A Cappuccino for Public Safety

Infrastructure problems can lead to catastrophes, yet the cost of preventing them would amount to only a few dollars a day.

Comments: 142

  1. I am a loyal Bittman man,
    I read him whenever I can,
    But to tax New York's Rich
    Would make Cuomo twitch.
    Let infrastructure hit the fan!

  2. Foregoing a daily cappuccino to invest in building and replacing infrastructure that renews public safety and confidence is a very sensible investment and small price to pay against sizable benefits. Thanks for this clever example that shows it's do'able and affordable.

  3. What is sad is how many sign onto this "cappuccino (or coffee drink) a day" theory -- it sounds great, until you do the math.

    $3 or $4 a day adds up quickly -- and remember, it is on top of all the other things they want your money for! Pretty soon it is hundreds a day, and you are broke.

  4. New York, and other large cities with crumbling infrastructure, should take notes from the most recent GM "cost-benefit" fiasco and the public outcry. A few billion dollars to FIX a problem before it explodes is well worth the investment... especially when it saves human life.

  5. A sane and rational argument. Thank you; but it will never fly in the current political climate.

  6. There are two ways to get a Republican backed Congress to support infrastructure spending. One would be if Capitol Hill had a gas leak and blew up and the other is to promise that Koch Industries would be the major contractor

  7. And I'm not really sure about Capital Hill blowing up - the second point certainly.

  8. What you may be missing, surprisingly, is that perhaps the reason New York DOESN'T just replace its aging infrastructure -- and not just gas pipes, but water pipes and all manner of subterranean supports of civilization that date from the 19th century, is that, in the end it would cost jobs. A lot of them public sector union jobs. Middle class, well-paying union jobs with good health insurance and retirement benefits and OVERTIME.

    Maintaining ancient infrastructure, as you point out, is expensive. If you put together a rolling schedule of replacement, and you make sure that the materials used are state of the art, you'll need a ton less maintenance pretty soon, and the need for maintenance will diminish even more with time.

    How are you going to sell the unions?

    Why do you suppose NYC streets are one big pothole awaiting crews to fill them with ... asphalt? Instead of the new concrete that minimizes potholes despite weather and traffic volume predations?

    It's all about feeding the unions, Mark. Oh, replacement crews would be unionized too? Yeah, but would they be CITY union workers, or contracted crews?

  9. As usual, everything is the unions' fault, eh? Funny how that works out....

  10. Richard, you are right that what is needed is a rolling schedule of replacement, something that some countries and perhaps some American states practice although I doubt the latter.

    Could you add some documentation on your assertions about the unions' role in preventing such a schedule?


  11. This guy should run for Congress!

  12. We seem to be a crisis oriented country. Nothing much gets done as a result of forethought and long-term planning. Instead, we wait for the next disastrous crisis to occur, beat ourselves with both hands and ask why we didn't do something earlier, and then finally attempt to fix the problem. (The big exception is the military, where we plan and build weapons and other hardware to excess.)

    Europeans who travel in our country have expressed amazement at what they consider our poor infrastructure. They can't believe how bad our train system is, or that we have electric wires strung in the air rather than underground as they do. Our roads are a mess of potholes, and some of our bridges are cracking and virtually being held together by band-aids.

    We have millions of people out of work, and millions more who are working part-time at low-paying jobs. A national jobs program to repair our crumbling infrastructure would both provide a significant boost to the economy and to many people's well being and also make our living and working environment a much safer one. But Republicans in Congress will have no part of it; their only interest seems to be cutting government funding (except for the military) and cutting taxes on the rich.

  13. Mary Ann and Ken, fine comment but likely to bring down the wrath of many. My comment in the group "1 hour ago" is directly linked to your observations about visiting Europeans but also points to actions being taken at American colleges and universities to show what could be possible if Barack Obama had energy advisors who know what physical plant people at Champlain College, St. Michaels College, and Cornell University to name my three examples know. Interestingly, Bernie Sanders had a workshop a couple of years ago on this technology GSG (see my comment) so maybe when he becomes president he "can tell the people".

    And by strange coincidence, I was just out photographing an area where the the roads and bikeways are well illuminated but nary an aboveground wire in sight. What you also cannot see is the internet cable system and the distance heating system pathways, all safely underground.

    So perhaps you would join me in trying to get the Times editors to tell the readers about what your European observers tell you: I have been trying for four years and wrote to Dot Earth and the Science Editor a week ago to ask them to tell America about renewable energy. No answers.

    Keep telling the story.

  14. @Larry: lol....all natural gas lines are "safely underground".

    Above-ground wiring only exists in old cities and old parts of the country. More recent construction does have underground wiring. When I lived in Florida in a home built in 1987, everything was underground and nary a wire in sight! But most of the US was built up long before that.

    I am not opposed to geothermal, but I strongly suspect that Scandinavia has geothermal resources that do not exist in most of the US. And 3 colleges, who building plans are funded by rich alums and who can afford to experiment, mean little. Why don't you instead talk to some builders? or city officials? and find out WHY geothermal is perhaps not practical everywhere?

  15. @ Mary Ann and Ken and @ Concerned Citizen (CC) This is primarily to correct CCs misunderstanding of Ground Source Geothermal (GSG), which is what is used at the colleges I name. CC does not understand that the conditions for GSG are distributed across the entire USA. CC probably is thinking that geothermal means only Icelandic or California type, a common misunderstanding notable in all Times articles on the proposed system for Roosevelt Island. I emphasize this because I asked you to join me in trying to get the Times to report on GSG in America.

    As for wires above ground, everywhere I have lived in the USA - New York State and New England the wires are all up there and they come down all too often.

  16. At The Tredwell House, municipally supplied gas was installed before city-supplied water (http://www.merchantshouse.org). The house was built in 1832, I am not sure when gas lighting was introduced.

  17. Remember when the stimulus was going to be about rebuilding the infrastructure? That was a cute story.

  18. Much of the too-small stimulus did go for infrastructure, but the whole thing was way too small to make a dent in the needs. We need a national infrastructure bank that doles out federal funds based on practical priorities, not politics. Obama's problem was that you can't start spending on a huge project overnight. Engineering, contracting and environmental clearances take years. With an infrastructure bank, we would have ready projects in the pipeline at all times. The next time the private economy fails spectacularly, we would be able to up the funding and push money at the door at a rate that would make a big difference.

  19. In my town, our infrastructure did benefit from the stimulus. Notices to that effect were posted at the worksites. But my town is run mainly by Democrats and a few pragmatic Republicans whose concerns are more fiscal than ideological. I'm sure there are local governments elsewhere that didn't want Obama's money (as they might think of it), just as some states denied the expansion of Medicare to their residents. You pay a price for that kind of parochial huddling.

