Reinvest in Rail for a Cleaner, Healthier, More Efficient New York

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If New Yorkers want a glimpse of what their future looks like without major infrastructure improvements they should take a trip to New Delhi or Chinese industrial cities where breathing masks are standard for anyone who spends time outdoors.

When air pollution is especially bad, visibility is sometimes 30 feet. Traffic slows to a crawl and it can feel like you are smoking an exhaust cigar.

The New York City region spews out more driving-related carbon dioxide than any other place in the nation.

The number one reason comes down to one word: trucks.

The New York Times reports the roadway approaching the George Washington Bridge is the single-most truck-congested place in America. Getting stuck in bridge traffic — which can happen at any time of the day or night — is one of our region’s most soul-crushing experiences.

Rail freight produces far less pollution than trucks but, unlike other regions, New York City has favored trucks over rail. The result is awful traffic and unnecessary pollution.

If advocates for a Green New Deal are serious about climate change, New York is a good place to start. The Regional Plan Association has identified several projects that would improve the situation a lot.

The long overdue Gateway Tunnel/trans Hudson Rail line needs to be completed as soon as possible, and it needs to include freight as well as passenger rail traffic. It also should be extended under Manhattan to connect directly to Amtrak’s Sunnyside Yards in Queens.

The Gateway Tunnel would link rail freight from New Jersey to Long Island reducing truck traffic across Manhattan and Queens, and could hook up to rail lines serving Nassau and Suffolk counties.

Unconscionably, President Trump has blocked funding for the project as a bargaining chip in dealings with senate Democrats, and the issue has now fallen below the radar as Washington is consumed with scandals emanating daily from the White House.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer should seek every opportunity to secure Gateway funding.

Another big opportunity is twenty-four miles of barely used railroad right-of-way that stretches from Co-Op city in the Bronx to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Amtrak owns the section of the “Triboro Rail” from the Bronx into Queens, while CSX owns the section from Queens to Brooklyn.

New York should work with the two organizations to reactivate the line for both passenger use and rail freight. A Port Authority study estimates the system could accommodate twenty-one freight trains daily, each a mile long, without interfering with passenger use for 100,000 daily passengers.

Finally, existing rail freight yards in the Bronx and Queens are long overdue for upgrades to carry goods from the Brooklyn waterfront to Queens, on to the Bronx, and up the East Side of the Hudson River to Albany. New York could go even further and require vehicles that distribute packages locally– including Amazon, Fed Ex, and UPS–to rely on electric vehicles.

Building public appetite for big infrastructure investments and policy changes requires leadership and political courage. The sorry state of New York City’s subway and the region’s commuter lines shows what happens when elected leaders ignore core infrastructure. The issues are not always sexy, but true leaders understand how critical they are to our health, our economy, and our peace of mind.

Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are both committed climate change warriors. They put their continuing personal battle aside to support congestion pricing for Manhattan’s business districts. They could do the same to fight for rail freight.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of the Bronx and Queens, has made the Green New Deal her calling card. Here’s her chance to make it real–right in her own Congressional district.

Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries has the seniority in the House to make things happen. He and AOC should join forces with Senator Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to seek federal support for projects that would improve the lives of millions of New Yorkers.

Originally posted as an op-ed with Crain’s NY.

#NewYorker, historian, author & believer in government & business working *together* towards a better quality of life for all.

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