Viewpoint: It’s time to rebuild and reimagine New York

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

That is because out of the rubble you get to build again. And this time, we have three of them – COVID-19, economic collapse and social justice uprising – coming as a one-two-three punch that has created a perfect storm in which to start over. “Reimagine,” as Gov. Andrew Cuomo says.

Indeed, all three crises are interconnected and present both the stunning shortcomings and failures and obsolescence of what existed, but in their demise and collapse people are not just open to progress, but demanding it.

Ah, progress. When you look back at American history, you see that there are blessed few and all-too-brief flashes in which progress took hold and most typically emerged out of crisis. The Civil War. The Great Depression. World War II.

Seize the momentum, Cuomo says. Build Back Better. Don’t just replace what was there before, but use this extraordinary time to move forward, to redress the wrong, the archaic, the obsolete. To root out systemic economic, environmental and social injustice, and pave the way for a a better future.

Cuomo gets it. He has also looked to major infrastructure projects which accomplish many important things at once: government stimulus creates jobs, steers money into communities, builds the 21st century infrastructure necessary for economic and social development, and addresses the challenge of climate change with sustainable projects and a clean, renewable energy infrastructure. Even health and wellness is taken into account – and should be – as we rebuild Smart Cities, redesign suburbia, and revitalize downtowns. Complete streets that take into account opportunities for safely biking and walking is probably the best thing municipalities can do for health, wellness and reducing overall costs while increasing productivity.

Renewable energy: New York is on track to secure 70 percent of our energy from renewables by 2030. There is a whole list of wind and solar power projects that the state is supporting and incentivizing, including three offshore wind projects totaling 1,828 MW (equivalent to Indian Point nuclear plant), which will support a whole wind energy industry on Long Island.

“Let’s take those big projects that we have to do and let’s energize them. Let’s really get them moving and get them moving quickly,” Cuomo said. “Let’s re-energize the Belmont racetrack. The new arena for the Islanders. We’re accelerating $2 billion of work at the MTA. Now is the time to do construction because the ridership is down. We’re going to capitalize on the moment. Let’s get that Moynihan station open. When those commuters come back, let’s say to them, ‘you’re going to have the best train station you’ve had in over 50 years, better than anywhere else.’ Now is the time to do it… let’s reimagine our upstate airports and let’s rebuild them.”

Cuomo gave one of his COVID-19 briefings at the Mario Cuomo Bridge, where he did a ribbon-cutting of a 3.6-mile-long bike/pedestrian path across the Hudson River, guaranteed to be a major visitor attraction, just as the Walkway Over the Hudson is. He recognizes the interplay between these outdoor activities/attractions, tourism, and economic development, not to mention health and productivity. The pathway links up with the Empire State Trail, a 750-mile network of connected biking/recreational trails that includes the 363-mile long Erie Canalway (Buffalo-Albany), and a newly connected trail system that will enable you to bike from New York City to Canada (it is expected to be finished by the end of 2020).

When the Mario Cuomo Bridge opened two years ago, it was the largest infrastructure project in the United States for a decade. Big projects have become too intimidating for government, but Cuomo said, “The bridge says, ‘yes, we can’ after 20 years of people questioning and doubting and being afraid. The bridge took on the challenge and defeated the challenge. It showed what we were capable of.”

“We know that government can stimulate the economy. This country has done it in the past when we have engaged in major public works that made the nation better and when we did it, we stimulated the economy. You look at all the great things that this nation did, building the Hoover Dam and the Lincoln Tunnel, all these magnificent public improvements that made the nation and created thousands of jobs at the same time. Now, everyone has been talking about the need to do major infrastructure in this nation. But nobody has done anything. If there’s ever a time to actually take on this overdue need for major infrastructure construction, now is the time. You need to restart the economy. You need to create jobs. And you need to renew and repair this country’s economy and its infrastructure.

“The time to do this work is now when you need the jobs and the volume is low and New York will lead the way,”  Cuomo said. The state is accelerating its big projects including Empire Station, which replaces Penn Station, and LaGuardia Airport, the first new airport in the nation in 25 years.

Other big infrastructure projects need federal help and approval (good luck with that): AirTrain to LaGuardia – New York City is one of the only major cities that has no train from the airport into the central city; the cross-Hudson tunnels where the Amtrak trains come through that are old and crumbling and if they become a problem, they literally stop Amtrak travel to the entire Northeast. Let’s stop the politics on it and let’s get it done and let’s build those new tunnels”.

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