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Sandy Forces Northeast to Rethink Infrastructure

In an effort to emerge more resilient and prosperous, states and localities are rethinking power grids, roads and sewers in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.

Flickr/Official U.S. Navy Imagery
A couple of weeks after Hurricane Sandy blew through, I was attending a smart growth conference in Long Island, N.Y. You can usually predict what these events are going to be like -- a parade of impressive and attractive plans and development projects revolving around rail stations, old downtowns and major redevelopment sites like disused shopping malls. This year was different. All anybody wanted to talk about was sewers.

Yes, sewers.

On Long Island, the sewer discussion is shorthand for practically everything: aging infrastructure, economic competitiveness, the tax burden and, most urgently, the region’s sustainability over the long haul at a time of unpredictable weather events.

Even today, 65 years after construction began on Levittown -- the nation’s first large-scale suburban housing subdivision -- 40 percent of Long Island households are still on septic tanks. But putting a million people on sewers would cost untold billions of dollars. And even then, the sewer plants themselves would be at risk in a big storm, a flood or as a result of a gradual rise in the sea level.

The dilemma gives you a good idea of the kind of problems a place like Long Island faces as destructive weather events become more common. A hundred miles long and 20 miles across at its widest point, Long Island includes two counties east of New York City that are home to 3 million people. Even without Hurricane Sandy, Long Island has a lot of challenges, just like many other large mature suburbs in the United States, including an older population, traffic congestion (Long Island is sometimes called “the world’s longest parking lot”), brain drain among the young and educated, aging infrastructure, and trouble maintaining economic competitiveness in the 21st century.

But weather events like Hurricane Sandy force the issue. Say what you want about climate change, but these destructive weather events are becoming more and more common, and there is little question that the ice caps are melting and the sea is rising. It’s clear that both private insurers and the federal government no longer have the patience, or the money, to rebuild things just the way they were before, only to see further damage in the future.

If Long Island can’t foot the bill for things like sewers, and insurers and the feds won’t step in, how does it restore its competitiveness?

By rethinking things. At long last, the discussion about infrastructure on Long Island, and elsewhere in the Northeast hammered by Sandy, has moved beyond simply rebuilding and has focused on rethinking instead. Perhaps centralized power grids and sewer systems need to be broken down into smaller components. Perhaps some roads and other transportation systems should be reconfigured to be more storm resistant. Perhaps new development should be focused in certain locations -- Long Island’s old downtowns, for example -- where storm-resistant infrastructure can be concentrated. And perhaps greener solutions should also be used, such as moving hard infrastructure out of vulnerable areas and replacing it with more resilient natural systems.

All of these possibilities will be discussed over the next few months by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NYS 2100 Commission, which will consider the future of infrastructure on Long Island and elsewhere in New York state in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But as Long Island moves toward rethinking infrastructure, it’s important to understand its role not just in the daily lives of residents, but also in the future economic development of the region.

Infrastructure, and how it’s paid for, is intertwined tightly with a region’s economic competitiveness. Long Island’s political and civic leaders are already engaged in a wide-ranging effort to restore competitiveness in a way that is sustainable, at least in economic terms. The trick will likely be to marry those efforts with the task of rebuilding infrastructure so that Long Island emerges from Hurricane Sandy both more resilient and more prosperous.

For example, if sewer infrastructure is concentrated in downtowns, more economic growth can be accommodated, providing new areas of opportunity on the built-out island. If sewers are installed on a smaller scale, the cost is likely to be cheaper, not just to residents, but also to businesses that are increasingly priced out of Long Island. If some hard infrastructure, instead of being rebuilt as is, is replaced by greenery, government and taxpayers will save a lot of money. And if Long Island is more resilient, then everything will become less expensive, including insurance.

For 200 years, the U.S. has bullied its way to prosperity by attempting to overpower nature. As the Long Island example shows, the future most likely lies in the opposite direction.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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