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Despite New York’s Huge Transit Ridership, Albany Failing On Green Transpo

New York State might be home to more transit riders than any other state, but when it comes to the transportation policies on the books, we don't look quite so green.

This intersection, the most dangerous in Syracuse, cant inspire too many people to walk or bike. If Albany passed a complete streets law, one of many green transportation policies they havent acted on, it could be safer. Image: Google Street View.

"Getting Back on Track," a new report by Smart Growth America and the Natural Resources Defense Council, ranks New York 21st of all the states when it comes to environmentally friendly transportation policy, right between Nevada and New Mexico (check out Streetsblog Capitol Hill for a national perspective on the report). Though the state does a decent job of spending its money in the right places, New York lacks almost all the legislative cornerstones necessary to move our transportation system towards sustainability.

Transportation accounts for a full 32 percent of the country's carbon dioxide emissions. American transportation emissions alone are greater than the total greenhouse gas emissions of any other country except China and Russia. State policy is crucial to cutting that figure. The report cites one study which found that if Maryland built a new outer beltway through the D.C. suburbs, those 18 miles of tolled highway would increase the total greenhouse gas emissions of the entire Washington region by 11 percent.

But because of Albany inaction, New York is an embarrassment when it comes to policies other than spending and investment. At 44th, our infrastructure policies are rated worse than South Dakota's (consolation prize: we just barely edge out North Dakota).

Thanks to the State Assembly, we don't have a complete streets law, so in many areas, people don't feel safe making even the shortest trips without getting in a car. We're one of only nine states that doesn't allow pay-as-you-drive insurance, which creates a big financial incentive to drive less. We don't offer incentives to carpool or telecommute and we don't offer incentives for transit-oriented development.

The report's authors made special note of New York's poor performance. "One of the states that fared less well than I might have expected is New York State," said Smart Growth America's Neha Bhatt on a conference call with reporters. "It was outperformed by a lot of rural states." The Assembly's killing of congestion pricing in 2008 received special attention from the report authors as a case study in state-level obstructionism.

When it comes to state spending, at least, New York does much better, beaten out only by Rhode Island and Delaware. New York earns top marks for being the only state to spend more on transit than highways. On top of that, more of that highway spending goes toward maintenance, as opposed to trip-inducing road expansions, than in any other state.

Even so, "Getting Back on Track" finds that New York State is failing to adequately fund transit, leaving riders reliant on what comes from local governments and the feds. These days, that means the numbers just don't add up. And New York was one of 15 states given the lowest ranking on using federal road money for bike or pedestrian infrastructure. Despite the state's relatively high score on spending, we're not doing nearly as well as we could be in terms of the budget; it's just that most states are doing even worse.

To be fair, New York isn't getting all the credit it deserves. Our newly passed smart growth law wasn't counted because it hadn't taken effect when the report was being prepared. "If they pull the implementation of that off well, it’s going to become a model state policy for the entire country," said Bhatt. If effective, the smart growth law would bump New York up a few slots, though it would still be well outside the top tier of states.

With so many transit riders -- and perhaps more importantly, transit-riding voters -- New York should be a leader in green transportation. "Getting Back on Track" shows that instead, we're in many ways at the very back of the pack.

Plus, there's the ultimate shame for New Yorkers. The third-place state to our number 21? New Jersey.

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