Should political leaders give us what we want or what we need?

Budget season in Albany includes an unusual gift this year:  $5.1 billion for lawmakers to hand around.  To whom will it go?  And for what? 

The potential beneficiaries getting the most talk are showy:  Tappan Zee bridge reconstruction, education, even checks to tax payers.

These are certainly important projects.  But they already have (a) other funding sources available, and (b) high profiles that political leaders can use to raise even more money.

That’s why windfall dollars should be put into critical projects that are harder to sell.  In one’s home, a windfall might inspire the purchase of a new home theater, but those funds would be better spent fixing a collapsing foundation.  In many communities, their foundations – drinking water and wastewater infrastructure – need serious repairs.  And that’s where New York’s windfall should go.

In older cities like Syracuse, NY, most water pipes were installed more than a century ago.  In areas where growth occurred more recently, pipes were laid and treatment plants were built in the 1970s and 80s.  While more modern, most of these facilities are at or past their design lives and are beginning to fail.

Two major challenges are impeding the repair of water mains, sewer pipes, and treatment plants.  First, these things are out of sight and out of mind, so few people think about them until their taps run brown or sewage bubbles up through the pavement.  Second, the federal funds that enabled infrastructure development in the 70s and 80s are gone, so unless the state helps, municipalities must cover massive repair and replacement costs on their own. 

Statewide, a $36 billion sewage crisis confronts New Yorkers, and the costs will go further and further up the longer we pretend the problem doesn’t exist.

New York’s political leaders have an opportunity with the $5.1 billion windfall.  They can use it to fund highly visible projects that will score them major political points.  Or they can show true leadership and invest the dollars to help municipalities safely deliver clean water and process our waste.  The latter isn’t flashy, but it’s what New Yorkers really need this holiday season.