A perfect storm is brewing in New York. Not for transit riders — that storm is the opposite of perfect. Rather, this is a perfect storm of opportunity for Governor Cuomo to take the lead on two interrelated issues that are very important to the region.
The Two Crises
Unless you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard that there’s a region-wide transit crisis facing both New York and New Jersey. The situation has become so dire, Governor Cuomo issued a state of emergency last month for the MTA, which included a pledge of an additional $1 billion (which will still need approval from the state legislature) and the suspension of certain laws that could speed up the MTA procurement process.
At the same time, there is a global climate crisis, which promises a whole host of terrible consequences, including sea level rise, humanitarian crises, regional inequality and ocean acidification. Here in New York, the planet’s changing climate means flooding and higher temperatures both upstate and downstate, as well as health risks like respiratory problems and diseases carried by insects.
Over the last few years, Governor Cuomo has expressed his intent in being a champion for both. With respect to transit, he has pushed for new MTA buses and revitalized subway stations, revived the LIRR third track plan, and was tenacious about ensuring the the Q Train extension to the Upper East Side would open on time. As for global climate change, he has signed New York on to the Under 2 MOU, agreed with other governors to meet Paris Agreement goals and pushed alternative energy projects.
Taken individually, these are all steps in the right direction. But they don’t appear to be part of a cohesive vision for meeting our transportation and climate challenges. For example, despite signing onto meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement, many of Cuomo’s signature transportation achievements — the new Cuomo and Kosciusko bridges, the redesign of LaGuardia Airport, and upstate/downstate parity for transportation funding — won’t serve the state in its efforts to meet those goals.
Moment of Opportunity
These converging crises present an ideal opportunity for Governor Cuomo to make good on his commitment to the planet while also fulfilling his obligation to downstate transit users. As TSTC explained last year, the
Under 2 MOU, [is] where [elected officials] commit to making drastic greenhouse gas emission reductions. . . . In the tri-state region,  transportation is the leading source of ghg emissions: 33.9 percent in New York, 46.3 percent in New Jersey, and 40 percent in Connecticut.
In order to make their commitments to the Under 2 MOU meaningful, the region’s leaders must go beyond providing incentives for driving electric cars. That means investing in public transportation and making low-impact, mixed-use, transit-oriented development not the exception, but the rule. This isn’t just Tri-State’s position; the EPA, the UNEP Risø Centre on Energy, Climate and Sustainable Development, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the Transportation Research Board all agree.
This critical moment creates an opportunity for the governor to do the following:
- Assert that the MTA system is essential to supporting a regional economy and meeting the state’s climate change goals
- Express full support for the independence of the MTA board and the agency’s capital planning process, and
- Commit to not reducing and further diversifying the MTA’s revenue sources, including those sources that might present a heavier political lift, like congestion pricing.
No one will dispute that at over $8 billion, the state under Governor Cuomo has already made the largest commitment ever made to an MTA Capital Plan. But over a five year period, that number is about $1.7 billion per year, or just about 1 percent of the state’s yearly budget and less than the system’s yearly debt service. For a system that is “excessively vulnerable to failures” due to “decades of underinvestment,” as well as under a massive debt load, it’s time to consider going even further to show that these crises can and will be addressed. Such a move would serve as a model for meeting climate change and transportation needs for other cities in America and across the globe and would show that Governor Cuomo and New York are ready to lead on a national and global stage.
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