Needed in New York State: Less Highway Expansion, More Transportation Choices  - TransitCenter
May 10, 2023
Needed in New York State: Less Highway Expansion, More Transportation Choices 

On paper, New York State seems like a leader in clean transportation. According to Census data, it has the most transit riders and the highest share of zero-car households of any state. And New York has committed to an ambitious goal of reducing transportation’s carbon footprint by 85% by 2050

And yet, New York is also planning to widen several highways over the next few years, which will increase car travel and greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the state doesn’t take advantage of the ability to redirect federal highway funding to more sustainable transportation projects, only “flexing” about 7% of eligible highway funding to public transit projects in recent years.

The data is clear – ceasing highway expansions and improving walking, biking, and public transit are some of the most effective ways we can reduce transportation’s carbon footprint. In this post, we take a look at two billion-dollar highway expansion projects on the table in the Empire State – widening of the Van Wyck Expressway in Queens and Route 17 in the Hudson Valley – and suggest other ways to spend the money that both improve people’s lives and help to lower emissions. 

The scale of IIJA raises the stakes for getting implementation right

It’s crucial that New York (and other states) take advantage of their existing ability to use federal highway funding for other transportation purposes. The recently-passed Investment in Infrastructure and Jobs Act (IIJA) represents a “once-in-a-generation” federal investment in transportation. IIJA allocated $110 billion to fund public transit infrastructure directly and $430 billion to the highway program (FHWA), which is then funneled to states to spend on their transportation priorities. A majority of FHWA funds are “flexible,” meaning state and regional governments can redirect this money to other transportation projects than just maintaining and expanding roadways.

But states currently divert only a fraction of eligible money to non-roadway projects and continue to expand highways. Widening highways increases driving and pollution without solving traffic problems long-term because of the well-documented phenomenon of “induced demand:” adding capacity to a highway relieves its congestion at first, and the freer flow attracts more drivers. The volume of cars grows until the highway is congested again, also elevating vehicle mile traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions as a result. 

The stakes are high. Georgetown Climate Center recently found that if state DOTs uphold the highway-happy status quo, then the influx of IIJA’s billions could cause state-level transportation emissions to rise by as much as 2%, including in New York. 

Fortunately, there is national precedent for reinvesting road projects’ big budgets in greener transportation. Last last year in Denver, CDOT abandoned plans to expand I-25, instead opting to merely repave the highway and direct the savings towards a regional BRT system. We must demand that New York do the same. 

The Van Wyck Expansion is a ticket to deeper congestion in Eastern Queens

As its name suggests, the “Van Wyck Expressway Capacity and Access Improvements to JFK Airport Project” is intended to serve regional residents traveling to the airport. The project, which is underway, will add a fourth lane in both directions, reconfigure ramps, and retrofit some bridges along a 4-mile stretch. The sticker price is about $1.3 billion and may decrease the travel times for JFK Airport-bound drivers by up to 8-15 minutes – at first. Those benefits will likely be temporary because of induced demand, which isn’t accounted for in the project’s environmental impact statement

Before the pandemic, about half of people living near the Van Wyck commuted on public transit compared to 20% in the MSA, and a third didn’t have a car. From the neighborhood, AirTrain from Jamaica Station connects directly to the airport. But the communities the Van Wyck bisects will pay its environmental costs, regardless of how often they use the highway. Those include pollution from construction, increasing traffic noise and volume, and elevated fine particulate matter

The project fails to uphold environmental justice or racial equity. New York City designated the communities surrounding the Van Wyck Expressway as Environmental Justice, a status meant to protect residents from bearing additional environmental harms such as these. 85% of residents living near the Van Wyck are people of color, who will be disproportionately harmed by the highway widening (44% of New York MSA residents are BIPOC). 

Rather than sink more than a billion dollars for at best, temporary time savings, New York State DOT should cancel the Van Wyck widening and apply over $500 million of flexible funding to improve nearby transit instead. There is no shortage of public transit proposals that would improve accessibility in Eastern Queens, now one of the city’s least transit-accessible areas. The benefits of these projects would ripple well beyond the neighborhood, building a more sustainable transportation network rather than doubling down on car reliance in New York City. 

