Rebuilding New York City for a New Reality

Governor Cuomo has the opportunity to build a smarter and more resilient regional transportation network. Photo: Daily News

“Climate change is a reality… for us to sit here today and say this is a once-in-a-generation, and it’s not going to happen again, I think would be short-sighted… I’m hopeful that not only will we rebuild this city and metropolitan area but use this as an opportunity to build it back smarter.”

– Governor Andrew Cuomo

Amen Governor Cuomo. Hurricane Sandy should be the massive bucket of cold water needed to rouse New York’s political class into making the multitude of changes required for New York City to survive the rising ocean, and remain a leading global city.

The inconvenient reality is that the water is rising, and New York is a city built on islands. According to New York City’s Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, New York Harbor has risen about a foot since 1900, and will rise at least another three feet in the next century. If polar ice caps melt — which appears to be happening — harbor waters will rise six feet or more.

There is an enormous amount of work to do. New York needs expansive new flood defenses, including the vast expansion and restoration of storm surge-absorbing wetlands and oyster beds. These “soft edges” will have to be accompanied by some “hard edges,” including sea walls and, possibly, massive surge barriers like London’s Thames Barrier. The debate over the right mix of “soft” and “hard” approaches is now underway, even as some New Yorkers still huddle without power or water in darkened apartments.

Beyond debate is that our vulnerable electrical and transit systems have to be made more resistant to flooding. However, our century-old transit system is creaking along under a huge debt, the next transit capital plan is completely unfunded, and there is no money for flood defenses. Meanwhile, our downstate road network is burdened by a totally backward and unfair toll system that causes costly traffic jams, wastes time and consumes big tax subsidies for bridge and road repairs.

New York can’t have “smart rebuilding” and a dumb, broke transportation system. One of the pillars of Governor Cuomo’s rebuilding plan for the New York City area must be tolling the East River Bridges and access to the Central Business District, and reducing overpriced tolls on outer bridge crossings. New toll revenue from this common sense plan should be dedicated to rebuilding the downstate transit and road system, and toughening it against floods. This “bridge swap” toll plan, first proposed by transportation engineer Sam Schwartz, will also free up hundreds of millions in general tax revenue currently spent on roads for new flood defenses.

Hurricane Sandy was a dire message that New York cannot afford the luxury of political dysfunction and irrational governance. In this crisis, there is a clear opportunity for Governor Cuomo to build a new, smarter, tougher transit and transportation system that can serve as the backbone of his efforts to rebuild the region.