  20. Of course, infrastructure maintenance and replacement are critical for the well being of everybody. But if we cannot motivate people when an explosion from a gas leak occurs, we will not enough momentum to make our representatives move the issue to action, and action requires funds, and funds must be voted for. And to vote for the money needed, we need the courage of our convictions; so, lets invite our 'reps' often and repeatedly to see the crumbling infrastructure in our midst. It may be a 'waker-upper'.

  21. Speaking as an immigrant, who has used many other metro systems, I like the New York subway. It's dirty, and graffiti-covered, but it has express trains. Nobody else does, that I'm aware of.

  22. When was the last time you rode the NYC subway? It hasn't been graffiti covered for 25 years.

  23. Other world capitals?
    What, like Sydney, Johannesburg and Toronto? Those other famous capitals like NYC?

  24. Mark, fine column. Please tell your fellow columnists (fracking enthusiasts) that it would be better if a few more workers could be devoting their time to fixing the system and even being given new underground construction tasks leading to a slightly better energy future.

    I read in my Email this morning that Boston is in as dire need as New York City of fixing the leaks in the gaslines but that should be only one part of the story. Move the above-ground tangles of wires seen in all my American cities to safer places underground.

    And then, something new. Put drillers to work as they have been put to work in Vermont and perhaps in time on Roosevelt Island.

    Here from my contact at St. Michaels College. “We did install a geothermal system …consist(ing) of (48) 500’ deep boreholes that all tie into a central heating system in one building. (Perhaps) the largest geothermal field in the state."

    And from my Cornell contact: "The Roosevelt Island campus is looking at a geothermal system (GSG) for our first academic building, whereby heat pumps provide heating and cooling..." (my addition-and therefore not fossil fuel heating).

    And if you want to see pipelines that are being put in place to run a benign energy system that heats every city in country x, take a look at these experts at work-underground:


    Not a pipe dream.

  25. Larry: if the US has not widely adopted geothermal ... why not? Has it occurred to you that not every part of the world has access to geothermal-favorable conditions? Just as the Northeastern US uses heating oil -- not out of stupidity, but because they lack natural gas reserves.

    Natural gas is a very safe, clean source of energy, and the US abounds in it. The explosions people refer to came from poor maintenance of a home or apartment building -- not the public gas lines that run through the street. Sometimes it is outright insurance fraud (blowing up a home to get the insurance payout). Actual natural gas explosions are pretty rare.

  26. The Republican-controlled House believes to its dying breath that everything in your column is a lie. This is why infrastructure investment by government is paralyzed.

  27. Not only to its dying breath, but to our dying breath --- a breath they seem to desire more and more each day.

  28. Yes, we need to update this infrastructure for safety's sake, but why not do something completely different that turns our attention away from fossil fuels and towards renewables. Why not windmills on building tops, gardens on the tops and sides of buildings, or wrapped in solar collectors and connected with a computerized grid? Then think about the dollars a day and how much MORE renewables would save us. Not just save us money, but our lives and the earth at the same time. It is doable, completely.

  29. Carolyn I am with you 200 percent. Why 200? Simple reason, not only the NYT and President Obama but even Carolyn Egeli think only solar and windmills when thinking renewable. So the other 100 percent would be if you would consider naming at least one well established renewable technology in your next fine comment - Ground Source Geothermal (GSG).

    I could name others but best to take it one step at a time. If you find my main comment today you will see that this technology is well known by some American college energy managers.

    Take a look and if you visit my blog and get my Gmail you could tell me how you heat your home. And your Maryland address reminds me that Columbia, Maryland, where I lived when I was a National Science Fellow in Science Applied to Social Needs (1975-1976) at Hopkins, would be the perfect place for GSG. It was, after all, modeled I believe on Scandinavian innovations, and could take the next step with GSG.

  30. The infrastructure of the US matters not to the 1%. They consider themselves to be citizens of the world--the wealthy parts of the world. They feel no patriotism, and will rejoice if we American peons are reduced to 3rd world status in cities and towns where gas line explosions, bridge collapses, and water main disintegration are routine. Desperate, suffering people are easier to exploit.

  31. Mr. Bittman's call for sacrifice and public contributions strikes me as strange. It's like asking airline passengers to take up collections for aircraft maintenance.

    Gas mains as public infrastructure? Aren't these the property of the natural gas utility? Haven't regulators established rates on the basis of calculations that include capital spending and maintenance?

    If the utility has failed to maintain its infrastructure, it looks like the beneficiaries have been the shareholders, bondholders, and utility executives.

  32. We need to invest in our infrastructure, and a lot of things that used to be called "for the common good," but the sad reality today is that too much money goes not to the common good, but as payments to individuals in society. Entitlements are overwhelming our budget. And that's why aren't getting back what we pay in for government anymore - the money is going to somebody else.

  33. If you retire or are disabled and collect Social Security or use Medicare, you become that "someone else". If you're out of work, and collect unemployment or SNAP benefits to feed your family, you become that "someone else". If you ever attended public school, you were—yes—entitled to an education and became a "someone else" around the age of five or six. We'll all be those "someone elses" at some time in our lives.

    Of course, if you're a rich agro-lord or fossil-fuel baron, you're collecting subsidies as a regular part of making your living, and you're that "someone else" every day.

    But I'm glad you recognize that infrastructure is one of the neglected public goods.

  34. Solution is easy: since New York has become a city of the rich, for the rich, make the rich pay.

  35. Thanks, Mark Bittman. More journalists need to start offering analogies, like a cup of coffee, to express what taxing the obscenely wealthy would actually amount to in terms of their wealth.

    In most cases It's a pittance; a drop in the bucket; chump change, vis-a-vis their overall wealth. They moan and whine about unfairness, and class warfare, while our cities fall apart, the middle class dissolves, and our democracy is undermined by their greed and arrogance. And the politicians, firmly entrenched in their pockets, coddle them and do their bidding.

    A cup of coffee folks. A cup of coffee. Here's another thought. JPMorgan Chase is worth 2.4 trillion dollars. That's 171 times the age of the Universe.
    And we have to fight with our politicians for food aid, unemployment benefits, and healthcare?

    Is this really who Americans want to be.?

  36. Money speaks. That's what we understand today. I'm not a believer in the value many put on litigation but in the case of those killed in the gas explosion court actions brought by the surviving families, resulting in huge payouts by the city, might get the attention of those believing the city can't afford to upgrade the infrastructure.

