Economy Hitting the Skids? Time to Get Ambitious About Transportation

triboro_workers.jpgT.A. director Paul White sends along this little nugget he came across in the New York Times archive. Read it for a timely review (penned by a pre-Bilbao Herbert Muschamp) of a Municipal Art Society show staged the last time an economic downturn coincided with a presidential election, in 1992:

"Steel, Stone and Backbone," which runs through Sept. 19, is a
protest against recessionary thinking. It’s a strike against the idea
that in hard economic times people should lower their expectations
about what kind of city they want to live in. In fact, the point of the
show is to offer historical proof to the contrary. When the going gets
tough, the tough get ambitious about architecture. Much of the New York
that is most admired — its water and transportation systems, housing,
cultural institutions — emerged from periods of economic crisis.

The
show, put together by Laura Rosen, an archivist with the Triborough
Bridge and Tunnel Authority, offers a look at six of these periods and
the public works they produced. Many viewers will already be familiar
with one of them: the Great Depression and its astounding record in
projects for housing, recreation and transportation. With segments
devoted to such projects as La Guardia Airport, Orchard Beach in the
Bronx and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel (with a video presentation on the
"sand hogs" who built it), the 1930’s takes up most of the exhibition
space.

But the real news of the show is that the building boom
of the 30’s wasn’t the exception. It was the rule. Such booms have
frequently coincided with financial busts, or as they were termed in
the 19th century, "panics." The Panic of 1837 saw the building of the
Croton Water System, including the monumental Egyptian Revival
reservoir that used to stand on the current site of the New York Public
Library. After the Panics of 1873 and 1893, work began on the
Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History and
the New York Zoological Society, later known as the Bronx Zoo. What a
panic.

If the 1930s saw the completion of ambitious projects ushering in an age of cheap air travel and mass car commuting, might the near future see a transit renaissance and the mainstream emergence of non-motorized transport?

With municipal budgets reeling, a big question mark is where the money would come from. A national infrastructure bank? Carbon taxes and congestion pricing? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett? "History doesn’t hand us a key," says Muschamp in his MAS review. "However, the implicit message of this show is that we will have to invent one for ourselves."

Photo of workers anchoring wire cables on the Triborough Bridge: New Deal Network

  • Thanks for this. It made my day.

  • Omri Schwarz

    State and local governments, if they want to do ambitious infrastructure programs, are going to have to gain investor confidence that they can pay back their bonds. That means serious, painful cost cutting.

  • Let’s write a letter asking Warren Buffett for a billion dollars for transit improvements and see what happens. The worst he can do is say no, right?

  • James

    Which, in turn, may mean municipal consolidation – the third rail of suburban politics. Look at New Jersey, with its hundreds upon hundreds of tiny municipalities. No way does each one in isolation have enough ratables to raise the necessary tax revenue to pay back those bonds in the event that they decide to undertake large-scale public works projects as an economic stimulus.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As the amount of money available goes down, the money promised to senior citizens — who hold public debts, are entitled to public pensions, and are due public health care — rises. Everything else gets cut.

    Borrow our way out of it? We could borrow in Great Depression I because we were a net creditor with a low national debt. Now we are bankrupt.

    Study the Buenos Aires subway system.

  • boris256

    Josh,

    Why not write to the Pentagon? If they give us just the amount of cash that was stolen in Iraq, we can build two Second Avenue lines. If they don’t want to do that, they can give us some old military equipment to sell on EBay. We can raise billions, and they get a tax break!

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Why does mass transit have to say where they get the money? The banks don’t. If they would have asked where they were going to get the money they never would have invaded Iraq. Transit turns in $4 in economic benefit for every $1 invested. Thats a much better multiplier than single family housing.

  • gecko

    A New York City class public bike system will transformational, cost far less than typical public works projects, and likely have immediate return in tourism and other indirect sources of income derived from highly improved mobility.

  • gecko

    #9 gecko (continued); . . . . And, could serve as replicable model for large world-class cities across this planet.

