Massive Blizzard Exposes How Decrepit New York City’s Infrastructure Is

CREDIT: AP
CREDIT: AP

A serious snowstorm is projected to drop multiple feet of snow on New York City and points northeast this week, prompting Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) to predict one of the largest blizzards in city history and warn residents to stay indoors and avoid travel in the coming days.

State officials anticipate the storm will close various key commuter routes, both for drivers on key highways in and around the city and for commuter rail riders in Long Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey. City and state leaders have gotten a lot of experience with severe weather over the last several seasons. Superstorm Sandy exposed serious deficiencies in the city’s physical readiness to handle major weather events, and the lessons of that storm have brought renewed focus to certain infrastructure projects related to flooding.

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But winter storms have exacted a toll on the city and state recently as well, and illuminated some flaws in the system for maintaining infrastructure and ensuring preparedness. Last year’s harsh winter caused road repair needs to spike in New York, with city road crews filling twice as many potholes in the first five weeks of 2014 as they had in the same stretch of 2013. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has gotten a federal state of emergency declared over winter storms twice already in the last two years, triggering one-time influxes of money that help pay for repairs related to sudden storm damage.

Emergency funding is never meant to substitute for regular, long-term investments, of course, and the current blizzard is bearing down on a city that already has a massive shortfall in resources allocated for infrastructure upkeep.

New York City’s infrastructure exposes residents and commuters to risks and undermine’s the city’s economy even under optimal weather conditions, as a 2014 report from the Center for an Urban Future (CUF) detailed. The city’s sewage pipes are 84 years old on average, its average gas pipe is 56 years old, and its thousands of miles of water mains average 69 years in operation. In addition to the risks of corrosion and other aging-related problems, New York’s pipes are built with outmoded technology that is far more prone to leaks and ruptures. The city’s water system is so decrepit that 24 percent of the water that gets put into it never makes it to consumers, CUF reported, far above the industry-standard range of 10 to 15 percent loss for a large municipal water system.

The share of city roads rated “fair” or “poor” by New York transportation officials has doubled since 2000, to 30.4 percent. Key signalling technology for the subway system is so far out of date that employees have to jury-rig replacement parts on their own because they are no longer manufactured. And the city’s problems extend beyond “horizontal infrastructure” like pipes, roads, and mass transit, according to CUF’s analysis. New York’s buildings themselves exhibit serious deficiencies. Nearly six in 10 of the thousands of buildings maintained by the city’s public housing agency are too distressed or decayed to comply with city structural standards. The city’s 55 homeless shelters are 70 years old on average.

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The group estimated at the time that New York needed to come up with $34.2 billion beyond what was budgeted and available for the coming 5 years just to bring existing infrastructure up to a state of good repair. And while Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) just announced significant investments in infrastructure projects around the state, the urban planning news site StreetsBlog reports that little of that spending is targeted to the city’s well-documented needs.