Why NYC Residents Should Care About the Upstate Sprawl Bomb

Peter Fleischer is the executive director of Empire State Future, a coalition of 39 business, civic, and environmental organizations advocating for smart growth across New York state.

Over four hundred New York Thruway miles from Manhattan, in a corner of the state as remote as the Outer Banks of North Carolina or Acadia National Park in Maine, the 900,000-odd residents of Erie County float on a $1,100 per capita cushion largely provided by the taxpayers of downstate New York. According to Bruce Fisher, formerly the Deputy Erie County Executive and now the Director of Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State, Erie County takes in over one billion dollars more in state revenue and transfer payments than it pays in taxes to New York State.

buffalo_sprawl.jpgFrom 1951 to 2000, the population of metro Buffalo stayed flat, but land development sprawled out over an area three times as large. Click here to enlarge. Graphic via Joe the Planner

Buffalo, Erie County’s largest city, needs that cash; it has been hemorrhaging jobs, residents and wealth for 50 years. Tonawanda, Lackawanna and Cheektowaga, great names really, Erie’s other older industrial communities have begun to shed people too. Erie County is now losing both city-dwellers and suburbanites, even as new, far-flung suburbs grow at the regional periphery, eating up acres and acres of what were forest, field, wetland and family farm while cannibalizing its denser neighboring cities and towns.

It’s a sad and ongoing story — akin to a publicly supported pyramid scheme with way too few new arrivals, just the same sources of funds, divvied up among fewer and fewer folks, folks who are living on more and more land, less and less efficiently, all the while needing ever more infrastructure and services to float on the cushion to which they have become accustomed.

And Erie is hardly the only upstate county where the fiscally and demographically absurd passes for near normal. Places like Oneida County, Broome County, Onondaga County and Niagara County are living on the same fiscal edge, losing residents year after year, from both city and suburb.

And yet they sprawl. In Monroe County, a charming place with 700,000 people (half the population of the Bronx), the rate of land development disproportionately exceeds the rate of population growth. And today’s upstate sprawl is not your father’s sprawl. It is not an aesthetic blight of generic neon strip malls, "ginormous" parking lots and roadways with so many turning lanes that young athletes are deterred from crossing.

Well, okay, it is all that, but it is far worse than that. Because today’s sprawl is too often built with public debt that allows upstate developers to build big houses on large lots in what were, till yesterday, green fields.

My friend George in Clarence, a very pretty rural Erie County suburb a score of miles from downtown Buffalo, says his town is the kind of place where one uses a gallon of gas to go get a gallon of milk. It’s hard to believe. But I ran the numbers. Upstaters tend to drive old American cars that get 12, 14 maybe 16 miles to the gallon. It’s not uncommon, in rural or even suburban upstate, to live five, six, or seven miles from the nearest town or gas station that sells stuff like milk.

Do the math — a gallon for a gallon, crazy stuff. Watch out when that gallon goes back to $4.20 as it was in July 2008. The average upstate household (median income $43,000) has two cars, an old heating system with sub-standard insulation, and expensive oil-based electricity. That all-in energy bill can hit $7-8,000 per year. That’s a big chunk of $43,000 before taxes. And there’s no choice about it, one has to heat and one has drive. Everywhere. That’s how upstate is set up. At least, that’s how it is now after a couple of generations of sprawl and the resultant abandonment of cities where dense, efficient living is possible.

Statistics tell us that the upstate New York counties are in deep trouble. A recent study of demographics from Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology projects massive drops in the population of almost all the upstate counties (Saratoga and Ontario are among the exceptions) over the next 25 years.

The big six western and central New York counties — Erie, Niagara, Monroe, Onondaga, Broome and Oneida — will lose a total of 340,000 people out of a combined 2010 population of 2.6 million. Losses like those happening in our upstate rustbelt are not normal in most of the world.

Can an ever-shrinking population pay the bills for cities built for many more people than live there at present, even as they must pay the bills — financing, operating, maintaining — for all that new sprawled out suburban infrastructure? At the same time, that shrinking, aging population, facing higher tax rates and lower property values, must pay for all the needed services — police, fire, health, education, road maintenance — both in the hollowed out city and the inefficiently sprawled out countryside. They cannot do it. They just cannot make these ends meet. And that is why, already, 400 miles away from New York City, Erie County needs a billion dollars in annual subsidies to make ends meet.

So, what can we do to contain the fiscal nightmare unleashed by New York state’s subsidies for sprawl? Right now, legislators in Albany are considering the public infrastructure act, sponsored by Buffalo Assembly Member Sam Hoyt, Westchester County Senator Suzi Oppenheimer, and Brooklyn
Senator Velmanette Montgomery. This bill would reform state spending on infrastructure, directing
agencies to prioritize investments in existing town centers, main streets, and urban areas while de-emphasizing development on the far-flung exurban edges. The legislation has reached the ways and means committee in the Assembly and the finance committee in the Senate, with hearings in both houses scheduled for next week. If passed, it would put a check on runaway subsidies for sprawl and foster more walkable, compact growth — a major win for the taxpayers of New York state, no matter where you live.

  • Great post, Peter. Will the political influence of these counties with dwindling population also dwindle, resulting in a reduction of the net outflow from the rest of the state? Would that require reapportionment? If so, when would reapportionment occur? And would reapportionment affect these counties’ representation in both houses of the state legislature, or do counties each get senatorial representation unweighted by population, like the federal Senate?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Good discussion of the issue, but it isn’t just infrastructure spending that is driving people from existing centers.

