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City, MTA Must Look Under the Hood for Greater Climate Progress


MTA bus

An MTA bus (photo: MTA Bus)


The new congestion pricing surcharges on taxis and on-demand ride services below 96 Street in Manhattan are designed to address congestion in midtown, but they generate more controversy than impact. They might raise a few hundred million dollars a year for the MTA to fix the subway. But they won’t do anything to reduce congestion or air pollution. Meanwhile another big ticket MTA budget item has gotten little attention but will have a huge impact on New York City's emissions, air quality, and public health: bus procurement.    

The MTA plans to spend over $300 million this year and $1.38 billion over the next four years to buy about 1,700 new buses. Some 1,300 of them – roughly a billion dollars’ worth – are slated to be diesel-fueled, and therein lies the rub. Diesel vehicles were powerful and efficient for the 20th century, but they are big polluters. Much better 21st century alternatives exist.    

Analysis by Energy Vision recently submitted in testimony to the City Council shows that diesel buses and trucks on our streets generate a disproportionate share of adverse impacts on New York City’s climate, air quality, and health. Across the City’s municipal fleets, its 10,000 medium- and heavy-duty trucks consume 60% of the fuel, emit 63% of GHGs, and are a major emitter of health-damaging nitrogen oxide (NOx) and particulates (PM). Thousands of MTA diesel buses compound the problem. According to Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, head of Global Health at Mt. Sinai, eliminating diesel buses and trucks from our fleets would reduce New Yorkers' childhood asthma, heart disease, lung cancer, strokes, and health care costs.

New York City has ambitious goals for achieving the best air quality of any major U.S. city by 2030 and for cutting GHGs 80% from its municipal fleet vehicles by 2035. This year Mayor de Blasio announced the City would go “fossil free” by divesting its pension funds from fossil fuel stocks. Realizing these ambitions is vital for the climate, our health, and our kids' futures. But there is little chance of that if the City and the MTA continue to purchase more heavy-duty diesel trucks and buses.  

The MTA will buy 110 new natural gas buses this year, which is significant. But its fleet of 5,700 buses already includes over 4,500 diesel buses, plus the 1,300 new diesels it plans to buy over the next four years.

sanitation truck plow

The City Department of Sanitation (DSNY), which operates the largest refuse fleet in the country -- more than 2,200 collection trucks -- runs virtually all of it on biodiesel, which is 80% ordinary diesel fuel. It has just 42 natural gas trucks, and it buys hundreds more diesel refuse trucks every year.

We can do better. New York is now far behind other world-class cities in weaning itself off diesel.  London has already stopped procuring diesel vehicles for its fleets as of this year because of their health and climate impacts. Eleven other major cities are pledging to follow its lead, including Oslo, Rome, Beijing, and Shanghai.

In fact, New York City is one of those 11. The MTA and the City can and should start phasing out diesel vehicles now.

The questions are, what alternatives should replace them and how fast could they ramp up? The MTA is piloting electric buses, which are quiet and have zero tailpipe emissions. But they cost a whopping $300,000-$400,000 more than diesel per vehicle. The City is aggressively deploying light-duty electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, but electrification of its heavy-duty trucks is not yet a commercial option, especially for refuse trucks, since they don’t have enough power to both collect garbage and plow snow.

There’s a better way to decarbonize New York’s heavy vehicles. The MTA and the City could do what other cities are doing: buy more natural gas (CNG) buses and trucks equipped with efficient engines that cut emissions and can run on renewable fuel.

The new “Near Zero” natural gas engine, certified by the U.S. EPA, has taken clean burning to a new level. It cuts health-damaging nitrogen oxide and particulate emissions 90% below the EPA’s most stringent standard. Near Zero buses and trucks are only about $50,000 more than their diesel counterparts. They are just as powerful and serviceable and are 50-80% quieter than diesel engines.

