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Does New York's clean transport roadmap shortchange public transit?

Tesla supercharger in West Nyack, New York.

A landscape image of the Tesla Supercharger station at the Palisades Center in West Nyack, New York.

In mid-July, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a bundle of clean transportation plans called the Make-Ready Program to further New York’s commitment to accelerating its transition to clean transportation.

Under this initiative, the state has pledged to expand the market for personal electric midsize and large vehicles, including pickup trucks and vans. Funding for the plan will come from the Public Service Commission (PSC) which will allocate $750 million from investor-owned public utilities to build 50,000 electric vehicle (EV) charging stations by 2025. The funding also will go towards efforts to expedite the electrification of box, delivery and long-haul trucks.

At the same time, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is designating $48.8 million from the Volkswagen diesel emissions settlement to advance clean energy solutions in public and school bus systems. 

Commenting on this newest package of clean transportation initiatives, Peter C. Goldmark Jr., former head of the Port Authority of NY and NJ and a policy expert on environmental issues, said, "This is a good, solid step forward toward a low-carbon economy. Having the giant's share of the financing done by investor-owned utilities makes great sense — having as many private sector investors as possible, and this program harnesses their power and knowledge."

Make-Ready includes a regional initiative with 14 states and Washington, D.C., to identify ways to accelerate the electrification of bus systems and diesel trucks by 2050. Partners in this regional effort include California, Connecticut, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and the District of Columbia. These states will work through the current multi-state zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) Task Force to create and execute an action plan to ensure the successful implementation of their state ZEV programs.

Having the giant's share of the financing done by investor-owned utilities makes great sense — having as many private sector investors as possible, and this program harnesses their power and knowledge.

The new strategy bolsters New York’s status as a leader in national efforts to decrease ozone-depleting emissions. Other statewide efforts include Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), and the U.S. Climate Alliance. The Climate Act requires New York state to achieve a carbon-free electricity system by 2040 and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent before 2050. The RGGI is an effort with 10 states to decrease power sector greenhouse gas emissions. The Climate Alliance was formed after the current presidential administration pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement. New York state helped to establish the 25-state alliance to support efforts to lower emissions using cap and trade regulations in line with the Paris Agreement. 

Furthermore, Make-Ready will devote $206 million to benefit low-income and disadvantaged communities. This funding will be split among three design competitions on increasing access to clean transportation. The Environmental Justice Community Clean Vehicles Transformation Prize is a $40 million competition concentrated on diminishing unsafe air contamination and making transportation "green zones" across the state. The Clean Personal Mobility Prize is a $25 million competition soliciting innovative clean energy designs that can increase access to transposition for underserved communities. Finally, The Clean Medium- and Heavy-Duty Vehicle Innovation Prize is a $20 million competition aimed at finding ways to electrify trucks that can be reproduced at scale.

Transportation's share of the problem

Some research shows the electrification of trucks would at first increase national electricity usage by 13 percent, yet it would truncate the total demand for energy by 71 percent. Companies such as FedEx, Amazon and UPS are in the process of switching to electric vehicles because of the proficiency of electric vehicles. Electrification is predicted to decrease emissions and air toxins from medium- and heavy duty trucks.

In New York state, the main sources of harmful air pollution are cars, trucks and buses — on a national level, trucks and buses account for an estimated 4 percent of vehicles on roadways, but they contribute about one quarter of emissions, according to the state's official statement. These emissions have a larger negative impact on low-income and communities of color, which are frequently situated close to major truck routes and hubs reflecting years of discriminatory transportation policies, segregation and redlining. New, clean transportation innovations such as electric buses offer the region the chance to correct this historical injustice. 

"The Queens Chamber of Commerce supports and endorses the governor’s effort in this regard. We have a number of members on the cutting edge, including Green Energy Technology among others that would be appropriate partners to execute this vision," said Thomas J. Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce.

When asked which would be more beneficial for businesses between increasing EV infrastructure and the city’s fleet of electric buses, Gerch said, "I think we have to go step by step. This is a great first step for trucks, passenger vehicles, as well as buses. The infrastructure that is being developed should be able to service buses in the near term."

It's worth noting that $750 million will be put towards building EV charging stations, a much higher number than the $48.8 million set aside for buses. The governor’s goal is to get 850,000 personal EVs on the streets by 2025 — by the end of 2019, there were a mere 27,000 privately owned passenger EVs.

As noted by Reuters, fewer than 2 percent of all personal and private car purchases in 2019 was electric. However, EVs, like cars with traditional internal combustion engines, are still based on the same problematic notion of private car ownership that has led us to near climate collapse. 

Cuomo’s big investment in EVs infrastructure could be attributed to his preference for cars over public transit. Cuomo has been inconsistent and flat-out disinterested in improving public transit. Many have pointed out that he has avoided actively lobbying for congestion pricing despite the fact that he seems more than willing to battle with Donald Trump on many issues. Cuomo has spent years siphoning money allocated for the MTA into bailing out ski resorts as New York City subways went through a budget crisis so severe it was called the Summer of Hell. He let a series of petty insults drive former NYC Transit President Andy Byford, his own appointee, out of the agency.

FedEx Earthsmart

An Earthsmart FedEx zero-emission all-electrical truck in Lower Manhattan on July 17, 2014. 

Car culture and the auto industry have been on the defense, with automakers launching their own lines of electric cars so that they can continue to control and profit from the transition to clean energy. In New York City, the new wave of left populism has empowered legislators and activists in pushing state and city governments to make streets safer for biking, walking and public transportation. The city’s Department of Transportation has a list of new bicycle lanes and busways in progress. Vision Zero, an initiative of de Blasio’s, is responsible for the rise in "complete streets" around the city. These are streets that set aside room for walkers, bikers and drivers as part of a mission to eliminate traffic accidents. 

EVs no doubt will have a role in any plans for a green future. However, that future will be one in which we prioritize bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as well as faster and more reliable forms of public transport. By that point, we may have concluded what our cities needed was fewer vehicles, not just cleaner ones.

In general, there is more the city and state could do to increase clean technology usage. Goldmark noted that a similar New York state program aimed at helping local governments and public services reduce their greenhouse gas emissions could be a strong complement to the Make Ready plan.

"If we can now get the state of New York to come up with a similarly bold program for its built space, particularly public sector space such as health facilities, education buildings, etc., then we will have addressed the two sectors contributing the heaviest part of the carbon load to the statewide carbon footprint, and the ones the state can do most about without federal help," Goldmark added. 

Government procurement of more green technology would expand production and allow the entire industry to lower prices. As it stands now, clean technology is more expensive than nonrenewable energy and the private sector will not make the switch to clean energy until the price point becomes competitive.

An initiative to reorient government procurement away from non-renewable energy sources and toward clean technology could provide the needed economies of scale that could entice the private sector into going green, thus paving the way for a much greener and renewable future.

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