This very moment, in upstate New York…
It is an era of crumbling infrastructure. While the state and New York City have struck a deal to fund the MTA CAPITAL PLAN, upstate regions are clamoring to get comparable funding.
To better understand where additional funds can help best, our intrepid reporters have traveled to FIVE UPSTATE CITIES, meeting with local officials to get a firsthand look at the infrastructure needs they face...
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and officials at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority last fall announced a five-year, $29 billion capital plan to fund the MTA, downstate officials breathed a sigh of relief.
But in upstate New York, lawmakers responded to the huge funding commitment with demands for an equitable investment in the deteriorating infrastructure in their own districts. Syracuse’s water mains are crumbling, with an average of more than one breach per day. Buffalo has benefitted from the governor’s Buffalo Billion investments in a solar facility and other new manufacturing, but its aging sewer and stormwater systems are polluting the city’s waterways. In Albany, officials say they lack the funds to revitalize the abandoned waterfront. And across upstate, a growing number of roads and bridges are in desperate need of repairs or replacement.
The backlog of repairs comes with a hefty price tag. Local transportation infrastructure needs outside of New York City would total a whopping $35 billion through 2030, according to an audit by state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli. The same report found the annual investment needed to support the state’s transportation, water and sewer systems is $3.9 billion. In 2012, capital spending by local governments in New York totaled $1.2 billion for these systems, or less than a third of what is needed.
Many of these pressing infrastructure needs in some of the state’s largest cities have never been adequately addressed, even as Cuomo insists he has made it a priority to give a boost to upstate, saying it was “forgotten” before he took office. The governor is actively trying to spur economic development in these Rust Belt cities, with funding distributed through his regional Economic Development Councils and a $1.5 billion Upstate Revitalization Initiative, and he makes a point of sending out press releases touting the return of high-profile manufacturing plants in several upstate cities.
In recent weeks, the governor announced a $22 billion multi-year capital plan to upgrade critical roads, bridges and other transportation infrastructure, a $200 million grant program for upstate airports and a toll reduction plan for the Thruway. Advocates applauded the governor’s proposals, but said they’re just a drop in the bucket in upstate New York.
“We see a lot of this piecemeal work going on and it looks good for a little bit,” Brian Sampson, president of the Associated Builders and Contractors, said after the governor unveiled his latest proposals. “It’s nice that the governor stands there yesterday and talks about how he’s going to add another $100 million to make a $300 million pool of money that municipalities can request support for their sewer and water systems, but that’s $300 million out of a $30 billion problem.”
Indeed, many local officials and advocates say that far more needs to be done. Without a major investment in infrastructure in these cities, they say, many of the efforts aimed at spurring economic development will be for naught.
“If you want to have growth in your (upstate) urban cores, they can’t be beat to hell and have open storefronts. Same goes for road and bridge access,” said Ken Pokalsky, vice president of government affairs at the Business Council. “You lure people to these urban areas and its run down, the streets are bad, there’s disrepair or closures – all these amenities lacking. It’s also hard to pitch to new entries into that market. There is certainly a huge need.”
Many urban centers in upstate New York have yet to rebound from economic blow dealt by the decline of the manufacturing industry, and local officials have battled for years against poverty, unemployment and decreasing populations.
“When the world changed, we could have changed with it. We were slow to adapt,” Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney said. “So when you saw in the 1960s the flight to the suburbs, anybody involved in city government in those days should have foreseen the erosion of the tax base.”
In recent years, in a turnaround of the nationwide “white flight” of the 1950s and 1960s, some upstate cities are seeing a growth among younger professionals who want to live in a city atmosphere that’s rich in culture and activity. Now, some upstate city officials for the first time in a long time are seeing a glimmer of hope for their cities. To capitalize on this moment, they believe now is the time for a major infrastructure investment.
“I do think there’s probably a decent correlation between communities that do invest in infrastructure and gain attraction from industries,” said Pamela Caraccioli, deputy to the president for external partnerships and economic development at SUNY Oswego. “I think (infrastructure and economic development) go hand-in-hand. It’s good signs of a healthy community when you see newer roads and updated water and sewer systems.”
Yet the federal government began scaling back funding for infrastructure years ago, leaving it to the state and already overburdened local governments to do the best they can to patch things up. Local officials said they appreciate the governor’s increased attention, but that the current level of investment is clearly insufficient.
“The governor has made several attempts in different regions to make a difference. I think there is a recognition that more need needs to be done upstate,” Binghamton Mayor Richard David said. “I believe in parity. We constantly see a massive significant investment in downstate and upstate is looking for our fair share and recognition that there are a lot of major challenges facing upstate cities, as well. You could make significant progress on addressing those issues with a fraction of the amount of money (invested in downstate).”
Over the past few months, City & State traveled to five major cities – Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Binghamton and Albany – to meet with local officials and get a firsthand look at the needs of each city. Over the coming weeks, we will be rolling out our “Empire State Builds Back” series, highlighting the infrastructure needs of each city, and what each of them so desperately seek: a new hope.
“I’m hopeful. I’m confident that at the end of the day, the governor will recognize that investment must be made in upstate cities in order to preserve long-term growth and development of upstate New York,” David said. “In order for New York as a whole to be prosperous, more needs to be done in upstate New York, particularly in regards to investment in infrastructure.”
Click here to read the first part of our saga: Buffalo.