Strengthening the Economy and Improving the Quality of Life: Infrastructure for a 21st Century New York

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Amtrak’s Gateway


New York State secured its central place in the United States economy by building the Erie Canal early in the nineteenth century. When railroads displaced the waterway as the transportation network that mattered most, Empire State industrialists rushed to lay down tracks. In 1893, the train ride from Buffalo to New York City took an hour less than it does today. Aqueducts have been carrying water from Croton to Manhattan since the 1840s, and New York has been generating electric power from plants at Niagara Falls since the end of the nineteenth century. The Brooklyn Bridge that spans the East River and the George Washington that spans the Hudson were remarkable feats of engineering, and the Verrazzano was the longest suspension bridge in the world for decades. New York’s roadways crisscross the landscape connecting us from Buffalo to the Bronx and from New York’s Southern Tier to our Canadian border to the north. New Yorkers built our nation’s first international airport in Albany.

Infrastructure is to the state what the skeleton, muscles, and blood are to a body. It gives form and structure. It enables movement. It circulates the essential elements that sustain life.

Consistent development of state-of-the-art infrastructure, along with a legal system that respects private property, and a first rate educational system have been key elements of American capitalism’s phenomenal economic success from the mid-nineteenth century on. Transportation networks and the utilities that support them are essential tools for innovative business people, and for the workers who convert creative ideas into things of value. In America, we romanticize heroic entrepreneurs, but the truth is successful new enterprises are launched in government-created environments that support them.

To maintain the American Dream of individual economic advancement in New York State, we must accept collective responsibility for maintaining the physical plant that enables it. We have let ourselves down on this essential task for decades, so we now face a number of low grade crises, and a few acute ones. It will require brains and ability, and a full measure of political courage to reverse decades of decline.

Here are some indications of the current state of affairs:

  • The American Society of Civil Engineers who evaluate American infrastructure rated New York State roads a D-minus and our bridges a D-plus in a report published in 2017.

The Greater New York Metropolitan Region: The State’s Economic Engine at Risk

The Greater New York Metropolitan Region stretches across twelve New York counties and includes two thirds of the state’s population. It is inextricably linked to northern New Jersey and southwest Connecticut. A vibrant economy in the region has a direct impact on the well-being of 13 million of New York’s 19.5 million residents, and has a crucial impact on the fiscal health of the entire state.

The single greatest threat to the region is its failing transportation network. Uninspired leadership and chronic underinvestment, insufficient maintenance tolerated because of inadequate accountability, and political decision-making aligned with election cycles instead of long-term vision has caused decades of deterioration. Slow degradation met with the shock of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to accelerate a long-term crisis already deep in formation. Many years later we still have not responded adequately.

In the words of the Regional Plan Association (RPA), from The Fourth Regional Plan (2017):

“Transportation is . . . essential to the quality of life for all residents. Yet, the region has outgrown an aging transportation system that is increasingly unreliable and unable to respond to changing needs, technology and travel patterns. . . . the region needs large-scale transportation projects to better serve the residents of this dynamic, growing metropolitan region.”

The planning experts also warn that, “Many parts of the network, including the critical Penn Station Gateway and the trans-Hudson River crossings, are over capacity and risk catastrophic failure.”

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority are the two most important infrastructure agencies in the Greater Metropolitan Region. Both are in trouble. Neither one of them has a structure suitable for its mission. Both have been manipulated for political reasons and lack accountability. And according to the Regional Plan Association, “Rail transit projects cost more and take longer to build in the New York region than anywhere else in the world.” One comparison indicates construction costs are nearly five times higher than in London, a place comparable in size, age, complexity, and global significance.

The impact on taxpayers and riders is higher fares, less reliable service, a more limited network with substandard connections, which means less access to jobs for people, less access to workers for businesses, less access to schools for students, and less access to services for everyone. It also results in less rail freight traffic than any other major American metropolis and heavier reliance on pollution spewing trucks that induce asthma in our people, congests our streets, and slows our economy.

The reasons are many: complicated site logistics, counterproductive regulations, complex construction codes, institutional inefficiencies, bonding requirements, and outdated labor practices. With strong leadership we can create the political will to fix the Port Authority and the MTA, and develop the rail freight system Greater New York so desperately needs.

The Port Authority should recommit to its mission of building transportation infrastructure and pursue it with bold ambition.

