The MTA – Truly Sustainable?

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is often lauded for its role in keeping down congestion and pollution in the tri-state area by making it possible to travel without a car. Speaking at Ben Kabak’s Problem Solvers on Wednesday, MTA New York City Transit’s Chief Environmental Engineer Thomas Abdallah underscored this point by citing the fact that New York City residents have the lowest carbon footprint in the nation. However, James Ferrara – the president of MTA Bridges and Tunnels and the other official present at the talk – probably does not care much for such statistics. Indeed, he stated several times throughout the evening that his primary responsibility is to let cars return to “his” bridges and tunnels as soon as possible. Which brings up the question – as a whole, how much does the MTA care about sustainability?

The MTA runs many subways and buses at a loss. There are many reasons for this we won’t go in here. However, its bridges and tunnels are profitable, and this profit is used to subsidize the transit side. It should come as no surprise that Mr. Ferrara is interested mainly in having as many toll-paying customers as possible, and not in minimizing the environmental footprint of his operations or getting more people to take transit. Is this inherent conflict of interest good policy for the city as a whole?

Probably not. Although the policy may appear equitable – because people who drive are better off, on average, than those who take transit – the total (financial, environmental, etc) benefit of each additional transit trip is probably less than the total cost of each additional tolled car trip. The infrastructure necessary to get all those cars to MTA bridges and tunnels extends far beyond the bridges and tunnels themselves – and virtually none of it is tolled. In addition, drivers often have free alternatives to the tolled facilities. While the concept may seem similar to congestion pricing, in practice there are too many loopholes.

The focus on operations as they are and profitability also encourages stagnation. When Ferrara was asked if his opinion of the necessity for a bicycle/pedestrian path over the Verrazanno-Narrows Bridge was affected by events after hurricane Sandy, his answer was a simple “No” – he remains against it – followed by a list of erroneous or misleading statements about costs and dangers of such a path. This showed his callousness and indifference towards Sandy victims, some of whom lost everything and needed to stay with friends or relatives, or simply go shopping, on the other side of the bridge before it had been reopened to motorized vehicles. It also showed that there is no overarching goal for sustainability within the MTA. He didn’t even for a moment entertain the thought that the thousands of bike/ped trips the bridge path would allow is a benefit because it cuts car exhaust emissions as well as transit trips (saving the MTA money) while letting people live healthier lives. His cold calculations are only about maximizing motor vehicle throughput.

If there is one lesson to learn here, it is that the MTA – and the city – needs a true sustainability plan on a scale grander than PlaNYC. Of course it should include a section on transportation, with the goal of reducing congestion and pollution – mostly through eliminating single occupant vehicle (SOV) trips and promoting non-motorized transportation – highlighted throughout, even in cases where driving is “necessary” to generate money for transit.


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