New York Underperforms in Return on Infrastructure Spending
Being middle of the pack would be a major improvement for New York.
That’s the message a soon-to-be-released set of national highway system rankings gives. The Reason Foundation, a national public policy think tank, pegs New York as No. 43 overall in its 21st Annual Highway Report, an increase from No. 44 last year and No. 45 two years ago. The report, which will be released later this month, was previewed at an Empire Center forum on the state’s infrastructure Wednesday morning.
“You’re looking at the overall snapshot—the overall rankings. You don’t want to get too obsessed with any one ranking,” said Baruch Feigenbaum, assistant director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation. “The lower the ranking you have, it means the more money you’re spending to get a worse system. It’s a double negative.”
Feigenbaum said New York spends an average of $462,098 per mile of its highway system, nearly double the national average and states like Illinois and more than double that of states like Ohio, both of which are categorized as New York’s peer states.
Though New York's spending is understandably higher than in states in the South, for example, where roads are not battered by harsh winters, the state still has a highway system that is in the bottom 10 states in the nation, according to the report.
New York ranks in the lower tier of almost every category analyzed in the study, which includes rankings of everything from funding disbursements to road and congestion condition to fatality rates. The only areas in which the state cracks the top 30 states are rural principal arterial condition (No. 28) and fatality rate (No. 11).
New York’s worst category is deficient bridges, with a ranking of 49 out of the 50 states.
“It was interesting to hear from Baruch [Feigenbaum] that our cost per mile is about twice what it should be because we go around the state and talk to the different regions and talk to the people in charge, even on the state side with maintaining the infrastructure, they’ll tell you that they have about half the resources they need just to maintain what’s out there,” Associated General Contractors of New York State President and CEO Mike Elmendorf said. “We’re not talking about improving it. We’re not talking about making it better. We’re not talking about expanding it so we have opportunities for economic development. We’re talking about just keeping it the way it is, which in many cases is not that great anyway.”
New York isn’t the only Northeastern state with heavily urbanized areas to receive low rankings. New Jersey ranks No. 50 in terms of total; capital and bridge; and maintenance disbursements. Rhode Island is 50th in terms of deficient bridges.
Feigenbaum pre-empted possible criticism of the ranking system by acknowledging that less urbanized states may have an advantage, though that still doesn’t explain why New York ranks so low. He pointed to states similar to New York in population, land mass, density and geographic area that perform better. Those states include Ohio (14th), Illinois (27th), Michigan (32nd) and Pennsylvania (41st).
The only category in which New York does better than any of its peers states is in fatality rate.
Improving New York’s standing in the next year may not be all that easy. City & State reported in March that congressional gridlock could pose a problem for obtaining reimbursements to be able to afford to address crumbling infrastructure across the state. Other factors such as project labor agreements, high insurance premiums and prevailing wage laws—all discussed at Wednesday’s Empire Center forum—also make some infrastructure projects more costly to undertake in New York.
However, Feigenbaum said New York doesn’t need to shoot for the top—or even the top 20—to dramatically improve its highway system.
“New York is never going to be No. 1. We’re not trying to get New York to be No. 1,” he said. “We’re trying to get New York to be 25, which is an achievable goal. If Ohio can be 14 and Illinois can be (27), New York can be 25.”