    There is the quality of the schools. You want people to live in cities? Then you want vouchers and charter schools. Not everyone wants to hear it, but parents will not move to a place with poor schools, so if you oppose charters and vouchers you sacrifice older cities as part of the price. And upstate, unlike NYC in the 1970s and 1990s, school spending is really, really,really high in the cities, so that isn’t the problem.

    There are legacy costs. If you live in Buffalo, more of your taxes are going to health care for retired public employees than active public employees. By not setting aside money when they were working, past city residents shifted that bill to future city residents — and then moved away from it. This dynamic now shifting to the suburbs.

    And there is the level of crime and violence. Here I’m not an expert, but NYC does seem to have had some success.

    People may point to a purported private preference for suburban and then exurban living. I see these public policies — in addition to the infrastructure decisions cited above — as having more of an effect.

  • It’s a good overview article, but why, oh, why, is it called “Why NYC residents should care”? It’s not city-relevant; what you’re saying is that Upstate has problems, too.

    BicyclesOnly: by Supreme Court rulings, all legislative districts in America except those of the US Senate must be proportional to population. This includes State Senates. Those rulings were some of the Warren court rulings that conservatives decry as judicial activism (prior to that, many states underrepresented the cities). However, to respect community boundaries, the courts allowed a 4% leeway. In New York State, this leeway is consistently used to favor Upstate: Upstate districts have the smallest population the leeway allows, Downstate districts the largest. It adds up to a few State Assembly and State Senate seats.

    Larry: crime and schools aren’t why people actually leave the Rust Belt. The Southern boomtowns usually have higher crime rates and worse schools than the Upstate New York inner cities. A more likely reason they’re leaving is that the South is in its Generation Greed stage, borrowing to pay the costs of overexpansion.

    Besides which, New York City has among the best inner-city school districts in the US, without charter schools. Control for the fact that charter and private school students tend to come from wealthier or more motivated backgrounds (why else would you quit the public system?), and they turn out to be as good as ordinary public schools. Better to use the New York model of letting parents choose schools within the public system. That would solve part of the problem instead of let the principals’ union run education.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “A more likely reason they’re leaving is that the South is in its Generation Greed stage, borrowing to pay the costs of overexpansion.”

    There does seem to be this dynamic in which one generation builds a community with borrowing, a second borrows more and doesn’t fully fund its public employee retirement costs, and a third moves out before the bill comes due to a new greenfield site.

    Growth allows costs to be deferred for a time — on the assumption that a bigger tax base can pay later. Once full buildout of a taxing jurisdiction occurs, the clock starts ticking to the kind of fiscal collapse that formed the “urban crisis” of the 1970s. It’s the suburban and sunbelt crisis now.

  • Alon Levy wrote:

    > It’s a good overview article, but why, oh, why, is it called “Why NYC residents should care”? It’s not city-relevant;

    Au contraire, it’s very city-relevant: city taxes are paying for this ridiculousness while we run out of money for our own infrastructure. Money disappears from the MTA taxes right into the general budget to fund this nonsense.

    Why should we have to pay for their irresponsibility, their sprawl and waste, which they can’t possibly sustain, even if we keep throwing money at them?

    Our own tax dollars for our own mass transit system are being sent upstate where they are basically lit on fire to keep the heat running and the roads paved for a population for smaller than our own. It’s very relevant.

  • Alon – agreed about the charter school arguments. It’s a straw man, preying on the old notion of the bullet-ridden urban hell-hole.

    “We live unsustainable lives in a crumbling system which will soon meet its deserved end because we can’t have charter schools” ?

  • Bill

    The map colors are appropriate, similar to low-density red giant stars, a phase in stellar evolution that doesn’t last long, relatively (the area before 1951 is a healthier, younger star’s color). I wonder what Buffalo will look like as a white dwarf.

  • Billy: I’m not convinced that the upriver tax transfer is a sprawl issue. First, the decline of Upstate isn’t about sprawl; it’s about loss of manufacturing and shipping. Upstate is a lot like Scranton or Lowell, but it managed to hang on for longer, so it only started declining after the war.

    Second, the large Upstate cities are not big money suckers. I don’t know how it is on the state level, but I checked it on the federal level a few years ago, and it turned out that Greater Rochester and Greater Syracuse were both net tax donors, by a small margin – on the order of $1,000 per resident, compared with $4,500 for Greater New York. Buffalo was a tax recipient, by a small margin. The big tax recipients were Albany and the rural and small town counties.

    The tax numbers as well as other issues show that there are really two Upstates. One is the cities along the I-90 corridor, which have declined in the last 50 years but are still in decent shape. If New York were Paris, they’d be Lyon, Marseille, or Lille – much poorer than the core, but still getting by. The other is the small towns, which are more like rural France. Those are the places where you need to burn a gallon of gas to drive to significant retail, and where per capita income is half that of the city. Those areas have declined as well, but their decline is not about rusting or about sprawl; it’s about being a rural hinterland that’s disconnected from its center. Rochester and Watertown both look bad in comparison with New York, but they’re not in the same category of bad.

  • Woody

    Let me make a wild guess here. Buffalo, Niagara Falls, Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Rome, Schenectady, and Albany have public housing projects built for the working class in the late ’40s, ’50’, and even into the ’60s. Bet on it.

    The low-skill manufacturing jobs have left the U.S. in a triumph of neoliberal trade policy, or ruling class warfare against the lower classes, or something. Now those projects are full of unemployed, social-services-dependent, minority poor.

    Meanwhile the inner and outer suburbs have no public housing at all. They are not lily white — and I know we all feel good about that. Yes, for sure Barry Obama could find a home out in the burbs. But Leroy Johnson, who wants to move out of the projects, not so easy.

