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.
This intersection, ## most dangerous in Syracuse##, can't inspire too many people to walk or bike. If Albany passed a complete streets law, one of many green transportation policies they haven't acted on, it could be safer. Image: ##,+syracuse+ny&sll=43.041669,-76.170402&sspn=0.015369,0.038152&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=S+Geddes+St+%26+Merriman+Ave,+Syracuse,+Onondaga,+New+York+13204&ll=43.0417,-76.17171&spn=0.008076,0.019076&z=16&layer=c&cbll=43.041624,-76.171753&panoid=7uGmurS4YfSNiHbAfcm8SQ&cbp=12,21.82,,0,4.9##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.

  • Noah —

    You wrote:

    The report [by Smart Growth America and NRDC] cites one study which found that if Maryland built a new outer beltway [the Intercounty Connector, or ICC] through the D.C. suburbs, those 18 miles of tolled highway would increase the total greenhouse gas emissions [GHG’s] of the entire Washington region by 11 percent.

    But wait a sec: The study cited by SGA and NRDC, which was written by EDF, actually said:

    Building the ICC would increase regional petroleum fuel demand by 11% within a generation compared to the most cost-effective and equitable option identified in a joint study by Environmental Defense and other organizations. (emphasis added)

    Which pushes the claim by SGA and NRDC off the mark in two ways:

    1. (less important) The 11% increase is actually relative to an optimal, GHG-reducing alternative, not vis-a-vis current emissions.

    2. (more important) The 11% increase is in regional petroleum use rather than in total greenhouse gas emissions.

    Since gasoline accounts for a little over 20% of U.S. GHG emissions and is only part of total petroleum use, I suspect that the projected increase in GHG’s from building the highway is around 2%. That’s still a lot, and doubtless the highway is a dog on multiple criteria, but 2% is a far cry from 11%. Facts are facts, and we advocates should get ’em straight.

    No criticism of you: you quoted correctly from the SGA/NRDC report, at p. 6. Someone should tell Smart Growth America and NRDC.

  • Ann

    How can Governor (Christie) cancel the country’s largest transit project and NRDC and SGA will still rank NJ 3rd for green transportation policies?

  • Larry Littlefield

    New York ranks 21st? Livable streets advocates have, in comparison, not much to complain about.

    Consider our ranking near the top in taxes as a share of income, and debts as a share of income. And despite sky high school spending overall, New York ranks 4th from last in school funding equity.

    A mere 21st is a great score by Albany standards. Or a sign that somebody is getting a better deal than they deserve. Once the MTA declares bankruptcy, perhaps they’ll get it down to 46th.

  • Kristen

    Wish we could secede from upstate.

  • tom

    Kristen: Where would you get drinking water?

    Don’t be upset, those apple-knockers think the same of us.

  • JK

    This study is simply asinine. It ranks NJ as one of the top three states with transpo policy that will reduce green house gases — this is a state which is projected to reach total urban sprawl saturation within many of our lifetimes. It’s also a state which produces far more transpo GHG per person than NYS. In fact, it will be a bloody miracle if NJ gets its transpo GHGs to where NYS already is. (I’m giving them a pass on ARC money going to highways. It really doesnt change how absurd their ratings are.)

    Who are these people who pretend that spending and investment isn’t a core govt policy decision? Does anyone really think that a complete streets law is a thousandth as important as how states actually spend money? These authors are ignorant. Sprawl is driven by many things, especially money: both infrastructure subsidies, and the high taxes caused by legacy civil service costs, and negative cycles of expense and bad schools caused by poverty. (See Buffalo, which has density and walkable,bike able streets.)
    Back to state policy. A third of US transit riders are in the NYC area because of government policy, not some accident. Thanks to Ted Kheel, MTA bridge and tunnel tolls provide by far the highest direct revenue transfer from motorist to transit riders in the US. NYS also has by far the highest transit tax subsidies in the US — these are the dedicated funds Albany has started to raid. And, we have by far the highest per capita transit capital and operating expenditures. Yes, congestion pricing failed, but the Payroll Mobility Tax was imposed instead. Really, this study is an embarrassment.

  • J. Mork

    Tom —

    Perhaps the city can buy the water supply for cheaper than the net tax deficit we run with the state.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I don’t blame Upstate for our problems overall. The better off always want to secede from the less well off.

    But I do wish those we are subsidizing didn’t resent the “fact” that they are subsidizing us.


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