Denise Richardson on the future of NYC public works projects
Denise Richardson, 52, has been the managing director of General Contractors Association of New York -- an organization of 250 unionized general contractors, heavy civil specialty firms, suppliers and vendors for the heavy construction industry -- since 2008. She lives with her husband and three rescued cats in Jackson Heights, on the 7 subway line.
Q: What would you most like to see changed or accomplished in NYC?
A: For the public and our elected officials to appreciate the job the MTA does every day: Everyone complains when there is a problem on their line, but the MTA moves 8.5 million people every day and gets almost everyone to their destinations safely and on time. There was almost no capital investment in the system at all from the 1950s to the 1980s. They’ve spend $76 billion since 1982 trying to bring it back to a system of good repair, but some of these projects – like refurbishing the signal system to provide increasing capacity - are very messy and they still haven’t caught up.
Q: There’s been tax-payer blowback regarding public-sector labor costs. What is the future for union labor on these public works projects?
A: As a practical matter, the only way we can build large, transformational projects like the World Trade Center or the Hudson Yards is with the skilled, unionized construction workforce. (The unions) have had issues adapting to new construction techniques and new construction methods, but they’ve worked hard to address them, so it’s a positive future.
Q: What’s your take on the big blow up rats?
A: They were first used by the unions here in NY! Then they migrated to other cities. They’re an organizing tool and make a good photo op, but I’m not a union organizer so I can’t attest to their effectiveness.
Q: A lot of people are angry that Bovis Lend Lease, now Lend Lease, got off on charges of massively defrauding both the government and private clients by admitting to fraud and paying a $56 million fine. Do you believe that the contractors who engineered this enormous theft should go to prison?
A: Lend Lease is not a GCA member, so I really can’t comment on that case.
Q: What do you most wish built in NYC?
A: A full-length, Second Avenue subway: The (full) plan is for it to run from Upper Manhattan all the way downtown. I would like to see the funding to continue the project.
Q: Why is infrastructure and public transportation such a low priority for decision makers?
A: We as a public have to demand it. The real issue is we’ve gone from everyone sharing costs for a public good to the free rider principle: ‘Let someone else pay and I’ll take a free ride.’ You see the lack of attention in the presidential election: In all the Republican debates, the issue of infrastructure was not raised once. President Obama advocated high speed rail projects but on his transition team website, transportation was listed under “miscellaneous.” It will be a priority when someone in congress is brave enough to talk about why we need to raise the gas tax. The last time it was raised – in 1993 - gas was $1 a gallon and the money from it has now lost one-third of its purchasing power. Drivers need to pay the real cost of keeping up the road ways.
Q: So you support congestion pricing?
A: Yes. There’s a hidden issue about who gets to park for free in mid-town, incidentally. Most of the people driving in have their parking paid for by their businesses. If they had to pay the $40 - $60 a day it costs to park in mid-town each day, you’d see a change in behavior. The parking tax deduction is twice as much under the public transportation deduction, under IRS rules. In all our infrastructure – waste water treatment, water, roadways, airports – we’re living off the far-sighted decisions of our grandparents and in some cases our great-grandparents. We need to worry about the future we’re leaving our children by not upgrading and renewing our infrastructure and not wanting to pay for things. It’s so worth it to do so: We create jobs for today and tangible assets that will last for generations.
Q: Is there any public works project you wish hadn’t been built?
A: The loss of the old Penn Station is something NYC will never recover from – particularly when you look at what Grand Central has become.
Q: You’re also on the board for the New York League of Conservation Voters. Doesn’t the amount of waste generated at construction and demo sites make you sick?
A: The construction industry is at the forefront of recycling! It has a tradition of adaptive reuse! Years ago, when there was a major renovation at the Waldorf Astoria, a contractor took the doors off the rooms and used them as temporary sheeting while digging a sewer project. You wouldn’t do that today under OSHA regulations, but it’s a good example of how things have been reused. Today, they recycle concrete and a huge amount of masonry. It’s bought by scrap dealers who crush it and sell it back to manufacturing plants.
Q: What is the best investment a New Yorker can make?
A: A Metro card! Yes, I have one, and the GCA has TransitChek.
Q: What do you know about New York that no one else does?
A: What is now known as the Lex Line had no express stop at 59th: It went from 42nd St. to 86th. As a result of development in 1959, the Transit Authority decided to add a stop at 59th and make it an express stop. That’s why you have to go up, down and around when changing trains instead of just going across the platform like you do at other stops – because the 4 and 5 were added later.
Also, the Tappan Zee Bridge was built where it was because Thomas E. Dewey, the governor at the time wanted it outside the jurisdiction of the Port Authority. So it got built at the widest part of the river where soil conditions were not the best – purely for political reasons. We should not let politics dictate engineering decisions.
Q: You knew you were really a New Yorker when . . . .
A I first said, “I’m from New York.” I’m not a native New Yorker. I moved to Queens after I finished school in N.J. (obtaining a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs and Urban and Regional Planning from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton) but for 15 years I said, “I live in New York – but I’m from Rhode Island.” I felt like my “home” was Rhode Island. It took a long time for me start to think of New York as home. So many of us here come from some place else. One day you realize, this is home.