Adobe Stock | Romanya
Flush with billions of dollars on the table, infrastructure projects are set to detonate all over Westchester County.
For a subject that even its most fervent supporters call “unsexy,” the amounts of money available now for infrastructure repair and investment makes hearts flutter, cheeks blush, and knees buckle. In November 2021, Congress passed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), with $13 billion in funding earmarked for New York State infrastructure projects, including repairs and new construction of highways, roads, bridges, tunnels, and more. As of November 2022, $9.6 billion in funding from this legislation has been funneled to New York State to pay for more than 172 specific projects, including approximately $8.4 billion for transportation, to invest in roads, bridges, public transit, ports, airports, and roughly $472 million for clean water, the White House reports.
The bill allowed federal lawmakers to bring money back to their districts and states. Former Rep. Mondaire Jones (CD-17) delivered $8.2 million in grants for his Westchester and Rockland district.
Meanwhile, Congressman Jamaal Bowman (CD-16) secured $96.4 million in funding for 15 community projects in his district, including parts of Westchester and the Bronx. Among the infrastructure grants were $1.5 million for improvements to Mount Vernon’s sewer system, $500,000 to repair 79 affordable-housing units in Yonkers, money to study flood mitigation and repairs to the Lake Isle dam, and $76 million to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for capital improvements needed in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
“A lot of additional resources are coming online to get additional work done,” Bowman says. “Our infrastructure, around the country and here, is 100 years old. It needs to be rebuilt, redesigned, and reimagined.” He credits the current funding largesse with an “entirely holistic approach to legislation and money,” as it ties in with other issues, like poverty, public health, and safety and economic development. “This money needs to be invested equitably, in historically low-income areas, to help build the economy, add jobs, help decrease crime, and other issues in those areas,” he says.
The state also opened its checkbook after New York voters approved a $4.2 billion ballot act for environmental infrastructure funding to protect water quality, help communities adapt to climate change, improve resiliency, and create green jobs. And in her 2023 Executive Budget proposal, Governor Kathy Hochul pledged to invest an additional $500 million in clean-water funding, bringing New York’s total clean-water infrastructure investment to $5 billion.
“The physical, economic, and community impact of a break in the Lake Isle dam would be massive. It would gravely affect Pelham, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and Eastchester.”
—Amy Paulin State Assemblymember
All this money may not buy happiness, but it will surely transform the region’s infrastructure in ways not seen since the postwar boom of the 1950s and ’60s. Westchester County is getting its fair share of this largesse — and that is making those in the construction industry happy.
The boom isn’t here yet, but it’s coming, says John Cooney, executive director of the Construction Industry Council of Westchester & Hudson Valley (CIC). “The highest activity level of publicly funded infrastructure work is still to be seen and felt. It takes a while for some of the money that’s been legislated to get through and get out,” he says, estimating that transportation bill money will spread out over the next five to seven years and clean water/environmental bond act money will be spent over 10 years or more.
Anyone traveling on the county’s roads and bridges is well aware that plenty of projects are going on or are wrapping up. Utility companies, such as Con Edison, are replacing and upgrading gas mains and infrastructure in numerous Westchester towns, resulting in road closures across the county. In January 2023, major construction on two new bridges that carry the Saw Mill River Parkway over its eponymous river in the village of Pleasantville was finished. The $38 million project, part of the $115 million Lower Westchester Bridge Bundle project to replace or renovate several bridges in the lower county, began in 2020.
Another big project just getting off the ground — or, more accurately, the water — is repair work to the Lake Isle dam to prevent its collapse and potential flooding of the nearby towns. “The physical, economic, and community impact of a break in the Lake Isle dam would be massive. It would gravely affect Pelham, Mount Vernon, New Rochelle, and Eastchester,” says State Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale), who led the charge for the project. “Although a break isn’t imminent, we can’t wait until another once-every-100-years weather event happens to take action, especially since, given climate change, these types of events are happening much more frequently.”
Paulin secured $2 million, while State Sen. Shelley Mayer (D-Port Chester) added $2.1 million from the state, and Bowman grabbed federal funding. “On top of that, the County agreed to step in to pick up any outstanding balance, which is fantastic, and I commend County Executive George Latimer for his leadership and willingness to help bring this initiative across the finish line,” Paulin says. “Together, we’re getting it done.”
“One of the biggest gaps in all of infrastructure is project management. That’s a training thing that has to happen, and some of this money can be used for that.”
