Sen. Menendez Pushes for Superstorm Sandy Aid

Thursday, 27 Dec 2012 12:52 PM

By Robert Feinberg

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Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., recently held a solo hearing of the Senate Banking Committee’s Subcommittee on Housing, Transportation and Community Development, which he chairs, to push for a supplemental appropriation to fund recovery and mitigation efforts to repair the damage from Superstorm Sandy. The hearing also gave him an opportunity to tout legislation he sponsored that provides greater flexibility to use funds for mitigation of loss, rather than just to replace damaged assets as they were, and for communities to use Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds flexibly to meet local needs.

Witnesses were representatives of the two most prominent agencies involved — the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Federal Transit Administration (FTA)— as well as three of the applicant local agencies — the New Jersey and New York Transit Authorities and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

In his opening remarks, Menendez noted that Sandy was the second major storm to hit the tri-state area, with 300,000 homes damaged, 20,000 destroyed and losses estimated at $37.9 billion. He argued that rebuilding should include mitigation of future losses, by moving and hardening some infrastructure to make it less vulnerable to future storms. Also, Federal Emergency Management Agency rules would require the transit authorities to replace their ruined old buses with other old buses that are difficult to find.

He cited statistics showing that 40 percent of the nation’s transit riders were affected and that roughly 11 percent of gross domestic product comes from this region, the most of any region in the country. Therefore, he warned, any slowdown in recovery and mitigation efforts could adversely affect the national economy.

Menendez decried efforts by opponents of the proposed supplemental appropriation to cut it to a third of the proposed amount, and he elicited from the witnesses examples of the hardships this would cause, such as the need to float new bond issues and to raise transit fares beyond planned increases.

On the first panel, Peter Rogoff, administrator of the FTA, stated that it is requesting a total of $60.4 billion, and he outlined how the FTA plans to use its share of those funds, including $6.2 billion to repair and replace infrastructure and $5.5 billion to make the transit infrastructure less vulnerable to future storms.

Yolanda Chavez, who administers grant programs for HUD, including the CDBG program, stated that 500 neighborhoods in the region had 20 percent or more of their homes damaged, including 175 in New Jersey. She testified that HUD had issued waivers to enable local authorities to spend funds flexibly and to use the $17 billion of CDBG funds the administration has requested for hazard mitigation if this meets their needs.

The panelists and the senator all predicted that based on the experience in the Gulf region after hurricanes Katrina and Rita, it will take the region five to 10 years to recover.

On the second panel, James Weinstein, executive director of New Jersey Transit, stated that his agency has identified $1.2 billion of projects eligible for assistance, including replacement of buses, storm-proofing storage centers, raising tracks, strengthening stations, elevating power substations, replacing tracks and improving communications.

Tom Prendergast, president of New York City Transit, estimated that his agency would need $5 billion immediately and billions more later. He pointed out that a subway station that was destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, in which $500 million had been spent, has been destroyed again. He called the funding measure a national issue, because the region represents a significant part of the U.S. economy.

Finally, Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, estimated that the agency would need about $700 million, double the original estimate, to replace, elevate and strengthen parts of the system. He added that commuting times of some workers are still twice as long as normal and the delays cause lost productivity, which can damage the economy. He also called the vulnerability of transit a security issue and recalled that 84 employees of the Port Authority died in the 9/11 attacks.

The supplemental appropriation is expected to be passed in the remaining days of the expiring lame-duck session of Congress.

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