Blair Horner: Ignoring Infrastructure Can Come Back To Haunt Elected Officials

Jul 3, 2017

Infrastructure maintenance is the Rodney Dangerfield of budgeting:  It never gets the respect it deserves.  Failing to maintain water tunnels, roads, bridges and mass transit systems can lead to catastrophic outcomes – both in terms of the impact on people as well as the cost to taxpayers.  So, it’s important to keep them well maintained and repaired when necessary.  As President John F. Kennedy once remarked, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.” 

But too often public officials ignore that wisdom.

No one cuts ribbons to fix a sewer line, or to lay new asphalt.  They do cut ribbons to unveil a new bridge.  The publicity instinct of elected officials drives them to ribbon cuttings and leaves them far less interested in things like highway maintenance.  They often only pay attention when their constituents begin to rage against the failing systems.

When it comes to the New York City mass transit system, the problem is compounded by base politics.  Republican governors are rarely interested in investing the billions of dollars needed to upgrade the City’s subways and buses, after all, City voters are unlikely to support Republicans anyway.  Democratic governors, on the other hand, can be disinterested in helping since New York City voters are very likely going to support them no matter what.

But the problem is that the City’s mass transit system has to work, or the City cannot.  The City simply cannot handle more cars – the air is already polluted and the traffic is already too congested.  Since the City is the state’s economic hub and accounts for a significant portion of state revenues, the City’s problems are of concern to everyone in the state.

The subway system is used by some six million riders every day; when the subway system hiccups, New Yorkers can be stranded, businesses lose money, lives are disrupted. 

As long as the system keeps limping along, governors and New York City mayors can ignore the need for big expenditures to maintain mass transit, since addressing them might mean raising taxes and fees.  And they can succeed in avoiding the needs, until the problems get so large that they must act.

Of course, waiting means that the costs are more staggering when they finally address the problems.  Executives just hope that they won’t be in office when the system needs fixing.  The mentality is keep kicking the problem down the road and hope the meltdown is on someone else’s watch.

Governor Cuomo is the latest to get caught being in office when the problems of the New York City system simply cannot be ignored.  In advance of the crisis, the governor promised additional resources of which little have yet materialized.  He promoted inexpensive improvements – like USB ports for buses – which are far cheaper than spending the money needed to make the buses move faster than a snail.

In recent weeks, the problems of the City’s transit system have become front page news.  Initially, the governor tried to deflect blame to the city, arguing that he does not control the system that months earlier he said that he did and that he famously shut down in a snow storm

He then tried to present himself as the true champion of reforms.  But after six and a half years in office, the public seems determined to hold the governor responsible – fairly or unfairly – for the sad state of affairs.

Last week, the governor issued emergency regulations to speed up the purchasing processes to help the City transit system get the materials it needs to obtain necessary upgrades.  Maybe this will help.

But all the spin in the world cannot change the basic political and policy problem – kicking the can on infrastructure needs, for New York City’s mass transit, or Albany’s roadways, or Syracuse’s water mains – can exact a huge price for elected officials and the public that relies on those services.  The sun is no longer shining, for this governor it’s past time to fix the roof.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.