Rebuilding a modern New York, thinking about the alternative

This week, NCPR is airing a series of stories about New York state’s fragile, badly eroded infrastructure.  While listening, I’ve been joggling up and down Rt. 73 and 9N, careening from pothole to pothole.

Maybe it was unfair to package this series during mud season, but it’s hard not to feel a little dilapidated when your head is hitting the roof of your pick-up.

One thing that everyone agrees — right, left, center — is that infrastructure really matters.

If you can’t get your goods and services to market cheaply, safely and efficiently, you have no choice.  You have to take your business and your jobs elsewhere.

It will be interesting going forward to see whether Governor Andrew Cuomo can find a way to shore up problem roads, bridges and dams while also squeezing the budget into a shrinking box.

The last couple of major global-scale crises — in New Orleans, then Haiti and now in Japan — suggests just what life looks like when these amenities go away.

I know those are extreme examples.  We’re not likely to face a full-on earthquake, hurricane or a tsunami any time soon.  But gradual erosion is also a powerful force of nature.

What happens if we continue to let things slide?  What if we don’t maintain a modern, state-of-the-art power grid?  What happens if our road and rail systems fall into deeper disrepair?

On the positive side, we have an example in the Crown Point Bridge of a project that can get started quickly and efficiently.

Government planners in New York and Vermont tossed aside tomes of paperwork and red tape, with no apparent adverse impacts.

Maybe Albany should consider making these kinds of investments now.  The returns, in the form of immediate jobs and a more efficient economy down the road, could be transformative.

Borrowing money to balance the budget, or pay for new programs, is obviously a bad idea.

But borrowing money to rebuild an incredibly modern, efficient infrastructure — everything from clean water to fast rail — is an investment worth looking at.

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19 Comments on “Rebuilding a modern New York, thinking about the alternative”

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  1. JDM says:

    “Borrowing money to balance the budget, or pay for new programs, is obviously a bad idea.

    But borrowing money to rebuild an incredibly modern, efficient infrastructure — everything from clean water to fast rail — is an investment worth looking at.”

    But our state government has a long and proven track record of not being able to do this. I have no confidence in them changing anytime soon.

    The only way to keep government from wasting money is to deny them from having it to begin with. The best investment is made by those who earn the money.

  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I’m really sick of hearing that our government can’t do anything right–especially from the same people who say this is the greatest country on Earth. New York State has a proven record of building great projects, providing good services, and treating its citizens pretty well. That was the old days when people believed in building a better future for everyone.

    Our government over the last couple dozen years has over-spent by a a small percentage every year and compounded over time has become a serious problem. Also, some dopes decided (during the best times) that the government held too much money in reserve funds and rainy-day accounts. So we’re in a squeeze now.

    At some point the Devil got in everyones head and said “you can be an investor. join the investor class and make your money work for you. forget the other guy, if he has nothing it’s because he’s stupid. not like you. you deserve more; a bigger house, a nicer car, Ivy League for your kids, a camp on a lake. the other guy, the stupid guy, is trying to take what is rightfully yours. screw him.”

    We can still be the state that builds a better future if we put aside our personal greed. You can’t fill in a thirty-year-hole overnight but you can start shoveling today.

  3. Mark says:

    It makes good sense to borrow the funds needed to (re)build infrastructure, provided the term of the borrowing reflects the useful life of the project. Accordingly, such projects will be paid for by those who benefit from their use, both now and in the future.

    In a similar vein, would it not make sense for the state to bond the capital costs required to consolidate schools, where such consolidation can be shown to be both financially and educationally beneficial? What greater investment can we make in our future than in the education of our children, and what better way to finance that investment than by spreading that cost over both current and future generations who will benefit from that investment?

  4. Pete Klein says:

    Last night on Channel 10 Albany, they showed a student from Northville protesting cuts in school aid. She asked why one of the highest taxed states can’t afford to help education, or something to that effect.
    Good question. The same could be asked of money for our infrastructure.
    Where is all this money going?
    Well here’s one thought. On NCPR this morning, the story on the Crogan dam mentioned a $100,000 study to see what can/might/maybe be done to save the dam. A $100,000 just for a study? Ten time $100,000 = $1,000,000. 1,000 times $1 million = $1 billion. Just how many studies are being funded with nothing ever being done? Just how many people working for the state are paid over $100,000? If you look at the number of $100,000 being spent here, there and everywhere, it becomes clear it isn’t all that difficult to be billions of dollars in debt without much of anything being done.