The Port Authority was established 100 years ago to create infrastructure that connects the region across New York and New Jersey. Over time, it allowed its role to expand in ways that have distracted it from its central goal. It should return to its core mission and pursue it with bold ambition as recommended in a Special Panel report in 2014. Here are the most important steps it can take:

  1. Reorganize the Office of the Chairman as recommended in the 2014 Special Panel Report to ensure professional management and prevent the sort of political manipulation of the Authority that has damaged its efficiency and its credibility. The Port Authority must transform itself from a stale bureaucracy into an energetic agency committed to creating 21st Century Infrastructure.

Restructure the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to fulfill its mission.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created 50 years ago to rationalize operations and financing for the transportation network of the Greater New York Metropolitan Region. It serves the five boroughs of New York City, seven more New York State counties, plus parts of Connecticut. To serve New York City, its operating units include the New York City Transit Authority, the Staten Island Railroad, and the city’s public bus companies. It also operates the Long Island Rail Road, MetroNorth, and the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. Its governance structure includes a 21 person board appointed by the governor upon recommendation of 11 different elected officials and advisory bodies.

For years the MTA has operated with a substantial deficit and inadequate financial structure, lousy on-time service ratings, and poor maintenance. Conditions throughout the New York City Transit system were so awful that the governor felt compelled to declare a state of emergency in 2017.

Under the leadership of Andrew Byford and his “Fast Forward” plan launched in 2018 there has been progress at New York City Transit, but even if that plan is successful, when it is complete in 2028 we will still be way behind where we need to be to have a local and regional transportation network worthy of a great state.

New York City Transit includes 83% of MTA workers, and all of its activity occurs within a single governmental jurisdiction. Yet, it is treated the same way as other entities which are a fraction of its size and which cross multiple lines of authority. Here is a way to deal with the complex organizational issues inherent in a regional transportation network.

  1. Make the Governor directly responsible for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, including the right to appoint the authority’s leader and a majority of its board. There should be no ambiguity about the governor’s accountability.

Rail Freight: New York’s Greatest Opportunity for Improved Quality of Life

Effective mass transit infrastructure authorities operating with the level of competence and vision our region needs would recognize that the single greatest way to improve transportation circulation in the Greater New York Metropolitan Region is to launch a bold program to establish a high quality rail freight system.

Rail freight capacity for delivering goods and products to the New York City area is woefully deficient, the worst among all major American cities. The result is millions of trucks that congest our roads, slow our economy, and pollute the air from Westchester to Suffolk. It is part of the reason that New Yorkers have some of the worst commutes in the nation. It contributes to thousands of asthma attacks every year and creates an enormous obstacle to New York meeting its ambitious and critical climate change goals.

This deplorable situation is the result of government decisions made over the past 100 years to favor roads and cars over railroads, even though the Greater Metropolitan Area is densely populated with rail tracks. It is long past time to move beyond decisions that have reduced the quality of life for millions of New Yorkers for decades.

Reactivated, repurposed, renovated, and reconnected rails that already exist, plus new extensions provide the basis for a series of projects to provide enough rail freight service to transform the New York region’s traffic patterns. Commuting times will be cut, air will be cleaner, roadways will last longer, and goods will move more efficiently. Greenhouse gas emissions will be reduced dramatically.

The Regional Plan Association has outlined the ways to create the type of rail freight network New York needs. Three major components are critical.

Expand the Gateway/Hudson Tunnel Project

The Port Authority must undertake and complete the Penn Station Gateway/trans-Hudson Tunnel Project as currently conceived ahead of schedule. The new rail lines must accommodate freight from New Jersey to Manhattan as well as passengers, and the project must then be extended out to Amtrak rail yards in Sunnyside Queens. Freight traffic would cross tunnels under Manhattan during off-peak periods. This would connect New Jersey by rail to Long Island for the first time and reduce truck traffic by thousands of vehicles daily across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and Nassau County.

Improve and expand the Oak Point Yard and Fresh Pond Yards

Oak Point Yard in the Bronx and Fresh Pond Yards in Queens are vital links in New York’s limited rail freight service. By improving and expanding them we can strengthen the northern freight rail gateway that extends from the Brooklyn waterfront to Queens, on to the Bronx, and up the East Side of the Hudson River to Albany.

Reactivate the Triboro Rail Line and use it for freight as well as passenger traffic

Twenty-four miles of train tracks that stretch from Co-Op city in the Bronx to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn are barely used today. Amtrak owns the rails from the Bronx into Queens and CSX owns tracks that extend from northern Queens to 65th Street Yard in Brooklyn. A smart plan has been proposed to reactivate the Triboro line for passenger use.

