When we talk about an “infrastructure” we are talking about the underlying systems that allow a ecosystem to stand and to function. In our case of New York City, the infrastructure consists of:

  • the roads, bridges, railways, ports and airports that bring in people and goods
  • the aquifers that supply the city’s water and the pipes that deliver it
  • the energy grid that feeds the city
  • the transit grid that helps people move around
  • the schools, hospitals and government buildings that serve the entire population
  • the parks and historic sites that belong to all the people
  • the solid waste and wastewater treatment facilities

New York City’s infrastructure is old and in many places crumbling. In 2014, an explosion that killed seven people in the East Harlem neighborhood was blamed on a gas main that was 127 years old. Most of the water mains, the subway system and more than 160 bridges in the city are nearing or more than 100 years old.

More than 200 schools were built before 1920 and the average age of a city hospital is 57 years old. Countless government buildings are more than 60 years old and the homeless shelters are 70 years old. More than 300 buildings have stood empty in the city for more than seven years after being condemned.

Tragedies Remembered

Unfortunately, it’s usually the tragedies, like that gas fire, that bring the city’s aging issues to the forefront. Even more unfortunately, they don’t stay in the limelight for long.

Following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, for example, the city’s infrastructure failures during the storm prompted numerous studies that led to some steps to shore up the city’s coastal weaknesses, but the key words there are “shore up.” Investments in new structures are not in anyone’s budget.

A plan to overhaul the city subway system was announced by MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota in June, 2017. Or rather, a plan to conduct an audit and present a plan to modernize the subway system was announced. The plan acknowledges a need for short and long-term transformational ideas. To get them, it included a “genius” competition with a top prize of $1 million dollars for anyone who comes up with ideas on how to improve signaling, rapidly deploy modernized cars and increase communications.

In the meantime, the subway system built in 1094 creaks on, with track fires and train delays of two hours becoming almost as common as they were in the 1980s. In an essay in the Atlantic in 2015, James Somers wrote about train replacement parts no longer being made and the jerry-rigging required to keep for equipment purchased in the 1930s in service.

The Next Tragedy?

This year more than 1.7 billion people will ride the subways, relying on that equipment to get them home safely. Each day more than

old, worn water main pipe
broken thermal insulation on old water main

2.7 million cars drive over 47 bridges that engineers have called “fracture critical” which means that if even a single span, beam or joint fails, the whole thing could come down.

Every year there are more than 400 water main breaks and the city loses 25% of its water to leaks between the reservoirs and the city. In 2013 one of those breaks flooded a subway line and caused the street above to sink half a foot. With most of the sewage mains closing in on 84 years old and many of them tied into storm drains, raw sewage spills into the river during a hard rain.

These consequences of not keeping up with the repair and replacement needs of the city’s infrastructure are all too appalling and easy to envision. Will the next gas main explosion claim the lives of hundreds or will a bridge collapse claim thousands?

What isn’t quite so obvious is the opportunity cost of our city’s aging skeleton. Will the best and the brightest continue to flock to New York, or will we be eclipsed by a shiny new ShangHai or Dubai? Will a lack of high speed rail transit leave New York’s future derailed?

Visit Infrastructures to learn more about the history of New York City’s 200 years of infrastructure ups and downs.