Chris Quinn’s kitchen-sink approach to post-Sandy infrastructure investment

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Quinn at an ABNY breakfast on Tuesday. (Dana Rubinstein)
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This morning, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who's running for mayor next year, debuted her prescription for better protecting New York City's infrastructure from more Hurricane Sandy-like storm surges, and it encompasses, basically, every idea already out there.

Quinn endorsed the long list of infrastructure investments while speaking to the city's political, real estate, labor and financial elite at an Association for a Better New York breakfast in midtown.

She proposed "hard infrastructure," like sea walls, bulkheads and flood gates; and soft infrastructure like sand dunes, wetlands and embankments.

She called for new efforts to protect power plants and substations from 20-foot storm surges; buried utility wires; and the storm-proofing of refineries and fuel storage facilities.

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She said there should be generators at all gas stations; that "critical systems" at wastewater treatment plants should be elevated beyond the reach of storm waters; that there should be more green streets, green roofs and bluebelts.

She called for more absorbent pavement materials; raised buffers around subway grates; the elevation of subway entrances; industrial balloons to seal off subway and tunnel entrances; the flood-proofing of boilers, generators and electrical equipment; new rules requiring buildings be built above flood level; and changes to our sewer system to prevent what happened to Coney Island Councilman Domenic Recchia's poor wife from ever happening again.

"He was out helping his constituents during the storm, when he got a frantic call from his wife," said Quinn, from the dais in a banquet hall at the Grand Hyatt on 42nd Street. "The city had been forced to shut down some sewer pipelines, because we couldn't process all the flood water fast enough. As a result, the whole system backed up, and sewage was coming out of Domenic's drains in his sink and in his bathtub."

Quinn puts the cost of all this and more at up to $20 billion, with a storm surge barrier costing roughly $16 billion.

How will she pay for it?

The federal government, mostly.

"We need the federal government to invest in New York's citizens, to help us build New York safer than before," she said. "And even if we need to take on some costs locally, or turn to the private sector for investment, think about this. New York City suffered an estimated $26 billion in economic damage and losses. That doesn't even take into account the losses we'll suffer if we don't rebuild correctly, if businesses flee our city because they think lower Manhattan is too risky a place to invest."

Following her remarks, Quinn got a partial standing ovation.

Chris Ward, who used to head the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said these were all good solutions, but that some prioritization is in order, "as opposed to thinking that you can do everything all at once."

To that end, Quinn has asked the Bloomberg administration to accelerate two studies it's already working on, focusing on the best ways to mitigate risks to different parts of the city, both of which will now be completed by April.

All of Quinn's opponents in the 2013 race also agree that some sort of post-Hurricane Sandy infrastructure investment is in order, though they differ in the details.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, asked about infrastructure investment after Hurricane Sandy, said, "A large menu of infrastructure improvements that could help mitigate flood risks will surely be discussed and debated in the months ahead," and that investment will need financing.

"As Borough President, I have...proposed the development of a regional infrastructure bank that could provide a solid funding platform for flood mitigation strategies, as well as the repair and expansion of the region’s roads, bridges and energy grid," he said.

Comptroller John Liu told Reuters that, "the levy system is something that needs to be analyzed in a very thoughtful way."

For his part, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio recently told City & State, "I think we now have to put [flood protection infrastructure] on the table. That may go to the front of our priority list because we've got to avoid this in the future."

Former comptroller Bill Thompson focused on smaller-scale solutions, like "improved drainage on subway tracks and tunnels," and better boiler placement.

Manhattan C.E.O. Tom Allon, who's running a longshot campaign on the Republican line, had no comment.

Today, Quinn said that, "Our greatest danger is inaction."

But whether this discussion will persist into 2013, when New Yorkers pick their next mayor, is unclear.

"I think there's a normal reaction in the aftermath of an unprecedented natural disaster to assume that what's in the news now will dominate for 10 months," said Evan Stavisky, a Queens political consultant who isn't formally affiliated with any of the prospective candidates. "However it doesn't always happen."

"Should it?" Stavisky continued. "Yes. The $64-billion question is how you pay for it."