When it comes to the many New York State bridges and roadways in bad need of attention, the industry might learn a lesson or two from the Occupy Wall Street movement, David Tweedy, chief of capital planning at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, told attendees at ENR New York's transportation funding conference today. "How many of you don't know what the 99 percent means," he asked and, when no hand was raised, he laughed. "The kids at Zuccotti Park created a dialog about the 99 percent," something that industry has failed to do about the state of the region's infrastructure, he said. Other speakers at the conference, "Where's the Money? Funding Transportation Projects in New York State," echoed the same idea.

Photo by Esther D'Amico

Infrastructure problems such as the fact that "the suspender ropes on the George Washington Bridge have never been replaced" were not adequately addressed in the mainstream media earlier this year when the PANYNJ enacted its Hudson River-crossing toll and fare hikes, he says. "We are not mad enough about this, folks," he says, adding that the industry needs to create its own dialog to make issues known.

Part of the problem is that transportation infrastructure is not always recognized as the "lifeblood of our economy," says Thomas J. Madison Jr., acting executive director of the New York State Thruway Authority. "We don't think about it unless it causes a constraint to our general routines."

Industry needs to explain to the public why setting aside funding for infrastructure investment is important, says Denise Richardson, managing director of the General Contractors Association. "We need to fund, not finance, these transportation projects," she says.

On the funding side, the industry should consider tapping non-traditional investment sources, says Tawan Davis, vice president of Real Estate Transaction Services at the New York City Economic Development Corp. These include cash-rich sovereign funds that agree to lower returns, want currency diversification, and have a desire for marquee products, he says. Also, pension funds with interest in creating jobs and in economic development, are another possibility, he adds.

Industry needs to identify the right investor with the right project, Davis says. Structuring a deal as a public-private partnership, for example, might attract non-traditional investors focused on revenue-producing projects. "There is an entire universe of investors," many of which are interested in infrastructure, he adds.