  37. Regarding infrastructure, this should be considered a high priority item and the responsibility of local government.
    Consider the following costs: public safety: police & fire departments,
    maintaining roads, clearing snow & ice, maintaining various bureaus and enforcing codes. There's non-cooperative public, people who are so uncivically-minded. And all of that serves as a provocation for more crime, and more crime costs enormously, not only in its ill effects, but in court and incarceration costs.
    And there is inordinate waste in these departments.

    Then the public itself pays for various maintenance costs: costs of landscaping and mowing lawns, etc, painting, and trash and garbage collection. Then the public has to pay taxes on their properties, insurance, etc. And do people need to drive their cars so much ?
    Transportation costs in 'advanced' nations are out of hand.

    Much of the tax revenues gets squandered by governments spending for their pet projects and needless new municipal buildings and their high maintenance costs.

    If the money wasted in these ways could be saved, there would be more than enough left over to replace all the crumbling infrastructure, and fix or replace all the bridges. The priorities are just all wrong. And we still call America a 'great civilization' ?

  38. Thank you, Mark, for exposing so clearly this national disgrace - especially when we have such high unemployment, a need to boost the economy, and a huge need to act to reduce global warming. Thank you doubly for proposing the solution - and putting it in a context that shows doing right is quite affordable. By not addressing it, our elected politicians are committing murder - just as GM did ...plainly speaking. Keep the problem/solution columns coming - real leaders must be found. Education only helps.

  39. Great article. I agree.

    We should bring back Roosevelt's' WPA and CCC. Put young people to work, re-building our infra-structure and lighting our hopes for the future. Life in America should not be as grim as our money-controlled Congress has allowed it to become.

    Let's get the ball rolling by demanding the one thing that will make all the difference: Campaign Finance Reform.

  40. It is no secret that there is a growing disparity between the haves and the have nots in America, and that many people live in or just above poverty. The middle class is disappearing, and the haves often are not amenable to sharing their wealth so no cappuccinos from them.
    The problem with cappuccino arguments is that everyone uses it. A cappuccino for infrastructure. A cappuccino for breast cancer research. A cappuccino for elementary education. And they are all important programs.
    But the many who are have nots don't buy cappuccinos in the first place, and little nibbles by many programs can be the difference between a life of survival and one of total desperation.
    Proposing a new tax every time there is a need requires more thought in today's disparate society that simply trotting out the cappuccino argument. No one wants to face the disparity of wealth because there are no easy answers there, but otherwise, involuntary cappuccinos often lead to misery on the backs of the poor.

  41. It is also interesting that Mr. Bittman fails to realize that NYC is one of the highest taxed places in the US already -- and NY is one of the highest taxed states!

    So the burden would fall on people who ALREADY pay extremely high taxes. And for that matter, with their high taxes, why was this not done (infrastructure) already?

    The answer is one that lefty-liberals do not like (so they just won't think about it) -- the already-high taxes mostly go to give public union employees incredibly posh benefits, high pay and early retirements, as well as "disability" for fakers. Look at the Long Island Railroad. Look at the teacher's unions and their rubber rooms.

    THAT'S WHERE THE MONEY WENT. Not for cappuccinos.

  42. Too New York- centric, Mr. Bittman. I do not remember the details now but much worse gas explosions took place in other places, with much more damages and casualties.

    Old pipes just burst, that is perfectly natural. If you happen to live in the vicinity of massive pipes, you may get killed.

    And yes, New York and all other areas where outdated infrastructures persists, should have plans and find some money to implement them - to replace these structures.

    The obvious source: the 1% of the general population, the very rich people. It may be even in their interest if they live in the vicinity of old infrastructures.

    Again, this is NOT a New York problem exclusively. If this article is another appeal to normal people to avoid voting Republican, I am fine with it.

    New Yorkers, thank god, did not vote for Republican candidates with a few exceptions lately.

    You write 'Bear in mind that a gas leak — and therefore an explosion — can happen anywhere there’s a degraded gas pipe, which means almost anywhere in the city.'

    The words 'anywhere in the city' are redundant. 'ANYWHERE' would be more appropriate.

    Or are the New Yorkers just some kind of 'special people'? I do not think so.

  43. Agreed, this is a certainly national problem. Thank you for addressing that.

    However, please do not forget that as well as being one of the newspapers of record for the US, for us New Yorkers, the Times is also our (only reputable) local newspaper and will often cover issues from a local viewpoint.

  44. Ladislav,
    This is New York City's local newspaper.

  45. The coffee analogy is interesting. People now pay dollars for a drink that is a drug. Also, drinking it gives you bad breath.

    I remember being in graduate school and going from bad breath to bad breath. In some ways, it was worse than being around a cigarette smoker.

    By all means, stop people from drinking coffee and put the money towards things that really count, like the quality of roads.

    Good luck.

  46. One look at LaGuardia Airport, and it is no surprise why Vladimir Putin can't take Americans seriously.

  47. That is so true! LaGuardia looks just like Russia and has for years. Thanks for the chuckle.

  48. All it takes is a trip to Northern Europe to know that the US has paid an enormous price for 30 years of misplaced fiscal priorities. Returning to the US is like going back in time. Our infrastructure is dirty, broken, and obsolete compared to the countries with effective and rational legislatures. It is shameful and embarrassing, especially considering the absolute waste of trillions of dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Maybe the 1% is counting on the average voter to never have the wherewithal to travel. Mission accomplished, I guess.

  49. The problem is not $3.00 a day, the problem is paying it in a lump sum.

  50. Maintenance is the sign of civilization...or not.

  51. The benefits are a gold mine. Journalists need to concentrate on the benefits, not the cost. We have upside down fossil thinking. Now that wind and solar beats "fracking", we can forget the gas all together soon.

  52. Infrastructure is where we should spent OUR tax dollars (not on wars). It would create jobs, save money in the long term. Most industrialized nations have put their electricity, cable etc underground, I am continually told by our city and energy/cable companies (who make big money from us too) it is too expensive to bury the cables!! shortsighted YES -- every year power lines are down due to ice storms, trees fall, we cut beautiful trees in the middle to let power lines thru (!) the grid goes out! --- If the cost is spread over several years or by a one time tax (two cups of coffee/person) why not start now and employ a bunch of people in the process!

  53. It is a LOT more expensive to bury cables than you see to think -- you have to dig around existing buildings and structures, tree roots and so on. The cost is fantastic.

    The time to bury cables is when homes and offices are being constructed -- and they are. Most new neighborhoods have this.

    The cost is definitely more than "2 cups of coffee" and if by that you mean "fancy Starbucks drinks", we are talking $9 a day per taxpayer -- do the math!

  54. Your lips to GOP's ears.

  55. The gas companies themselves should be upgrading their infrastructure.

  56. If they do, they will (and must) pass the costs to those who pay gas bills, which seems regressive to me. The rich don't cook at home as much as the middle class, so they probably use less gas. In any case, while aged gas mains and water mains are under almost every street, everyone, rich, poor, commuters and even tourists, is in danger of dying in an explosion or being without running water. Bittman's ideas seem more equitable, and more practical.

  57. I like the article - but one relatively minor point. Gas distribution continues in urban residential and commercial zones because it is the most economical and efficient form of heat supply, not because of the gaslights of a century ago. This variety of gas (natural, mostly methane) is less lethal than the producer gas, manufactured from coal and steam, which contained much carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Remember Sylvia Plath.

    The major point of the article is valid, we need infrastructure rejuvenation more than population surveillance ala Homeland Security and NSA, and we can't get around the need for improved transportation and utility supply.

  58. It is disturbing that Mr. Bittman actually thinks the gas lines in NYC and other cities are merely leftovers from the gaslight era. Does he truly have no idea how buildings are heated? He thinks the only use of gas is for cooking?

  59. We do have choices in these matters.
    We can either agree to sacrifice a cappuccino or two a day and start working at the problems tomorrow morning.
    Or we can procrastinate and let our children and grandchildren handle these concerns. By then it should not cost them more than the equivalent of a dinner for two at Barbetta. Daily.

  60. Bring back pork! Infrastructure building and repairs should be a no brainer, especially in a weak economy. Why Obama, when he was first elected, given the collapsed economy didn't scream and carry on for such construction and repair work is unfathomable to me. That being said, it's still unfathomable to me why Congress hasn't acted. Why aren't they all scrambling for construction money for their districts? It's one thing for an individual to skip bacon for breakfast but the country sure needs a hefty daily dose of pork--not only for safety but so as to help fill the plates of the country's hungry since many construction jobs can still be filled by unskilled or low-skilled workers. Besides, a jingle in one's jeans adds to local economies... enough even for a cappuccino in every cup.

  61. Obama did push for infrastructure spending and "shovel ready" jobs. But the GOP laughed at him for wanting to create "government jobs." It's hard to fight crazy.

  62. It strikes me that there are two central issues here: first, that corporations in the US seek only the shortest term profit viewpoint and act accordingly, rather than look at the longer term benefits of strategic investments - including upgrading infrastructure. Second, we have one party which is absolutely dedicated to blocking any potential for mass creation of jobs, fearing that this might give the other party an advantage in upcoming elections. Neither of these demonstrates fiscal stewardship or responsibility, and neither demonstrates the remotest concern for the public good. Our failure to look forward on a long term basis and invest in our future through aggressive upgrading of our national infrastructure is recklessly irresponsible, and poses a threat to our economic security, and to our public health. We deserve far better, and must demand as much.

  63. The obvious solution is to tax gas and electricity useage to pay for fixing gas and electrical infrastructure. However, there needs to be an added contribution
    based on ability to pay, a poor tenant should not have to pay the same amount as a billionaire, an income surtax for infrastructure should be part of the mix to reduce the burden on the less well off (not everyone can afford a capuccino every day).

  64. The governor of New York State is more concerned about politics than safety. In this election year he has widely advertised 10 year tax giveaways to new businesses and wants to reduce estate taxes on the very wealthy. He could have created good jobs by taking the $3 billion surplus and improving infrastructure but that was not politically correct this year.

  65. Sorry, they'd like to pay more taxes, but the o.1%ers don't have enough money yet.

  66. Bittman is of course correct, crumbling infrastructure is a threat to both economic well-being and human health, but the argument is unfortunately entirely academic. The Republican Party will block any move to upgrade national infrastructure because you know -- it's socialist or something.

    So the first step is for Dems to start winning off-year elections. Good luck with that.

  67. The less we assimilate and the more we diversify...the less commonality we feel with the whole...and the more we withdraw from communitarian enterprise. (See: New Conservatism.) Ex Pluribus Unum has given way to Cum Pluribus not adding up to Unum. Add globalization and the wealthy's ability to spread that wealth outside the country to the tax cutting of middle and working class social isolationism and the future does not look rosy for infrastructure.

  68. Well written. Smart. To the point. Op-Ed writers around the country should take Mr. Bittman's cue, substitute the name of their city and the specific nature of their crumbling infrastructure, and add their voices to the need to address this national and very dangerous mess.

  69. I tend to agree with another writer, aren't the gas lines the property of the utility and therefore their responsibility? If the gas company was a public entity then yes, build away. Instead it is a private- for profit entity. The is one are where either the local state or federal government should be taking the utilities to task.

    "Mr. Bittman's call for sacrifice and public contributions strikes me as strange. It's like asking airline passengers to take up collections for aircraft maintenance.
    Gas mains as public infrastructure? Aren't these the property of the natural gas utility? Haven't regulators established rates on the basis of calculations that include capital spending and maintenance?
    If the utility has failed to maintain its infrastructure, it looks like the beneficiaries have been the shareholders, bondholders, and utility executives."

  70. The only problem with your argument is that, as Mark points out, you're likely to be blown up by that leaky gas line while you're waiting for Con Ed or whomever, to upgrade their infrastructure.
    On the other hand, as a matter of public safety, I have no problem getting the work done and giving the utilities the bill.

  71. where can you get a cappuccino for 3$

  72. Plenty of places, even in New York City. I'm heading to one place around 106th & Amsterdam soon. They're pretty good, too.

  73. Infrastructure can be reorganized and renovated. You just have to have good management and engineering. They did it in Boston with the metropolitan sewer system. But it had to get pretty bad before anything was done. And it did. Raw sewage was pouring into the harbor.

    So, I suppose there will have to be more explosions and deaths before the electorate and the politicians see the infrastructure as a real concern. Wasn't it the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in Manhattan that finally spurred legislation for safer working conditions in factories? That was 100 years ago, but human nature remains a constant.

  74. The fact that our various pipes have lasted as well as they have reflects well on the skill and diligence of the engineers who designed them and the workers who installed them, insisting on materials of high quality, proper bedding, etc. It also reflects well on government that was willing to spend as necessary to do the jobs right.

    Now that they are old, we can hope for similar diligence and similar, sensible willingness to pay for well done work. Cross your fingers, then uncross them and write your representatives.

  75. And vote for democrats.

  76. My mother always said that American public infrastructure reminded her of Soviet Russia. She spent the 80s there and the 00s here, with various northern European countries in between and after, so I suppose she'd know.

    I'm so used to it here now that going home to Stockholm feels like traveling to some utopian future. I fell in love with an American and have a life here, but it does feel a bit like having left a first-world country for a third-world one. Potholed roads, slow internet, widespread blackouts with every thunderstorm or blizzard, slow and noisy trains, decrepit buses that are never on schedule, dingy and outdated airports with interminable security lines, neglected public buildings with dirty beige walls and flickering fluorescent lights... and I've lived in dense East Coast cities (D.C., New York, Boston), not the rural hinterlands, so the "America is big" argument against proper infrastructure doesn't apply.

    It doesn't have to be this way, but I can't say that as a non-American without it being taken as a personal insult, so I'm glad someone else is.

  77. LS we have a lot in common and so does your comment have much in commong with Mary Ann and Ken Bergman's, which I believe is at the top of Reader Recommended. I come from Massachusetts, live in Sweden, and spend June and part of July in New England. Everything you say is true but telling the truth as seen from a European perspective is not liked.

    Several days ago a Times commenter wrote that he or she was sick of reading these comparisons and this comment got 116 reader recommendations.

    In my main comment here and reply to the Bergman's you can read that I have found a few glimmers of hope in my New England, mostly in Vermont. Won't repeat my blog URL here but thanks for your comment.

  78. Those who see the government as the enemy are the same group in congress that stymie any and every plan to generate the money to modernize and make safe our infrastructure. These people are also the ones who cry out the loudest that we, America, are the GREATEST in the world. If there was ever a plot for a Monty Python satire it is here. Also, those who make the decisions to believe and foster the assertion that government is bad do not generally live in places like the one that blew up in Manhattan a few weeks ago. When we find a way to unwrap the blinders that big money has surrounded our lawmakers with, and they actually look at crumbling America, perhaps then things will actually progress.

  79. Our national priorities need changing. As long as Congress is bought and sold by the 0.1%, who really cares if the odd New York City tenement blows up like a bomb, or the occasional bridge collapses? For that matter, who needs frivolities like housing, health care, infrastructure, public education or a middle class?

  80. "Maybe those who see government as the enemy can't imagine dying in a gas explosion."

    Exactly the point. It might be interesting to check the integrity of natural gas lines in 10065 compared to East Harlem. PG&E is facing criminal charges over the explosions that killed eight people in San Bruno, California. Maybe if some executives go to jail, things will change.

  81. What happened to all those 'shovel ready' jobs President Obama (disclaimer, I voted twice for him) promised the country leading up to his first election? Certainly we have a huge number of shovel ready jobs, just to keep up with our infrastructure, failing or no. It would have helped our economy, and our society, much more than the Wall Street bailout, throwing millions of dollars to fat cat CEO's so they could throw even more opulent parties and give themselves a hefty raise. I, for one, am a disappointed voter and citizen. So disappointed.

  82. "What happened to all those 'shovel ready' jobs", 2010 and the tea party is what happened to those "shovel ready jobs." A lot of jobs were saved by the stimulus he did get through in his first two years.

  83. The House of Representatives (aka The Block Everything Party) is what happened.

  84. We are still building our new structures (homes and business) to 1950's specifications. It started with the Reagan Administration eliminating energy efficiency standards, Wall Street raiding retirement funds, destroying good companies for quick profit. Wait, the next bridge collapse is just around the corner, remember the Mianus River Bridge in Connecticut. Collapsing infrastructure, global warming inaction, and the end of the social safety net show just how far we have deteriorated. Now we are destroying our country with pipelines and fracking for oil and gas. Under President Bush and Vice President Cheney, fracking was exempted from significant EPA regulation, because Haliburton developed modern fracking. Happy days are here!

  85. Finally: a lesson New York City could take from Houston and not the other way around! Faced with deteriorating infrastructure, we successfully passed a Proposition called "Rebuild Houston." The brain child of Engineer and City Councilman Stephen Costello, it is a lock-box for funds to make repairs to our roads and drainage infrastructure. The funds come from City tax dollars, development impact fees, and a fee on impervious cover (dubbed the 'rain tax' by detractors) - and it will guarantee that these repairs continue to be made regardless of funding decisions from City Hall.
    Maybe it's time for New York City to have its own "Rebuild" effort. If we could get it passed in the land of Rick Perry and the Ted Cruz Tea Party, surely the Big Apple could.

  86. No matter how commonsensical your arguments, we live in a different world than the world of prior generations. Then, in the face of a world war and its aftermath, it was expected that sacrifices had to be made.

    Now, it's simply about how much one can take, whether it be the wealthy who are unprepared to dip into their bloated piggy-banks for the good of the whole despite the fact their wealth is wholly contingent on the sacrifices of prior generations; or, frankly, whether it be the current and soon-to-be geezers (of whom I am one) who insist that, no matter how withered, diseased and useless their bodies may become, they absolutely must have those bodies tethered to the most expensive test tubes (someone else's) money can buy and be surrounded by the white coats of strangers rather than the loving faces of friends and family as they pass from this world to the next.

    Nope, don't count on our crumbling infrastructure to be repaired. For, just like the rest of the over-heated, detritus ridden world we are leaving our children, who cares when that ticket to Disney World (or, even more pathetically, that cappuccino) beckons.

  87. I agree with r. karch. The low priority for public infrastructure investment is symptomatic of political rhetoric that contributes to a belief that unless we individually see some direct benefit from public spending, the investment is questionable. We are a nation driven by self-interest and therefore, do not comprehend the value of public goods. Nashville builds monuments--sports stadia, convention centers, and arenas with tax dollars that are desperately needed for public education and transportation. As long we allow political debate to continue dumbing-down the economics of public goods, we'll never catch up. More people will suffer because of deteriorating utilities and bridges and highways, and more American children will go into the world uneducated.

  88. Bittman, try this: The gas lines you refer to deliver a metered product, paid for by the consumer. Use more gas, pay more money.

    Accordingly, there is no need to shift the cost of gas line upgrades to the public, when it can very easily be extracted from the consumer, as it should in a free market. (Highways and bridges are a different story, but even those costs could be extracted from highway and bridge users, by means of a gasoline tax.)

    There's not need to take it from millionaires or out-of-town tourists. You'd only be subsidizing the consumption of natural gas and indirectly increasing the output of greenhouse gas.

    Your question needs to be, what is the annual gross revenue from sales of natural gas, and how much would that gross revenue need to be increased to raise $60B over twenty years? Divide that number by the cubic feet of natural gas passing through those lines over the same twenty years, thus yielding the rate increase needed to solve this problem. There you have your 'pain' factor. I'm be curious to know what that is.

    BTW, the natural gas suppliers undoubtedly have some amount already budgeted (and built into current rates) for routine replacement of old lines. So, it might be something less than the back of the napkin $60B you are using.

  89. A sensible idea--a rare thing indeed. Part of the cost of anything you use is maintenance. Charge the users. Why should a tourist pay $60 and a resident who uses gas for heat and cooking pay nothing? Of course tourists would pay something because hotels pass on increases in utilities, but not a disproportionate amount.

