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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT