MIDTOWN — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn outlined an ambitious — and expensive — plan to shore up the city's shorelines in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, including building new flood gates in the city's harbors and burying exposed overhead power lines across the outer boroughs.
In a speech at an Association for a Better New York breakfast, Quinn, who is widely expected to run for mayor in 2013, said the city must do more to prepare for the impacts of global warming and flooding, which she described as "the single most important infrastructure challenge of our time."
“This storm was a wakeup call,” she told the well-connected audience at the Grand Hyatt New York Tuesday morning. “We clearly need to strengthen our infrastructure to prepare us for the effects of climate change, particularly as we rebuild in areas devastated by Sandy.”
To better protect the city’s vulnerable shoreline, she called for $20 billion worth of changes, including new barriers, such as sea walls and flood gates, and more natural defenses, such as sand dunes and wetlands, as well as physically elevating vulnerable land.
She pointed to places like Stamford, Conn., London, Louisiana and the Netherlands, where levies and surge gates are standard, and announced the city will accelerate two studies already in the works to determine exactly which solutions will work best in New York.
“The time for casual debate is over. It’s now crystal clear that we need to build protective structures,” she said.
In addition to new barriers, Quinn called for “aggressive, top-to-bottom storm-proofing of our city’s infrastructure," including electrical systems.
First, she said the City Council intends to begin working on legislation that will force Con Ed and other utilities to bury now-vulnerable overhead power lines in neighborhoods across Staten Island, Queens and The Bronx, where power failures are common after even minor storms.
She also called on the utilities to develop better protocols, including when to turn off power to prevent water damage, and to build new protective structures around power plants and substations. This would help protect them from surges, which Quinn said could have prevented the explosion at the 14th Street Con Ed transformer that plunged tens of thousands of residents into the dark.
For the MTA, Quinn called for new buffers around subway grates, the elevation of certain subway station entrances and new technologies, like giant, industrial balloons to seal off tunnels from floodwaters.
Quinn announced a push for better protections for the city’s still-crippled gas network, including new redundancies and back-up generators at stations so they can work even if they lose power.
She also called for a major acceleration in work on sewage and wastewater treatment projects after sewage pipelines were overwhelmed during the storm, causing backups in homes — including one belonging to Brooklyn City Councilman Domenic Recchia Jr., whose wife called him frantically while he was out helping constituents during the storm when sewage began spewing out of their sink and bathtub drains.
But the changes won't come cheap, Quinn admitted. The storm-surge barrier alone could cost as much as $16 billion, with the total sum for all her ideas close to $20 billion.
But she said the vast majority of improvements should be covered by the federal government, which has traditionally covered storm-recovery costs. She added that not doing anything now will be more costly in the long run.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg, however, was skeptical about where the billions for burying wires or building storm barriers would come from.
"If you start to do that here... you'd be doing it from the Florida Keys to the northern edge of Maine," he told reporters at an unrelated press conference in the Rockaways announcing the opening of seven new Hurricane Sandy recovery centers.
"Building a barrier along the whole Atlantic coast is not something that even science could handle, much less the finances of our government," Bloomberg said.