The proposed Triboro Rx Line would provide direct passenger service across neighborhoods that are connected by train now only through Manhattan. The new route would intersect seventeen existing subway lines. It would reduce travel times significantly through boroughs experiencing rapid job growth and add train access to neighborhoods that currently are transit deserts. Because the rail right-of-ways already exist, this line could be restored and activated for a fraction of the cost of building new infrastructure. Not taking advantage of this neglected asset is foolish.

This project should move forward rapidly, and it should be enlarged to accommodate rail freight. Chicago and London have successfully run passenger and freight trains on the same rails, accommodating commuters while scheduling freight runs at off-peak hours. CSX typically runs just one or two freight trains a day on the tracks it manages. A study completed by the Port Authority estimates the system could accommodate twenty-one freight trains daily, each a mile long, without interfering with passenger use.

Distribution from freight train depots to local destinations would rely on smaller, lighter, short-haul trucks. As technology advances, electric motors would propel them adding to a cleaner and quieter environment.

New York State should take responsibility for pursuing the Triboro line. It should develop a plan in collaboration with the Port Authority and the MTA, New York City, the Federal Government, the communities affected, Amtrak and CSX.

Infrastructure Projects to Transform Gridlock into Gold

In addition to restructuring the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority so they can be successful, and to expanding rail freight into the New York Metropolitan region transforming an awful traffic pattern into a desirable one, here are seven more projects to improve transportation operations in the short run and to build the transportation and other critical infrastructure New York needs to remain a competitive capital for commerce and culture over the next century.

  • Renovate the Brooklyn Queens Expressway into Brooklyn Queens Park

Renovate the Brooklyn Queens Expressway into Brooklyn Queens Park

The Brooklyn Queens Expressway was built in the 1950s to accommodate about 50,000 vehicles per day. Now, more than three times that number motor over it daily, spewing pollution while aggravated commuters inch towards work and frustrated truckers bringing goods to millions of people crawl towards destinations that should be easier to reach. Engineers estimate that by 2026 the road will have deteriorated sufficiently that heavy trucks will no longer be able to drive on it safely. “It’s a Crumbling Road to Despair,” is how one newspaper headline described it.

Updating the structure presents formidable physical and financial challenges. The southbound and northbound roadways are cantilevered over Brooklyn Bridge Park, and a third cantilever supports the Brooklyn Promenade, one of the loveliest public spaces in New York City. Polly Trottenberg, New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner under Mayor Bill de Blasio has described the project as arguably the most challenging in the nation.

New York State played a leading role in renovating and reengineering the Kosciusko Bridge that spans a part of the Expressway, completed in 2019. Yet, when it sized up the daunting challenge elsewhere on the BQE in 2011, it abdicated its normal responsibility for an interstate road, and left the city to face a growing transportation crisis on its own. This solved a problem for New York State government, but did nothing to serve the needs of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who depend on the BQE.

A series of proposals have been developed. All involve substantial pain — disruption of traffic flow and the many aggravations of big construction projects. The Brooklyn Heights community most directly affected has rejected two alternatives developed by New York City. At least five others have been proposed. In an era when there is compelling logic to displacing cars with mass transit in New York City to deal with congestion and carbon emission, the projects that include a re-imagination of what the space might accomplish for people and traffic have the most appeal.

The most inspiring idea has come from Bjarke Ingels Group, a firm of architects who operate an office in the DUMBO neighborhood under the Brooklyn Bridge. The BIG BQP Plan, as it has been called, would create a six lane roadway on the street below the BQE and transform the existing highway into a terraced space above the new motorway with acres of land available for a range of uses to be determined with community input — more park, more retail space, or more housing for example. The plan includes plenty of obstacles to occupy the minds of the cleverest of urban engineers. Yet, the outcome is far more appealing than recreating a Cold War era structure that has not been fit for purpose for decades. Other options that would be a vast improvement over the status quo are also plausible. New Yorkers should explore only the most forward thinking ones as aggressively as possible.

Develop a Statewide Transit Action Plan along the lines proposed by the New York Public Transit Association, and convert all New York buses to electric vehicles by 2035.

Mass Transit across New York State needs to be expanded and upgraded. There are some 130 local transit systems around New York State. Most operate bus networks and provide vital connections that enable people to get to work and to school, to travel to training centers and health facilities, and to reach critical stores and services, as well as to stay connected to family and friends.

Businesses and riders across the state are demanding more transit services, more connections, and more technology, far outpacing the state’s current investment. The American Public Transportation Association listed 25 New York State Proposals in March 2019 as examples of transit projects likely to yield $4 of economic benefit for every $1 invested over a twenty year period. The proposed plan will:

  1. Support economic growth and job creation

The $50 million per year of incremental investment in transit operations the NYPTA plan calls for over five years will strengthen state transit systems significantly. The funds will allow service improvements all over the state. Here are top line examples of how the plan will provide support across many regions:

  • In Western New York, the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority will alleviate congestion on crowded routes and extend evening service.

