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The Ties That Bind

from the magazine

The Ties That Bind

More than ever, New York’s prosperity depends on regional and national infrastructure. Autumn 2015
FRANK FRANKLIN II/AP PHOTO
The 2003 Northeast blackout showed how dependent cities are on far-flung energy sources.

In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith observed that “the inhabitants of a city . . . must always ultimately derive their subsistence and the whole materials and means of their industry, from the country.” More than two centuries later, metropolitan areas have grown even more dependent on the broader networks that deliver necessities such as power and water and that enable people to travel to, from, and throughout the city. Infrastructure, or what we once called “internal improvements” or “public works,” is an amazing testament to human ingenuity, at least until it fails—when, say, a sagging power line touches a tree limb south of Cleveland, triggering a cascade of power outages, ultimately turning off the lights for 50 million people in eight states, including New York.

The interlocking web of our modern infrastructure is evolving to accommodate local, regional, and national demands, but metropolitan areas, where most Americans live, remain at the center of it. Yet urbanites often see their cities not as component parts of much broader networks but as self-sufficient islands. (See “The Oldest Divide.”) This myopia has multiple sources and effects, some of them political, but it imposes serious practical costs. Infrastructure improvements, which most of us want, are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve unless the broad majority of stakeholders—urban, suburban, and rural alike—understand the common stakes and are willing to shoulder the costs in exchange for the benefits. This is true in metro areas around the country but perhaps nowhere more so than in New York.

With their population density and mass transportation systems, cities “are becoming the Greenest thing that humanity does for the planet,” observes environmentalist Stewart Brand. But while cities use energy more efficiently than their suburban or rural counterparts, they consume a lot of it in absolute terms. New York is no exception: in 2010, the city burned through about 670 billion cubic feet of natural gas; this consumption will grow 15 percent, to 770 billion cubic feet, by 2030, according to projections by ICF International. Consolidated Edison delivered roughly 57 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to New York City and Westchester County in 2013, an amount consistent with recent years, but the utility forecasts that peak demand—the periods of heaviest usage, usually during blistering summer heat waves or harsh winter cold—will increase 25 percent, and perhaps as much as 45 percent, over the next two decades.

These energy resources are not homegrown—especially with respect to natural gas, for which New York City relies on the extensive network of pipelines that surround the city, including the Algonquin, Columbia, Iroquois, Millennium, Tennessee, Texas Eastern, and Transcontinental pipelines. The city also imports a significant amount of its electricity. According to the New York Independent System Operator (NYISO), which oversees the regional power grid, New York City and the surrounding area (Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley) account for two-thirds of the state’s total power consumption, but the region offers only half of the state’s generation capacity. The rest must be produced elsewhere. NYISO urges: “Sustained and enhanced transmission capability is vital to efficiently moving power to address regional power needs.”

The biggest supply-side concern in the public imagination is the risk of sudden, catastrophic infrastructure failure. The August 2003 blackout was one such example: when power lines failed in Ohio, they unleashed a cascade of “tripped” lines, from the initial failures in the Buckeye State outward to Michigan, Ontario, and New York. Suddenly, legions of New Yorkers found themselves stranded—some in elevators, others facing a choice of commuting home on foot or staying in the city overnight. When Hurricane Sandy hammered New York City a few years ago, its billions of dollars in damage included the loss of power to 600,000 Con Ed customers, many of whom remained in the dark for days or even weeks. These episodes prompted policymakers to rethink the design, administration, and maintenance of the power grid to protect against such dramatic breakdowns. In Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath, for example, New York State encouraged the development of micro-grid systems “to provide power during extended outages due to future storms and disasters.”

But well short of catastrophe, how will New York City meet the greater energy demand on the horizon? The nation’s newly accessible natural gas, unleashed by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, will help. This sudden bounty—or, as Daniel Yergin, dean of energy analysts, calls it, the “shale gale”—is reflected in an enormous increase of drilling capacity in key shale-gas areas, including the Northeast’s Marcellus and Utica regions, North Dakota’s Bakken region, and Texas’s Permian region, and will soon make the United States a net exporter of energy. New York State conspicuously closed itself to such development with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s early 2015 decision to ban fracking, but Gotham will still benefit from the shale gale, thanks to a rapidly expanded and reconfigured natural-gas pipeline grid bringing out-of-state gas to the city. Spectra Energy’s $1.2 billion Hudson-crossing “New Jersey–New York Expansion,” the first new natural-gas route into Manhattan in 40 years, is expected to deliver up to 800 million cubic feet of gas per day from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and elsewhere—promising, the company says, to save New York and New Jersey customers “an estimated $700 million annually in wholesale energy prices.” But more will be needed to power a growing city in the future.

