Vision 2040: Infrastructure of the Future

The $50 billion cost of prepping the city’s sewer, waste and water systems to serve more people

By Julia Alsop and Jake Naughton

New York City is expected to add 1 million residents by 2040, according to a June 2013 report by the Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University. As the population grows, the challenges for the city’s aging infrastructure become ever greater. Experts estimate that it will cost nearly $50 billion to bring the city’s water, waste, power and sewage systems up to date to cope with surging demands.

“New York’s utility infrastructure is old and, in many parts of the city, strained beyond its capacity,” said Adam Forman, a research associate at the Center for an Urban Future and author of the recent report Caution Ahead. “Without necessary investments, the city’s economic competitiveness and quality of life will suffer.”


Every day, more than 1 billion gallons of water flow through miles of pipes into the homes restaurants and offices of New York City’s residents, tourists and commuters, according to a 2013 report by the city’s Department of Environmental Planning. The system bringing that water to the tap consists of  the reservoirs and aqueducts outside of the city and the network of tunnels  piping water within the city.

The water comes from dozens of reservoirs connected to the city by three huge aqueducts. En route, the DEP estimates that the largest aqueduct, the Delaware, leaks between 15 and 35 million gallons of water daily. At peak that’s roughly 58 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of water lost every day. The city is in the process of implementing a 15-year, $1 billion project to plug the leaks.

From there, water flows into two huge tunnels, built in 1917 and 1935, and then into the more than 6,000 miles of tunnels and pipes that make up the city’s distribution system.

The Department of Environmental Protection, responsible for the management of the city’s water, is currently constructing a third major tunnel. Begun in 1970 and slated to be completed in 2020, the  new $5 billion tunnel will allow the city to inspect and repair the other tunnels for the first time in their histories.

The city is also working to replace its aging piping. Of the roughly 6,800 miles of water mains in the city,  nearly half  are from 1940 or earlier. In the last three years, there have been some 1,200 water main breaks. The city set an ambitious goal of replacing 80 miles of water main per year , but the actual replacement is only 27 miles per year, according to the mayor’s management reports.


New York has 6,362 miles of gas mains, according to a report by the Center for Urban Future. Con Edison and National Grid manage the city’s gas infrastructure — their lines are 56 years old on average and more than half are made of unprotected steel or cast iron, corrosive and leak-prone materials.

In 2012, there were 1,508 gas leaks across Con Edison’s  aging network of 4,262 miles of gas mains, and in 2013 that number climbed slightly to 1,516, according to information from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The gas leak that investigators believe triggered the East Harlem explosion earlier this year was traced back to a main installed in 1887, according to federal investigators.

Con Edison and National Grid are under pressure to replace the leaky and leak-prone lines as soon as possible, but the costs are expected to be huge. Con Edison estimates that it will cost $10 billion and take 40 years to replace all of the lines made of cast iron and unprotected steel.  In a written statement to the New York State Assembly, Con Ed’s President Craig Ivey said the company  plans to spend about $645 million over the next three years to replace about 200 miles of leak-prone steel and cast iron gas mains.


New Yorkers pour 1.3 billion gallons of waste down the drain every day.  To deal with the onslaught, the city’s sewage system contains more than 6,000 miles of pipes, 93 pump stations and 14 massive sewer treatment facilities.

The city’s biggest hurdle when it comes to its sewers is our combined-sewage system. Instead of having one set of pipes for household wastewater and another for street run-off, 60 percent of New York’s sewers combine both waste and storm water. Whenever it rains more than one-tenth of an inch (which happens about 50 times a year), the treatment plants get overloaded and leak an estimated 2.9 billion gallons of untreated sewage into New York’s waterways.

Updating the sewage system to stop “floatables” (litter  and biosolids) from ending up in the Hudson River and to refurbish old and build new pipes requires an investment of approximately $36 billion over the next 20 years, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

City plans currently include renovations of the 20 million-gallon wastewater holding-pen at Spring Creek, a new 43 million- gallon water treatment facility at Flushing Bay and a reactivation of the Gowanus Canal’s flushing tunnel.


New Yorkers generate over 14 million tons of garbage every year.  It takes a fleet of 6,000 garbage trucks  costing the city more than $300 million dollars each year to collect trash from homes and businesses and drive it to waste transferring sites, where our garbage is loaded on to trains and barges and shipped out of the city.

In the 1980s, New York’s trash stayed in one of the 89 city-owned landfills. By 2001 the city closed its  last landfill, Fresh Kills, on Staten Island. Now New York ships  garbage  to Ohio and Virginia.

Under a Department of Sanitation plan, only 25 percent of our waste will end up in a landfill by 2030. The main prongs of attack include expanding waste-to-energy conversion programs (like selling of the grease from restaurants to companies making biodiesel) and encouraging more recycling (by providing free recycling programs but levying fees on excess garbage pick-up).

The city’s focus on reduction hasn’t stopped ambitious designers from dreaming up new ways to collect and process New York’s trash.

PRESENT Architecture recently proposed the  Green Loop– a network of composting parks that would float on the city’s waterways . Thirty percent of our trash is compostable, yet most still ends up in a landfill. The proposed sites would build waste sorting facilities underneath city parks. There, the organic material would be direct above ground to compost in the grassy parks. The man-made sites are designed like islands that extend on to New York’s harbor.

Another idea, suggested by the University Transportation Research Centre,  is a system of pneumatic tubes that suck garbage into a central processing site, effectively reducing the city’s reliance on greenhouse gas producing garbage trucks. The idea isn’t new to New York.  Roosevelt Island residents have been disposing of garbage via vacuum-powered tubes since 1975.


New Yorkers use a combination of electricity, gas and steam to power our businesses and homes. The city’s electric grid serves more than 8.3 million people and 250,000 businesses. Though the city has 24 in-city energy plants that can provide more than 9,000 megawatts of power, or 80 percent of New York’s demand at peak hours, on an average day more than half of New York’s energy need is pulled from cheaper plants operating in New Jersey and upstate. The city’s infrastructure projects, PlaNY, reports that  two-thirds of New York’s power plants are more than 40 years old.

As the city prepares for stronger storms and hotter summers, major overhauls of the power grid are required. During Hurricane Sandy,  8.6 million people lost power statewide. Gov. Cuomo recently earmarked $663,000 to upgrade the city’s power system.  The upgrades include additional independent-operating microgrids– so a blow-out in Long Island City won’t reach midtown Manhattan– and a greater reliance on alternative energy sources. The city plans to convert waste water from Newtown Creek to natural gas, develop former Staten Island landfill Fresh Kills in to a solar panel park and to build a windmill farm with turbines swinging 20 miles offshore of the Battery.  

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Population Density (per acre) in NYC