    Though hardly macro economic locally; since Columbia University’s Earth Institute is pro bono consultant to the city, Director Jeff Sachs, economics Nobel Laureate Joe Stieglitz, and Geoffrey Heal (Paul Garrett Professor of Public Policy and Business Responsibility, School of Business) could be enlisted to do the financials, etc. similar to what they collaborated on with the Rainforest Coalition. NASA’s Goddard and IPCC scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig could be the environmental lead.

    United Nations staff would benefit . . . , etc.

  • JK

    This ain’t 1992, it’s much much worse. This would have to be a federal initiative. NY State and City and, especially, the MTA have effectively maxed their credit. That’s why there is a huge gap in the MTA capital plan. There is not much appetite to buy more debt from localities and states whose tax revenues are plunging. Like it or not, the Wall St bailout(s) plus Iraq, Afghanistan and an existing huge federal deficit and Obama promise of a middle class tax cut argue against higher levels of federal spending on transportation anytime soon. Odds are that NYC is going to have a hard time hanging onto its existing transit infrastructure, let alone adding to it.

  • JK, Obama’s middle class tax cuts are more than paid for by his rolling back of Bush’s cuts for the wealthiest. If today’s “economic conservatives” are right about anything, it is that an Obama administration would increase revenues for our cash-hemorrhaging, hopelessly indebted government (how unpatriotic). Not that there will be enough cash for the infrastructure we want, far from it, but Obama’s particular tax policies won’t be the cause of the shortfall. And as we stop pouring federal money into highway expansion I think we’ll find we can at least afford to run our national 1960s train system more effectively than our dead-ended highway and airway systems. Amtrak doesn’t need haute vitesse right now as much as it needs non-retarded scheduling. Also we could try not paying paramilitary police to unleash the hounds on train passengers. As circumstances force our country to stop treating its railroad network like a train set that unimportant (and eccentric?) little people ride on, I think we’ll be surprised at how trains can’t help but work.

    Same goes within New York, although we’re already half-way there (MTA puts Amtrak to shame, at least). Bicycles are the indefatigable low cost leader, but subways are right behind them and valued above all else by the public. Fares will go up before subways are allowed to fail, but before fares go up much more I would bet on the free ride (and park) for automobiles within city limits coming to a dramatic end. The money for better transit is out there; we just have to put it into transit instead of public and private trash. It will happen simply, and finally, because our economy requires it to.

  • gecko

    A forty-percent cycling NY will jump start the recovery. Just that simple.

  • bob

    brilliant, gecko – where can we find your plan & funding proposal?

  • gecko

    Now lets see. Road accidents in this city cost about $2 billion; in the state, about $20 billion.

    Half the street space freed up for people would greatly increase paid parking revenue and the subsequent sales tax. That should pay for something.

    If a lot of city people just give up on their cars, they should have at least $1000 disposable income from not paying car insurance . . .

    Quality of life would improve sufficiently to further enhance New York as a tourist destination and revenues from sales tax.

    Road repair costs should drop substantially.

    Medical costs from noise, poor air quality should drop substantially.

    Just a start.

  • gecko

    #15 gecko (continued) . . . almost forgot: congestion costs $13 billion a year.

  • gecko

    #16 gecko (continued) . . . with MTA annual cash flows of about $6 to $9 billion (and underfunded) the costs to achieve 40-percent cycling would be a small percentage since it does not require 1.2 million dollar subway cars and one-half million dollar buses with the required infrastructure, maintenance, and bureaucracy that is also expensive since it is a very restrictive local monopoly based on very difficult and expensive technology.

    A forty-percent cycling New York would pretty much run itself once things got going.

    Since Paris has 20,600 rental bikes (typically used 5 to 12 times a day) serving 2 million people, a New York class public bike system serving over 8 million people should probably scale up to over 100,000 rental bikes. More people can be brought into the system by allowing them to use their own bikes and supplying services such as bike parking, bike purchase and repair and maintenance discounts, etc. Many others can cycle on there own outside the system yet indirectly benefit as well especially, from the greatly improved safety on the streets.

    A sufficiently well thought-out and implemented initiative towards forty-percent cycling should provide net savings (and even income) to the city government and New Yorkers within a very short time, possibly in the time frame of a year or two; a very good investment that makes good economic sense.

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