[ A modified version of this piece appears at New Deal 2.0, a project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute. ]

Last week we went to a panel discussion on public works and infrastructure at the Museum of the City of New York: “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—infrastructure and transportation—around the nation, including levees and flood control projects in coastal Louisiana, this blog’s primary concern. The same pressures affecting public works funding (or slashed funding) in New York hold for the U.S. generally.

The distinguished panel—moderated by Michael M. Grynbaum, transportation reporter for The New York Times—were Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Capital Construction Company (MTACC); Joan Byron, Director, Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative at Pratt Institute; Denise M. Richardson, Managing Director, General Contractors Association of New York; and Jeffrey M. Zupan, Senior Fellow for Transportation, Regional Plan Association. The panelists’ collective expertise was most impressive, almost formidable, and quite to the liking of the near-roomful of about 150 transportation and public works geeks.

What the experts did not discuss to our satisfaction was the political dimension to the “Time of Crisis”: 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, we keep wondering, aren’t the president or congressional Democrats pushing for anything like the WPA & CCC programs that rebuilt America and employed millions in the last big depression? More about these questions below.

Michael Grynbaum began by reading quotations from a report on how the building of the Second Avenue subway line in Manhattan was affecting local East Side businesses, parking, etc. A spokesman from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) estimated that work would be completed on the long-planned line in 10 years. Date of article: 1977. Status of project: still ongoing. Audience response: pained laughter, chagrin. If we didn’t laugh, we’d cry.

Hanging over the whole discussion, Grynbaum noted, was the shocking, job-killing decision by New Jersey governor Chris Christie in October 2010 to pull the state out of the ARC (Access to the Region’s Core) project—a new train tunnel under the Hudson River linking New Jersey and Manhattan—because, in Christie’s view, New Jersey was having to pay too much, more than originally budgeted. The cancellation outraged local officials and the public generally, and the Obama administration sought to negotiate a compromise, but Christie rejected the offers. (The two tunnels shown at left, built about 100 years ago, are N. J. Transit’s only way in and out of New York City.)

Denise Richardson said that Christie’s cancellation of this project that would have provided public benefits for at least a century to come—not to mention easier commutes and less auto traffic—would 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.)

Grynbaum pointed out that not only Christie but other Republican governors across the United States—in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida—have been rejecting federal appropriations for high-speed rail. (Or, in Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s case, not even applying for the funding.) Many of the same job-killing GOP governors who publicly reject stimulus money as “wasteful federal spending” quietly take the money anyway and have their pictures taken handing out checks to constituents. (See “Republicans Secretly (Seriously) Like the Stimulus.”)

What can be done in a time of budget shortfalls and critical needs for repair and expansion of public transit and other infrastructure? The public can and should individually and collectively demand generous funding for these projects—through letters to the editor, letters and phone calls to elected officials, whatever it takes. We must also help educate our fellow citizens that the benefits are not for a few (such as those who don’t drive cars) but for all.

Panelists generally agreed that transportation and public works supporters must do a much better job of communicating to the public the benefits of public works and transportation and mass transportation in particular. 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 and the support is lacking.

Hey Obama, Congress: Where’s the WPA for Our Depression?

Michael Horodniceanu said that it is difficult to spread the view of public works as beneficial to all the public amid the pervasive anti-government rhetoric spread by conservative politicians. The tax on gasoline is too low to fund mass transit expansion, and would be voted down. 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 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 building of the tunnel and rail line into London. The implication was that the American attitude is more like the British than the French.

Denise Richardson lamented that the U.S. has lost the concept of the public good, of having to pay for travel. With the great U.S. interstate highway system launched by President Eisenhower in the mid-1950s being free, without toll fees, the public has grown accustomed to expecting something for nothing.

Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association said that supporters of public works must communicate their support to state representatives in Albany. Even though the common view upstate 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.

Zupan listed a “dirty dozen” reasons why public works have lost ground, or public support. Among the factors making it more difficult for public works projects to gain support or be completed are • the multiplicity of agencies involved • capital programs of limited duration compared to the length of the work to be done • unexpected cost overruns • environmental impact statements, which could be a variant of the “paralysis of analysis” • competition with backlog of maintenance needs (Horodniceanu agreed that there is always competition between “state of good repair” and necessary new projects) • public unwillingness to pay taxes and expectation of something for nothing • and an absence of professionalism in agencies: a profusion of political appointees and a shortage of professionalism (engineers, etc.).

As mentioned above, the panelists did not discuss the political, partisan angle to the predicament: the widespread Republican antipathy to any public spending. All panelists live in a primarily Democratic city and state and, aside from Grynbaum’s mention above about the rejection by governors of the stimulus funding for high-speed rail projects, they did not discuss why, politically, public works and transportation projects are in such a predicament. There was no discussion of insufficient taxation—except possibly by one audience member during the too-brief question-and-answer period.

A very good account of the panel discussion—more detailed than this one—by Noah Kazis can be found at Streetsblog. Public works enthusiasts should also check out Infrastructurist, Building America’s Future, Building Green, America 2050, and others on our Infrastructure blogroll (bottom right).

It’s Not “the Economy, Stupid”—It’s the Evil “Starve the Beast” Agenda


This blog insists that the (unnecessary) budget crises are caused in large part by a massive redistribution of wealth to the top 1 and 2 percent of the population, especially the top sliver of the upper 1 percent. (Click here for some jaw-dropping graphs in Mother Jones’s “It’s the Inequality, Stupid.”) The near-meltdown of September 2008 had a devastating effect on state and municipal funds, to be sure, but it’s the tax evasion by the wealthy and corporations that is driving the budget shortfalls that are crippling local, state, and federal appropriations. Pulitzer Prize–winning New York Times reporter David Cay Johnston, author of Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich—and Cheat Everybody Else, explains that not only are corporations getting subsidies and tax breaks, but the IRS and state auditors are told to lay off the corpos and focus on middle-class individuals. And in “The Tax-Cut Con,” a comprehensive article in the New York Times Magazine in 2003, Nobel Prize–winning economist and columnist Paul Krugman explained the “starve the beast” strategy of deliberately curtailing revenue so that programs conservatives never wanted anyway can no longer be afforded.

This is the situation we’re in now. But we don’t have to take it—just look at Wisconsin—and we can do something about it. One step at a time, one day at a time, joining with others, organizing, keeping the pressure on elected officials, through letters to the editor, and political talk show and public affairs producers. If you have ideas, let us know.


Further Reading:

Digging a Hole Instead of a Tunnel (NYT editorial)

Policy at Its Worst | The veto of a railroad tunnel by Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is a bigger loss than it might seem | By NYT columnist Bob Herbert.

Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now by Felix Rohatyn (former managing director, Lazard Frères & Co.)


Amtrak illustration by Michael Schwab