Skip to main content

New York's neglected infrastructure fails

By Kate Ascher, Special to CNN
updated 11:49 AM EDT, Sat November 3, 2012
Friends and members of the Puglia family sift through the remains of their missing home for valuables on November 6, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy hit Staten Island, New York. <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2012/10/29/us/gallery/ny-braces-sandy/index.html'>View photos of New York preparing for Sandy.</a> Friends and members of the Puglia family sift through the remains of their missing home for valuables on November 6, 2012, after Hurricane Sandy hit Staten Island, New York. View photos of New York preparing for Sandy.
HIDE CAPTION
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
New York recovers from Sandy
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Kate Ascher: New York's infrastructure wasn't strong enough to withstand the storm
  • She notes some of the city's key systems are under control of New York state
  • London has shown how it's possible to upgrade old infrastructure, she says
  • Ascher: Let's hope the storm is an occasion to rethink the city's infrastructure

Editor's note: Kate Ascher oversees Happold Consulting's U.S. practice and is the Milstein Professor of Urban Development at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. Her firm consults for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation.

(CNN) -- It should come as no surprise to anyone that New York's infrastructure wasn't up to Hurricane Sandy.  What happened in New York was not all that different than what's happened in other places hit by freakish weather events -- the infrastructure wasn't robust enough to withstand nature. It is not the first time it's happened here, and it won't be the last.

The problems in New York stem from many factors. For a start, infrastructure investment here is no more a priority than it is in other places across the country: It's simply not something that voters want badly. When given a choice between investing in schools, health and housing or investing in sewers, tunnels or roads, the latter will always lose out. And that's not just the view of the politicians, but also of the constituents who keep them in office.

Think about what happened after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis in 2007. The press was full of reports about the condition of our nation's bridges, and Washington was abuzz with new ideas for financing roadway infrastructure. More than five years later, our bridges remain in much the same poor condition they were in then, and the voices screaming for an infrastructure bank or other form of dedicated financing to upgrade them have been all but muted.

Of course some of the mess we are witnessing in the metropolitan region is unique to us. For largely historical reasons, New York's power system is run by private utilities answerable to state regulators. Its subway system has also been run by the state -- in the form of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority -- ever since going bankrupt in the 1960s. So any criticism regarding the lack of investment or preparedness for a hurricane event, at least in terms of power or transit, needs to be aimed squarely at Albany, not at City Hall.

News: New York divided over marathon plans

Kate Ascher
Kate Ascher

To be fair, the hard-working officials who have spent decades bringing the city subway system back to a state of good repair have done a decent job of it. Compared with the dark days of the 1970s, transit stations are cleaner, subway trains are newer, and reliability and predictability are up. But the funding allocated by the state for investment in the system is nowhere near enough to take a 100-year-old system and make it a resilient one -- resilient enough to withstand the pounding it received this week.

No one should stand behind age as an excuse for vulnerability in infrastructure. Consider the case of London, a city whose infrastructure is -- in almost every respect -- even older than New York's. Yet over the last 25 years, London has grabbed one opportunity after another to bring its core infrastructure -- power, transport and water -- into the 21st century. In almost every aspect, the city's infrastructure is today more resilient than ours.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



What has London done in the last several decades to modernize its systems? To protect against flooding, a movable flood barrier was built in the Thames; in more than 100 closures, it has proven effective in protecting the city from major storm surge or tidal events.

Electric power is now produced outside the city, rather than within its boundaries. A major new sewer line is being designed to run along the Thames, part of an ambitious plan to replace the Victorian-era sewers that carry much of the city's wastewater. Transit too has seen its share of investment, with dozens of extended and upgraded rail lines bringing life to formerly downtrodden urban neighborhoods and entirely new high-speed lines knitting together key commercial nodes across the city.

Cuomo: 9/11 museum filled with water
Sandy survivor: 'Nobody was coming'
Death toll rising after Sandy

The difference between the two cities is not money -- it's governance. New York City may control its streets, but it doesn't control its power system or its transit system. Unlike England, where investment decisions are made by the city in conjunction with the national government, when it comes to infrastructure we've got a bundle of intermediary state agencies and regulators deciding what's best for the city and how much investment it deserves -- and a bunch of state politicians circumscribing their ability to do so at every turn.

New York after Sandy: A tale of two cities

Not all New York infrastructure is caught in the same bind. New York's acclaimed water system, devised by city engineers in the 19th century to bring water from the Catskills to the growing urban population, remains a model of how service delivery could be done. Well into its second century, it is controlled by the city in a businesslike fashion, its capital program underpinned by the ability to float bonds to secure needed investment. The result is that projects that contribute to the resilience of the city's water infrastructure, such as the Third Water Tunnel now under construction, get done purposefully and with minimal political interference.

There are other reasons to be optimistic about our infrastructure future. Some 125 years ago, in March of 1888, the worst blizzard on record dumped more than 3 feet of snow on a paralyzed New York City.  Telecom and electric wires, newly strung up between all of the quickly industrializing city's buildings, collapsed and were rendered useless -- prompting a mandate to bury all cables from that point forward.

The underground network that resulted from that storm is largely responsible for the extraordinarily high levels of reliability Manhattan's electric and telecom customers have enjoyed ever since.

The question now is whether Sandy will stimulate similarly new ways of thinking about our infrastructure.  Will she energize what to date have been spotty efforts to prepare the city and its systems for sea level rise and storm surges? Will the money made available by Washington in disaster relief be used to sow the seeds for real change? Will the dislocation experienced by all focus sufficient attention on those state institutions that have been given the power to oversee the city's infrastructure but not the ability to finance it effectively?

Let's hope Sandy brings more than shoreline devastation in her wake. With a little luck, even this terribly large storm cloud could turn out to have a silver lining.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kate Ascher.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Tue October 28, 2014
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
updated 7:45 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
updated 8:32 PM EDT, Sun October 26, 2014
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
updated 7:19 AM EDT, Mon October 27, 2014
Julian Zelizer says control of the Senate will be decided by a few close contests
updated 8:12 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The response of some U.S. institutions that should know better to Ebola has been anything but inspiring, writes Idris Ayodeji Bello.
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Swedes will find sitting on the fence to be increasingly uncomfortable with Putin as next door neighbor, writes Gary Schmitt
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
The Ottawa shooting pre-empted Malala's appearances in Canada, but her message to young people needs to be spread, writes Frida Ghitis
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT