Reinvesting in NYS Water Infrastructure

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by David Hogenkamp, Program Assistant, Empire State Future

Every time we expand water or sewer infrastructure on the outskirts of our existing cities and villages we encourage more vacant storefronts, closed businesses, boarded up houses, and abandoned and often contaminated industrial sites in New York’s historic town centers.  While suburban growth in exchange for urban decline has been an acceptable reality to some, a new truth has emerged: we no longer can afford it.

New York State’s infrastructure spending is already projected to be underfunded by $80 billion. According to the New York State Office of the Comptroller’s 2008 report on local infrastructure, New York will need to invest $36.2 billion to maintain municipal wastewater infrastructure, and $38.7 billion in drinking water infrastructure over the next twenty years to replace, repair, and update facilities.  The fiscal crisis already upon us will only continue to worsen if we carry on expanding water infrastructure in areas that are neither sustainable nor regional growth areas.

One of the greatest sources of funds for infrastructure projects, the federal government, has indicated that they are no longer interested in funding sprawl and unsustainable practices.  This is evident in the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2010 policy update which asks states to apply smart growth principles to projects that use the $3.3 billion of federal funds available for water/sewer infrastructure.  As highlighted by President Obama in the State of the Union, it is time to invest in our nation’s existing infrastructure.  The President revealed the startling fact that the nation’s infrastructure has received a “D” letter grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers.  With over $2.2 trillion updates called for in the next five years, this can be a great opportunity to target investment to the areas that will allow for smart growth solutions

New York State and local governments must make the difficult choices to invest in the cities, towns and villages that need to upgrade existing pipes rather than expand water systems.  Recently, The Buffalo News focused on the Village of Williamsville, an Erie County community with a historic and walkable Main Street.  Williamsville has seen its water fund deficit triple from 2008-09 to 2009-10– a fiscal situation that forced the raising of water rates.  The Village of Williamsville is one of those special New York villages where an upgrade investment in water infrastructure is consistent with smart growth principles.  Williamsville is an established village that is mixed-use and has the room for greater density along existing transit lines.  Providing water upgrades in historic villages targets economic revitalization efforts on main streets.  Williamsville is the kind of place where people want to live.  Density can be increased in a way that will maintain the existing charm of the village, if not improve it.  Does this investment mean that we should also continue to expand these pipes into rural areas surrounding Williamsville?  The resounding answer should be no.   As Upstate continues to lose population it is crucial to make prudent decisions when expanding water and sewer capacity, when there are fewer numbers of tax payers to pay the bills.  The City of Buffalo has also announced this past summer that they plan to upgrade water infrastructure that was first built in the 1860’s, roughly thirty-five years after Governor DeWitt Clinton opened the Erie Canal.  Again, this is investing in areas where future development makes sense.  Renewing water infrastructure in our historic industrial centers can play a role in attracting new business and improving quality of life for existing residents.   Reinvesting in existing infrastructure also provides the opportunity for the conversation to progress on what the future shape and size of the City of Buffalo will really be.  Focused water system investment may provide an opportunity to “smart-size” or “Project Green” a city, whose population today is less than half of what it was a half-century ago.

Tough decisions will only be harder if the property tax bill, as proposed by Governor Cuomo, becomes law.   A cap creates a limit on revenue available for local government. One consequence of this approach to stabilizing property tax rates will be that service users will have to pay more of the real cost incurred by government to provide services like water, snow-removal, etc.  Research has been conducted that makes the connection clear that dense development decreases the cost of delivering services, water and sewer in particular.  The research, completed by Robert Burchell of Rutgers University, suggests that there could be a nationwide cost savings of $4.77 billion, or 6.5 percent of total water infrastructure costs from 2000 to 2025, if the nation grows in a more compact development pattern.  The American Planning Association concurs with these findings and furthers the evidence, reporting that providing water and sewer services to a half-acre lot in a centrally located development costs $283 per household, while it costs $472 for the same lot in a highly dispersed lot, far from the water service center.  The research also concludes that for each additional mile of development (from 1 up to 4 miles) from the center in a highly compact, small-lot development, there will be an added thirty year cost of $50,000 per household.  This cost rises substantially to $122,000 per household per mile (from 1 up to 5) over thirty years for low-density, large-lot development.

New Yorkers deserve fresh and clean water delivered in an equitable and efficient manner.  A time of austerity can lead to a greater future if smart investments are made.  Fresh water is an important commodity that, if managed efficiently, may help New York once again become a hotbed for job and population growth.  By properly investing in water infrastructure that aligns with smart growth principles we can affordably improve our historic town and city centers today, while providing for a better environmental and economic future tomorrow.


Is your local government proposing expanding or renewing water and sewer infrastructure?  Send that information to dhogenkamp@empirestatefuture.org so that we can continue to monitor infrastructure spending in New York State.

Links:
http://www.city-buffalo.com/Home/Leadership/City_Comptroller/NewsArticles/WaterSystemWillBeUpgraded
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/04/AR2010050404310.html
http://www.osc.state.ny.us/press/releases/aug09/081009.htm
http://www.buffalonews.com/city/article313320.ece
http://www.epa.gov/smartgrowth/water_efficiency.htm

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