Another infrastructure network essential to New York City’s prosperous future delivers its water. New York may not rely on regional and interstate water networks to the extent that Los Angeles and Las Vegas do, but its own water infrastructure is a remarkable feat. The far-flung Catskill, Delaware, and New Croton aqueducts, via the Kensico and Hillview Reservoirs, bring 1.2 billion gallons of high-quality drinking water every day to New York’s 8 million residents. Unfortunately, this century-old system is showing its age. “Many of the City’s critical water system components have reached or exceeded their design life and must be repaired or replaced,” the New York State Department of Health observed in a 2008 report.

Doing so won’t be easy. “Taking either of the [Catskill or Delaware] aqueducts out of service for maintenance would reduce the available source capacity by more than 500 million gallons per day,” the Health Department further explained, “making repair of the Aqueducts almost impossible.” New York City is devoting billions to annual capital investments and improvement projects, but the state expects that the city will need nearly $30 billion more for a 20-year water-infrastructure plan, which would include the development of new groundwater resources, the construction of a new aqueduct, and other dependability or redundancy projects. (The EPA’s 2011 report to Congress indicated that New York needs “just” $22 billion for 20-year improvements statewide, as does the latest estimate of the American Society of Civil Engineers.)

Whatever the actual cost, New York City and State face serious water challenges in the near future—as was dramatized this past spring, when residents of Troy, New York, went without service for ten days after a water-main break.

The third infrastructure network that New Yorkers rely on daily is the region’s sprawling transportation system. That network is overwhelmed, resulting in “mounting commute times for millions of workers,” City Journal’s Nicole Gelinas observes. New York City has reached a record-high population, and its economy currently boasts a record-high number of jobs, but the city’s transportation network can’t keep up with the growth.

New York learned some time ago that it can’t move people around efficiently in the densest parts of a growing city by automobile; car and truck traffic into Manhattan on an average fall day peaked in 1998. It has dropped 30 percent since then, even as the city experienced, in the new century’s first decade, the biggest modern boom it had ever seen and, during the second decade, a fast recovery from the 2008 crisis. Subway and commuter-rail ridership into Manhattan, though, has soared. Compared with 1998, almost a half-million more people each day take a subway, bus, or train into Manhattan—a 22 percent increase. Of course, not everyone who travels around New York City goes to Manhattan. Over the past two decades, subway, train, and bus ridership across the five boroughs and the metro area rose 61 percent, from 5.4 million people daily in 1992 to 8.7 million people in 2013. As the New Yorkers who must crush themselves into trains every day know, the subway system operates well past capacity. Overcrowded trains, in turn, coupled with cheaper and easier for-hire car service, have spurred more people to travel around Manhattan by car, a trend that harms the quality of life for residents and workers.

Yet maintaining the mass transit system—let alone upgrading it—is expensive. The state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority needs $32 billion over the next five years, mostly just to keep the train and bus system in a reasonable state of repair. It takes the state and city years, often decades, to build even modest expansions. In September 2015, New York opened a new Manhattan subway extension on the Far West Side after more than a decade of planning. Next year, the city will see the opening of the first three stops on its Second Avenue subway line—a nearly century-old project. The city is simply not keeping pace with modern demands on its transportation infrastructure.

Meeting New York City’s glaring infrastructure needs will require the planning, funding, construction, and operation of immense new networks and will involve multiple governments. This is no easy task. Consider the regional transportation system. Regional governments are mired in debt, so finding the billions for maintenance, upgrades, and expansion will demand imagination and political leadership. Even when all the affected parties see the need for transportation infrastructure projects and want to share in the benefits, none wants to be left holding the check. It’s one thing to invoke studies like the Center for an Urban Future’s report concluding that 11 percent of the region’s 162 bridges are structurally deficient. It’s another to devise and implement solutions satisfactory to all the relevant stakeholders.

