Trouble in the cities' sub-basement

The lady in the toll booth is stony-faced, silent as she takes money and slides tokens through the little slot under her cage window. Most people just say how many tokens they want. Two, four, one. A few say please and thank you. But it all seems the same to her. She says nothing, sees nothing. She is inured, indifferent to the subterranean world where she works.

And no wonder. The tiled walls are dirty and unattractive. Paint is peeling away from the girders. Dozens of posters have been ripped and defaced by passing vandals. Those you can read offer goods of questionable value: "Uncontested Divorce. Divorcio sin oposicion. $99.50 (Plus Court Costs)." And everywhere is graffiti, the ornate calligraphy os urban youth: SPOOKY. ROCK THE HOUSE. BECK. ICC. Less- printable sayings.

The commuters this morning move in an unseeing line past the toll booth, through the turnstile, down the stairs to the crowded platform flanked by tracks strewn with trash.

New York City's aging subway is more than a graphic sideshow of blighted big-city travel. It is a prime example of a major problem facing most of America's older cities: a neglected and deteriorating infrastructure.

According to Webster's New World Dictionary, an infrastructure is "a substructure or underlying foundation; especially, the basic installations and facilities on which the continuance and growth of a community, state, etc. depend, as roads, schools, power plants, transportation and communication systems, etc."

New York, with the largest infrastructure of all American cities, also suffers from the most deterioration in the physical plant that keeps it going. But it is far from being the only city with that problem.

Most of America's oldest cities are waking up to find that their systems are desperately in need of repair. In fact, a city planner estimates that if St. Louis were to begin proper municipal plant repair tomorrow, it would take 200 years to catch up. In some cities, the situation is at emergency levels. In Buffalo, N.Y., for example, at least one insurance company has refused to write any more fire insurance policies because the water system cannot provide adequate pressure. A similar situation exists in cleveland, where lawsuits allege that a failure to clean water pipes properly has crippled the city's firefighting forces. And one Cleveland district alone has reported 450 flooding incidents and 125 street cave-ins as a result of failures in the city sewer system.

During the recent presidential debate between Ronald Reagan and John Anderson , Mr. Anderson commented that he was in north Pittsburg and, "the water mains in that city had begun to leak, and literally there wasn't money available to fix them. And until we can begin to re-create the basic infrastructure of the great cities of America -- particularly in the upper Midwest and the Northeast -- they simply are not going to provide the economic climate that will enable them to retain industry, enable them to retain the kind of solid industrial base that they need so that they can provide jobs."

None of the industrialized, older cities in the Northeast are immune from such widespread deterioration; and many Western cities, such as Oakland, Calif., are seeing signs of advancing decay in their infrastructures.

In New York this infrastructure includes a water supply system that produces 1,435 million gallons of water a day from 1,956 miles of reservoirs, aqueducts, two tunnels, 32 million feet of trunk and distribution mains and 20,000 trunk valves; 6,000 miles of sewers, 12 operating pollution control plants, 80 sewage pumping stations, and 450 combined sewer overflow regulators; 6,200 miles of paved streets covering approximately 30 percent of the city's land; 6,700 subway cars, 232 miles of track (137 miles of it underground) and 4,550 buses; 1,695 sanitation trucks, and 3,000 acres of landfill; 51 waterway bridges and 1,281 highway bridges; and a vast network of social service systems and the physical plants that house and equip them.

Much of this physical plant is underground. And most of it is badly in need of immediate attention.

According to a 1979 report by the New York City Planning Commission, road repaving should take place every 20 to 40 years; in New York City, at the current rate, it takes 180 years to entirely repave the city's streets. Water mains are recommended for an 80- to 100-year replacement cycle; in New York, the rate is more like 296 years. Sewers should be replaced every 100 years; New York's sewer system is on a 300-year replacement cycle.

Such valuable physical plants (the water supply system alone is valued at $27 billion) are routinely neglected by cities across the country. But no city has the edge on New York for the complexity and enormity of its infrastructure problems.

In fact, it was a decaying New York City infrastructure that drew attention to the problem nationwide. The West Side Highway, an elevated road bordering Manhattan's West Side, caved in under the weight of passing traffic in December 1973 and set in motion a broad inquiry into city systems, according to informed observers.

"People like to fasten onto horror stories," Nan Humphrey, a research associate at the Urban Institute, which has been engaged by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to conduct a sweeping study of "America's urban capital stock" says.

"There have been continuing questions like, 'Are there going to be West Side Highways of water tunnels?' The problem in answering them is that there are so many complicating factors. But it is clear that there is not as alarming a question as when we first started [to study the problem]."

