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 11:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 1:29 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT