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Build the basics back better

After months and months (and months and months…) of political gridlock in Washington, President Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill has finally passed. While there is surely much that can still be debated about the bills’ own concessions and inclusions, it is now time to turn our focus towards home and answer the question: how on earth do we spend this money?
To narrow the scope of this column, let’s focus on public transportation specifically. The Build Back Better Act includes $39 billion for public transit and $66 billion for passenger and rail freight (including Amtrak), opening the door for the MTA to receive huge bundles of cash.
Such a monetary windfall immediately leads to grand ideas for megaprojects across the state and country. High speed rail! New subway lines! A new LGA AirTrain!
However, it is critical that New York State and the MTA focus on the basics first. Except for absolutely necessary repairs like the Gateway Tunnel Project, funds should first be put aside for improvements that will directly enhance the transit experience for riders.
There are already signs of such a strategy. This past week, the MTA announced that $15 million from the infrastructure bill would be used to install elevators and ensure ADA compliance at the Broadway Junction subway station (a notoriously labyrinthian and confusing transfer point). Similar quality of life projects should be the transit agencies first priority, and will also make the federal money last much longer than if a majority of it were put aside for some megaproject.

In order to use the infrastructure money successfully, New York must focus on projects that number in the millions rather than the billions. Such projects are not pipe dreams, but clear goals that can yield even clearer results, potentially opening the door for future infrastructure bills that are less tortuous to pass.
Focus on accessibility and other lower cost improvements like signalling upgrades. Then if you want to expand service, turn your attention to low cost but effective measures like dedicated busways (a few of which already are planned for Jamaica and Jay Street in Brooklyn). Finally, once these smaller successes have been achieved, set your sights on the bigger projects.
Now that the Build Back Better Act has finally passed, New Yorkers have the luxury to focus on million dollar projects rather than billion dollar quarrels in Washington. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity, and see how many basic improvements we can squeeze out of this money.

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