As New York’s low-lying thoroughfares and basements became rivers and lakes on Friday, the flow of water was a reminder: Mayor Eric Adams, after nearly two years in office, has never presented his own infrastructure plan and has failed to impose discipline on the city’s budget, which threatens to collapse to overwhelm the plan he inherited.
During the morning downpour, the city’s drainage system exceeded its capacity by 1.5 to 2 inches per hour.
With some areas almost 9 inches long, the water backed up. It penetrated basements, floors and subways.
We can argue about Adams’ immediate response.
A big part of adapting to catastrophic storms is simply staying home and avoiding danger.
Adams could have said early On Fridays, people should stay home if they can instead of waiting until noon.
But the bigger problem is long-term. If New York wants to drain water faster, it needs to upgrade its sewers.
And the city is doing this: It is implementing a pipe modernization and expansion program, spending about $525 million a year and saving about $90 million a year on softer alternatives, like replacing asphalt on transit lanes absorbent plants.
The city will pay a separate $2.2 billion over the longer term for sewer service in southeast Queens, in neighborhoods that, like much of Staten Island, were built cheaply in the 20th century, so housing there would be cheaper. (You’ll pay one day.)
In total, the city will spend $9.3 billion on sewer services over the next decade, about 6% of the $160.6 billion total for infrastructure maintenance and upgrades.
But these investments won’t get us to dump several inches of rain per hour for hours on end.
A 2021 city report said: “Recalibrating our sewers for storms like Ida,” the 2021 flood that killed 13 New Yorkers, “would require a decade-long investment of potentially $100 billion. “
But New Yorkers pay for most water and wastewater investments through their water bills (including indirectly through their rent) – and they cannot afford to double or triple the bills to pay for these upgrades.
Outstanding water debt is already expected to rise from $32.1 billion to $37.8 billion in five years.
In addition, a dollar invested today does not return as much as it did five years ago. Inflation increases construction costs.
And as interest rates have risen, the water system must pay nearly 5% interest on new debt, nearly double what it paid at the start of 2020.
That’s why New York says more investment “depends on federal funding” – but Washington prefers to spend money on big projects like floodwalls.
We could Be the master of our own destiny and spend more local resources on sewer system upgrades that cannot be funded by water bills.
But that means money will have to be pulled from the rest of the city’s 10-year, $160.6 billion infrastructure budget.
Much of this budget is dedicated to maintaining highways and bridges as well as upgrading school buildings, hospitals and sanitation facilities. The city cannot make many compromises.
If Gov. Kathy Hochul doesn’t lift the new class size cap, school expansion spending will actually skyrocket.
One item that could be cut is $10.6 billion to build prisons in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens to replace Rikers Island.
In fact, prisons in four counties are threatening to blow out the entire infrastructure budget; Adams warned in August that the “price” had “skyrocketed incredibly.”
The city has tried unsuccessfully for three years to find a contractor for the Manhattan jail; It has just restarted the faulty tender process.
But Adams won’t ask the City Council to stop the prison plan and improve Rikers instead, so we keep spending a lot of money and pretending it works.
Then there are the migrants.
It’s not just that $4 billion a year for shelter and support, if transferred from the current budget to the infrastructure budget, could fund a lot of sewers.
It’s that one day, after the immediate crisis subsides, the city will somehow run out of room to accommodate low-wage migrants.
Already at least 100,000 people, mostly immigrants, live in illegal basement apartments – responsible for 11 of the 13 deaths from the Ida flood two years ago.
It was just luck that no one died this time: the rain didn’t fall so quickly.
The city says it will take “many years” and “billions of dollars” to make basement apartments safe.
So why is the city encouraging uncontrolled migration to New York City when it knows that hundreds of thousands of low-income families have nowhere to live safely?
Questions for the next rainy day unless Adams acts now.
Nicole Gelinas is an editor for the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.