It was a packed house at Industry City’s “Five Two A” event space on Wednesday, Nov. 10, as the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce hosted a panel-style breakfast discussing the recently-passed federal infrastructure bill, and what infrastructure across New York City will look like post-COVID.
City leaders, elected officials and others joined Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers, who acted as moderator; the U.S. Chamber of Commerce VP of Infrastructure and Transportation Ed Mortimer; MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber; and New York Building Congress President and CEO Carlo Scissura.
During the two-hour event, each panelist discussed President Joe Biden’s $1 trillion infrastructure bill and how it would affect New York City, particularly Brooklyn.
Scissura discussed the deteriorating Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and how the bill can serve as an opportunity to radically change the highway, given that the infrastructure plan talks about equity, inclusion, climate change, and resiliency.
“It’s dangerous, it’s polluted and it’s rusted. Let’s all chant, ‘Tear the BQE down,’” he said. “This is a moment to do something right. We got an investment. We got a moment to really rebuild our highway system, our federal interstate system across the nation.
“Let’s start with the project that affects the most people in the most communities like Sunset Park who have been living under this decrepit rusted shadow for decades who suffer high asthma rates,” he added.
Ideas to replace the elevated highway that were mentioned at the meeting included a light rail system running along Third Avenue with bike lanes and better pedestrian crossways, which would eliminate pollution, as well as the “tunnel option” that would put the Gowanus Expressway under Third Avenue.
Lieber discussed the MTA’s most urgently needed improvements that the infrastructure bill will help solve. These include improving subway and commuter rail signals, buying more zero-emission buses, making more stations ADA-accessible, and “mega-projects.” According to the MTA website, some of these mega-projects include Phase 2 of the Second Avenue Subway; Penn Station access for Metro North; and Grand Central access for the Long Island Rail Road, which is now in the finishing stages.
“The infrastructure plan is going to increase by 50 percent our federal formula money on an annual basis, so it’s $700 million per year more,” Lieber said.
He also stated that despite the fact that the MTA recently has instituted more ADA-accessibility projects than ever before, he wants the entire system to be ADA-accessible.
“It’s a little embarrassing that 30 years after the ADA only a third of our stations are ADA-accessible,” Lieber said. “We have to keep that going.”
He added that ridership is on the rise following the pandemic.
Currently, ridership on subways is 55 percent of what it was before COVID-19. The figure is 60 percent for buses.
“The numbers have been moving significantly,” he said. “The more interesting indicator of where we are headed is In the discretionary travel period. Off-hours and weekends, we are in the 70 percent [ridership]. People are ready to ride. They’re just waiting for people in their offices to come back.”
Mortimer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce described the bill as a bipartisan solution, which would make it more do-able.
“It’s bringing a long-term commitment to infrastructure,” he said. “ It’s not just transportation but our water system, more broadband, and energy. This is an all-encompassing piece of legislation. From the business community perspective, we need this business structure to succeed for our economy to continue to grow.”
He added that “we are operating with infrastructure that was built 75 or 100 years ago. We have to modernize.”
For New York, he said the bill means 35-40 percent increases in highway and bridge funding. Also, legislation funding for making sure the interstate highway system has electric charging stations, and making sure infrastructure is resilient and can handle changing climate conditions.
“This legislation is going to allow that to happen,” he said. “It’s not just filling potholes or fixing curves.”