They can run on conventional CNG, but even better, they also run on biomethane or Renewable Natural Gas (RNG). RNG is chemically similar to conventional natural gas, but it is not a fossil fuel. It’s made from a renewable resource: organic waste, such as food waste from homes and businesses, the sewage that goes to wastewater plants, agricultural manures, and more. Instead of drilling, RNG is produced by collecting and refining the methane biogases emitted by those organic wastes as they decompose, in special tanks called “anaerobic digesters.”

The resulting fuel isn’t just clean-burning; it is the lowest-carbon fuel available. When made from food waste or animal manure, it is actually net carbon-negative over its lifecycle. In other words, making it captures more greenhouse gases (which would otherwise escape into the air as the waste breaks down) than are emitted by the vehicles burning it for fuel. There’s no faster, more cost-effective, or climate-friendlier way to cut fleet emissions.

The MTA already has 800 buses and DSNY already has 42 refuse trucks that use conventional CNG. With a simple change in fuel contracts they could run on RNG overnight. The RNG could be delivered through the same natural gas refueling stations that now supply conventional natural gas, and at the same price.

There is plenty of RNG available in the U.S. Over 40 projects are processing decomposing organic wastes into vehicle fuel across the country. More are under development in the New York region that could make fuel for our municipal fleets from our own waste streams. The roughly 1.2 million tons of food waste generated in New York City each year could make enough RNG to power all the trucks in the City’s fleets, turning a costly waste burden into a valuable energy resource.  

Nationwide, there is enough RNG production potential to power the refuse, bus, and airport fleets of every major U.S. city. Some 20,000 buses and trucks across the country now run on RNG. Los Angeles Metro has purchased 295 RNG-fueled “Near Zero” buses, with an option to convert its entire 2,200 transit bus fleet. Santa Monica’s “Big Blue Bus” fleet converted to RNG completely, and more municipalities are following suit.

So what is New York City and the MTA waiting for? Getting our heavy vehicles off diesel is the single biggest step we can take toward a sustainable transportation sector, and would propel us toward meeting the City’s clean air, climate, fossil fuel elimination and waste prevention goals. It’s high time we got started.

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Joanna D. Underwood is founder and board member of the national environmental organization Energy Vision, which researches, analyzes and promotes viable technologies and strategies to transition to a sustainable, low-carbon energy and transportation future. On Twitter @Energy_Vision.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

Driver’s Licenses for All Would Better Many Lives, Including Mine


make the road drivers licenses

Make the Road New York members rally in Albany for driver’s licenses for all


Every morning, I drive with my wife to work. My commute is the scariest part of my day - and not because of the traffic. It’s because I know that a routine traffic stop could lead to me being separated from my family forever.

I’m an undocumented immigrant, and New York will not currently allow me to get a driver’s license. For New Yorkers like me, it’s way past time for our state to step up and do what other states have done: ensure that all qualified drivers, regardless of immigration status, can have access to a license.

The attacks by the Trump Administration continue to get worse. Trump’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are using every excuse to detain and deport immigrants alike and tear us from our families, as they did in detaining 225 immigrant New Yorkers one recent week. They’re especially using minor traffic violations.

That’s why I recently joined fellow immigrants and advocates from across New York State to call on the State Legislature -- starting with the Assembly -- to restore access to driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers.

This bill would change my life, and my family’s too. I have lived in the United States for nearly 20 years and I wish I could be eligible to adjust my immigration status, but at the moment due to our current broken immigration system, that is not possible. There is no clear path for me to be able to adjust my immigration status, but other measures can be helpful to me and others like me.

I live in Long Island with my wife and two children. Every day, I leave my house to drive to work, with uncertainty and fear. Where I live, there is a lack of public transportation. It can take hours to get anywhere by bus or train, and taking a taxi is too expensive. I have to drive because I cannot afford to be late to my job and I need to be able to go to the store, take my children to their doctor appointments, and pick them up from school.

