Western New Yorkers don’t have to look far to find reasons to support an environmental upgrade plan such as the one proposed last week by State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti, R-Buffalo.
On Wednesday, The Buffalo News reported that the cost of repairing Niagara Falls’ damaged sewage treatment plant is blowing past last month’s estimate of $2 million. The plant was damaged in July after a fierce storm overwhelmed it, causing up to 150 million gallons of raw sewage to flood the lower Niagara River. The plant is functioning again, but new storm-caused problems are being discovered, including corrosion of electrical systems damaged by water.
Such problems exist all around New York State, especially in Western New York, where water and sewer infrastructure can be more than a century old and often is failing. That causes more overflow of raw sewage into creeks, streams, Lakes Erie and Ontario and other waterways. That pollution contributes to frequent closings of beaches and waterside recreational areas, where high levels of bacteria and other microbes harmful to human health occur.
To deal with those problems – which will only become worse as old systems grow older still – Grisanti and Assemblyman Robert Sweeney, D-L.I., joined together to introduce a massive $5 billion bond act that voters would be asked to approve in November 2014 – just when lawmakers and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo will be up for re-election. It’s a plausible idea, even if its political timing is debatable.
Assuming projects are chosen carefully – not necessarily a safe assumption – a bond act is a rational response to a genuine need.
The borrowed money could be used for everything from improving a community’s air quality to replacing aging underground water pipeline systems to strengthening areas susceptible to flooding – especially critical downstate as climate change produces ever more fierce Atlantic storms.
The fact is that this money will have to be spent sooner or later and, what is more, costs will inevitably rise as work is deferred. So will interest rates, which today remain comparatively low.
The measure is called the Clean Water/Clean Air/Green Jobs Bond Act of 2014 and, according to the accompanying bill memo, it would fund the “preservation, enhancement, restoration and improvement of the state’s environment.” The memo also states that a 2008 study pegged the amount of money needed to repair or replace wastewater and water systems alone throughout the state at nearly $80 billion, spent over 20 years.
It’s a staggering amount, but even the $5 billion price tag of the Grisanti-Sweeney bill is historically high. If passed by the Legislature, signed by Cuomo and approved by voters, it would be the largest bond act in the state’s history. That calls for careful review. While the state’s environmental infrastructure demands attention, it is possible the bond act could be more carefully focused.
The proposal is already attracting criticism. E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank, labeled it bloated and said the state had higher infrastructure priorities, such as roads, highways and bridges. “It is excessive just on the face of it,” he said.
It is undeniable that the state’s transportation infrastructure is also in dire need of improvement. A 2006 federal report found that 2,110 of New York’s 17,335 bridges, or 12.1 percent, were “structurally deficient,” defined as having “major deterioration, cracks or other flaws that reduce its ability to support vehicles.”
So there’s room for debate, but what is indisputable is that the state’s environmental infrastructure is creaking and groaning like an old roller coaster. Water leaks from underground pipes and sewage contaminate waters used for drinking, fishing, boating and other recreation. It is a pressing need around the state, and this proposal deserves careful evaluation.