The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act offers new opportunities to shore up New York City’s aging infrastructure, but the bill also spawns new challenges, according to a panel session during the 2023 New York Build Conference.
“Sometimes, you have to go after the funding and apply for grants, and sometimes the funding is mandated upon you to be utilized,” said Aryeh Lemberger, vice president of traffic engineering and intelligent transportation systems at WSP USA, a New York City-based engineering and design firm. “That places a strain in some cases to meet these needs because you’ve been mandated to do much more than you were before, because there’s more money to spend.”
For that reason, and since many firms don’t have the capacity internally to deliver these projects, many are teaming up with delivery partners, said Jim Varney, senior director at Parsons, a Centreville, Virginia-based infrastructure engineering firm. That is leading to a lot of public-private partnerships, especially in transit construction. The preferred delivery methods for these projects are design-bid-build or construction manager at risk, according to Varney.
“What everybody is trying to figure out right now is what’s the right risk profile between the private sector and the public sector,” said Varney. “That’s why you’re seeing all these various procurement methods being tried out to get enough industry participation in projects.”
The IIJA is also impacting electrification and decarbonization initiatives, said Lemberger. For instance, the federal government is incentivizing local governments to revise their building codes to reduce carbon in their building materials and methods. Those incentives also come with equity mandates.
“There is a particular program called the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program, $500 million a year — the challenge there is to try to identify where to put that charging infrastructure,” said Lemberger. “That’s part of what this grant funding needs to figure out. Because there is this whole equity component to everything that we do for the IIJA, we really have to take a closer look at not only where it’s needed but where we can encourage it so that it makes sense in the future as well.”
Last summer, the New York chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the state’s overall infrastructure a C grade, or mediocre condition, according to the 2022 Report Card for New York’s Infrastructure. The worst-performing categories, according to the ASCE, were drinking water, wastewater, bridges, roads and transit.
“Infrastructure investment is an enormous need,” said Joy Sinderbrand, senior vice president for capital programs at the New York City Housing Authority. “The country, the state and the city need to prioritize it because it’s just not going to happen without that kind of ground-up pressure to spend money for the future.”
The IIJA funds both repair work and new construction, said Lemberger, and aims to make all infrastructure more future-ready.
“It’s not just bringing everything up to a state of good repair, it’s actually improving everything,” said Lemberger. “There’s a Healthy Street Program that has $1.3 billion a year to help with carbon reduction. This was not the focus of things previously. These are the new types of projects that are being looked at.”
IIJA funding has created about a 50% increase in Federal Transit Administration and Federal Highway Administration funding over what was previously available, said Lemberger. That includes a $7.5 million grant for a greenway project to link communities throughout the New York City area, a $5 million grant in Elizabeth, New Jersey, to study electrification of ferry services between Elizabeth and Manhattan as well as a $1.2 billion grant in the Safe Streets and Roads For All Program.
“Of infrastructure projects, the biggest one is Gateway. There’s also funding for the East River tunnels, the Pelham Bay Bridge and Penn Station upgrades,” said Varney. “There’s a lot of IIJA funding supporting infrastructure projects in the region.”
The $30 billion rail Gateway Program, multibillion-dollar Interborough Express transit project and multibillion- dollar Brooklyn-Queens Expressway redevelopment are three of the most critical New York City infrastructure projects in the next 10 years for economic growth, according to a recent report from the New York Building Congress. The NYBC’s study identifies essential projects to boost the state’s mediocre infrastructure grade.
“It’s a tremendous amount of opportunity for transformative projects,” said Lemberger during the session. “New York City and surrounding regions are definitely taking advantage of it, and I think probably could do more to take advantage of it.”