Lou Venech, Working Group Member
If you use your imagination and squint a little, you can picture Lou Venech as a behind-the-scenes policy advisor to FDR. Born too late for that particular destiny, he worked for 34 years at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey—a unique transportation agency with a strong public works tradition—as a policy analyst and transportation planner before retiring in 2019. He’s the only member of the NYC working group who has had direct responsibility for planning infrastructure projects.
Back in the 1970s, after graduating from Columbia University with a political science degree, Venech worked for the City of New York and then in the non-profit sector, jobs that allowed him to “learn by doing.” He also developed a keen interest in local history. Arriving at City Hall as a member of Mayor Abe Beame’s staff, he pulled a few historically notable reports left over from the Lindsay administration out of a dumpster. “I also rescued an ornate wooden sign discarded from Boss Tweed’s courthouse,” he said. “That’s historic preservation—for good and for ill!”
Venech’s interests continued to come together during a stint at the New York Chamber of Commerce and Industry, founded in 1768 and known for promoting the creation of the upstate reservoir system and subway lines that spurred the city’s growth in the early twentieth century. His advocacy work there continued that legacy of support for transformative infrastructure investments.
Venech was born and raised in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, an old factory town. Before the pandemic, he went back for a visit, including a stop at the public library. He learned that mosaics on display there depicting classic fairy tales had been funded by New Deal monies. As well, basement files included minutes of nineteenth century city council meetings retyped and bound by New Deal workers.
On a darker note, Venech is a 9/11 survivor. He was in the Port Authority’s office headquartered at One World Trade Center on the 61st floor when one of the two planes struck, and he proceeded to walk down the stairs and emerge from the building shortly after the first tower collapsed.
His deep concern for the welfare of the city grew stronger than ever. For the first two years after the disaster, he joined a multi-agency group of planners and engineers committed to the restoration of Lower Manhattan. The group focused primarily on planning for the reconstruction and improvement of transit connections.
And he continued to work for the Port Authority. Venech points to the agency’s many achievements during his time there. Among the most notable was its replacement of the Goethals Bridge between Staten Island and Elizabeth, New Jersey. He also participated in regional advocacy efforts in Washington that targeted the Department of Transportation and Congress. “We pushed for policies that would benefit the New York Metropolitan Area,” Venech said, “and we helped make the successful case for expanded federal infrastructure investments in transit, freight, ports, and airports.
“Unfortunately, some proposed projects I worked on remain unbuilt,” he adds, “projects like the new Hudson River passenger rail tunnel, which former Governor Chris Christie canceled after the groundbreaking ceremony, soon after he took office.”
Well, you win some and you lose some, as FDR and his advisors well knew. But the New Deal’s gains for the city far outweighed its losses, Venech says—gains that inspire him to stick with the Living New Deal-NYC’s work to “rebuild awareness of what was achieved and to build support for the idea that the federal government should invest in the well-being, economic competitiveness, and health of the city and indeed the whole country. People are using all these physical assets today without any idea of how they came about. We need to change that.”