    Many Americans are still willing to pay almost any price to maintain racial and class segregation, geographic segregation in this case. If the new and distant developments have to max out the public credit card to do so, so be it.

  • Don

    Yes, but your alternative is specious. New York City has become a playground for the wealthy. Even in the Bronx, $400,000 won’t get you much and you know what? It’s not safe and most of the schools are impossible for anyone with any care for their children to utilize.

    Misguided New Urbanism like yours is joining hands with the forces of development to attack people like poor Leroy Johnson when he moves to inner ring suburbs or and the exurban working class family that’s trying to make a go of it somehow. We need more holistic strategies that take into account the condition that already exists.

  • Woody

    You taking to me Don? Or replying to those voices you hear inside your head? I did not put forth ANY ALTERNATIVE, so for you to call it “specious” and my “misguided new urbanism” is simply making stuff up.

    Maybe my observations about the role of racism in the white flight from the urban core hit a very personal nerve of yours?

    btw. When making stuff up, try to get the simplest facts correct. New York City is safe. It is about the safest city in America. Even the Bronx is safe. I ride my bike on any street in any part of that borough and I’m never afraid. Guns laws and good policing help a lot.

  • $400K sure looks like it gets you a lot in the Bronx. I guess it all depends on what you’re holding out for.

  • Brandon

    Don,the alternative proposed is not saying that everyone should move to NYC, its proposed that the state should spend that $1100 a person rejuvenating existing communities upstate.

  • Herzog

    Don,

    What you’re suggesting, that suburbs are intrinsically more affordable, makes no sense. In a properly designed city, they are more expensive because they require more services for each resident.

    Peter,

    “In Monroe County, a charming place with 700,000 people…”

    I disagree very strongly with that characterization. I bet most of the people leaving will be happy to not look back.

  • I am glad you picked up on this story. I featured the “Joe the Planner” story on Buffalorising.com ( http://www.buffalorising.com/2010/03/3-times-the-stuff—fewer-people.html ) a few month’s back and it received a lot of comments especially from those who are threatened by any criticism of sprawl.

    Your analysis is severely lacking however with the free pass you give to Down State and the the NY metro area. NYC overwhelmingly controls the dysfunctional state government which is a good part of the reason for upstate decline. State policy is set almost exclusively for the benefit of downstate. In 1950 Buffalo and Atlanta metro populations were approximately equal as was Toronto just 1.5 hours north of Buffalo. While those other 2 cities grew at enormous rates Buffalo stagnated and declined. Though the reasons for this decline are complex one major reason is that the state of NY has been geared to create that decline. With functional state government Buffalo could very well be growing. Without the state dysfunction places like Buffalo and Rochester could have easily added 1 to 2 million more people to their metro areas and would have been paying their way. Of course sprawl is a very dangerous trend in America and it must be stopped or it will stop us

    I also take exception to you stereotype of upstate as a backward semi third world still living on 70’s style technology. This kind of lazy writing hurts the discussion overall important subject matter of sprawl which is a major problem throughout America and is especially agregious in the New York metro area.

  • I might also point out that Western New York has a massive hydro power plant at Niagara Falls. Most of the cheap and highly sustainable energy from that plant is sent downstate at the expense of people who live in the Buffalo area. The result is an additional dirty coal plant just a few miles up river. So as I said this is not so simple as down staters being put upon by upstate yokels. NYC must take responsibility for its part in the NYS disaster

  • Woody

    Well, there’s a fresh point of view. Upstate’s problems are the fault of the NYC area’s control of the state!

    Meanwhile those of us living in Manhattan often feel like the residents of one of those remaining island colonies of the Empire, like the Falklands.

    For example, in NYC we do not yet have permission from a powerful State Senator from Rochester to put all the cameras we want to fine drivers who run red lights or who park their cars to block the painted BUS ONLY lanes.

    Of course. The ruling Viceroy from Rochester knows better than anyone living in New York City about how to manage our own traffic problems, so he will tell us how to do it. Yeah, thanks, Upstate, for your benevolent rule.

    And that colonialist ruler is a Democrat. Last year was, iirc, the first in my lifetime that the State Senate was controlled by the Democrats, though ‘controlled’ is hardly the right word.

    The Repubs, all but a few of them from Upstate, soon launched a coup against the Democrats. By making an alliance with the three most corrupt Dem members of the Senate they could find, the Repubs were able to depose the majority-elected Democratic leadership.

    Meanwhile the longtime Repub (and upstate) leader of the State Senate was convicted of some business-as-usual corruption.

    And you blame us Downstaters for the mess in Albany? Hey, I’m willing to share the blame, but reality prevents me from accepting all the blame.

  • You are talking about parking tickets. I am talking about major issues on taxes, work rules, and policy. For instance the University of Buffalo is asking the state for more autonomy in setting its own policy and tuition so that is can be run more independently from the state. This is a key component of its master plan to grow the campus and its research ability substantially. This is being held up by downstate politicians who do not want the state’s largest University outside of their control. Another example, Buffalo has been trying for years to rectify the state’s dysfunctional historic tax credit law which does not allow selling the credits to banks and insurance companies (these are basically the companies that buy tax credits) 3 major historic restoration projects and countless others have been on hold in Buffalo because of downstate politicians. Another example 3/4 of Erie county’s budget is mandated by the state. The county has no control over that any of that spending. A vast vast vast majority of the state representatives including all of the Governors come from the NYC area. That IS the reality. You can duck blame if you like but your traffic ticket example is hardly and example of upstate control in NY State.

    In the mean time I am not holding Upstate blameless for the sprawl or the dysfunction of the state but to claim poor little NYC is a victim of the few Million people in upstate is disingenuous. You are so upset by state corruption you did not even mention Pedro Espada. I wonder why.

  • That is not even taking into account the massive money and campaign influence that comes out of NYC that effects all the politicians in the state. For being from such a large cosmopolitan city is is really odd how parochial NYers can be.

  • Woody

    Actually, I DID mention Pedro Espada

    “By making an alliance with the three most corrupt Dem members of the Senate they could find, the Repubs were able to depose the majority-elected Democratic leadership.”

  • STEEL: you’re totally right. If only it hadn’t been for New York City, Buffalo and Rochester would have boomed, just like Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

  • Alon Levy,

    I went back and looked through my comments. I could find no reference to a booming Buffalo or Rochester. The global economic changes affecting the rustbelt and other complex reasons would have pretty much precluded that. What I did say is that without a dysfunctional NYS Buffalo and Rochester metros could have easily been double their current size.

    So your contention is that since there are other dysfunctional states and cities that NYC politics has nothing to do with the decline of NYS? I fail to see your reasoning but since you bring up the issue lets look at it.

    Buffalo since 1950 has added 86,000 people – Quite pathetic

    Pittsburgh has added 166,000 people. This is a comparable lackluster increase. Actually it is far worse than Buffalo on a percentage basis. It could be noted that PA is also dominated by a very large city which is not Pittsburgh.

    Cleveland has added 1,438.000 people. Oops, that one does not work in your favor does it.

    How about some others

    Cincinnati – Increase 896,000
    Charlotte – increase 1,124,000
    Grand Rapids – Increase 600,000 (and that is with Detroit sucking the life out of the state)
    Detroit – increase 2,200,000
    Denver – increase 1,665,000
    Hartford – Increase 678,000
    Indianapolis – Increase 500,000
    Louisville, Increase 400,000
    Miami (in 1950 much much smaller than Buffalo) – increase 3,000,000
    Minneapolis – Increase 1,600,000
    Portland Or – Increase 1,300,00

    I could go on and on across the entire country and find current population growth in almost every metro including Pittsburgh – oh except for in New York State where every single metro in NYS outside of NYC where we find decline. I wonder why that is.

    And actually Woody,
    you mentioned a corrupt upstate democrat and neglected to say that Pedro Espada an allegedly corrupt downstate democrat was the leader of that coup and that the result of the coup was that a buffalo area senator who was due to be senate leader was denied that position

  • Milwaukee added 600,000
    Oaklahoma City added 600,000
    Providence added 200,000
    St Louis added 800,000
    Kansas City added 900,000
    New Orleans added 600,000

  • Boris

    “A vast vast vast majority of the state representatives including all of the Governors come from the NYC area.”

    I thought state representatives were apportioned by population, which would put NYC as responsible for just over half of them, not a “vast vast vast majority.” Governors indeed often come from NYC, but that doesn’t mean they are effective in promoting pro-urban policy.

    I do agree though, that often downstate politicians believe the same things their upstate friends believe – that their constituents overwhelmingly drive, want to live in sprawl, etc – even though they represent completely different populations with different needs and lifestyles.

  • 46 of 62 state senators are for downstate most of those are in NYC or very close.

    23 US congressmen are from downstate only 7 from the rest of the rest of the state.

    Of the 2 US Senators one is from down state. Donwstate forces have been actively trying to make sure that both are from the NYC area in the future.

    It is really odd that NYC is running away from they fact that it is in control of NYS . I guess it is easier to blame the upstate Republican yokels for the disaster than to look in the mirror. But the fact is NYC politicians have run the state into the ground. By the way, representatives from the Buffalo and Rochester Urban areas tend to be Democrats. Some of the area districts have been gerrymandered to produce Republicans.

  • Woody

    STEELE, we may be seeing things quite differently. You see the divide as Upstate and Downstate. In NYC we usually see it as The City, the Suburbs, and Upstate. Too damn often we see an unholy alliance of the Suburbs and Upstate against the City.

    This stuff goes back for decades, and tens of billions of dollars. If I understand correctly, New York City contributes to paying for Medicaid coverage for its citizens, while in Buffalo the federal funds are matched by NY State, no?

    Again, state school aid for half a century or more has generously flowed to Upstate districts and the Suburbs, with only a trickle to the City.

    More recently, the City wanted to put in congestion pricing, so that drivers coming into the core would pay a modest fee for the privilege. That money was going to improve the public transit system.

    Now what could be more of NYC’s business and less of Rochester’s business than deciding how to deal with our traffic on Manhattan Island? But oh, no. The Suburbs and Upstate (along with a Fifth Column, a handful of car-loving traitors to the majority of City households who do NOT own a car), made an unholy alliance in the State Legislature to decide that, of course, this was a matter to be decided by the State, not the local people affected, and the plan did not go ahead. Boy, oh boy, we sure could use that congestion fee money now.

    If you see the City and Suburban legislators treating your city or region the way the Upstate and Suburban legislators treat us here, then I do feel your pain.

    ——————

    By the way, when I referenced the Upstate Legislator blocking cameras at red lights and in front of buses, I was not talking about “parking tickets” as you called them. I was talking about dead bodies in our streets when drivers run red lights with impunity.

    And I’m talking about 40 or more passengers on a bus being delayed while one self-important snot idles his car in the bus lane.

    If you and your legislators find these issues so unimportant that you can so easily dismiss them as “parking tickets”, or substitute your view of the world for what is amusingly called “home rule” when the City must beg Albany for permission to make its own traffic rules, well, then it’s gonna be difficult to get us to care about your problems.

