The Museum of the City of New York recently hosted a panel discussion titled "Roads to Nowhere: Public Works in a Time of Crisis," part of the museum's ongoing Urban Forum series on infrastructure in New York. The discussion focused on NYC and environs, but has implications for public works projects -- infrastructure and transportation -- around the nation. The same pressures affecting public works funding (or slashed funding) in New York hold for the U.S. generally.
About 150 transportation and public works geeks came to hear such eminent public works and transportation experts as Jeffrey M. Zupan, senior fellow for Transportation, Regional Plan Association; Denise M. Richardson, managing director, General Contractors Association of New York; Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction Company; and Joan Byron, director, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at Pratt Institute. The discussion was intelligently moderated by New York Times transportation reporter Michael M. Grynbaum.
Hanging over the evening's discussion was a shocking, job-killing decision in October 2010 by New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Citing cost overruns, he pulled the state out of the ARC project -- a new train tunnel under the Hudson River that would have doubled commuter rail capacity between New Jersey and Manhattan, making room for an additional 25 New Jersey Transit trains per hour. Christie objected that his state had to pay more than originally budgeted and he refused to raise taxes to cover the costs. The ARC project was the nation's largest infrastructure project. Transportation secretary Ray LaHood and Federal Transit administrator Peter Rogoff went to Trenton to negotiate a compromise, but Christie rejected their offers.
Denise Richardson said that the ARC project would have provided public benefits for at least a century to come, not to mention easier commutes and less auto traffic. Christie's cancellation immediately cost about 6,000 direct jobs at a time when unemployment among contracting workers is already at 30%. (The blog 2nd Avenue Sagas says the cancellation means $478 million flushed down the drain for New Jersey alone.) Jeffrey Zupan noted wryly, "To say I was chagrined about Christie's decision is sugarcoating it." And Michael Grynbaum pointed out that Christie isn't alone in shooting down rail projects. Other Republican governors across the United States -- in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida -- have also been rejecting federal appropriations for high-speed rail.
Meanwhile, Michael Horodniceanu pointed out that Christie would not have even been the one to cut the ribbon and it was merely a political decision to appear fiscally conservative. Joan Byron observed that Christie was largely elected by "south Jersey drivers," not by "north Jersey riders," so the only people inconvenienced would be those who hadn't voted for him in the first place. Byron stressed -- and other panel members agreed -- that supporters of the ARC project had not built a sufficient base of support so that its benefits would be clear even to those who would not actually be traveling through the tunnels. We must all make clear to our fellow citizens, she said, that such public works projects raise the property values of people in the areas served and raise the overall economy by making it easier to get to and from good-paying jobs.
The public does not want to have to pay any higher taxes, understandably, but often the benefits of the public works programs are not evident to already overstressed taxpayers, and thus support is lacking. The projects support the construction workers, the materials suppliers -- an entire ecosystem of benefits. The tax income gained by state and federal treasuries as a consequence of infrastructure development and the related industries and services they feed spreads the wealth around to the general population. Public works projects should be understood as investments that last for generations.
And even though the common view in upstate New York is that only New York City benefits from the public works projects in the greater metropolitan area, in fact the city's health is a matter of survival for the entire state. Three-quarters of the state's tax income is received from the greater New York City area. That revenue feeds services in Buffalo, Syracuse, and so on; it's in those residents' interest to ensure that New York City and environs has a healthy, robust transportation infrastructure. The same is true, of course, of New Jersey, or Philadelphia, or any other metropolitan area. A vibrant capital nourishes the provinces, and vice versa.
But Horodniceanu pointed out that it is difficult to spread the view of public works as beneficial to the public generally amid the pervasive anti-government rhetoric used by conservative politicians. With gasoline prices already rising, tax increases to pay for public transportation -- as Europeans do as a matter of course -- would be politically unacceptable. He contrasted the widespread American view (and unwillingness to pay for public transportation) with the French readiness to embrace and pay for public works. He cited a field trip of a group of French students to see the building of the trans-English Channel tunnel, popularly known as the Chunnel, while across the Channel a group of British citizens were protesting the "eminent domain" taking of wheat fields to be used for the tunnel and rail line into London. The clear implication was that the American attitude is more akin to the British than the French.
Two important subjects the MCNY panel did not discuss -- they only had an hour, after all -- were the political dimension to the "time of crisis" and the environmental benefits of public transportation. Why are there budget shortfalls? Which political party is doing most of the canceling of projects, and why? What wouldn't be possible if the rich and corporations paid their fair share of taxes? And why aren't the President or congressional Democrats pushing anything like the WPA & CCC programs that rebuilt America and employed millions in the last big depression?
To be sure, President Obama does often speak of the importance of high-speed rail and has spoken of a $50 billion, ten-year National Infrastructure Bank. In a speech to the Chamber of Commerce on Feb. 7, the President said "I want to put more people to work rebuilding crumbling roads, rebuilding our bridges. That's why I've proposed connecting 80 percent of the country with ... high-speed rail." The President understands the importance, but he and Congress have to know (and be reminded repeatedly) that there is strong popular support for these projects.
There has been some other good news that was not mentioned by the panelists. In early February, Amtrak announced the Gateway Project, a $13.5 billion tunnel that will go approximately where ARC would have gone and will boost the capacity of the Northeast Corridor. The Infrastructurist reports that the Gateway Project "would triple the number of hourly Amtrak trains heading through New York (from four to 12) and, if Amtrak ever achieves its (true) high-speed hopes for the corridor, the new tunnel could service that too." It would be the first phase of a $117 billion master plan announced by the national rail service in October that has a target completion date of 2040.
On the other coast, a rather surprising development reported by The Infrastructurist and the California High-Speed Rail blog is that Japan's ambassador to the United States has said that his country might be willing to pay up to half of the costs of a bullet-train system in California. According to California High-Speed Rail, "Basically our Japanese allies are begging us for the chance to build our train because they know it's going to profitable."
At a time when the Republican party is driven by ax-wielding Tea Party activists and the president continues to seek common ground with the party that abhors him, we must take help where we can find it, with Japanese yen or other sources. We must also work to build consensus among our fellow Americans to demand investments here at home for the tax dollars we're paying to Washington. Is our contribution to the Treasury to be spent forever on foreign wars and military bases in 150+ nations, or is it going to be spent here at home? National security begins at home, and we cannot afford a WPA or CCC to work our way out of the current (unmentionable) great depression if a half-trillion dollars and rising is going to the Pentagon every year. And the U.S. certainly cannot afford the rebuilding it needs if its treasury is being starved by the wealthy and corporations unwilling to pay their fair share of taxes.
Mark LaFlaur is Founder of LeveesNotWar.org.