Over the past few years as New York and New Jersey have engaged in infrastructure expansion project, planners on both sides of the Hudson River have had to make some key decisions, and in nearly every instance, the decision has been to trim back and cut. The future is going to pay for this dearly.
The obvious example of course concerns the ARC Tunnel. Claiming concerns over cost overruns and, later, project design, Gov. Chris Christie pulled the plug on a project that had been funded and planned. Instead of redesigning it to save money or reengineering it on the New York side to improve it, the New Jersey executive cut it without proposing an alternative. The future is left with nothing, but that’s only the most egregious example.
In New York City, the MTA’s major subway expansion project has seen something fall off from the original plans. The 7 line has lost a key station at 41st St. and 10th Avenue while the Second Ave. Subway, being built in phases, has gone from four tracks to three to two. As I joked on April Fools, they might as well just cut it down to one.
Now, why is this important? After all, we need these projects to open sooner rather than later, and if the choice is between a smaller version of the project and nothing at all, I’d take the smaller version ten times out of ten. Costs aren’t going down any time soon, and it’s too much of a hassle to get a major initiative off the drawing board.
What we forget today when we cut though is the future. Planning decisions we make in the here and now have ramifications practically forever. Take, for instance, this NPR story about the location of the Tappan Zee Bridge. As David Kestenbaum noted, the Tappan Zee Bridge is in a terrible location. It’s amidst a 15-mile stretch of the river that is the Hudson at its widest. Four miles south and 15 miles north, the Hudson tapers off significantly, and the decision to build a bridge there seems foolish. Kestenbaum explains why:
I started digging through newspaper clippings from the 1940s and 1950s. It turns out, the bridge was part of a much larger project: The New York State Thruway, one of the first modern highway systems. The clippings also reveal something suspicious. There was an alternate proposal for a bridge at a narrower spot nearby. The proposal was put forward by top engineers at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. But that proposal was killed by New York governor Thomas E. Dewey. The New York Thruway was his baby; in a 1954 speech he proclaimed that it would be “the world’s greatest highway.”
…If the bridge had been built just a bit south of its current location — that is, if it had been built across a narrower stretch of the river — it would have been in the territory that belonged to the Port Authority.
As a result, the Port Authority — not the State of New York — would have gotten the revenue from tolls on the bridge. And Dewey needed that toll revenue to fund the rest of the Thruway. So Dewey was stuck with a three-mile-long bridge.
As Kestenbaum notes, now that the bridge has aged and degraded, someone is going to have to spend a few billion dollars to repair it. We can’t now correct the mistakes of the past either because “it’s too late now: Highways and towns have grown up based on the bridge’s current location.” The replacement bridge will cost a lot, and eventually, it too will be pared down. Already, the transit options are being threatened with elimination.
And so as the city looks to build and expand, we must remember that what happens today matters. It matters in the short term because we have to pay for it, but it also matters in the long term because eventually someone else will have to pay even more to fix or replace it. Repairing the Tappan Zee Bridge would seem less onerous had it been moved one way or another in the 1950s, but leaders too concerned with photo ops and ribbon-cutting ceremonies never want to take into account someone else’s future.