwide passes in and out of New York Harbor, mostly underneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge.

The federal policy to improve the port is largely influenced by the Water Resources Development Act. While traditionally the domain of dredgers, shippers, and people in flood prone areas, this legislation is increasingly incorporating environmental components such as watershed planning and environmental restoration projects, and that's a good thing.

In the current budget year, for instance, $103 million in federal dollars are being spent to deepen the Port of New York and New Jersey's shipping channels. These investments are needed, advocates say, to accommodate the larger and larger ships which are bringing goods to the larger and larger retail stores popping up throughout the country. At the same time, the US Army Corps of Engineers is spending approximately $1 million to advance an environmental project known as the "Hudson-Raritan" restoration; the current phase of work brings federal money to help clean-up the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn and the Passaic River in New Jersey-two of our areas most abused water bodies. This is a prime example of how the New York and New Jersey delegations can and should work together more closely.

Looking ahead, what's needed are federal policies that embrace the waterways in terms of mobility, recreation, and environmental restoration. When legislative and funding opportunities arise such as the Transportation and Water Resources Bills, we must have leadership in our Congressional delegation so our city and port can not just remain competitive, but set a higher standard for the other major cities and ports around the country with whom we increasingly find ourselves competing.

Carter Craft, an urban planner, is program director of the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance.