Building and Financing the Infrastructure of a Sustainable New York City
In an earlier piece, I outline a short-term environmental agenda for New York City’s new mayor. Here I describe a longer-term agenda for a city evolving toward environmental sustainability. Energy, water, solid waste, sewage, flood control and transportation systems are the central pieces of physical infrastructure that must be built or rebuilt as we evolve toward urban sustainability here in New York. Compared to European cities, we are young but compared to many American cities, we are old. New York City’s energy grid was first built over a century ago. Our water and subway systems are also largely relics of the early 20th century. It is more expensive to rebuild an old system than to construct something new. The cost of reconstruction and modernization of our sustainability infrastructure is the central issue this city must face.
In the past, we managed to find a way to finance our subway system, energy system, water, and sewage systems. It’s not clear that we are willing any longer to defer immediate gratification to invest in the future. The growing disparity between rich and poor indicates that those who can afford to invest would rather not invest in their community but line their own pockets. The alternative to investing in the sustainable city of the future is to ensure this city descends to second-tier status in the emerging global economy.
The energy system will need to convert to renewable sources of energy. It also must become more decentralized with neighborhood micro-grids and distributed generation of energy. The reliability of our centralized energy system will decline due to age and extreme weather, and we need to build in redundancy and the ability to uncouple from the system when it goes down. While most of the people in New York City live in apartments, most of the land in New York City sits under single-family homes. Until we get the technology that will incorporate solar arrays into apartment building windows, we need those single and two- or three-family homes outside of Manhattan to install rooftop solar cells and energy storage batteries. Parking fields, big box stores and other large structures should be covered by solar arrays. The city and state should incentivize solar installation through property tax reductions and no-interest loans. That solar power combined with wind power can help us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Offshore windmills must also be constructed at a far faster pace than we have seen to date. We will need additional technology to do the rest of the job, but let’s start with what we have.
Federal incentives for electric vehicles should enable rapid displacement of the internal combustion engine and people with private homes and driveways should be encouraged by utilities (and energy discounts) to keep their cars plugged in when not in use so their stored battery power can be a source of energy during periods of peak demand. Microgrids can be used to manage our energy supply with artificial intelligence and computer-operated controls. The long-term cost of this infrastructure will be paid by consumers and should be lower than current costs. The short-term cost of an accelerated transition must be subsidized by government.
New York City’s water supply is in good shape, but we should be prepared for the possibility of climate-induced droughts. We also need to develop a means for regulating the water supply that comes out of our faucets. The Department of Environmental Protection monitors the water in its pipes but not ours. That needs to change. Plans to rapidly construct desalination or gray water plants should be developed in the unlikely event that our reservoirs run dry. These costs can be paid by current water charges already in place. If a desalination plant or gray water recycling plant were needed, that would require a new revenue stream.
Our solid waste system is in terrible condition, with all our waste shipped out of the city and waste transport and dumpsite tipping fees steadily escalating. No public official ever won office solving the garbage crisis, but it’s still an issue that must be addressed. The best way to start is to deal with food waste first. We could then focus attention on plastics as well. The promising system of food waste recycling that New York had before COVID and is now restoring at a glacial pace should be accelerated, and made mandatory for all households and businesses. The city should invest in anaerobic digesters to convert the waste into fertilizer for agriculture and natural gas for short-term energy use. Next, we should work with other cities to develop the capacity to collect and reuse plastics. At some point, we will have the technology to sort waste at centralized facilities, but until that time, we should focus on food and plastic waste, which have valuable byproducts that can be easily recycled. To do this, we must generate or attract the capital to build these new facilities and the political will to site them. The sale of fertilizer and gas will generate some revenues but not enough to build and maintain these facilities. That will require subsidies from taxpayers.
Sewage and flood control are closely connected. Normally our sewage system combines household wastewater with rainwater, and the combined sewage is treated before it’s returned to our rivers and bays. But when a lot of rain falls in a short period of time, our sewage is dumped raw into those same rivers and bays. Since we can’t afford to reconstruct the sewage system, we need to build a system to increase green and gray stormwater storage capacity. Underground tanks must be constructed in some places. Pavement should be replaced by plantings wherever feasible. One of the more interesting approaches to this issue is to utilize our long-buried waterways to relieve flooding. In a wonderful New York Times piece in early December, Winnie Hu and James Thomas wrote about a project to “unearth” Tibbetts Brook in the Bronx. According to these reporters:
“…the final stretch [of Tibbetts Brook] was diverted into a drain in the Bronx around 1912 and sent down to the sewer pipes below to make way for development of the marshland where it used to run….For decades, environmentalists and local activists campaigned to resurface the long-buried stream. Now, a changing climate is making what they struggled to achieve necessary. The city plans to unearth the brook — an engineering feat known as “daylighting” — at a cost of more than $130 million, because burying it in the sewer system has worsened the city’s flooding problems as a warming planet experiences more frequent and intense storms. Though out of sight, the brook pumps about 2.2 billion gallons of freshwater a year into the same underground pipes that carry household sewage and rainwater runoff to wastewater treatment plants. It takes up precious capacity in the outdated sewer system and contributes to combined sewer overflows that are discharged into nearby waterways.”
To control flooding and combined sewer overflow, we need to finance projects such as Tibbetts Brook, the East River Park project and the many efforts at shoreline reconstruction. Some of the funding for these projects is in place, but billions more will be needed.
The next vital piece of infrastructure is transportation. COVID-19 has cut mass transit use in half and increased the use of autos and bicycles. Mass transit requires upgraded signals, more frequent and more comfortable trains. When people are ready to ride again, they need to see an improved mass transit system. Bike shares and protected bike lanes should continue to be encouraged. But enforcement of traffic laws must be imposed on bikes that ride against traffic, pass red lights and terrorize pedestrians.
We will need many billions of dollars over the next several decades to evolve toward environmental sustainability. All of these projects will cost money. New Yorkers are already among the most taxed people in the United States, in part because most of America is undertaxed. New York has a reputation for being unfriendly to rich people and business. Every time a billionaire moves to Florida or Texas, the New York Post covers it and claims New York is hostile to rich people. And yet businesses still come here, and someone seems to be occupying or at least buying apartments in all those new luxury apartment buildings going up all over town. Our water system is funded by our water bills. Mass transit is subsidized by bridge tolls and needs the additional subsidy of congestion pricing. New Yorkers have consistently supported environmental bonds and much of our debt service is devoted to retiring those bonds. Still, some of the funding we need must come from Washington. According to New York State’s Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli:
“New York paid $26.6 billion more in taxes to the federal government in federal fiscal year (FFY) 2018 than it got back in federal spending, ranking it last among the states… ‘For every dollar New York generates in tax receipts it receives 90 cents back in federal spending, compared to the national average of $1.21,’ DiNapoli said.”
New York City needs a long-term capital plan for environmental sustainability. It must include private investment where profits can be made and public subsidies and funding where the revenue stream from users or customers proves inadequate. But we also need a sustainability czar to manage short-term measures and develop and implement a long-term strategy to plan, finance, build and operate the infrastructure of the sustainable city. The city’s environmental sustainability effort spans many agencies and needs control and coordination by a senior official with experience and clout. This will be a generation-long effort and it will require persistence, dedication and extraordinary leadership.