  • First, I live in Chicago so I don’t know anything about school aid or medicaid funding in NYS.

    I do know something about Buffalo though. It is hampered by the suburban mentality if not more than NYC is. Unlike NY Buffalo is overwhelmed by the surrounding suburban population on top of that Buffalo gets little to no representation in state government for urban issues. Its parks and neighborhoods have been cut up by state mandated highways – recently a highway was reconstructed across the city’s southern waterfront even though the city officials and citizens were against it. The state forced this boondoggle and now Buffalo’s waterfront is locked up for suburban travel for the next 50 years.

    I would also suggest that the vast majority of suburban residents in the state live surrounding NYC. If congestion travel fees were defeated it was because of these people. If upstate legislators joined in to defeat this measure it is because they were coerced by downstate suburban representatives Even some of the city boroughs are somewhat suburban. I don’t find your traffic issue unimportant just less important than other issues that the state needs to deal with. They are also not compelling proof that NYS is somehow controlled by the minority population of upstate residents. I know that NYers like to blame all problems on upstate bumpkins but this is a very parochial mentality. The fact is the state government is controlled out of NY and that is where your beef is. For Christ’s sake the governor is hardly ever even in Albany. Get real, NYC is killing the state. Buffalo has had no real representation at the state level for decades and the results are clear.

    By the way there is no proof that red light cameras save lives and in fact there is growing evidence that they cause accidents.

  • STEEL: you’re wrong about Pennsylvania. Greater Philly accounts for about one third of its population. This is less than the percentage of Greater LA in California, Greater Miami in Florida, and Greater Detroit in Michigan, and not much higher than the percentage of Greater Dallas in Texas. In contrast, Greater New York is two-thirds of New York State, which is clear domination.

    You’re also wrong about Ohio, in a more fundamental way. Upstate’s problem isn’t population decline. It’s income decline. Rochester, Cleveland, Detroit, and the rest of the Erie Canal/Great Lakes metro areas used to have a per capita income of about 120% of the national average, ahead of Boston. They’re now down to the middle or high 90s. The only metro areas in the Rust Belt that have maintained a high per capita income are Chicago, Minneapolis, the East Coast cities, and the college towns.

  • So what you are saying is that even though NYC has a 2/3 lock on the state it is subservient to to the 1/3 upstate yokels? Poor little NYC is a victim of a minority of the state population? NYS has the most dysfunctional state government in the US. It has one of the highest tax rates and least business friendly environments in the country. The rules are set out of NYC not upstate. Any pretense otherwise is just plain goofiness.

  • #29 STEEL, Not being an expert there seems to be much truth in what you say.

    #28 Alon Levy by all indications is a climate change policy troll employing trash talk typical of those employed directly or indirectly by the American Petroleum Institute to produce confusion and further the self-interest of the oil industry promoting continued dependence on oil and the transportation systems that depend on it, monopolizing local roads through the dangers caused by automobiles, and corrupt governance by direct and indirect corporate financial investment, etc.

  • Woody

    I’m sorry about the decline of the Erie Canal cities, I really am. It’s disheartening. And it’s important to understand the real causes of the decline. I really don’t think it is misrule by NYC.

    I’m sure a huge part of Rochester’s decline is due to the technological change that wiped out the film business, and almost wiped out Eastman Kodak altogether. A lot of well-paying jobs went down the drain when people stopped buying film. I’ll bet a lot of personal fortunes took a big hit, too, as the stock declined. The educational, cultural, and civic organizations would have taken a hit along with their patrons.

    A half century ago there was still a shipping business in Buffalo. Do any ships still call there? And nearby Lackawanna had a huge steel mill, now just traces of rust on the ground, no? Is that Albany’s fault, or NYC’s?

    If there had been Wal-Marts in 1960, they would have been supplied in large part from factories in Syracuse and Rome, Utica and Buffalo. Today all the crapola comes from China, and the good stuff too. Half of GE was in Schenectady, is anything left of it?

    Most of those factories were unionized. Who lead the fight to break the unions? (Hint, remember who broke the Air Traffic Controllers strike? It wasn’t NYC, or Downstate as you like to call it.)

    And free trade? I blame NAFTA on Clinton, from the days he was from Arkansas, but Reagun (Cali), Bush I and Bush II (Texas) also pushed to open our markets wide to products made by workers paid a pittance in countries with no environmental concern whatsoever.

    Last and not least, nationally there has been an enormous shift in employment, wealth, and income to Wall Street in particular. In general the FIRE industries — finance, insurance, real estate — take a much much larger share of the Gross Domestic Product than ever before. But it is hard to see how they actually add to the national output or the national wealth.

    Rather the banking industry appears to be, as was said of Goldman Sachs, the leader of the banksters, a giant vampire squid on the nation’s face.

    I don’t think that Goldman, or any of the FIRE powers that be, who are mostly located in NYC, give a sh*t about Upstate. But I have no reason to believe that they have singled it out for mistreatment. Instead they have robbed the working class and middle class across the country, because that was who had the wealth to be taken. Alon’s income figures suggest that maybe Upstate got robbed all the more because they had more wealth to be stolen.

  • No, Gecko, Alon is not a troll.

    Upstate politicians do not dominate the State government. What they do is form a coaltion with the suburban politicians and corrupt city politicians to block effective reform.

    If the city or the metro area had control over certain things like bus cameras, the progressive urbanists could overcome the suburbanites and win some reforms. But with the upstaters backing the suburbanites, we’ve got no chance.

  • STEEL: Downstate has 2/3 of the state’s population. However:

    a) Downstate has slightly less than 2/3 of the state’s representation, as the Supreme Court allows a 4% leeway in district size, which New York State uses exclusively in favor of Upstate;

    b) New York City has only about 42% of the state’s population, and the suburbs often don’t like the city any more than Upstate; and,

    c) while the regulations are exclusively written by Downstaters, to placate Upstate the legislature typically employs large south-to-north money transfers, which are on a par with the Downstate-to-federal government transfers.

    Woody: it’s not exactly true that FIRE is a large and growing share of the economy. Its size relative to GDP is not that large, and hasn’t increased much. What’s exploded is FIRE profits. If I remember correctly, FIRE went from 10% of US corporate profits in 1980 to 20% in 2007.

    The manufacturing decline in Upstate isn’t really about free trade, for three reasons. First, during the US’s initial bout of free trade, between 1846 and 1861, manufacturing grew at the same rate as under the 1812-1846 and 1861-1913 high-tariff regimes; the tariffs served captains of industry exclusively. Second, Upstate’s relative decline began around 1950, coinciding with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway but well before today’s low-tariff regime. And third, the manufacturing did not in fact relocate abroad; instead, it relocated to the lower-wage South, a process that began in the 1930s, wiping out Scranton and coming close to wiping out Boston.

    More likely, Upstate was never an import-replacing city region. It just lived off of a natural resource, the Erie Canal, and declined once the resource was no longer important. It’s most similar to how West Virginia declined once pollution controls forced the US to switch to cleaner-burning Wyoming coal, and how Wyoming is going to completely die once more stringent pollution controls force the US to get off coal entirely.

    And Gecko: I’d really like whatever you’re smoking.

  • Regarding #32 Cap’n Transit, “No, Gecko, Alon is not a troll”

    You could have fooled me since the type of disconnects that Alon perpetuates and misinformation are typical of climate denier tactics; wastes a lot of energy and time; often typical of shock-jock discourse. Witness the discussion repeated below.

    And, lastly #29 STEEL comments: ” . . . just plain goofiness.”

    Pretty much characterizes Alon’s discussions.

    Oh yeah, Alon, please keep your word.
    ***********

    #16 STEEL comments:
    “NYC must take responsibility for its part in the NYS disaster”

    #21 Alon Levy (comments),
    STEEL: you’re totally right. If only it hadn’t been for New York City, Buffalo and Rochester would have boomed, just like Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

    #22 STEEL comments:
    Alon Levy,

    I went back and looked through my comments. I could find no reference to a booming Buffalo or Rochester. The global economic changes affecting the rustbelt and other complex reasons would have pretty much precluded that. What I did say is that without a dysfunctional NYS Buffalo and Rochester metros could have easily been double their current size.

    So your contention is that since there are other dysfunctional states and cities that NYC politics has nothing to do with the decline of NYS? I fail to see your reasoning but since you bring up the issue lets look at it.

    Buffalo since 1950 has added 86,000 people – Quite pathetic

    Pittsburgh has added 166,000 people. This is a comparable lackluster increase. Actually it is far worse than Buffalo on a percentage basis. It could be noted that PA is also dominated by a very large city which is not Pittsburgh.

    Cleveland has added 1,438.000 people. Oops, that one does not work in your favor does it.

    #28, Alon Levi comments:
    “STEEL: you’re wrong about Pennsylvania. Greater Philly accounts for about one third of its population.”

    #29 STEEL comments:
    “So what you are saying is that even though NYC has a 2/3 lock on the state it is subservient to to the 1/3 upstate yokels? Poor little NYC is a victim of a minority of the state population? NYS has the most dysfunctional state government in the US. It has one of the highest tax rates and least business friendly environments in the country. The rules are set out of NYC not upstate. Any pretense otherwise is just plain goofiness.”

    #32 Cap’n Transit comments:
    “Upstate politicians do not dominate the State government. What they do is form a coaltion with the suburban politicians and corrupt city politicians to block effective reform.”

  • So now it is not upstate that dominates the state government but a coalition between Upstate and NYC suburbanites – WOW _ how do you think upstate gets anything it wants? It has to form coalitions otherwise it has no power. So upstate is to blame for traffic tickets in NYC because downstate suburbanits tell them what to do. Like I said before plain goofiness!

    By the way – don’t lump all of upstate together as one place. Buffalo is a place being ruined by suburban policy. I think the city of Buffalo only has one urban state assembly district all the rest have been cut up to give a hefty suburban influence. That was done by downstate suburbanites.

    And this quote form above:

    I don’t think that Goldman, or any of the FIRE powers that be, who are mostly located in NYC, give a sh*t about Upstate. But I have no reason to believe that they have singled it out for mistreatment. Instead they have robbed the working class and middle class across the country, because that was who had the wealth to be taken.

    Finally! You understand what I am saying. The power brokers DON’T give a shit about Buffalo and as such Buffalo gets no policy set which could help it grow – See my University of Buffalo example above.

    Again – It is downstate setting policy in NYS and the results have been dismal. With smart policy there is no reason NYS cities can’t be on par with the other cities I listed above population-wise and there is no reason NYS should have sunk to 3 most populous state soon to be 4th.

  • By the way Buffalo did not decline until after WWII and the start of suburbanization which was fueled by state and federal governments. It was still one of the worlds top industrial centers well into the 60’s. Anyone who thinks the decline of the Erie Canal was the reason for Buffalo’s decline has no idea what they are talking about.

    By the way it was NYC’s Robert Mosses who made sure that most of the cheap power produced at Niagara Falls was sent to NYC rather than to Buffalo. The value of that power alone is worth far more than any subsidies sent to Western New York by way of NYC. Mosses did another favor for the region by putting a highway between the city of Niagara Falls and the falls itself – Thanks for that NY!