I was once stopped at a traffic stop by police. I was given a ticket for driving without a license and needed to go to court. I couldn’t sleep due to the fear I felt of going to court and possibly being separated from my family. I went to court and, with the legal fees of my attorney, I ended up paying almost $700. Thankfully it wasn’t worse than that -- and it now easily could be.

In my home country in Latin America, I had my driver’s license, but right now, due to my immigration status, I am not able to get a driver’s license in New York State.

Expanding access to driver’s licenses to all New Yorkers makes sense. If it passes, immigrants will be able to register, and insure their vehicles in New York, creating an economic boost. A 2017 analysis by the Fiscal Policy Institute determined that New York would receive an estimated $57 million in combined annual revenue​.

Allowing driver’s licenses for all will improve public safety by making sure that all drivers on the road are licensed. States like California have already been experiencing the positive effects of granting undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses since 2015. A Stanford report released last year found there had been a significant decrease in hit-and-run accidents.

At a time when the Trump Administration’s attacks on our communities continue, passing this legislation would demonstrate that New York stands up for everyone, regardless of their immigration status. New York has delayed too long; we need to do more to stand against the White House anti-immigrant rhetoric now.

Obtaining a driver’s license will change my life, my family’s life, and that of thousands of New Yorkers. It would mean being able to pick up my children from school or take them to the doctor without fear. And it would help me to potentially get a promotion at my current job, or be able to look for better one.

There are 12 states, including Connecticut and Maryland, that currently allow undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses. The new governor of our neighboring state, New Jersey, has committed to follow those states and expand access to driver’s licenses. But we haven't heard a commitment from Governor Cuomo yet. New York should be next.

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Jorge Cotraro is a Long Island resident and a member of Make the Road New York, the largest grassroots community organization in New York offering services and organizing the immigrant community. On Twitter: @MakeTheRoadNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]

State Budget Does Help Mass Transit, But MTA Capital Plan Uncertainty Rising


subway train repairs

(photo: Don Pollard/Governor's Office)


The MTA received two significant infusions of new money in the state budget effective April 1. The first is the full $836 million, to be provided to the MTA by December 31, to fund phase one of the Subway Action Plan developed last July by Chair Joseph Lhota and MTA management. The second is through a new tax, starting January 1, on for-hire vehicle trips by taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, and others for trips in Manhattan south of 96th street. The tax revenue will put an estimated $400 million a year into the MTA budget to provide regular, ongoing support for the increases in maintenance related to the Subway Action Plan.

The new money is very welcome for the beleaguered transit system, but major policy and funding questions like the MTA’s long-term capital construction program and whether a congestion pricing program will become integral to future sources of funds remain unanswered.

The $836 million to be delivered in 2018 is a combination of about $500 million in operating funds to cover the expense of several thousand new maintenance positions in subway car overhauls, replacing track and signals, deploying emergency personnel, and other staffing, with the rest investments in related physical assets. Half the money for the 2018 infusion was initially put into the proposed executive budget submitted by Governor Cuomo to the Legislature from state funds. The State Legislature agreed to that and also to compel the City of New York to come up with the other half of the funds, $418 million, despite Mayor de Blasio’s objections to the city being required to provide the money when proposed last year after Governor Cuomo declared a transit emergency. The ongoing deterioration of subway service that led to the emergency declaration impelled the Legislature to agree that both the State and the City must provide additional support to the MTA.

Two other proposals in the budget by the governor to force New York City to pay even more money to the MTA were rejected by the Legislature, with the Assembly specifically denying the approvals in both its one-house budget and later in its summary of the enacted budget. These proposals were viewed as far more onerous than the Subway Action Plan mandate. One required the city to pay the full cost of the New York City Transit Capital Plan, which is supposed to be $17 billion over the five years of the current 2015-19 MTA plan. Right now the city’s scheduled contribution is $2.5 billion.