The Van Wyck money would support a chunk of the $3 billion needed for capital upgrades to run most NYCT routes 6 minutes apart for most of the week. Six-minute transit service would be transformational, benefiting virtually all New Yorkers and its visitors. The City is behind on converting 150 miles of roadway to bus-only lanes, including on Woodhaven Boulevard and Sutphin Boulevard which run parallel to the Van Wyck Expressway and on which over 30,000 bus riders travel daily. The cost per mile to create a bus-only lane ranges from around $500,000 for red paint, to $10-$20 million for resurfacing, bus shelters, and bulbouts — compared to hundreds of millions to widen the Van Wyck.  

Flexing the Van Wyck’s highway funds would require an alternative project proposal with support from the MTA, local and state officials, the metropolitan planning organization NYMTC, and New York State DOT; then approval from the Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration. All of the entities involved support reducing transportation emissions, at least rhetorically, and applying to flex Van Wyck’s funding to transit projects would test their commitment. 

Fixing a molehill of traffic with a mountain in the Hudson Valley

New York has earmarked at least $1 billion to expand Route 17 in Orange and Sullivan Counties in the Hudson Valley. The proposal adds a third lane for 47 miles in both directions, among other other upgrades.

Route 17’s expansion has had support for decades, including from local chambers of commerce. Advocates hope that a third lane will decrease delays on Route 17, reduce side-street traffic, and improve access to regional attractions. They also claim that the upgrades would allow for converting Route 17 to an interstate — but due to grade issues, the extra lane won’t help the segment meet FHWA interstate standards.

The world has changed tremendously between when the project was first envisioned and present. Supporters of the project, particularly those in county, state and federal government, should take a harder look at the best package of transportation choices to address their concerns. 

Opponents say that expanding Route 17 is an unnecessary boondoggle. NYSDOT’s own study on Route 17 proves their point: it found that congestion is mostly limited to a segment in Orange County on nice-weather weekends. It’s caused by recreational travelers, rather than residents on daily commutes. Brushing aside this evidence, the NYSDOT tries to strengthen the case for this bad project by ignoring induced demand, leading to the contradictory conclusion that the third lane will both improve vehicle capacity and decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

The truth is that widening Route 17 would run up many hidden costs on top of its billion-dollar-plus price tag. Preliminary estimates are that the new lane could add about 200 million vehicle miles traveled on the corridor per year, equivalent to nearly 20,000 additional passenger cars, and create as much as 2.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas pollution through 2050. (According to the SHIFT calculator and assuming 94 new miles of “other freeway” in Orange County, NY.) Construction and added traffic would disrupt park land and natural areas in the path of the highway. And there is a huge opportunity cost of spending a billion dollars to temporarily alleviate congestion for seasonal travelers — rather than spending it on multi-modal transportation projects that provide permanent, safe, clean options to year-round residents and visitors alike. 

The environmental impact statement for Legoland – a local attraction supposedly made more accessible by the expansion – found that encouraging mass transit use and staggered exits from the park would suffice to manage its traffic. Bottom line: even the intended beneficiaries of Route 17’s proposed third lane don’t think it’s necessary, and expanding transit options has the added benefit of increasing access to local attractions for workers and visitors who don’t drive. 

Among the proposed alternatives to another passenger lane on Route 17 are developing a parallel hike-and-bike trail to convert local trips to active modes, expanding the region’s network of park-and-rides with express bus service to Manhattan, creating shuttle bus service to local attractions for staff and visitors, adding rail service to Metro North’s Port Jervis line, boosting Transit Orange’s bus service to Orange County, or improving connectivity across the Hudson River with more ferry or bus service between Newburgh and Beacon. Such projects would also improve racial and economic equity, as people of color and people living in poverty in Orange County are more than twice as likely to be public transit riders than others.

Governor Hochul has announced her support for the Route 17 widening, but specific funding sources haven’t been identified yet. In other words, it’s not too late for Governor Hochul to halt the project and commit its promised funding to other regional transportation projects instead — no flexing required. Doing so would avoid the negative impacts of highway expansion while relieving its targeted congestion and improving green modes of mobility that are essential to emissions reduction – a win/win for the climate and for Hudson Valley residents.

Governor Hochul must stop these wrong-way projects

Statewide, New York’s influx of infrastructure money holds the potential to substantially improve low-emissions, non-car transportation options. But the Governor needs to put her money where her mouth is. Equity and the environment are key priorities for the Hochul administration. Widening highways like Route 17 and the Van Wyck is a failure of both — and a waste of billions of dollars. Governor Hochul needs to strike highway expansions from state plans and focus infrastructure funding on the transit, walking, biking, and carpooling projects that will actually help to achieve these goals.

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