  • Quite good post by Peter Fleischer and valuable insights in the form of comments provided by STEEL.

    Thanks!

  • It is interesting to note that it was upstate Buffalo representative Hoyt who introduced NYS’s smart growth bill to reduce the cost of suburban sprawl. The bill he really wanted to pass was a much stronger bill which was watered donw by downstate suburban interests.

  • STEEL: you’re wrong about Pennsylvania. Greater Philly accounts for about one third of its population.

    Oh my FSM, Gecko, this is total evidence I’m an API person. You’re totally right. Telling people who are factually wrong that they are, in fact, wrong is exactly what an oil lobbyist does.

    I’m going to let you dig in now. Kthxbye.

    It has to form coalitions otherwise it has no power. So upstate is to blame for traffic tickets in NYC because downstate suburbanits tell them what to do. Like I said before plain goofiness!

    Upstate is to blame for specific Upstate-placating items the state passes, for example stealing the MTA’s money for Upstate road repair. Whenever there isn’t a large enough majority among the Downstate politicians to implement a plan, which there almost never is, the standard way to get support is to bribe Upstate with pork for it.

    By the way it was NYC’s Robert Mosses who made sure that most of the cheap power produced at Niagara Falls was sent to NYC rather than to Buffalo. The value of that power alone is worth far more than any subsidies sent to Western New York by way of NYC.

    Let’s actually compute how much this power is worth. The installed capacity at Niagara on the American side is 2.5 GW – considerably more than the total power consumption of Buffalo, which means it would need to sell most of it anyway.

    Now, 2.5 GW for a year is 22 billion kWh. At an average rate of about 5 cents per kWh, this means the electricity from Niagara is worth $1.1 billion a year, if used at peak capacity 100% of the time. This is still one tenth of what New York City alone is sending Upstate. Even if Buffalo could somehow pull an OPEC and make New York City electricity prices triple, the entire body of users would find itself $2.2 billion/year poorer, one fifth of the city-to-state net subsidy flow.

    In other words: the Upstate gripe about how New York steals their power is a myth. The actual amount of money involved is small.

  • #38 STEEL, ” . . . watered down by downstate suburban interests.

    Makes perfect sense. Recently in two Manhattan-based mansions valued at $27 million and $25 million it is mind-boggling the money and influence in this town and suburbs.

  • Alon,

    Actually the Niagara power plant generated $2.6B in revenue last year they projected revenue to be at $3B so your math is fishy. This power is the cheapest possible to generate. It is a huge economic gold mine but Buffalo does not get to reap that good fortune. Only a small pecentage of the cheap electricity is reserved for the location that it is generated in. For this reason electric rates in the Buffalo area are some of the highest in the country. Most of the electriciy generated at low cost is reserved for NYC. Buffalo then needs to supplement this plant with a dirty and expensive coal plant upriver and nukes in other areas.

    Because of this expensive electricity Buffalo loses an natural economic advantage that it should have and did have prior to the Mosses plant being developed. So in your calculation you not only had the direct cost of the plant earnings wrong you neglected to add the lost economic cost to Buffalo and WNY into the sum.

    You can keep on pretending that the largest city in America is being bullied by little ol Buffalo but don’t you think your argument is a bit weak? The fact is that Downstate politics is the reason New York is such a political and economic disaster. Decades of non representation is killing upstate and all NYC has to do is throw a few Billion at the suckers to keep them quiet.

  • #41 STEEL, Great stuff!

    Again, not terribly knowledgeable on this but, really seems like a wakeup call on how we can fix New York State as the government seems totally dysfunctional where no one gains.

    You kind of get the feeling that Bloomberg even with all his $billions is still banging his head against the wall; but, it is really difficult to know what is going on at his level.

    A very high level of transparency should be a very good thing.

    Also, a little humility, compassion, tolerance; those type of silly things, kind of get the feeling that upstaters have learned these things having to deal with downstate tourists out of necessity and practicality.

    New York City dwellers have a tendency to be neurotically neighborhood-centric like the Seinfeld episode so the lift might be a little heavy but well worth the effort. And, the wealthy here, as everywhere, live wherever they want.

  • JSS

    I grew up in a close-in suburb of Buffalo (Amherst), where my sister and I got a great public school education thanks to high, high property taxes. Like most of the other nerds in my school, however, I promptly fled to elite Coastal private universities for college and grad school, then lived “the dream” in NYC before becoming a grown-up and moving to neighboring Westchester County, NY. My sister took a path more typical of most of the kids we grew up with: she fled to the Carolinas.

    Earlier this decade Westchester County surpassed Erie County in size, something that amazes me and my parents, who are nearing 80 and still reside in Amherst.

    It breaks my heart to see Buffalo and Upstate struggle so, but I believe the sprawl is really only one wrinkle of a much larger problem which runs throughout New York State, and that is a governance structure which has not changed over time to run on economies of scale. NYS still contains thousands of small local government entities providing services which could be more efficiently provided by merging with neighboring districts or municipalities.

    Downstate suffers from this problem as well, but its concentration of dynamic industries which have continued to grow has allowed Downstate to avoid a total breakdown in government.

    The reason why sprawl and inefficient government (which of course are linked, right?) are such a costly problem for Upstate is because the area lacks the dynamic industries, employment opportunities and career paths needed to retain its young people and attract migration. I would have stayed in Buffalo had I seen a future I wanted for myself there, but I wanted opportunities that Upstate could not seemingly offer.