  5. Brian says:

    This is one of the great tragedies of the “stimulus” package: it did little to address long-term issues like infrastructure. Only about 10 percent of it went to infrastructure, if I recall correctly an NYT piece breaking it down. The rest of it was for stuff like tax breaks, propping up teacher jobs and no doubt bailing out some megacorporations. Acquiring this much debt to address serious infrastructure needs would have been acceptable. But acquiring that much debt on the equivalent of junk food and vacation is unconscionable.

    Though it’s worth adding that we “can’t afford” things like infrastructure investment but we had no trouble spending money on the latest war against our Hitler-of-the-month. I guess we find it much easier spending money destroying things abroad than building things at home.

  6. Brian says:

    I also don’t disagree with JDM as much as one might expect. Other entities with functional governments might be able to do these things efficiently. But, as is often noted, New York has the most dysfunctional state government in the country. This translates to our awful budgetary process. This translates to the massive slush funds known as public authorities (see Syracuse Post-Standard investigative series of several years ago). This translates to prisons being a substitute for a rural economic development plan. This translates to legislators using public funds for highly dubious reasons (Carl Kruger, Pedro Espada) or their personal vainglory (is there anything in Rennselaer County not named after Joe Bruno?) or in legislators ensuring legislation doesn’t harm their personal interest no matter how much it’s needed (trial lawyer Sheldon Silver ensuring nothing gets through that might threaten the trial lawyers’ bottom line). I don’t have a philosophical objection to government programs, but I want my money spent reasonably efficiently. Some governments in the US can do this (I think my county government does a decent job). The New York state government doesn’t.

  7. phahn50 says:

    Pete – We are taxed at a high rate in part because we are well paid, and the cost of living is high (real estate costs). Most of the people working for the state who are paid over $100,000/year would be paid even more if they were working in the private sector. Paying money for studies on how to fix the aging infrastructure, is money well spent. How else are you going to decide how to fix the stuff.

    That said, the state of New York is certainly not able to do things quickly or cheaply. There are lots of reasons for this, some of which are good reasons, but there is certainly room for improvement.

  8. Bret4207 says:

    Lots of good thoughts expressed here. I see many of my own feelings on this issue mentioned. I’d like my tax dollars spent “reasonably efficiently”. Wouldn’t we all?!

    We’re in a pickle at the present time. Revenue is failing to keep up with spending and rising costs and our infrastructure is deteriorating. It’s a matter of priorities it seems to me. Someone mentioned our “Hitler of the month”. Good line BTW, but it’s also a pretty good description of how we think. We have the attention span of Daffy Duck, and that’s on a good day. If we talk about infrastructure a whole mess of people will agree we HAVE to do SOMETHING right NOW! The problem is that in 2 minutes someone will mention energy issues or education or climate change or the debt or the Royal Wedding and infrastructure will be forgotten. This problem is even worse in Albany where the over riding concern is maintaining the status quo and staying in office. All else pales beside the chance of being replaced.

    I think the likely outcome of this discussion will be that nothing will change, the pot holes will be cold patched, the occasional water main repaired and bridge condemned. Infrastructure just isn’t important until the lights go out.

  9. mervel says:

    What percentage of the NYS budget goes to long term investment and what percentage goes to consumption? I don’t believe NYS has a record of treating people pretty well, we would not have the rates of poverty that we do if that were true. Lower income states have less poverty than we do. I think over the past 100 years we did some great things particularly in New York City with grand projects.
    But Upstate has been essentially left for dead for the past 40 years by our government from an infrastructure perspective. The Seaway was a great project but that was many decades ago. For what we pay we should have some of the best infrastructure in the US but just look around is that true? I think we need to stop being so defensive and start looking at what we need to do.
    I totally agree with this and I think Brian M makes a great point:
    “But borrowing money to rebuild an incredibly modern, efficient infrastructure — everything from clean water to fast rail — is an investment worth looking at.”