All new buses added to New York State’s public transit fleet should have electric motors to contribute to achieving climate change goals, with the intention that the entire fleet will be electric by 2035. The state should provide financial incentives to help local transit agencies accomplish this goal.

In Buffalo, Pursue the Niagara Falls Light Rail Extension to SUNY Buffalo North Campus in Amherst and modernize the Buffalo Train Station.

  • A light rail extension that connects university students and staff with downtown Buffalo will create desirable spaces for residential and commercial development along its tracks within walking distance of mass transit, boost economic development, and support climate change initiatives.

Properly fund maintenance of local roads and bridges

“Nearly half of roads located in urban centers around the state are rated poor to mediocre according to a November 2018 report by the National Transportation Research Group. Over a third of bridges are considered deficient or functionally obsolete. In 2017 bridges maintained by local governments needed $27 billion in repairs to be brought up to standards according the NY State Comptroller. For all bridges in the State the number exceeded $75 billion. More than 90 bridges were closed in 2017 because they had become dangerous.

Nearly 100,000 miles of roads maintained by local jurisdictions are in worse condition than state maintained roads because of funding formulas that disadvantage them by directing disproportionate amounts of local user fees and tax dollars to the state. A proper allocation based on miles of road maintained would provide the $1.3 billion incremental funding required to fund a state of good repair for local roads and bridges.

In the long run, maintaining roads is less costly to tax payers than the cycle of severe deterioration and major repairs while providing a higher quality of life for New Yorkers. Better roads cause less damage to vehicles and promote fuel efficiency saving drivers money, and reducing carbon emissions.

Develop long-term plans to expand JFK Airport

Planners estimate that air passenger demand in the Greater Metropolitan Region could increase by 60% by 2040 and double by 2060. The region’s three major airports — all operated by The Port Authority — LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark are in no position to handle the growth. Improvements in air traffic control technology, mass transit links, and other amenities can help at LaGuardia, but it is land constrained and lacks international facilities. Ultimately, additional runways will be needed, which can be built at JFK and eventually at Newark.

For JFK, The Regional Plan Association has conceived a project to build a 9,000 foot departure and arrival runway west of the terminal area, and eventually a second 8,000 foot runway as well. Existing terminals can be consolidated into a smaller number of larger spaces with expanded business services and customer amenities competitive with global airports in Singapore, Amsterdam, Madrid, and London. The outcome will allow JFK to serve over 100 million passengers yearly.

Existing AirTrain stations at JFK can be redesigned for longer trains and linked to other infrastructure to achieve one-seat transportation to and from Midtown Manhattan, Lower Manhattan, and Downtown Brooklyn. Four trains an hour would create average wait times of just seven or eight minutes, competitive with other global airport transit links. This would relieve congestion and pollution from cars and taxis that currently are a source of aggravation and delays. This service will require reactivating existing unused rail lines as well as a new East River crossing.

Redevelopment of JFK would provide an opportunity for additional development in downtown Jamaica, particularly for hotels and related hospitality services. It would provide jobs for many, particularly workers living nearby.

Care would have to be taken to protect and restore any ecological disruption to Jamaica Bay, reclaiming equal acres of salt marsh and maritime forests the project damages. The project also contemplates storm surge protections.

The cost of the JFK expansion project described here would be an estimated $21 billion. It could be paid for in great part by airline fees and passenger facility charges provided the airport is allowed to keep them, rather than have the Port Authority use them to subsidize other operations as is currently the case. Few major airports around the world lose organic financing to other operations as happens in New York.

A major expansion at Newark Airport of runways, passenger facilities, transit, and freight capacity is also necessary and possible over the span of the next three decades. It will require a strong commitment from the State of New Jersey, and from the Port Authority that controls the airport.

The possibility of expanding Stewart International Airport located in Newburgh, sixty miles north of Manhattan, and connecting it to existing rail lines for easy access to New York City should be explored as well.

Modernize seaports and connect them to an expanded rail freight network

The Port of New York and New Jersey is the second busiest in the nation, even though many of its facilities lack automation and suffer from outdated management practices that leave it hovering at break even while most ports generate profits. Connections to roadways are inadequate, and most important, hardly any of the millions of containers that pass through the port annually and the millions of tons of bulk cargo moves by train despite being in the middle of a dense network of rails.