    Plenty of cities have survived despite sprawl: in 1900, Buffalo was the 8th largest city in the US, larger than San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix, and Washington DC. All of these now far-larger cities are now surrounded by sprawling suburbs which utilize “smart growth” to varying degrees. But despite this they all grew to overtake shrinking Buffalo, on the strength of the cultivation of key industries and educational institutions.

    Whether it be simple luck, or geography as destiny, or poor regional leadership, Buffalo did not sufficiently develop these industries and institutions, but kept sprawling anyway.

    Stopping sprawl and improving government efficiency Upstate are both laudable goals, but it won’t directly stop the lack of growth industries from being the underlying problem. In my opinion, that is the #1 problem which drives its young people away. While high taxes and a weakened core city (both of which are functions of sprawl/government efficiency) may hurt on the margins in attracting industry, I think it’s actually not the core of that problem.

    I wish I knew how to solve the problem, because I would love to see Upstate thrive and grow again!

  • STEEL: okay, so they generated $2.6 billion. This means they sold their power at much higher rates to some people.

    New York City doesn’t have cheap electricity. If you want cheap electricity, go to Seattle. It gets cheaper electricity than the Midwest, but so what? It put in some of the money that went to building the Niagara plant, and is getting some of the benefits. If you think Buffalo could confiscate the plant and prosper, check how good oil nationalization has been for Mexico and Venezuela.

  • Nathanael

    Just for reference, Upstate has really different problems in different places.

    (1) The Rust Belt cities, and their sprawling exurbs. These are what are described in the article here — they really *are* being poorly managed, and it’s a real problem. Apart from the Erie Canal cities, there’s also Binghamton in this category.

    (2) The Finger Lakes. Here, farmland preservation and tourism are considered important — and Ithaca is one metropolitan area upstate which is still growing in population — so land usage is working out a bit differently. But we still have no decent public transportation and are very car-dependent.

    (3) Northern New York. Rather different situation from either of the above (it *never* industrialized), and I don’t claim to understand it very well.

    FYI, the NY Power Authority plants at Niagara Falls don’t send much electricity to NYC; we in the Finger Lakes get a lot of it, however.

  • Nathanael

    FWIW, perhaps the biggest problem is State Senator self-promotion and gerrymandering. Ithaca, which *would* be a vote for smart growth, was carefully gerrymandered out of existence in the State Senate by the State Senate Republicans (scum, scum, scum).

    We’ve got a Democratic candidate up this year.

  • Ithaca kind of already has smart growth. Its metro area ranks second from the bottom nationwide in cars’ trip-to-work mode share.

  • mrn240

    I am currently a resident of Ontario county,in the town of Canandaigua to be exact. I agree 100 percent with the urban sprawl issue effecting upstate NY disproportionately. My family has lived on Canandaigua lake for 2 generations and have all supported themselves via jobs in Rochester, about 40 miles away. I even went to prep school in Rochester. Now that is a lot of gas. And of course upstaters drive much more than the average nycer, but nyc also takes advantage of many upstate reasoures. The most prominent example I can think of is produce and wine. Wegmans has been slowly seeping into the NY suburbs and into nj. Constellation brand wines, based out of the finger lakes, is one of the largest wine companies in the world. And in terms of the education upstate, I am sure many of you have heard of the guardsaile vaccine, which much of the rearach was done at the university of Rochester. In terms of public schools both of Pittsfords public schools are in the top 100 in the nation and so is Brighton and the Rochester magent schools are excellent as well, not to mention the private schools in the area. What is baffling to me is that Tom Galasano, one of the richest men in new york just became a Florida resident to avoid 14000 dollars a day in taxes. Now obviously he is an extreme example but many people are fleeing upstate because of the incredible tax burden, mainly diected and controlled by nyc. Btw, Sheldon Silver is the worst thing to have ever happened to upstate NY and possibly down state. But that aside and optimistically speaking, I just read an article in newsweek about the current recession and where the best places to live are in terms of home prices and unemployment. Rochester, Syracuse, Buffalo, and Albany all were rated fairly well making upstate NY one of the best places to live in the recession. The death of Kodak was horrendous for the Rochester area, but the city is, given the circumstances, doing relatively well to absorb to job loss in the area, but in order to increase it’s metro population Rochester has a lot of cleaning up and renovating to do and the money for that just seems to disappear. The area also needs a pro business approach to encourage new investment. Bouche and Lamb have been incredible donors, but the state needs to get on board to help these cities prosper and to not be consumed by one of the largest cities in the world.

  • Adam

    I moved away from Rochester over ten years ago to Seattle and everytime I come back the place seems more vacant and aging

  • Kevin

    Peter,

    As a resident of Buffalo(actually I live in the Burbs about 150 yards from the city line) I appreciate your article but you’ve missed a few points.

    1.)Painting the Buffalo area as a place where we all left for the country and it takes a gallon of gas to get a gallon of Milk is DEAD wrong. Yes there is a population % that left for far off burbs like Clarence and Boston NY, and yes it takes them longer to get to the store but its not that bad.

    2.) Also the Idea that we drive old cars that get 12,14,16 MPG is absurd! I know your thinking were all poor driving beat ass 1974 sedans(like the movie uncle buck) that burn more oil than gas, but its just not true. Old cars don’t last here at all due to the use of Salt on the roads in the winter, period.

    3.) Feeding down-staters the Idea that your tax dollars are paying for all our miscues is wrong. Were fed the same Idea Upstate that our money is being drained cleaning up the streets of Manhattan and paying for the secret back door deals of the new Mets and Yankees stadiums, meanwhile UB 2020 was shut down. Not familiar with UB 2020, look it up.

    Kevin

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