Wednesday, September 15, 2010

New York's Rail-Roading

We have been raising some serious questions about the impact that building two ramps off of the Van Wyck Expressway will have on that, and other, Queens highways. We have also been raising questions about the oversight role-or lack thereof-that is being played by NYS DOT. But now, our own concerns have an even more serious context-the abysmal overall state of NY's highway system; and the failure of the state agency to do its core function efficiently.

This concern is expressed in the NY Post by David Hartgen, a former employee of DOT, and a twenty year veteran of the
agency:  "As any driver will tell you, New York's roads are in bad shape. But at least the state could always count on New Jersey's roads being even worse. Not any more. Each year, the Reason Foundation's Highway Report ranks the roads and highways of all 50 states in a variety of categories, including cost-effectiveness, pavement condition, traffic congestion, fatalities and deficient bridges. Jersey finished dead last every year from 2000 to 2006 -- but then started to improve, inching up to 45th in the latest rankings. Meanwhile, New York (which hasn't ranked higher than 45th since 2000) placed 46th -- the first time in the report's 19-year-history that it fell below New Jersey in road performance and cost-effectiveness.

So, as Hartgen asks, what happened? "The short answer is that the pavement condition of New York's urban interstate highways worsened and New Jersey made more progress in fixing its deficient bridges. These differences, while not large, were enough to move New Jersey up two spots, and New York down one. But the larger issue is that the Empire State consistently fails to get much bang for its highway bucks."

And the malfeasance is profound: "Only two states spend more than New York on road maintenance per mile -- yet the state's urban interstates rank 45th in pavement condition. (And rural interstates are even worse, 46th in the nation.) The state spends big on bridges, too -- yet more than 37 percent of its bridges were deficient or functionally obsolete in 2008, ranking New York 47th out of 50. New York's taxpayers spend more than nearly every other state in these areas, but still get potholes, bumpy pavement and deficient bridges in return. The bureaucratic waste is remarkable: For each mile of road that it is responsible for, the state spends nearly $90,000 in administrative costs. Only California spends more. These high office costs mean millions and millions of dollars never make it to the Empire State's roads. For comparison, Pennsylvania spends $11,000 a mile in administrative costs, Texas $6,500 and Maine just $2,500."

NYSDOT has some serious explaining to do-and the case of the Van Wyck ramps may underscore in a microcosm some of DOT's fatal flaws in need of correction. The bureaucratic waste that Hartgen cites dramatizes a culture of indifference-and a lack of thoroughness that is costing NY State tax payers plenty. Absent, in our view, is a zealous regard for the public interest-an absence that is underscored by the way in which the agency has conducted the review of the traffic impacts that emanate from the proposed ramps.

Put simply, given the deteriorated state of NY's roads, DOT should be examining any and all proposals that will exacerbate already poor traffic conditions with the proverbial fine tooth comb-instead it is apparently colluding with NYC EDC in approving a proposal that will flood the Van Wyck and gridlock the Grand Central/Kew Gardens Interchange-even after a $1 billion overhaul!

Hartgen has some suggestions about how to improve the abysmal state of our roads: "If Albany is going to be one of the nation's biggest spenders on roads, it should focus its money on fixing bridges, repairing potholes and smoothing pavement. At least then, taxpayers will see some return on their very costly investments."

But he leaves out an important corollary: fixing what's broke is undoubtedly urgent; but preventing excess capacity on the already beleaguered infrastructure that we have is a necessary additional policy goal that should be seen as complementary to the better fix. Right now, it seems that DOT is failing at both of these important tasks.