In the absence of funds, transportation agencies are looking for cost-effective ways to move people. The Port Authority suggested it would be open to increasing Holland Tunnel capacity with a bus lane, for example. Photo: keithlam via Flickr.
The state’s top transportation officials delivered some tough news to the construction industry Friday: Public agencies are so cash-strapped they don’t even have enough money to maintain existing infrastructure.
With budgets battered by rising maintenance costs and recession-ravaged revenues, an industry-sponsored conference offered little prospect of further expansions to the state’s transportation system beyond the projects currently underway. Some combination of new revenue streams, cost-saving measures, and public-private partnerships will be necessary simply to keep New York moving, most suggested. Meanwhile, the cozy relationship between public officials and construction industry heavyweights was on full display, at times contradicting the general message of austerity.
Speaker after speaker laid out the costs involved just to maintain the state’s aging infrastructure. Joel Ettinger, the head of the New York City region’s metropolitan planning organization, said that over the next twenty-five years, “an amazing 98 percent of the money is going to go just to state of good repair and operations.” That’s a full $950 billion through 2035, he said.
Port Authority tunnels, bridges, and terminals director Victoria Cross Kelly presented her agency’s top capital project priorities, including billion dollar replacements of the Goethals Bridge, the George Washington Bridge suspender cables, and the New Jersey approach to the Lincoln Tunnel, as well as a number of smaller projects. “Each and every one of these has somewhere in their title ‘rehab’ or ‘replace,’” she said. “There’s no new added functionality.”
New York City Transit’s chief engineer, Fredrick Smith, pointed to the system’s dire need for new track signals. Currently, a quarter of the subway’s signals are over 70 years old. “How reliable do you think that is?” he asked. Unfortunately, the MTA capital plan for 2010-2014 is only funded through next year and the bulk of the signal work is theoretically scheduled for 2012.
Even for the basic tasks of keeping bridges up, roads paved, and transit running, current funding is inadequate. “Increased, stable resources need to be provided,” said acting NYS DOT director Stanley Gee. Gee singled out the project to rebuild the deteriorating Tappan Zee Bridge and add transit access across it as particularly problematic. “There’s no way that existing tolls can build that bridge,” he said.
As for where that money might come from, Gee was open to any possibility. “Pricing obviously is one,” he said. He also suggested a mileage tax to replace declining gas tax revenue. Gee isn’t counting on help from one potential savior, however: the federal government. “We don’t expect a long-term extension of federal funding any time soon.” Gee ultimately urged the audience, filled with politically powerful firms, to convince elected officials to fund transportation.
From a sustainability perspective, the upside of the funding scarcity is that many transportation agencies are looking to do more with less — and that can mean prioritizing transit. “We need to focus on making the best use of what lanes and tracks we have,” said Port Authority Director of Regional Development Andy Lynn. Calling the Lincoln Tunnel’s exclusive bus lane a great success story, Lynn said “We need more of that.” During the Holland Tunnel’s evening rush, he noted, buses make up less than three percent of the vehicles, but carry 48 percent of the people. There is currently no exclusive bus lane in the Holland Tunnel.