BY PATRICK J. FOYE
In the era of COVID-19 some may think it secondary to consider our long term environmental future, but the start of Climate Week gives us an important opportunity for reflection. There is no denying that this country is facing a climate crisis– not while the west coast burns with the most devastating wildfires in decades and another once-every-hundred-year high-intensity storm hammers the south.
We need to get serious about climate change, and the best way New York can lead this fight is by prioritizing public transportation. The facts are clear: mass transit helps to reduce energy consumption and harmful greenhouse gas emissions that damage the environment.
Every year, the MTA effectively avoids a net 17 million metric tons of greenhouse gases. We want to reduce emissions even further, but the harsh reality is our plans could go up in smoke because of the pandemic and continued inaction by the federal government.
Absent $12 billion in desperately-needed federal relief, we may be forced to abandon much of our historic $51.5 billion 2020-2024 Capital Program (which has already been paused) to fill the gaping multi-billion-dollar hole in our budget – including plans to transition to an all-electric bus fleet and a host of other improvements that would bring our outdated system into the 21st century. Cutting these projects will only drive people back into their cars, which is bad for the environment and bad for the MTA.
And the sad fact is that federal inaction extends far beyond COVID relief. For months now, the federal government has refused to respond to our plan to enact Central Business District Tolling in Manhattan, more commonly known as congestion pricing. The program’s designed to raise $15 billion for mass transit by dramatically reducing the number of cars and trucks driving into the most congested parts of the city.
We’re still waiting on the Feds to decide what type of environmental review is necessary before we can proceed. For some inexplicable reason, that determination has languished, even though we provided the U.S. Department of Transportation all the information requested back in January.
The prolonged inaction on all fronts – by the U.S. Senate majority and the White House – is a major blow to New York’s environmental present and future, and it could not come at a worse time. The MTA is facing an epic fiscal tsunami, with a projected $16 billion deficit through 2024 thanks to precipitous declines in ridership, fare revenues, tolls and subsidies. At the same time, pandemic-related expenses have soared as we work doggedly to minimize risk to our customers and employees.
As I’ve said repeatedly, the MTA can’t keep New York moving safely without significant additional emergency aid from Washington. The impact of the pandemic far exceeds that of even the Great Depression and we’re fast running out of money. The MTA can’t simply cut its way out of this either. The Republican leadership of the U.S. Senate must recognize that there’s too much at stake to let us fail.
The MTA is the economic engine of New York, and the country by extension. We’re also the key creating a more sustainable and livable metropolitan region. When this pandemic finally ends, and it will, a battered economy and climate crisis will remain. The Senate majority and the White House need to find the political will to help save the MTA.
Pat Foye is chair and CEO of the MTA. He writes an op-ed column once a month for amNY.com.