I just got back from a 400-mile bike ride from Buffalo to Albany, for the most part following the 363-mile long Erie Canal. I joined more than 600 other riders, age 2 to 91, for the 17th Annual Cycle the Erie Bike Tour, offered once a year as a major fundraiser by Parks & Trails NY, a nonprofit organization which advocates and promotes the completion of the multi-purpose trail (now, only 70% is complete).
We all learned about the Erie Canal – I even remember my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Breyer, saying how the canal opened up the West and unified a nation, and singularly made New York State the Empire State and New York City the financial capital of the world. But it is only when you travel (or rather peddle), each mile that you really appreciate what an engineering marvel, what a technological revolution it represented, and what social and economic impact infrastructure could have. The Erie Canal was the 7th Wonder of the World – the longest canal ever built, using technology, techniques and tools that had to be invented (the builders, who weren’t engineers to begin with, went on to found Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York , the first school of engineering.)
“It was the Internet of its day,” Captain Jerry Gertz of Erie Canal Cruises, out of Herkimer, New York, as we go through Lock 18, which I take before meeting up for the bike tour.
“Farmers didn’t want to give right of way – they didn’t envision a global economy,” notes Daniel Ward, Curator of the Erie Canal Museum, Syracuse, which has just opened a fantastic new exhibit. “It turned out to be great for them. They went from a local subsistence economy to having access to a global market.”
And the first thing you realize is that there wasn’t just one Erie Canal, but three incarnations (just like the Internet, with newer technology displacing earlier systems) – the first being mocked as Governor DeWitt Clinton’s “Ditch” (or the even less kind “Folly”), which opened in 1825, after just eight year’s construction (think of the technology of the time! and how they had to invent the engineering) on budget at $7.7 million, and in 10 years, had not only covered its cost but brought down the cost of trade 100-fold. In just one decade, the success of the first canal necessitated an expanded canal, from 40 feet wide and 4 feet deep with 83 locks to carry boats the 573 feet elevation difference from the Hudson to Lake Erie, to 70-feet wide and 7 feet deep. Then, in 1898, Theodore Roosevelt, as Governor of New York, pushed for an even bigger Barge Canal, 12-23 feet deep and 120-200 feet wide which is the one we use today – many of the 57 locks are operated with the original motors (General Electric!) and machinery of 100 years ago.
But it is when you travel (in this case, by bicycle) every mile of the Erie Canal Trail, that you really appreciate its impact on creating and shaping communities, growing towns and cities, inspiring new innovations, and serving as an artery for the transmission of new, progressive ideas such as abolition, women’s rights, labor rights).
You see the factories that grew up along the Erie Canal that inspired and relied on innovative technologies – Birdsill Holly, a U.S. mechanical engineer and hydraulics inventor, in his factory in Lockport, figured out how to use hydraulic pumps to power his factory which manufactured his new invention, the fire hydrant – most of them gone (though the Remington Gun Factory is still thriving in Schenectady, as is General Electric).
The Erie Canal – and by extension, infrastructure – was quite literally the “Mother of Cities” Dan Willis from the Canal Museum in Syracuse, tells us during an evening lecture. Places like Syracuse, Rome, Rochester, and tiny canal towns like Lockport, Fairport, and Pittsford – boomed as a result of the canal.
Now you can see these canaltowns like Fairport and Pittsford, which declined with New York’s loss of manufacturing and the shriveling commercial use of the canal, reinventing themselves in conjunction with the repurposing of the Erie Canal from commercial to recreational use.
And what you come away with is how meaningful the past is to our present because the interplay between infrastructure as an engine of economic growth and innovation has not changed.
So it is notable that on the same day that Governor Cuomo – with Vice President Joe Biden – announced a bold, far-reaching master plan to completely rebuild LaGuardia airport (instead of just a piecemeal renovation), the pair also were in Rochester to announce a new Integrated Photonics Manufacturing Innovation Hub at the State University of New York (RF SUNY) in Rochester, New York – the sixth of nine new manufacturing institutes established by the Obama Administration. This one will be built with $610 million in public-private investment in next-generation photonics manufacturing, emerging technologies which have the potential to transform many industries—from creating “needleless” tests for medical conditions like diabetes, to increasing the carrying capacity of broadband communications ten times over.
That was the morning announcement.
By afternoon Cuomo and Biden were in New York City, announcing a master plan to rebuild LaGuardia Airport – a 1939-vintage facility that Biden some months before, had mocked as being something you would expect in a Third World Country, rather entranceway to the greatest city in the world.