  90. Thank you! Your answer seems so obviously correct, it makes me wonder why Mark has not addressed this. Natural gas is just one way to heat your home, why should the pipelines be considered a utility like water pipelines? In this case, the user should feel the full impact of the cost it takes to supply gas, so that they all have an incentive to reduce how much of it they use. Using public taxes to replace the pipes amounts to a subsidy, and if we are going to subsidize anything, it should only be renewables.

  91. As a NJ commuter, my tax money is currently tied up in investigating and defending the bridge closures, not investing in improvement projects, like making public transportation more efficient unless seemingly lining someone's pocket. But, yeah, I'll have a cup of coffee and think about it.

  92. Living in a society comes with responsibilities to that group. We expect benefits from this arrangement, and these benefits come with a cost (taxes). There is this argument between maintenance and replacement, but the time comes when we have to consider, as a society, the cost of diminishing returns. Enough throwing good money into bad (repair). At that point we, as a society, must consider modernizing the aging infrastructure. We call that "public safety."

  93. That would require a committment to the social contract, something that is sorely lacking in this age of "me-first" ideology masquerading as a serious and mature continuation of American freedoms of the individual. While those traditions of freedom are real and worthy of protection, they also contribute to the diminishing sense of community surrounding us.

    What we really need is a game plan that honors those rights while admitting and moving forward with the idea that our infrastructure, and its attendant costs, are not the long reaches of big government but investments in our free enterprise future. Unfortunately, I also believe, cynically perhaps, that most Americans' desire for more $ in our pockets will deny any government (local, state or national) the ability to pay for such investments and thus we are cutting off our nose to spite our face.

  94. Because the gas company is private, I'm not sure it's a great analogy. Probably better is bridges and roads. They are something we all share, New Yorkers and rural folk alike.

    I am surprised we do not have a collapse like the Minneapolis 35-W bridge collapse every day in this country. No one wants to be killed by having their car plummet into a river. No one wants their kids killed that way, either.

    Infrastructure is at a point where it requires us to get serious. Roads and Bridges might be a couple of cappucinos but are much more important. The added side benefit is the increase in jobs and the economy.

    If we do not start taxing the rich, we'll end up eating the rich.

  95. Which is also related to why power lines blown down by bad weather resulting in weeks of disruption are not buried underground but are replaced by new lines waiting to be blown down again! Yes, it is expensive to bury the lines, and that in itself will result in disruption but in the not-so-long run vital services will be better protected. It seems to me that in the US we have no thoughts of the long-term...

  96. Oh and by the way, what about the revelations of the condition of the Pulaski Skyway? A potential MAJOR disaster narrowly averted, so it seems.

  97. The older I get the more suspect I become of the leadership qualities of our President and Congress. The real strength of our country lies n the common man, not in any of the washington bureaucrats. This is why it is important not to loose any of our basic freedoms. (Which is well underway)

  98. Our city's infrastructure is not just an embarrassment, it is dangerous to us all. Our continued infrastructure use is abuse, if it is not maintained.

  99. You leave out one very important ingredient that we are sorely in need of, but is no where to be found! Leaders who know how to prioritize for the common good of their populace and future populace!!

  100. The problem with government spending is that it is wasted money. It is wasted money because there is no discipline of a profit-making enterprise. Why is the tab for One World Trade Center over $4 billion? Why does it cost $1 billion to repair the Pulaski Skyway when the inflation-adjusted cost to build the thing was only $360 million? Why is there precious little to show for $800 billion in stimulus spending? Why does it cost $60,000 a year to attend a private college? Becuase Congress throws money at these things with reckless abandon. You can spend $60 billion of my hard-earned money, but I promise you that you will not get your pipes fixed.

  101. A billion here, a billion there - soon you're talking real money. Gas pipe replacement is a worthy cause (though one that easily can and should be funded through the users' gas bills and not government revenue) but there are lots and lots of worthy causes. While our incomes are finite (and New Yorkers are already among the most heavily taxed Americans), the amount of money that you could spend on worthy causes is infinite. Improve mass transit, repair the streets and bridges, upgrade the underground utilities, provide for the national defense, provide for local security against terrorists and criminals, provide fire protection and emergency medical response, provide free education and baby-sitting from birth to grad school, provide free health care, free food, free housing, free everything. If each one costs one "cappuccino" per taxpayer (and some cost a lot more) then soon you are buying lots and lots of cappuccinos every day (and we are already). Just ONE MORE little cappuccino please, to fix the gas pipes, Bittman says, but that's a lie. He will be back for another and another and another - his thirst is really insatiable. At some point you have to say, basta - the government is already taking enough of my hard earned money and they have to learn to live within a limited budget and set priorities like everyone else and not come pick my pocket for "just one more cappuccino".

  102. Fixing our crumbling infrastructure is not just a worth cause, it's necessary for the health and safety of our country. I'm sure you'd like your car to stay on the road while driving over a bridge. Or not having the gas line under your street explode and blow up your home. I also have to believe you'd be just as upset if the gas company raised your rates to fix their gas lines.

  103. OK I get it. The government is taking your hard- earned money. Wow. What do you do to earn it? I believe our government - federal, state, county, do have a responsibility for such things as streets, underground pipes (along with the companies that must maintain them) and all the rest you are raving about. And you begrudge helping poor and hungry, too. I hope you or your family never find themselves in such a situation. What a cold, heartless person you are who just wants to hold on to yours. obviously you are not your brother's keeper. Just plain unfeeling.

  104. "Gas pipe replacement is a worthy cause (though one that easily can and should be funded through the users' gas bills and not government revenue)"

    Unless you're one of those people who's somehow managed to live completely off the grid, you're a user. You use electricity, gas, roads, etc. These are all the things we need to survive and thrive in this country. Why not have the government use our hard-earned money to make sure we have a safe working infrastructure? Isn't that one of the reasons we have a government in the first place? Personally, I'd rather have them pick my pocket for gas lines in my neighborhood that won't fail than for policing foreign countries.

  105. You might have an argument if these gas lines were really a public infrastructure. For the sake of argument lets say they are not and start the discussion over.

  106. When gas lines blow, the public gets killed. How is that for a good start?

  107. The recent gas line explosion Mr. Bittman is referring to is owned and operated by Consolidated Edison, a publically traded company on the NYSE.

  108. Ronald Reagan convinced an awful lot of Americans that we could be the "Shining City on the Hill" without having to pay for. The proverbial "free lunch". And his descendants in the republican party seem to think that concept is embedded in the Constitution.
    Now is the perfect time to begin to repair, rebuild, or replace our aging infrastructure, nationwide. It will go a long way towards getting America back on top, both materially and spiritually. It will also provide a lot of good paying jobs for a lot of people who don't have one now.

