Blame it on Photoshop, but when Mayor Bloomberg made a remark about the possibility of incorporating turbines into some local monuments, the local press went nuts: Pictures depicted the Statue of Liberty’s torch as a windmill, and the Empire State Building’s spire sported one, too. Never mind that even within those same remarks, made at the August 19 National Clean Energy Summit in Las Vegas, he added that an off-shore wind farm would be a lot more practical, and that conservation is the most important piece of all; the cut-and-paste frenzy was on, followed quickly by predictable backlash to the oddball idea.
Behind the brouhaha and funny pictures, however, is a very solid idea: that sustainability and infrastructure are deeply connected. It is one of the fundaments of PlaNYC 2030, the Bloomberg administration’s scheme to make the city greener and cleaner, and the rallying cry of groups including the Regional Plan Association, the Center for an Urban Future, and the American Society of Landscape Architects. Recycling is important, and reusing shopping bags may get you into heaven a little faster, but two of New York’s greenest features are its density and its public transit network.
There is clearly momentum in the effort to bring infrastructure and sustainability to the fore: The same day Mayor Bloomberg was testing the wind on turbines, the city’s Economic Development Corporation released a Request for Expressions of Interest for projects that could increase New York’s capacity to generate renewable energy. A few days before, he had joined the U.S. Conference of Mayors in calling for renewed investment in urban infrastructure, as the group released a report on the economic benefits of such an investment. “The federal government is not investing enough in our infrastructure,” Bloomberg said, “and when it does, it’s not investing wisely.”
It is unfortunate timing, then, that the Independent Budget Office also released a report [PDF] on August 14 that breaks down the subsidies the MTA receives from the city and state. It looks as if the shiny idea of wind power may have overshadowed a more prosaic but crucial one: mass transit. The city’s contribution to the authority’s operating expenses has hovered around $194 million (in constant 2007 dollars) since 1994, though ridership, fares, and tolls have risen dramatically. Meanwhile, contributions to the capital budget have gone from about $200 million in the mid-1990s to $106 million today. This decrease in particular is surprising, since new development—and higher densities—typically cluster around public transit. The mayor is a fan of the extension of the 7 line to 11th Avenue, which seems central to the success of all of the various developments in Midtown West, especially the Hudson Yards. The mayor’s enthusiasm for trying new ideas to make the city more sustainable is great, but we hope one of the most valuable tools we have in that effort doesn’t get forgotten: the subway.