Hurricane Sandy dealt a devastating blow to transit systems in the New York metro area and revealed, once again, just how fragile and antiquated many of these systems are. Sandy also pointed up the need for New York and other coastal cities to retrofit energy systems for an era of higher seas and fiercer storms, moving power stations to higher ground.
One positive outcome of the storm would be if it focused new attention on infrastructure needs -- and generated new political will to address them in ways that help stimulate the economy.
It's not like there aren't good ideas sitting on the table. Just over a year ago, President Obama submitted legislation to Congress that included $50 billion for investments in highways, mass transit, rail and aviation. It also would have provided $10 billion to capitalize a new National Infrastructure Bank, which could leverage private and public capital for infrastructure projects.
Congress should have passed that bill. It still can, folding it into a broader recovery package for the Northeast.
As we have noted here often, spending on infrastructure delivers more stimulus bang for the buck than most other forms of stimulus. And, with the unemployment rate for construction workers over 12 percent -- higher than for any other group of workers -- such spending promises to reach the hardest hit segment of the U.S. labor force. What's more, improved infrastructure lays the foundation for future prosperity by facilitating the movement of goods, services, and people. That's why countries with big economic ambitions, like China and Germany, are investing heavily in things like high-speed rail and broad band access.
One infrastructure project that should definitely be restarted is the new modern rail tunnel under the Hudson River that Governor Chris Christie foolishly cancelled early in his term. Hurricane Sandy has filled some of the older, 100-year old rail tunnels linking New York and New Jersey with sea water, including the PATH system that I take to work every day. The new tunnel was planned for 20 years in response to growing pressures on the metro transit system. After Sandy, it makes more sense than ever before.
A new tunnel impervious to flooding would greatly strengthen the region's transit system, not to mention employ thousands of construction workers for years. New Jersey's unemployment rate has actually risen since Christie took office, showing just how badly the state needed to keep that tunnel project going, which was estimated to have created 6,000 construction jobs.
Quick story: After I criticized the cancellation of the tunnel project on Fox News, a cameraman there told me he was happy the project was cancelled because it would have raised property taxes on his home in New Jersey. I wonder how he feels today, unable to get into work. Or how he'll feel in twenty years when he wants to sell his house but New Jersey has become less desirable for commuters because of overburdened transit systems.
President Obama just spent some face time with Christie touring the Jersey shore. Let's hope he made a case for restarting the tunnel project.