The following commentary by PEF President Wayne Spence ran in the Albany Times Union on April 27 and is republished here for our members who don’t subscribe to the newspaper.
President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan would be a much-needed shot in the arm for this country’s ailing roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. Here in New York, our drinking water systems alone need an estimated $22.8 billion in investment.
But the growing controversy over faulty bolts on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge reveals that state lawmakers still have work to do. More than half of New York’s bridges are at least 75 years old, ranking us second to last in the nation in functionally obsolete bridges. Over 420 of our dams are considered to be high-hazard potential. New York City’s subway system is only getting older. Over a quarter of New York’s roads are in poor condition, costing each driver $625 per year.
Simply put, New York’s infrastructure is stuck in the 20th century. And that means New Yorkers are at risk every time we drive, turn on our kitchen faucet, or step on a subway car.
One crucial step in turning things around is reforming the way the state ensures our infrastructure is strong and safe. Right now, state agencies can hire a single company to design, build, and even inspect new construction and repairs. This means multiple billion-dollar projects are currently being built or have been completed by a single contractor, with no on-site oversight by state inspectors working on behalf of the public.
The Mario Cuomo Bridge is one such project. And we’re now seeing why this approach is flawed.
A consortium of companies—American Bridge Co., Fluor Corp., Traylor Bros., Inc., and Granite Construction—built the bridge. A private engineering firm—Alta Vista—inspected the construction. According to a Times Union investigation, at least dozens of bolts broke as the bridge’s girders were being assembled and even more a year after they were installed. A whistleblower alleges the companies committed fraud by hiding this from the New York Thruway Authority. Both New York’s inspector general and state attorney general’s office have investigated the claim. The attorney general’s office appears to have agreed to settle with the consortium for a paltry $2 million penalty and a one-year extension to its warranty on the bridge’s construction.
This was allowed to happen because of the New York Works Infrastructure Fund Act, passed in 2011 and expanded multiple times since. Before the act, licensed state engineers and inspectors oversaw public infrastructure projects. They made sure contractors weren’t cutting corners to increase profits. Now, like a fox guarding the hen house, on an increasing number of projects contractors inspect their own work with little to no state involvement.
Back in 2011, proponents of the change argued that it would reduce so-called “red tape” and cut costs. Yet, we have no way of knowing whether that’s panned out. There is currently no requirement for these projects to undergo a cost-benefit analysis, which would determine whether it’s worth allowing one company to design and build a bridge, road, or other piece of infrastructure.
Outrageously, some state lawmakers want to expand and make permanent the state’s ability to enter into such “design-build” contracts. A proposed bill would allow for even more contractors to self-inspect their own projects. This would be not only foolish but also potentially catastrophic. We should be increasing—not further decreasing—our government’s responsibility to keep New Yorkers safe. With billions in federal investment possible, oversight is more important than ever. That means putting the state’s licensed professionals to work inspecting the infrastructure we rely on. That means more public and less private involvement in the construction of our public assets.
Who knows how many of the bolts holding the Mario Cuomo Bridge together will break in the coming years? The hundreds of thousands of drivers who cross the bridge daily surely would like to know.