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The Route to Cleaner Air for Communities of Color and Low Income: Electric Buses and Congestion Pricing


gov cuomo sign upgrade mta

(photo: governor's office)


Your zip code and how much money you make can determine your health and quality of life in New York City – including the quality of the air you breathe.

Recent data from The New York City Community Air Survey shows that certain neighborhoods have more particulate matter and black carbon than others. It should come as no surprise that many of these areas – like East Harlem, Washington Heights, or the South Bronx – are largely inhabited by people of color or people with lower incomes, who historically bear a disproportionate burden of the effects of environmental pollution.

Poor air quality leads to increased lung disease and asthma, especially for kids and older people. It can result in higher doctor bills and more missed days of work or school, and cut months or even years off of our lives.

The city and the state should do everything possible to improve air quality in pollution hot-spots. Yet, in the neighborhoods where air quality is poorest, MTA New York City Transit buses are also the oldest – and thus most-polluting. The depots where the buses are stored are disproportionately located in these areas, resulting in more idling and frequent in-and-out trip movements, all adding to poorer air quality.

That’s why there is a pressing need to electrify the city’s buses, reducing exhaust and cleaning the air. New York City knows bus electrification is important: the city set a goal for an all-electric bus fleet by 2040 “to improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions." New electric buses should first be deployed in neighborhoods with the worst air quality.

But there’s still a question of funding the transition to an electric citywide bus fleet. In his draft budget for next state fiscal year, Governor Cuomo focuses on congestion pricing as a key source of capital.

Congestion pricing asks drivers to pay a surcharge when they enter Manhattan south of 60th Street and north of Battery Park. The revenue generated would then be put toward other transportation infrastructure repairs—e.g., our broken mass transit system.

The city’s public transit system is deeply intertwined with New Yorkers’ quality of life. People rely on the buses and trains to get to their jobs, schools, and families in a timely and affordable way. They should be able to do so without dirtying the air in local communities and contributing to the environmental burden they already face. New York needs congestion pricing to begin transitioning the city’s buses to clean, electric vehicles.

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Cecil D. Corbin-Mark is deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice. On Twitter @CecilCorbinMark & @weact4ej.

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Public Financing of Elections is a Matter of Racial Justice


public financing cuomo

(photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor)


“Black humanity and dignity requires Black political will and power. Despite constant exploitation and perpetual oppression, Black people have bravely and brilliantly been the driving force pushing the U.S. towards the ideals it articulates but has never achieved. In recent years we have taken to the streets, launched massive campaigns, and impacted elections, but our elected leaders have failed to address the legitimate demands of our Movement. We can no longer wait.”

Those words launch the policy platform that more than 50 organizations that make up the Movement For Black Lives policy table signed onto last year.

A key component of this policy platform is public financing of elections -- because we know that we can’t truly build Black political power and combat racism and oppression if wealthy donors continue to hold outsized influence.

While Black representatives may be gaining in number and power, without systemic campaign finance reforms these gains will be fleeting. This is true here in New York, where we celebrate a historic occurrence -- leaders of both chambers in the state Legislature are Black: Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

To get true democracy -- especially for historically oppressed people -- you need to have fair elections. That includes both public financing and easier access to the polls.

It’s time for New York to become the leader in campaign finance reform. All three top leaders in New York State government (Stewart-Cousins, Heastie, and Governor Andrew Cuomo) -- along with the majority of sitting Senators and Assembly members -- have long supported this important reform that would give public matching funds to candidates who raise small-dollar donations from average New Yorkers. With “fair elections” legislation in place, elections would no longer be funded primarily by wealthy, white donors.

New York, under “fair elections,” would be more likely to prioritize the needs of poor and working class New Yorkers, including poor and working class Black people.

The current situation is stacked against us. All too often the donors that are funding campaigns in New York have very different needs than the working families that make up a majority of a politician’s constituency. When implemented, these campaign finance reforms -- and specifically, a small dollar matching system -- can bring more and continued diversity to New York State’s candidate and donor pools and improve responsiveness to and accountability with voters.

It’s no secret that our country has a legacy of racism and has systematically disenfranchised Black people through our political system — whether through mass incarceration or voter suppression laws. But campaign finance plays a similar, if more hidden, role. The dominance of big money in our politics makes it much harder for poor and working-class Black people to express political power and effectively advocate for their interests. For too long the power and wealth in our country -- and in our state -- is consolidated to a very small, very white population and the Black community has been left behind.

New York’s Legislature, now with all-Black legislative leadership, shows that change is possible, but we can’t rest until we change the system for the long-term. For such a progressive state, New York has some of the worst campaign finance rules in the country. Yet finally, with progressives in both houses of the Legislature and a governor who wants to change them, New York campaign finance laws could, should, and must quickly change to make sure everyone's voice is heard -- even if you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to donate.

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Monifa Bandele & Richard Wallace are on the Leadership Team of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Table.

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Seizing the Moment for Bold Climate, Green Job & Environmental Justice Legislation in New York


aerial solar panels

(photo: mayor's office on flickr)


On Friday, March 15, over 1 million students from 125 countries walked out of school to demand that we act on climate change.  As New Yorkers, we’re already seeing the devastating impacts of climate change in our communities. We all remember the damage to homes, lives, and communities caused by Superstorm Sandy, and we know we’ll face more intense storms in the future. As summers get longer and hotter, more of our elderly neighbors will be at risk for heat stroke or even death.

We also know that the impacts of climate change do not  affect everyone the same way. From heat waves to hurricanes to sea-level rise, low-income communities, communities of color, and communities historically burdened by polluting and extractive industries are often more vulnerable to climate risks.

But discussion of climate change does not have to be all doom and gloom. In New York State, we have an opportunity to move to a fossil-fuel-free economy while also investing in good, high-wage jobs and creating real investment in communities most impacted by the climate change.

If we want a carbon-free future, or some would say, any future, we need to reduce our emissions from all sources and we need to set an enforceable timeline to do it.

This crisis gives us an opportunity to re-imagine our priorities as a state. It will take planning and investments to move to a fossil-free future. We need to direct some of those investments to marginalized communities and people already hurt by the climate crisis. We need to make sure green jobs pay livable wages, and create opportunities among low- and middle-income communities across the state. We need to end our dependence on fossil fuels while building a better economy that does its best not to leave anyone  behind.

This is part of the reason why I sponsor the Climate and Community Protection Act (CCPA), which has passed in the State Assembly three years in a row.  This year has brought with it more opportunities, and the time is right to create a green and equitable future.

The CCPA has the support of over 160 grassroots community, labor, and environmental organizations. It creates an enforceable timeline to move our entire economy to 100% renewable energy by no later than 2050. It is based on the timeline scientists recommend to avoid catastrophe. It also includes the strongest equity provisions in the nation to invest in communities hit hardest by the climate crisis.

The CCPA is about more than just the environment. Under the bill, 40 percent of state funds directed towards greening our economy would go to environmental justice communities. That includes low-income communities, communities of color, and folks at high risk of being adversely impacted by major storms or sea-level rise, and communities already experiencing polluted air and water from carbon-burning facilities.

The CCPA also sets wage and apprenticeship standards so that new green jobs are well-paying, livable jobs. It is estimated that the CCPA will generate the creation of 150,000 jobs related to the green energy transition, revitalizing communities and providing opportunities for New Yorkers across the state.

We can and should get this done this year.

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Assemblymember Steven Englebright represents parts of Long Island. On Twitter @SteveEngles.

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