—David Brezler Brezler LLC
“Over the five years of our administration, we have tried to fix things that have been neglected over time,” Latimer says. Projects like repaving the airport runways; investing in parks, pools, and Playland; and “garden variety” repair and maintenance — repaving roads, repairing bridges — have been more about “catching up” with deferred and neglected work. “Maybe when my term is over, if we do the necessary maintenance and upgrades, that sets a platform for future administrations to push the ball forward,” he says.
As for the new funding headed this way, Latimer is playing the waiting game. “We know federal and state money will be made available to us, but we don’t yet know how the state will allocate some environmental bond act moneys. And the Inflation Reduction Act infrastructure money has not filtered its way to us yet.” He calls this a once-in-a-generation opportunity. “I treat it like Halley’s Comet: It comes around every 75 years, just once in your lifetime. That is the same as the moment we are in for infrastructure.”
Tomorrow’s Big Boom
For David Brezler, owner of data analytics and project management company Brezler LLC, it’s more like winning the lottery. A self-described infrastructure geek, he is currently involved in offshore wind-energy projects, for which there is “a strategic boatload of money” right now. According to Brezler, there is $90 billion available now for renewables as well as ports and marine work across the country. “That level of money is one-and-a-third times the whole state of New York budget,” he notes.
With water on both sides of the county and the ability to float pieces constructed upstate down the Hudson River and out into the ocean, there is a huge opportunity for Westchester. “It will have a significant effect economically,” Brezler says. “It could turn Westchester into a very large focal point for the wind industry, which, by the way, has a projected $109 billion supply chain attached to it.”
Brezler notes that other renewable-energy initiatives — in solar, electric vehicle, and geothermal energy — are happening right now. “It’s enormously exciting. When I did my master’s in public administration, this was literally my dream,” he says, “If you’ve got an idea for a business, if you think you have something that would be helpful to this space, go get the money.”
Follow the Money
Indeed, too many people are not getting the money; they haven’t in the past, and, worries are, they won’t now. According to a CIC report released in September 2022, only 11% of the more than $3.9 billion appropriated statewide in 2017 for water infrastructure projects was spent as of March 2020. Millions of dollars targeted for infrastructure in the Hudson Valley went unspent. But how can this be? A 25-page study, The Hudson Valley Infrastructure Gap, offered three possible explanations. Many municipalities do not have sufficient staff and/or expertise to apply for grants and other federal funding programs and thus never apply. A municipal workforce labor shortage created by retirements, lack of training, and overall changes in the workforce is also slowing construction projects. Finally, a lack of capital planning and infrastructure management is resulting in problems in budgeting and scheduling repairs.
“One of the biggest gaps in all of infrastructure is project management,” Brezler adds. “That’s a training thing that has to happen, and some of this money can be used for that.”
Cooney says that the CIC is working with other agencies and organizations to help agencies that oversee approving the release of clean-water money to streamline and simplify the process so that more municipalities can access the dedicated money. “Is there a boom now? No. Is there a potential for a boom? Yes,” Cooney says. “But we need to work with state and local governments to spend the enormous amount of money approved for the cause.”
He admits such work is not “sexy” in any way. “Replacing pipes in the ground, repairing roads or bridges… there are more fun things,” notes Cooney. “But it’s absolutely necessary. We need clean water. We need our sewage treated. We need safe roads and bridges. It’s quite an exciting time to be in the business of infrastructure.”
Show Me the Money
According to John Cooney, executive director of the CIC, these are the largest buckets of funding provided by either New York State or the federal government.
The Federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) will provide, over a five-year period:
$11.6B toward roads and bridges — a $4.6 billion increase from the previous five-year formula funding.
$9.8B toward public transportation systems, mostly rails and buses.
$175M for EV charging station build-out.
$2.6B toward clean-water projects.
$685M for airport infrastructure under the NYSDOT Capital Plan.
$32.8B over five years on roads and bridges. “If you subtract the $11.6 billion of federal IIJA aid, the state will spend $21.2 billion of its moneys over the five-year period,” he says.
The $4.2 billion NYS Environmental Bond Act that was passed by voters this past November will provide $2.1 billion of infrastructure spending toward flood resiliency, clean water, critical infrastructure resiliency, and drainage systems.
The NYS Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017 dedicated $2.5 billion toward drinking water and sewers. Amendments and new legislation in 2018 and 2019 upped the total to $4.5 billion.
“Money for roads and bridges spends fast, over a five-to-seven-year period,” Cooney says. “Other money, specifically for clean water, has proved to spend very slowly. For example, to date, only $500 million of the dedicated $4.5 billion of clean-water money has found its way into actual projects.”