  109. It's a pity Mr. Bittman does not read his own columns. If he did, he would find himself advocating for government intervention in areas like food fat and sugar content. And now he wonders why governments do not address infrastructure in the face of popular causes insisting that they regulate everything else.

  110. Good grief, do none of you people own a home? Mr. Bittman? are you all apartment dwellers or renters?

    When you hear of a gas explosion, 90% of the time it is poor maintenance of the lines INSIDE THE HOME -- an individual home. Those lines are not public and are the responsibility of the owner. I have a 90 year old house, and I have had to do some replacement of gas lines over the years -- INSIDE MY OWN HOUSE, on my own dime.

    You are talking about the major gas lines in the STREET. These are well constructed and it is extremely rare to hear they just "blew up", short of something like an accident or catastrophic event (hurricane, bombing, etc.).

    They are also ALL underground and always have been. Gas lines only come up out of ground INSIDE individual homes, and at that point, YOU the homeowner (or landlord) own them and are responsible for maintaining them.

    I'd be honestly surprised if any government entity anywhere, even in lefty Sweden, is responsible for the gas (or electric, or geothermal) lines INSIDE your private residence.

    Let's remember that Mr. Bittman is an (ex)cookbook author and food writer. Obviously (painfully obviously), he is not a pipefitter, HVAC tech, or even knows the rudiments of construction or plumbing. And he is no economist, or he'd know that old saw about "it's only a few cents a day!" is how con artists and advertisers have been ripping off gullible consumers (who can't do the math) for generations.

  111. The recent fatal explosion in East Harlem, to which Bittman refers, was caused by an underground leak, outside the building,

  112. Mr. Bittman is referring to the lines that run under the street, not those in your house, which we all recognize the home owner is responsible for. Believe it or not, even underground pipe can corrode or rust, or develop cracks due to freezing, thawing, or earthquakes (yes, we get those, even in NY)

  113. Good morning to my favorite Minamalist:

    A nit from "ancient" history.

    In 1950, I was a young field man for the Long Island Lighting company. Finding where underground transformers were in Nassau County (my district) was a game of chance given that the maps on file were sometimes out of date by as much as 15 years.

    This, I believe, tells one something about the way the Infrastructure was(is) treated by at least one utility. I wonder if Con Edison is equally sloppy.

    Of course, there's our PG&E here in the Bay Area. We see they are already being sued for the gas pipe explosion of several years back. Looks like the pipe line hadn't been looked after for quite a spell.

    Perhaps this egregious mis-management can be generalized to include many of our public utilities.

    The Utilities are not being taken to task; nor oil, for that matter. Probably not coddling (although that is not clear), but surely not-so-benign neglect. Or is that connivance?


  114. Short term greedy citizens vote for the politician that gives them the most things,not for infrastructure spending.

  115. Nationally, we have millions of unemployed or underemployed citizens receiving government assistance. We have a crumbling infrastructure that is a threat to national security. And we have a much larger than necessary defense budget.
    Why not provide the welfare recipients with job training. Give them child care, transportation, and financial planning services. Give them living-wage jobs repairing the infrastructure. And the Army Corps of Engineers run the projects.

  116. The labor unions would never allow that , they never have.

  117. One thing that could be done: force the City to publish its estimates of current capital needs - for highways, local streets, water supply, school buildings - the amount actually needed for minimum maintenance over the next ten years, and the amount actually allocated in the Ten Year Capital Plan included in this Spring's Executive Budget. Print it on Page A1.

  118. Just like I don't want the Koch brothers to be able to have undue sway in the realm of politics, I'm not sure I think Mr Bittman should have an opinion piece about public infrastructure. I'm not saying a food writer should not participate in a democracy, but I am saying that he should not be given an editorial page to voice his views. Equally, I should not be given such a pulpit. The comments section an an editorial page, sure.

  119. I completely disagree. Mr. Bittman is a well educated, well traveled individual who has grown to see food as part of a world wide network of human endeavor. As a person who has traveled the world for food he has noticed a great deal. Why not share it with us?
    In fact, I think anyone at all should be able to have a space on the editorial page providing the opinion is carefully thought out and well written.
    Here's to the masses! And most of us know a thing or two about our local infrastructure. Let he who sees most and speaks best have space on the editorial page. We don't always have to hear from the usual writers of the high and mighty.

  120. Albert Einstein was at one time an assistant examiner in a patent office. Thank heavens it didn't stop him from writing about theoretical physics.

  121. I'm with 'Elephant lover' in disagreeing with Ben's gripe. Bittman is one of the brightest, most thoughtful and least overtly partisan columnists writing on any op-ed page. I've been wishing for some time that he'd branch out beyond food-related issues and am glad to be seeing it here and in his role in Showtime's upcoming climate change show ('Years of Living Dangerously', I think?). I don't have to agree with him 100% of the time to appreciate his very different approach to opinionating.

  122. When this infrastructure was built, the bulk of government spending was on such projects.

    Today, the Federal government spends 70% on payments to or on behalf of individuals, mostly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The state and local governments also spend huge amounts on Medicaid, social services, and education.

    It's not surprising there's no money left for infrastructure. Sure, you can raise taxes, but then more and more people will stop working.

  123. social security is not part of the regular federal tax system, it is on its own, it has money, it is currently solvent, but the government borrows(steals)from it to pay for its dirty wars and other expenditures -- don't blame social security --- medicare is also paid by payroll taxes and then via contributions after retirement depending on your income --- get the facts straight. and people won't stop working,,,, it is the billionaires who don't pay their fair (percentage) share of taxes.

  124. The reason the US has so many infrastructure is that it is cheap. As a whole taxes in the US are much lower than those of most industrialized countries and the result is poor infrastructure. Patch, patch, patch, not visualize and plan.
    Compared to the Europeans our problem in correcting old failing infrastructure is simple -- we are not building on top of enormous ancient civilizations whose buildings and artifacts must be carefully studied and preserved every time we try to add a new subway line or improve the gas system.
    It is no surprise to me that the billionaires who live in New York don't care much about supporting the city. Most of them got those billions by paying as little as possible for everything in their business lives. And they do not ride the subway or have their houses blow up because of faulty gas lines. It is the ordinary people who don't have much to give who have to live with infrastructure problems.
    Our tax system which is controlled by our political system which is being controlled more and more by the billionaires who don't really have to worry about infrastructure. It is time for Americans to use their votes to overthrow the plutocracy's control over our national decisions. We need not just to patch but also to visualize new improved methods of making bridges, subways, gas and fiber lines. We need to be willing to pay enough taxes to accomplish that.
    The Affordable Care Act was a good step in that direction.