“New York had an aggressive, can-do approach to big infrastructure in the past – and today, we’re moving forward with that attitude once again,” said Governor Cuomo, evoking the spirit that built the Erie Canal and made the Empire State. “We are transforming LaGuardia into a globally-renowned, 21st century airport that is worthy of the city and state of New York. It’s the perfect metaphor for what we can achieve with the ambition and optimism and energy that made this the Empire State in the first place, and I want to thank our many partners for joining us to build the airport that New York deserves.”
The $4 billion project – half of it funded through private sources – will transform LaGuardia, now four separate terminals, into a single, structurally unified main terminal with expanded transportation access, significantly increased taxiway space (by moving the terminal closer to Grand Central Parkway), improved amenities, including new retail space and a hotel, and mass transit links – by Airtrain to Willets Point and by a new, high-speed ferry which would go into the Marine Air Terminal (an Art Deco building built as a WPA project during the Depression, it is now a national landmark). Rebuilding the airport also means it would incorporate post-9/11 Security systems, and post-Sandy storm resiliency.
Construction on the first half of the new unified terminal, expected to be a $4 billion project – half of the funding to come from private sources – will create 8,000 direct jobs and 10,000 indirect jobs and will be managed by LaGuardia Gateway Partners, a new public private partnership chosen by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
It will begin upon final approval from the Board of Directors of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which is expected in the first part of 2016. (LaGuardia will remain open during the construction.)
Most of the first half of the project is expected to open to passengers in 2019, with full completion anticipated18 months later. The second half of the new unified terminal is expected to be redeveloped by Delta Air Lines, which controls two of the four terminals. Delta anticipates beginning the redevelopment of its terminals on a parallel track with the LaGuardia Gateway Partners project to complete the new unified airport. Without Delta’s support, Cuomo said, there could be no new LaGuardia.
LaGuardia Airport generates more than $16 billion in economic activity to the region annually, supporting 121,000 total jobs and $5.9 billion in annual wages.
“That’s more than the GDP of many states,” said Vice President Joe Biden, commending Cuomo for his bold vision, especially in light of the failure to invest in infrastructure across much of the country.
While the most ambitious airline project is focused on LaGuardia, Cuomo is also spearheading major redevelopment for JFK, Stewart and Republic Airports.
Stewart Airport, in Newburgh, 60 miles from NYC, has 2400 acres (compared to 688 acres at LaGuardia) and the second longest runway in NYS, and has plenty of excess capacity, he noted.
The Governor is creating incentives to shift passenger and cargo traffic that would otherwise go into JFK, designating Stewart a New York free trade zone -a StartUp NY zone – which means companies pay zero tax for 10 years, “which makes it least expensive place in US to site a new business.”
Similarly, Republic Airport on Long Island is currently underutilized. The state is seeking proposals for a private operator to operate the airport and develop it, and the state is turning Republic into a New York free trade zone with StartUp NY tax credit.
Finally, JFK: “We are on the way to restoring the majesty of JFK airport.” A master plan will be developed within the next 12 months that will unify the “disparate terminals developed over the years,” he said, with construction set to begin next year, and the first hotel at JFK to open in 2018.
While the day’s focus was on airports, Cuomo said, “in general the larger conversation..is building a society that is economically potent for the next generation. New York probably makes this case better than anyone and better than anyplace in the United States because New York’s greatness was driven by its ability to dream big and to build bigger. Our growth was always a function of ambition meeting intelligence with that New York attitude that just wouldn’t take no for answer. That New York positivism and belief in itself that there is no challenge that we can’t rise to. We did the impossible and then we did it again and again; with the tallest buildings, longest bridges, there was nothing that we couldn’t do. We were New York. That spirit was then institutionalized into the creation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey in 1921. That was the first national movement towards a regional governmental organization that put together the transportation systems and connections to the economy.
“At that time state and city governments were also aggressive and optimistic and the product of all of this was that they built and they built and they built, and when you look at the array of things that just the Port Authority was building it is breathtaking. 1921, 1928 Outer Borough Bridge, 1930 they come back with the Holland tunnel, Bayonne Bridge, George Washington bridge 1931. That was the attitude and we executed and we performed.”
But Cuomo added, “Somewhere along the way, we lost our momentum and the ‘we’ is New York. But then ‘we’ is also countrywide in many cases. We lost our momentum and you say other places capitalize with that type of innovation that New York was all about. China was doing ‘mag-lev’ trains, South Korea, state of the art airports, airports so beautiful you would almost travel just to see the airport itself, Dubai and the amazing airport complex really redefining what that experience and what a state of the art entrance way is all about.
“When you look at that growth in comparison and compare it with where we are today, we have outdated airports, rails, bridges that desperately need repair and somewhere along the way we lost the connection between transportation and economic growth.”
Cuomo hasn’t, and certainly not the Obama Administration, which has made infrastructure a key element of its “GROW America” program.
“I was with the vice president this morning in Rochester and he was talking about where the roads lead, where the fiber optic lies, that is where the economy grows. We have learned that lesson. We have to relearn it now and for New York it is time to move because all of the planning and all the talking is nice, but if you are not acting, if you are not performing, you are doing nothing. You are standing still. The obligation and the job of government is you know what? To get something done, not to talk about getting something done, not to advocate for what should be done but to actually do it.”
It’s about the rail lines, bridges, roads and broadband, too – infrastructure is the engine for economic growth, so Cuomo gave his endorsement for the MTA’s $29 billion capital plan and said the state would contribute $8.3 billion.
Meanwhile, New York State has proved innovative in its design-build plan for the new Tappan Zee Bridge. “It has become a national model,” Cuomo said.
Infrastructure also includes a smart grid. More than oil, or fossil fuels, more than transportation, our economy, indeed, our society, is completely dependent upon electricity. An attack on the grid – whether it be in war or a solar flare – would send us back to the Dark Ages (or at very least the 1800s, back to the steam engine and water wheel (Save the Saddle Rock Grist Mill!), back to wind turbines, bicycles and horse-and-buggy – in a heart beat.
Cyberspace is another dimension of infrastructure now – the next war won’t be fought on a battlefield but in cyberspace and we have already seen the first battles. The hack of the Office of Personnel Management that stole the personal information for some 20 million government people (very probably spies, as well) is believed to have come from China. Russia is another frequent culprit. Republicans like to blame the ineptitude of the OPM administrator, but more likely the hack occurred during the Republican shut-down of government, in October 2012, when “nonessential” federal workers like the very IT people who monitor security, were furloughed. Also, Republicans have refused to spend the money to upgrade the systems which are so archaic, they cannot even be encrypted. The GOP approach to infrastructure: “make bricks without straw.”
Cuomo, in the best tradition of New York Governors – DeWitt Clinton who built the Erie Canal (when President Madison, a Jeffersonian, refused federal money), Theodore Roosevelt (who as Governor set the plan for the expanded Barge Canal), and Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who harnessed hydroelectric power from the St. Lawrence Seaway.
It’s a matter of principle for Democrats, who believe in the good that government can do, in the unique role that government can play. So we see enormous progress from the Obama Administration (that is, what isn’t directly stymied by Republicans) – in its broadband initiative, for example, in its plan to bring renewable energy to impoverished communities, in the way it is fostering a shift to clean, renewable energy, and its application of public-private partnerships.
Contrast with NJ Governor Chris (“Never My Fault”) Christie, auditioning for the Republican nomination for president, rejecting federal funding to build a new rail link under the Hudson (and then stealing $3 billion in taxpayer money to use it to repair roads in order to avoid increasing New Jersey’s ridiculously low gas tax), and now blaming Amtrak for the breakdowns in the tunnel that have stranded New Jersey commuters for hours. Now there is a new proposal, from Amtrak, to build a “Gateway Tunnel” but that, too, will require backing from New Jersey and New York State and would be at least a decade away. You have the Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx pleading for Christie to come to the table to discuss a plan.
Meanwhile, Congressional Republicans have blocked any long-term Highway Transportation Bill which in the pre-Obama years, would have received routine bipartisan approval (the ability to bring home pork to one’s constituents was sugar making the medicine go down). Instead, the Republicans have authorized only months-long extensions which means that states and localities cannot plan or issue contracts – 61,OOO bridges in America are rated “structurally deficient.
And now, they have used the impending crisis (the bill expires at the end of July), to try to insert provisions that include taking away Social Security benefits, privatizing Medicare and repealing (for the 52nd time) Obamacare, cutting off funding for Planned Parenthood, the Export-Import Bank, and torpedo the Iran nuclear deal.
That’s the very opposite of a vision for the future.
(To find out more about Parks & Trails New York and how to help restore the Erie Canal Trail or join next year’s Erie Canal Trail Cycle Tour, July 10-17, 2016, visit ptny.org.)
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