New Yorkers are well aware that lofty promises of elected officials and seemingly well-financed developers often never materialize. So what enabled Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plaNYC presentation to pass the immediate litmus test of "do-ability"?
After all, the Empire State's share of the national population - and political power in Washington that goes with it - is dwindling. In 1960, New York State had 42 representatives in the U.S. House of Representatives; today we have 29. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, New York will lose six more seats in the Congress by 2030. Investments in public housing, mass transit and even sewage-treatment plant upgrades may be harder to realize as the state's share of U.S. population slides from about 7 percent today to about 5 percent.
At the same time, over the next quarter century, New York City's population is expected to increase by a million people, creating critical new needs for housing, transportation, and pollution controls.
When it comes to funding, New York City can not count on the federal government; we must become more financially self-reliant.
But in his plaNYC proposals, Bloomberg recognizes reality and faces these budget issues head-on. The mayor's speech was made more credible because it addressed the demand to "show me the money" that follows a presentation of any vision to New Yorkers. By incorporating the consideration of climate change into the city's planning process, planNYC has the potential to change the playing field of urban development and to deal with the financial challenges at the same time.
The mayor's plan addresses these critical needs in a number of ways:
Adopting a surcharge on electricity to pay for improvements in the system will create incentives for consumers to conserve, and at the same time, generate new revenues to fund a comprehensive effort to better educate the public and enable property owners to reduce their reliance on the old polluting energy sources.
Anyone who has ever been to their rooftop can see the hundreds of square miles of black-tar coated roofs that create the urban heat effect, forcing everyone to spend more on electricity at peak times to cool things off. Green roofs and "cool" roofs, which the mayor's plan promotes, cost more, but they are better for the health and financial well-being of the city.
Cleaning Our Waterways
Creating a revolving loan fund for brownfield clean-up, allocating money to greening underutilized street and sidewalk space, and fully funding the tree planting program will help break the cycle of massive stormwater runoff and in some cases infiltration. This can cause toxic contaminants in brownfields to leach out through groundwater and contaminate our waterways where they enter the food chain.
The goal with perhaps the greatest potential to improve water quality in our rivers, bays, creeks and canals is one that most people never see: Developing long-term plans for the more than 400 combined sewer outflows. For generations our solution for preventing our 14 sewage treatment plants from being overwhelmed by storm water runoff has been to simply to build bigger pipes. City water rates have risen 23 percent in the last two years, and they are projected to increase another 23 percent in the coming two years, driven in part by this short-sighted and multi-billion dollar approach. PlaNYC promises to take a different tack and find ways to maximize the volume of rainfall which goes into the ground, rather than adding these more than 25 billion gallons of rain to our already costly sewage treatment processes.
Perhaps the most promising and necessary aspect of the mayor's plan is congestion pricing, through which the new SMART authority will be able to levy a fee on vehicle traffic entering the Manhattan business district during peak hours Monday through Friday. The additional funds raised through congestion pricing will be dedicated to mass transit, including ferries, which for too long have long-suffered neglect by New York's many transportation agencies.
Creating the SMART regional financing authority will help make sure that New York City gets greater say in transportation improvements. Too often the toll increases passed by the MTA and Port Authority at the bridge and tunnel crossings simply disappear into the budgets of other agencies.
It is easy to understand the knee-jerk reactions of garage owners, who are afraid that if fewer people drive into Manhattan then demand for parking will drive hourly parking rates down. But when we think about the fact that all of the pavement and asphalt dedicated to traffic also floods our sewer system because the rain runs right off the road (and costs the city billions as noted above), it becomes clear that every city dweller is already subsidizing these drivers in numerous ways.
Our transportation funding needs became even clearer recently when the Federal Highway Administration announced that in 2009 the Highway Trust Fund will be $21 billion short of what is needed just to maintain the roads we have today.
A Future Vision
Mayor Bloomberg's much-needed initiatives to improve the quality of our land, water, and air will rely on all of our ability to put special interests in their place and put the future of New York at the top of our agenda. From Oak Point to Arverne East, a vibrant New York City in the year 2030 has to start today.