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Upstate’s crumbling roads and bridges should be next in line for a state cash infusion

Upstate’s roads and bridges are in rough shape. That’s predictable. Infrastructure has a lifespan, and New York hasn’t been better than so-so in maintaining it. Now, with an important state deal to pump $8.3 billion in state tax dollars into the downstate Metropolitan Transportation Authority, pressure is increasing to do something about the transportation needs of upstate and Long Island.

No one need begrudge the investment in downstate transportation infrastructure. Indeed, New York City does more to fund state government than any other region of the state. All New Yorkers have a stake in its ability to move people who are creating tax revenues.

Nevertheless, attention to other parts of the state is overdue. While the infrastructure around Buffalo is in comparatively good shape – with about 12 percent of the area’s roads rated in poor condition – other upstate areas are much worse off. In Syracuse, for example, 28 percent of roads are considered poor.

An interest group called TRIP calculates that the area’s rough roads, including the annual spring crop of potholes, cost the average Buffalo motorist $300 a year in wear and tear on cars and tires and higher fuel consumption.

In truth, New York should have been attending to these matters long ago. Infrastructure supports all aspects of life, including commerce, which produces tax revenue. That the state has let matters slide is unfortunate, but that period of indifference may be ending.

Not only is the pressure rising to match the downstate infusion of cash, but Beth DeFalco, a spokeswoman for the Cuomo administration, said the governor has his eye fixed on upstate’s roads.

“The governor has made a historic commitment to the health of the MTA system. The final structure of how we fund transportation around the state will be done in the context of a comprehensive transportation plan next legislative session,” she wrote in an email to The News.

It’s good news, even if the action is later than many observers had been led to believe. Cuomo and legislative leaders committed 18 months ago to producing, through the state Department of Transportation, a five-year plan for capital work to improve some of New York’s more than 100,000 miles of roads and more than 17,000 bridges. It hasn’t been done yet.

Nor is it just the roads and bridges that need to be repaired or even rebuilt. They may be the most obvious infrastructure, but beneath the roads and along the waterways, trouble is brewing in the water and sewer lines that make everyday living possible. Some of these systems date back 100 years or more and are at risk of failure due to age and the annual cycles of freeze and thaw.

Sewage treatment plants are inadequate to modern understandings of the importance of protecting the waterways that eventually absorb treated sewage. In Erie County, untreated overflows can shut Lake Erie beaches in summer. Upgrading this critical infrastructure will be complex and costly, but it needs to be done, and the longer it waits, the more expensive the job becomes.

Roads and bridges are what appear to be on the immediate horizon, though, and it will be good news if Cuomo commits to a program that aims at making substantive improvements across upstate and Long Island. That work can even include decommissioning some roads, where appropriate. With a smaller population than it had decades ago, Buffalo may have more roads than it needs, and that drives up costs. It’s worth studying.

But the fundamental issue is that upstate is coming back, and nowhere is that more true than in Buffalo. If our economy is going to reach its growing potential, our infrastructure has to be able to meet the demand.