Making NYC Sustainable: What's Next?

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today on the Brian Lehrer Show, David Bragdon, director of  New York City's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, talked about the updated PlaNYC on Earth Day.

To frack or not to frack

Today is the four-year anniversary of PlaNYC, New York City's long-term sustainability project aimed at making the Big Apple cleaner, cheaper, and more energy efficient. Yesterday, the program was updated with 132 new initiatives, which include phasing out the dirtiest heating oils and swapping for natural gas, starting an energy efficiency corporation, and even putting solar panels on landfills.

But it's the insistence on natural gas that might raise eyebrows, especially in light of the recent debate around hydrofracking, an extraction process that's been shown to contaminate drinking water. According to David Bragdon, though, the city has every intention of proceeding responsibly.

The city has taken the strong position that hydrofracking in a watershed that serves drinking water not just to eight million people in the city, but to other customers in the region as well, that's not responsible. But natural gas does come from other places as well, there are other means of extraction and transmission. And it certainly burns cleaner than oil on-site.

One man's trash...

Solar panels on landfills could raise a few eyebrows as well, but for better reasons than natural gas. It's a nice idea, turning our trash heaps into power plants. Bragdon said that by covering 10 percent of landfill acreage, solar panels could generate about 50 megawatts of electricity for the city—not enough to overhaul our grid, but enough to provide relief when we feel the heat.

This is not a huge amount, but it comes at a time of the year and time of day when we need it most: those peak periods in July and August, those hot summer afternoons when the electric grid is most under demand and strained here. The practice currently is that the last resort for marginal megawatts is in-city generation from relatively dirty sources of peaker plants that burn fossil fuels. The appealing thing about solar on landfills is that it replaces some very dirty megawatts at a time of day and time of year that we need it.

Congestion pricing: the joke's on us

One of the original PlaNYC initiatives wasn't around to celebrate the program's anniversary. Congestion pricing, which was Mayor Bloomberg's proposal to impose a fee on vehicles traveling in the busiest parts of the city, was the only piece of PlaNYC that had to be passed by the state legislature. The proposal died on the State Assembly floor. 

For his part, Bragdon defended the lost measure.

Nobody ought to be criticized for having proposed a solution that would reduce congestion and stabilize finances for the transit system. You can say, 'Well, the mayor's proposal didn't go through,' but the fact is that no one else had a constructive proposal that went through either. The legislature raised the payroll tax on employers and put a surcharge on taxi riders and then the subway and bus service got cut and fares went up; so while people can lampoon the mayor's solution, I don't think anyones defending the solution that happened. The problem is just as real today as it was four years ago.

And costs are there, as well as the problem. Bragdon said that saying no to congestion pricing meant saying no to the responsible use of money we're already spending—and don't even think about.

The irony is that we have congestion pricing in New York City, in that we pay, according to a study by the Partnership for New York, $13 billion a year in terms of time wasted in traffic, in terms of delayed delivery of goods, the fuel we just spend idling...But the joke is on us, because that $13 billion is not being used to improve the transit system, or for better infrastructure; it's going up in smoke. It's not a useful expenditure, it's a wasteful expenditure.