“The Human Cost of Inaction Is Clear”: Just How Vulnerable Is New York’s Infrastructure?

building explosion harlem

This morning’s explosion and subsequent collapse of two buildings in East Harlem has been confirmed to be the result of a gas leak. At least two people are known to have died, more than 18 are injured, and over a dozen are missing. While it is still too early to know how or even if this tragedy could have been prevented—as Mayor de Blasio said in a press conference earlier, “this is a tragedy of the worst kind because there was no indication in time to save people”—there have been reports that “the rear exterior of one of the collapsed buildings, 1646 Park Avenue, had been found in 2008 to have ‘several vertical cracks which is hazardous for the safety of the structure.’ The records do not indicate that the hazard was ever fixed.” Whether or not these cracks had any effect on the building’s susceptibility to collapse is impossible to know at this time, but one New York councilman, Ydanis Rodriguez, is already pointing out that today’s tragedy highlights the “dire need” to address this city’s aging infrastructure so that today’s horrific events won’t be repeated.

But just how bad is the rest of the city’s infrastructure? Just how vulnerable are we to tragic events like today? A recently released study by the Center for Urban Progress reveals some troubling facts about New York’s buildings, roads, bridges, and, yes, gas lines. Troublingly titled “Caution Ahead,” the center reports that while the city has been almost exclusively focused on building new structures, the decades-old existing structures have been deteriorating and the city would need to invest as much as (or even more than!) $47.3 billion in order to maintain or replace existing city infrastructure. So, that’s a lot! But maybe everything is under control and the city already has that money set aside? Well, no. As of right now (although, admittedly, today’s events might spur the de Blasio administration into action), there is only $33.6 billion set aside for capital projects over the next four years. This is a $3.3 billion reduction from the capital projects budget under Bloomberg, but perhaps what needs to be noted is that a lot of this money simply went toward new construction, not fixing anything old.

The center’s report notes, “much of New York City’s skeletal infrastructure dates from the first part of the 20th century. As a result, many structures have been in continual service for over half a century.” Some of the oldest parts of the infrastructure include the “6,300 miles of gas mains [which] are 56 years old” and “made of old and outmoded materials like unlined cast iron, making them highly susceptible to leaks and breaks. Largely because of leaks, over 2 percent of the gas Con Edison sends to customers every year never makes it to its final destination.”

Equally as chilling is the deteriorating condition of New York City’s 1,445 bridges. The center’s study reveals “eleven percent of New York City bridges—162 in all—have been deemed structurally deficient, and 47 bridges have been found to be both structurally deficient and fracture critical. The bridges in this latter category not only suffer from significant distress, they lack sufficient redundancy to withstand that distress. According to engineers, if a single span, beam or joint of such a bridge fails, the whole thing could come tumbling down.” Tumbling down. Tumbling down. Ok.

And in case you’ve ever wondered why your subway was delayed all the time due to “signal problems ahead,” well, it’s because”of the system’s 728 miles of mainline signals, 269 have exceeded their 50-year useful life and 26 percent are more than 70 years old.” Which, terrible as that sounds, is really not that bad, as the subway system is possibly the most up-to-date part of the city’s infrastructure, and definitely a vast improvement over what it was just 20-30 years ago.

But what does this all mean? Well, it means that the city needs to stop doing what it’s been doing and only superficially repairing real problems, and, in effect, putting a Band Aid over a bullet wound. As council member Rodruguez said following this morning’s explosion, “the human cost of inaction is clear.” There is no telling where or when the next disaster will strike, but it would be disingenuous to pretend that there won’t be another, even if the fatality count isn’t as high. More than two months into his mayoral tenure, de Blasio still hasn’t picked a commissioner of buildings. We can only hope that he does so soon, and that both the mayor and the new commissioner will set about rectifying what is a frankly terrifying state of affairs.

Follow Kristin Iversen on twitter @kmiversen

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