New York City

Federal transportation bill unlikely to offer New York much

The U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works passed a new federal transportation authorization of $287 billion to build and maintain roads, bridges, and rails – and it contains a first-ever climate change provision, but it still falls short on New York’s climate and mass transit priorities.

A crowded New York City subway station.

A crowded New York City subway station. Photo Kit/Shutterstock

You may have seen some disturbing videos crossing your social media feeds at the end of July. The clips show torrents of water gushing forth from the melting ice sheets of Greenland. Scientists estimate that in just one day, 11 billion tons of ice melted and flowed into the sea.

Right around the same time that ancient ice was dissolving into a doomsday cascade, members of the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works were passing America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act, which would appropriate $287 billion to build and maintain the nation’s roads, bridges, and rails. That’s a 27% increase over existing funding levels. It was the first step in what would likely be a long legislative road to becoming a major renewal of the law that governs how the vast majority of federal transportation money is disbursed. If the past is any guide, that road will be littered with pork. But, if it passes, it would help keep most Americans moving around in relative safety, mostly in cars. 

There is something new in this bill, though: a section of the bill that addresses climate change, with $10 billion earmarked for that purpose. To New Yorkers still shaken by images of subway stations and the West Side Highway being inundated by Superstorm Sandy, that may sound like overdue progress – or it may seem woefully inadequate to a problem that is expected to cost New York hundreds of billions of dollars to deal with this century. 

Climate change is addressed domestically through adaptation measures that protect infrastructure from future extreme weather events and mitigation policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The new bill’s climate section is more focused on the latter, including incentives for states to build electric charging stations on highways, measures to reduce diesel emissions and research into carbon capture and sequestration. 

Those efforts may help cut emissions a tiny bit, but they’re unequal to the magnitude of the changes that will be necessary to meaningfully reduce emissions from America’s transportation system, which is the leading contributor to the nation’s carbon footprint. For legislators to craft a climate component that fails to make a significant push away from personal motor vehicles to public transportation is a little like a doctor delivering a diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer and then prescribing a daily multivitamin.

“Though new money for reducing carbon emissions, resilience, alternative fuels, and reducing port emissions are notable,” wrote Beth Osborne, director of the advocacy group Transportation for America, “this approach unfortunately fundamentally fails to recognize that a federal program still focused primarily on delivering high-speed roads guarantees more driving and will undercut the committee’s worthwhile efforts to reduce emissions or stem the tide of climate change.”

Transportation reauthorizations set policy for five years. Past iterations have failed to explicitly address climate change. 

For New York, the timidity on the climate front is especially frustrating, because the state could and should be a laboratory for the move away from automobile dependence that will be necessary as the climate emergency unfolds. 

New York City has by far the lowest car ownership of any big city in America, at about 45% across the five boroughs (and just 22% in Manhattan). The city’s subways and buses, for all their shortcomings, move millions of riders every day; local and regional rail systems are relatively robust and far-reaching; and even (privately owned) intercity bus networks provide meaningful connections for communities large and small, upstate and down. Nowhere else in the United States is there such a wealth of interconnected public transportation, along with another crucial element that makes mass transit work: people who are eager to use it and feel comfortable doing so. One could see them as valuable human infrastructure. 

Instead of nurturing these systems — or other transit networks around the nation — the federal government has systematically starved them of funding, often slow-walking the dispersal of what meager allotments of dollars get passed. At the same time, legislators have refused to raise the federal gas tax since 1993, allowing it to drop by more than one-third when adjusted for inflation and ensuring a constant state of crisis when it comes to maintaining the nation’s roads, rails and bridges. 

Climate change and sustainable transportation experts have long advocated for the federal government to rethink how it could direct transportation spending toward investment that would move people more efficiently and result in fewer cars on the road. While the new bill includes support for programs designed to improve pedestrian safety and to incentivize “complete streets,” where people walking and riding bicycles are more put on an event footing with drivers, it fails to rethink the nation’s mobility system at scale. 

What might such a vision look like? As an example, James Aloisi, a former Massachusetts transportation secretary, has called for the feds to allow states to price roads without restrictions, as well as to contribute heavily to the rebuilding and revitalization of intercity rail. Aloisi recently argued in The American Prospect that “a massive, robust intercity rail system that is viably competitive with driving, together with the strategic use of road pricing … can encourage the kind of behavioral changes that are the sine qua non of a sustainable mobility system.” There’s no indication that this bill will do anything of that magnitude or vision.

Nonetheless, New York is driving the national conversation about what kinds of dramatic shifts will be necessary to reduce driving and the emissions it causes. New York City is about to become the first place in the United States to implement congestion pricing for automobiles in its central business district. “Congestion pricing didn’t exist anywhere else in North America,” noted Liam Blank, advocacy and policy manager for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, which advocates for multimodal transportation in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. “All the examples we could point to were Stockholm, London, Singapore. Now, all of a sudden, all these other cities – Philadelphia, Boston – are seriously saying, ‘If New York can do this, maybe we can too.’”

Blank welcomes certain elements of the nascent transportation bill. “We’re particularly supportive of the funding that’s going to incentivize the building of infrastructure for electric vehicles,” he said. “But this bill doesn’t go far enough in terms of solving the region’s most urgent transportation needs, which require significant investment in mass transit. There’s no incentive for people to be switching to public transit, which is really what we need.”

Theoretically, the bill could evolve to include more funding for public transit infrastructure as it makes its way through the legislative process. But observers are not optimistic that it will become more transit-friendly if it is to pass the Republican-majority and rurally biased Senate and signed into law President Donald Trump. (Electric cars drive on roads, so they are more acceptable than mass transit to many conservatives.) The bill doesn’t have a transit title yet.

Even though Trump is from New York City and he developed high-rise apartment buildings, he has shown no interest in defying his party’s antipathy for cities, Democratic-leaning states like New York and public transit. Blank cited the ongoing delays in federal funding for the Gateway rail tunnel project – a crucial connection between New York and New Jersey – as an example of how the region’s commuters are held hostage to the political process. “It’s being held up out of political spite,” Blank said.

“My feeling is that it’s going to be a big, fat roads bill,” Blank said. “That’s the only way you’re going to get Republican support. They aren’t particularly interested in funding public transportation, especially in Democratic states. The thing that’s actually standing in the way of improving millions of people’s lives is pettiness.”


Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Donald Trump's birthplace.