  10. phahn50 says:

    If we stick our children and grandchildren with a bill for stuff they are glad to have and consider to be money well spent, it not the same as kicking a can down the road (or sticking them with our retirement/medical care costs).

  11. Bill G says:

    In principle, there’s no question that a prudent program for needed infrastructure financed by borrowing is entirely right headed. Individuals and corporations, as well as governments, finance major expenditures and pay for them over an extended period. The fly in the ointment is the credibility of the entity doing the borrowing. NYS has a government that ranks at the bottom of the list as far as effective state governments are concerned. Before it’s empowered to borrow, it should be required by those it represents to first demonstrate that it is capable of effective governance. Don’t hold your breath.

  12. JDM says:

    khl: “I’m really sick of hearing that our government can’t do anything right–especially from the same people who say this is the greatest country on Earth.”

    If a strong government was the reason for being the greatest country on earth, North Korea would be the greatest country on earth.

    To the extent that our government becomes more intrusive, we lose freedom.

    There is no way to stand in a circle with your hands in the next guy’s pocket and expect everyone to get rich.

    We are the greatest nation on earth precisely because we have chosen to make our own way, earn our own keep, and give generously out of our own free will.

  13. Gary says:

    I don’t think the message is government can’t do anything right, it’s government is out of touch with reality. In order to be elected one must come from money, big money. Wealthy politicians are out of touch with reality. Does anyone honestly believe when they look at the world through their paradigms they see in they same way people here in the north county see it? Like it or not, this is a big part of the Tea Party movement. Most Americans do not feel they are being heard! We have a HUGE disconnect between the tax payer and our representatives.

  14. TomL says:

    Locally what is disappointing is that our local town and county officials are willing to splurge political & monetary captital lobbying for a horrendously expensive infrastructure project that will never be built – the I-98 ‘Rooftoop Highway’ – when they coiuld be lobbying for repairs to our crumbling infrastrucure. The number of bridges alone in dire need of repair is appalling.

    It is as if instread of working to get money to repair and service our high-mileage, long-suffering old beater car that we depend on to get to work, we buy lottery tickets hoping to win so we can buy a Lexis.

  15. PNElba says:

    Of course politicians are listening to “us”. They listen to the people that fund their re-election campaigns. It just turns out that those people have the money to buy the ear of their local representative. Companies can do the same thing. This is all perfectly legal and some posters on this blog have defended this practice as “free speech”.

  16. Bret4207 says:

    Give people the choice between massive, long term infrastructure improvement programs or State Aid to the local school so that Bobby can keep playing football and basketball and Sissy can keep taking interpretative dance, drama club and harp lessons, all without their taxes going up, and which one will they choose? More to the point, give politicians the choice between long term infrastructure improvement programs that won’t be finished for 8 years and the chance to get his picture in the paper handing out a bunch of checks to local entities that will support him next election and which one will he choose?

    Those aren’t answers to the problem, but that’s how it plays out.

  17. phahn50 says:

    this is a democracy – whats the bumper sticker – its the worst form of government except for all the rest…

  18. Mervel says:

    But if you do infrastructure right it is seen and in reality IS a massive jobs program. This plays well with voters also, particularly if Johnnie’s dad has a job so that Johnnie can enjoy harp lessons.

    We have some problems, but the fact is people in America on the whole always prefer a job over a handout. I thought the stimulus would do some of that, instead it seems to have plugged holes in the local governments and bought some fire trucks.

    People know what FDR did; they can go down to their library or sometimes their school and see the words WPA stenciled on the cornerstone of the building. Infrastructure projects have benefits all the way around.

  19. Yup says:

    knucklehead can you names some of those great government projects here in NY Because I can name 150 million in bad projects with in a 50 miles of where I live. We are broke face it NY was called the Empire State on the backs of private industry that you libs chased out of the state. Phahn50 you as a state employee are well paid the private sector that pays is no longer well paid.

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