The Urban Institute has brought out four full-scale studies of urban infrastructures so far -- New York, Dallas, Cincinnati, and Cleveland -- and is planning to produce two more, on Oakland and Boston.

According to these studies, Dallas -- with its high priority on municipal plant investment, its citizens' willingness to tax themselves, and its quality maintenance and repair systems -- is a model of municipal plant maintenance. But Dallas is a relatively young, affluent Sunbelt city with few of the problems of deterioration in other, older, major cities. Cincinnati, on the other hand, is an example of what can be done to preserve an aging infrastructure in a politically and fiscally difficult environment.

"Cincinnati stands as an example of an older city that has managed its capital assets carefully," the UI report states, adding that "the city was among the first in the nation to systematically direct its capital toward preservation of existing facilities, accepting the necessity for cutting back on new capital projects if it was to operate within its budgetary limitations."

Cincinnatians' readiness to tax themselves in order to keep municipal systems in good repair was also cited, as was a form of city government conducive to simplified control and maintenance of the infrastructure.

Unfortunately, New York City -- along with most other older industrial cities of the Northeast -- stands in direct contrast to Cincinnati in almost all these respects. Irwin Fruchtman, New York City building commissioner who once was chief engineer of the City Planning Commission, decries the "deteriorating systems under the street, so crucial to the lifeline of the city" and complains they are being neglected through continued mismanagement.

According to critics of municipal planning, mismanagement is compounded by a general shift in spending priorities: Tax dollars are going toward better salaries for city employees and debt repayment instead of for municipal improvements.Spiraling social-service costs have also been a factor.

There is still time to save our urban infrastructures, many urban planners say. Even in New York, the basic equipment is "not rotten, believe it or not," Martin Goldstein, a recently retired infrastructure specialist for New York City , says, because it was "built to last."

Failures occur, he explains, not only because of age, but also because of associated factors. The underground systems in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans fail at high rates because of poor soil conditions. In New York City, failures occur because not enough care is taken in new excavations. Contractors dig up the streets and then fill in the excavations without properly tamping the soil into place around existing water mains, electrical cables, and sewer systems. And Mr. Goldstein charges that the city closes its eyes to the practice.

Neglect like this causes water-line failures. Long-term neglect causes major disasters, like the downtown Baltimore water main eruption that, according to Nan Humphrey, tied up the city's main thoroughfares for several days early this year.

Sources in municipal government and elsewhere charge that city managers simply refuse to deal with the problem. Sitting in his office in New York City Hall, Robert Wagner, Jr., deputy mayor for policy, explains that the city has so long ignored its basic "life-support systems" -- water, electricity, rapid transit -- that many city systems are in an emergency condition.

Mr. Wagner attributes this neglect to what he calls the "Bridge Over the River Kwai" syndrome. Everybody loves to build a new bridge, even if building it does little to win the war against crippling urban congestion and decay. On the other hand, "It's tough to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony and invite the press when you are fixing a sewer," he observes. And, yet -- ribbon-cutting ceremony or no -- fixing the sewers is what government in older cities should be all about.

"All cities have large investments in the infrastructure buried under their streets," Mr. Goldstein says. "The problem is that it's out of sight, so, little money is devoted to maintaining it." Now, fortunately, such neglect is becoming a political issue, and new money is available from the federal government to rebuild.

The problem with rebuilding is that first you have to know what it is you've got. And, remarkably, there has been no complete above- and below-ground inventory of New York since 1916.

New York Building Commissioner Fruchtmanwas pushing for a comprehensive, modern survey of the complicated systems under the pavement during his tenure at the planning commission.

He says what is needed is a base map, consisting of a series of overlays, even though "it would look like a Chinese prayer flag." A couple of New York utilities have such modern maps of their own underground inventories developed through computerized mapping systems. "This is the way Toronto and Baltimore have gone," he observes.

Deputy Mayor Wagner says he is "constantly surprised by how little we know about what is under the city streets. We are beginning, much too slowly, the process of building an inventory of what is under there."

Steps have been taken in New York and elsewhere to alleviate this kind of information vacuum and the lack of planning that fosters it.Nan Humphrey of the Urban Institute sees that cities are beginning to realize that they need to plow money back into their existing capital stock and to ensure that governmental operations help protect infrastructures. The Planning Commission of New York has strengthened the Office of Construction, which helps to coordinate underground and above-ground construction.

No one is predicting a modern face-lift for New York City's subway system in the near future, but many cities, including New York, are awakening to the fact that such decay can no longer be ignored. As one urban planner observes, they may have little choice:

"The social cost is becoming absolutely ridiculous."

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