The second proposal would give the MTA the authority to determine how much property tax revenue in New York City it could take from “value capture.” This budget bill would allow the MTA to decide how much property tax value is added due to transit improvements it makes in certain zones around the city, and then direct the incremental property tax revenue to itself without the city having a right to approve it, or even have a say in how much money is involved. The Citizens Budget Commission called this proposal “confiscatory.“ Although rejected, versions of these proposals are likely to resurface in the future as the Cuomo administration tries to find ways to shift financial responsibility from the state to the city to fund the MTA.

The State Assembly deserves thanks from the public for the $400 million for-hire vehicle trip surcharge for mass transit. Governor Cuomo never put legislation to create a congestion pricing plan into his proposed budget, despite endorsing the concept last summer and creating the Fix NYC Advisory Panel, which offered a congestion pricing framework in a report that was released at the time of the budget. However, in early March the State Assembly, in its one-house budget, proposed the surcharge to fund the recurring maintenance program. A similar surcharge had been a lesser part of the Fix NYC report, which called for a three-year, three-phase program, the main element of which is a charge to enter Manhattan south of 60th Street for most vehicles, designed to yield up to $1 billion a year. But Governor Cuomo put none of it into his budget plan.

Governor Cuomo had the good sense to rapidly endorse the Assembly’s trip surcharge, and it was approved by the Senate after the tax was limited solely to Manhattan, with no new charges in the outer boroughs or the suburbs. But there is no other element of a congestion pricing set-up. There is no funding for any infrastructure to electronically record entries into the Manhattan business district, which is phase two of the Fix NYC plan. Existing technology in the taxi and for-hire vehicle industry will pinpoint when those vehicles traverse Manhattan south of 96th Street.

Congestion pricing remains in limbo, even as the MTA’s long-term capital construction budget may unravel. In March of this year Standard & Poor downgraded the MTA’s bond rating one notch after an MTA report showed the agency would have a $400 million operating deficit in 2020 and a $600 million operating deficit by 2021, even after two fare and toll hikes. The primary cause of the deficit was reported to be a drop in real estate transaction revenues like the mortgage recording tax, which in part are dedicated to mass transit.

The $32 billion 2015-19 MTA Capital Plan, to which the MTA is now committing significant funds as it finally wraps up the prior plan, includes $11 billion from the MTA itself, primarily from money it will borrow. The forecasted deficits, however, are very likely to constrain the ability of the agency to actually borrow that much money. Not only that, but state government’s share of the 2015-19 Capital Plan, $8.5 billion, included $7 billion for which there was only an I.O.U. with no stream of revenue to back it up. Shortfalls in the 2015-19 Plan could materialize soon, just as discussions about the next five-year capital plan are moving forward.

The MTA has to propose its 2020-2024 Capital Plan in October 2019. The recent five-year plans have cost about $30 billion each - but if the current plan begins to unravel the 2020 plan will be in trouble. A fall 2017 State Comptroller report expressed concern that the 2020 plan might have shortfalls (meaning lack of sources of funding to pay for projects) similar to the $15 billion shortfalls that plagued decision-makers for both the 2010 and 2015 plans before funding schemes were patched together.

The public and the State Legislature need critical information from the MTA very soon to determine the agency’s ability to sustain a meaningful capital program. In 2007 the Legislature made the MTA accelerate submission of its capital plan at that time, earlier than the law had provided, and it could do so again, scheduling a submission for early 2019, rather than the end of the year, to get a better handle on what the problems really are.

Congestion pricing involves rational policy proposals to deter vehicles from entering Manhattan to reduce pollution and congestion, and provide a long-term funding stream for the MTA. But this is the second time in ten years a push for congestion pricing has not been successful in the State Legislature. If congestion pricing won’t fly there is no shortage of possibilities for taxes to fund the mass transit system. There are payroll taxes, personal income taxes, corporate income taxes, sales taxes, millionaires’ taxes, mansion taxes, you name it. The issue is the political will. A consensus on funding this most vital of services remains frustratingly elusive, along with the leadership to forge that consensus.

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Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email [email protected]



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