Case in point: the proposed “ARC” tunnel project to expand New Jersey Transit’s crossing capacity under the Hudson River, which Governor Chris Christie vetoed because of the threat of cost overruns. The bill, initially estimated at $8.7 billion, was to be split among the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the state of New Jersey, and various federal bodies. But as costs outpaced projections, Christie reconsidered his support. Claiming that New Jersey alone would shoulder the financial burden, he canceled the project in 2010. “It’s a dollars and cents issue,” the governor argued. “I cannot place, upon the citizens of the state of New Jersey, an open-ended letter of credit.” Christie’s concerns on behalf of New Jersey taxpayers may have been justified, but his decision nonetheless kicked down the road a problem—the region’s overwhelmed transportation infrastructure—that won’t be solved by waiting. The risk is not just that a bridge might fall—though that is not unthinkable, after Minneapolis’s I-35 bridge collapse killed 13 people and injured scores more in 2007. The risk is also that little by little, the system is slowing to a crawl and that unavoidable maintenance work may soon impose dramatic short-term costs in terms of lane or tunnel closures.

Another obstacle, an ironic one, could impede serving New York City’s enormous energy needs. While urban populations gain immensely from robust energy development, city dwellers are often among the strongest critics of such development. A poll released last year by the Morning Consult found that urban respondents strongly opposed the increased development of nuclear power, 59 percent to 41 percent. By contrast, suburban and rural respondents strongly favored it, 57–43 each. Similarly, suburban and rural respondents were more supportive of offshore oil and gas drilling, mining and drilling on federal lands, and tax incentives for oil exploration. The poll reflects urban voters’ tendency to prioritize environmental protections over energy development—development that they need most. Governor Cuomo’s fracking ban was heavily supported by New York City voters.

Such infrastructure battles are nothing new; they’ve vexed us since the nation’s Founding. Even after uniting to win their independence from Britain, the American states found themselves deeply divided over the control and management of the era’s most significant infrastructure—the interstate waterways—and the stalemate proved costly to the young nation’s economic and political development. Eventually, discord among the states led George Washington and others to convene in Alexandria, Virginia, and then at Mount Vernon to frame an interstate compact “for the purpose of Navigation and Commerce” on the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. Those discussions led directly to the Annapolis Convention of 1786 and, finally, to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, which succeeded in establishing a more energetic national government.

Not long afterward, Treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton recognized that major infrastructure programs couldn’t succeed if proposed on a one-by-one, stand-alone basis, for such an approach instills little confidence that the localized projects truly deserve federal investment. Instead, Hamilton took a systematic national view, producing his famous Report on Manufactures (1791). Quoting extensively from Smith’s Wealth of Nations, he stressed the need for comprehensive internal improvements. “Good roads, canals, and navigable rivers, by diminishing the expense of carriage, put the remote parts of a country more nearly upon a level with those in the neighborhood of the town,” noted Hamilton. “They are, upon that account, the greatest of all improvements. They encourage the cultivation of the remote, which must always be the most extensive circle of the country. They are advantageous to the town, by breaking down the monopoly of the country in its neighborhood. They are advantageous, even to that part of the country.”

But Hamilton’s Report failed to convince its intended national audience, and the nation waited years before completing its first significant national project—the National Road, from Cumberland, Maryland, to the Ohio River. Later generations would take up Hamilton’s vision of systematic interstate infrastructure—the “American System” urged by Henry Clay and the Whigs in the antebellum period, for example, or the New Deal public works projects undertaken by the Roosevelt administration.

To the extent that such projects have succeeded, it’s because they’re seen as benefiting the broader population and not merely a discrete, politically favored minority. When highways displace homes, or pipelines bisect farms, or cost overruns drain taxpayer funds, those burdened most heavily by the projects too often enjoy their benefits the least. By contrast, when the issue is considered more systematically, comprising multiple projects with widely dispersed benefits, more constituent groups can reasonably be expected to bear the burdens.

Ultimately, then, New York’s prosperity depends on its residents’ recognition that they are deeply intertwined with the regions and country that surround them, and that residents in those broader areas, in turn, recognize their ties with the city. Only then can we begin to proceed with the broad-scoped policies necessary to maintain and improve our infrastructure—for the good of New York and of all.

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