The region’s ports require greater autonomy from Port Authority and greater management transparency and accountability. The Port Newark-Elizabeth Marine Terminal needs to be modernized with more automation and improved road access. With appropriate incentives for railroad operators, freight and passenger rails that intersect the port can be shared. This is a critical component of a push to reduce truck traffic entering the greater New York region.

In addition to the projects described above, the Red Hook container terminal and the southern Brooklyn (Seaport Park) facilities are outmoded with poor transportation links. Their activities should be consolidated with other ports and the areas redeveloped for a combination of parks, housing, and light industrial uses.

Modernize all elements of the electric grid

The single most important step we can take to respond to the existential risk of climate change is to replace the use of carbon fuels for heating commercial and residential buildings with electricity powered by clean energy sources: hydroelectric power, nuclear power, wind, solar and other renewables. Buildings of all kinds are responsible for some 60% of carbon emissions. There can be no serious effort to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions without a program that changes how we approach this fundamental aspect of our daily lives. It is twice as important as switching from gasoline to electric power for motor vehicles, which are responsible for 30% of greenhouse gases.

New York is a leader in the move to eliminate greenhouse gases. As a consequence of the population density of our metropolitan regions, active use of mass transit, and historical use of hydropower and nuclear energy, New Yorkers have smaller carbon footprints per capita than almost any other Americans. We have made extraordinary commitments to continue to move away from carbon fuel dependency by setting ambitious targets, like 50% reduction by 2030 and Net 0 by 2040.

New York State has also been a leader in promoting wind and solar power undertaking major projects to increase the proportion of energy used from these sources. These projects are beneficial in themselves and they help achieve the scale of operations necessary to make renewable sources cost effective for utilities, businesses, and homeowners.

Shifting power generation to carbon free sources is one key element of a climate change strategy. We need comparable forward thinking commitments for our transmission system, which takes power from where it is generated to the regions that need it, and the distribution networks which bring power from regional transmission stations and substations to homes and businesses.

With respect to the transmission system, we will need to add the capacity to deliver energy from renewable sources to the distribution network cost effectively, and we will need a new smart networked system of distribution and transmission that will allow the allocation from private sources, like residential or commercial solar panels that create excess power, back into the system for use elsewhere.

Ultimately, the greatest challenge to achieving zero net carbon emissions will come from the need to insist that all new residential and commercial buildings rely on clean energy sources, and that all existing buildings convert from their current reliance on oil and gas to clean sources over some reasonable timeframe. The scale of the challenge is enormous. It will require extraordinary logistical and financial commitments on the part of New York State, local governments, utilities and power companies, and ultimately individual business owners and home owners.

In the short term, New York State must give top priority to working with the full range of power suppliers to developing sufficient clean energy capacity, and smart transmission and distribution networks to meet the needs of all New Yorkers. It will also need to provide incentives and invest in research and innovation programs to create energy efficient and cost effective heating systems for commercial and residential buildings to facilitate the transition away from carbon fuels.


Infrastructure crisscrosses every aspect of life. Families, workers, students, businesses, and professionals all rely on it every day. Its scope and condition affects everything, from the health of our people, to the health of our economy, to the health of the planet.

The projects contemplated in this report will provide employment for tens of thousands of workers and professionals for decades. They will support business opportunities all across New York State and ensure our position as a leading center for commerce and culture for the rest of the century. They are fundamental for New York to achieve its carbon reduction goals. The reality of climate change presents a constantly intensifying threat to our ability to sustain our lifestyles in the places where we live. We must rise to the challenge now. Bold infrastructure plans that change the way we power our homes, our factories, and our offices, and that allow us to change the way we rely on our cars and trucks are essential for achieving climate change goals.

New York, like much of America, has underinvested in infrastructure for decades. We must wait no longer to restore our state’s vital physical plant and equipment. The quality of life of 19.5 million people depends on it.


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Mary Frost, “The BQE Rehab: All Seven Plans Explained,” The Brooklyn Eagle, April 15, 2019.

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Nicole Gelinas, “Seven Ways the MTA Can Save $10 Billion,” The Manhattan Institute Issues Brief, 2019.

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Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup, 2018.

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Office of the New York State Comptroller, Local Bridges by the Numbers, 2017.

Regional Plan Association, “The Triboro: Transit for the Boroughs,” 2016.

_____________________, The Fourth Regional Plan: Making the Region Work for All of Us, 2017.

_____________________, Reimagining the BQE: Policy Options to Reduce Traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, 2019.

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The Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority, Keeping the Region Moving, 2014.

#NewYorker, historian, author & believer in government & business working *together* towards a better quality of life for all.

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