  125. There are some states that are trying to buck the short term gain vs. long term investment. CA and WA are the first to come to mind. Both have large infrastructure projects, bridge renovations, and are investing in renewable energy technology, products, and resources to bring about long term gains. Unfortunately even these states have constituents who would much rather make a quick buck than improve their society for their kids and grand kids (although, funny enough, they tend to whine most fiercely about the same kids and the lack of future they will have). Being one of the younger generation, I would encourage more of my tax dollars to go to education and infrastructure than military, prisons, and corporate welfare, but I fear that won't be possible until we can get politicians and their contributors to start prioritizing people over profits. I'm not holding my breath.

  126. How much coffee was that for the subways, bridges, roads, etc., etc....

  127. Just another example of Argument #17 for higher taxes; why it is no more than the cost of (fill in the blank) per day. The current tax rates are never enough and if we only had a bit more then all would be well; or, we could make one of those fabled "down payments" on some long-term expense. Of course most tax increases may seem earmarked when levied but then mysteriously disappear into the pension fund or the general account (just spend a bit of time tracking the use of bond sale proceeds to see how that game works). Please take your version of today's pleae for more taxpayer money and file it somewhere.

  128. It's not the pennies a day that bothers me, it's giving those pennies to the same self centered politicians who will channel that money into programs that will garner them votes and that's not the infrastructure.

  129. Gee - investing in infrastructure that benefits everyone what a novel idea. Jobs doing it, jobs making stuff needed to do it especially if we require domestic sourcing & so on. If the GOP would just get out of the way so we cam get going it would be nice.

  130. There is an argument like this for virtually every single thing that people want their government to do to protect the environment, increase public safety, reduce poverty, improve their diet, eradicate disease, ease retirement and to improve education, just to name a few. The advocate makes his or her argument, calculates the net cost, and then expresses it in terms to which ordinary people can relate. And, if it's most of the NYT's columnists, the only solution every proposed is to increase taxes on the "obscenely wealthy", "evil corporations", and of course, the money-grubbing 1%. Maybe that IS the solution -- I don't know. I suspect that there are innumerable costly government agencies, programs and benefits that should be shuttered in favor of infrastructure improvement. Heck, I thought that's why my taxes were being raised during the recession -- to fund stimulus of shovel-ready jobs! My point is that until we stop talking merely amongst ourselves, and start talking to THEM, nothing will ever change. We'll feel holier for commenting, but nothing will change. I am NOT trying to foment an insurrection. But I wonder about a nation of 315 million souls that can only muster an anemic protest like Occupy Wall Street was -- a protest that became more about itself and less about real change as the days wore on. Why aren't we marching? Ordinary people! You and me!

  131. I agree with you about "Why aren't we marching?" But by commenting about the inaction of just commenting you're guilty of exactly what you're commenting about. If you feel that nobody is doing anything to protest then you know what you need to do, organize your own protest.

  132. If the NYT was correct, a number of those apartment dwellers smelled gas the night before and did nothing. (Do I recall Kitty Genovese?) Well, at least one opened a window.

    And there are reasons for not calling: likely immediate eviction from a dangerous site. Your recommendation and solution?

  133. I dont want my tax dollars to improve the lives of "takers" :-(
    I would prefer they be used to subsidize the activities of large corporations.
    Just kidding, I wanted to get the nonsense out of the way.

    One point you have missed here is infrastructure deficits have the greatest impacts on working people and the poor. This is the reality one sees in the third-world, where working folks have impossible commutes over bad roads. Not only would infrastructure improvements employ people with modest skills, they would also allow working folks to commute to jobs or travel for there small businesses more easily.

  134. Natural gas contains benzene? WRONG. At least not the purified natural gas that is delivered to homes and buildings by the gas utility.

    Natural gas is "still useful in the kitchen, but almost nowhere else." Or was he referring to cast iron? Either way: WRONG.

    Natural gas is essential for heating buildings and generating electricity. (Both of which are done on-site at Mr. Bittman's publisher's building, The Times Center, in its cogeneration plant.)

    Ductile cast iron is still widely used in new water mains and sewers, along with PVC plastic pipe.

    Doesn't anyone at the Times check facts anymore?

  135. Mark Bittman, I thought - from the title of your column - "A Cappuccino for Public Safety" - you were going to riff on the prices of coffee - which have risen to grotesque heights these days. Buying a pound of ground coffee is like buying a house dress was in the 1930s. Instead, you are maundering about the Van Wyck Expressway, which is better than the ancient corduroy road that worked OK for the earliest residents of New York and Long Island. And the horrific spaghetti of underground broken infrastructure (cf gas leak that killed) that underlies the superstructure of The Big Apple and environs. It's a hell under there and lack of attention to public safety and repairs will cause unforgettable conflagrations in New York.

  136. One other fact that Mr. Bittman might like to know: public utilities are not funded by tax dollars, but by rate-payers. So if you were to tax everyone in Manhattan the cost of a cappuccino every day (leave to a 'Foodie' to come up with an idea like this) the money would not go to replace gas mains. In order to raise this money, the utility rates would have to go up, something that is always hotly contested by citizens groups.

  137. Maybe, then, the place to start is by making "public" utilities public utilities. My experience would suggest that true public utilities are more efficient, better maintained, and better overall citizens.

  138. Island Jim might want to check into the history of the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) and the Washington Public Power Supply System. (WPPS) LIPA was heralded as a boon to consumers by its proponent by one Richard Kessel, a political blowhard who built the authority into a patronage machine to give jobs to his cronies. Based on its incompetence in dealing with Hurricane Sandy, LIPA was dismantled in 2011. WPPS, of course, in infamous for wildly overbuilding nuclear power plants that went way over budget. As a result, it caused the second largest municipal bond default in US history.

  139. In the meantime, there is new technology becoming available for detecting leaks that is an order of magnitude more sensitive to current methods. I refer you to a Canadian company named Synodon which has invented a detection device flown in a helicopter. It would seem to be prudent to employ such methods to survey trouble spots while we wait and wait... hopefully not forever... for a paralyzed government to take the greater steps needed to address our aging infrastructure.

  140. Bittman means well, but to say to the average American, "For just the price of a cappuccino a day...!" isn't productive. Most Americans already view cappuccinos as a fancy elitist luxury item that they can't afford.

  141. Perhaps Mr. Bittman should first examine the budget in minute detail to see how many overlapping and obsolete programs could be eliminated--but then he would be goring someone else's ox. Why is it that nothing, once established, can never be abolished, even when it's out of date, does no good, is repetitive, et al? When governments figures out how to do that then I'll be in favor of tax increases--the 12th of never.