A net-metering electric meter

A net-metering electric meter Credit: NEWSDAY STAFF/Julia Weeks

Peter Goldmark is a former budget director of New York State and former executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

We have a sound budget for New York State now. There are painful cuts to implement, but a strong budget is in place.

Yet man cannot live by cuts alone.

One of the reasons to strive for a sound budget and the solid credit ratings that go with it is to build soundly for the future. For New York, as for the country as a whole, that means investing in infrastructure.

That boring word, "infrastructure," stands for the life-support systems that allow our economy and our interdependent society to work -- roads, water and sewage systems, transit and electrical distribution. Parts of our road and rail systems have been rusting out, wearing out and rotting out for lack of reinvestment. And a serious drive to be competitive in the future hasn't even begun.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo needs to design and sell statewide a capital program, sized to our capacity for debt, that can build a state economy with more jobs, boost private sector investment, and give citizens life-support systems that are efficient, fast, modern and not too costly.

New York State has a system of public authorities with independent capital capacity that's the envy of other states and can be used for this campaign of investment in infrastructure. What kinds of things should we invest in?

Getting our existing roads into good shape. That will require full faith and credit obligations of the state itself.

Investing in efficient energy, first in state or state-supported facilities, from courthouses and colleges to hospitals and schools. This requires providing the electric utilities with incentives to reduce rather than increase energy sales volume (this is called "decoupling" and was pioneered in California), thus converting them from marketers of electricity consumption to sellers of conservation.

We also need to invest in safeguarding and upgrading New York's water supply, as our watersheds are increasingly vulnerable to pollution.

But the boldest project we should tackle is building a "smart" electrical grid, which "leaks" less electricity than the old-fashioned grid and saves energy and money by adjusting flows to and from each home or business continuously. Cuomo should consider doing this with New Jersey, which while in a different regional electrical grid, is a powerful part of the metropolitan economy. This would allow us to harness the huge capital capacity and engineering talents of the Port Authority to this task.

Building a smart grid would sharply reduce energy consumption, thus reducing the cost of doing business; it would give us a huge competitive advantage vs. other regions and countries; and it would also reduce the vulnerability of our regional economy and life-support systems to terrorism -- a reality we have to be tough-minded enough to take into account. If it were coupled with a system of neighborhood conservation corporations to install and service the new equipment in homes and offices, building the smart grid could provide two decades worth of jobs that could never be outsourced overseas. That's a trifecta: a competitive edge for our businesses, investment that will reduce energy consumption and thus make energy bills cheaper than elsewhere, and neighborhood-level jobs.

Can we do something this bold and complicated?

New York was first in the country to build a massive, integrated, clean water supply. We were the first to build a large-scale mass transit system. We built the world's first container port -- before the first container ships were even launched. It's time to recall that this is our heritage and our talent: identifying a large, smart project and mobilizing the capital and skills to do it first.

Now that we have prudently put in place a sound budget, it's time to define the next generation of life-support systems and invest -- also prudently.