Flush With Biden’s Infrastructure Cash, New York Is Choosing Highways Over Public Transit

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law directed billions toward public transit in New York, but the state is choosing to spend billions more on highways.

Sam Mellins   ·   February 5, 2024
A New York City subway on the left, and highway traffic on the right.
The federal infrastructuere law will deliver New York nearly $6 billion in “flexible funds” that are earmarked for highways but can be spent on transit instead. | BeyondImages

President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is a centerpiece of his first term — and a huge windfall for New York. The state is expected to receive $36 billion from the law to upgrade its transportation system, a once-in-a-generation gift.

Biden hailed the 2021 law as a chance to “transform our transportation system” and “turn the climate crisis into an opportunity.” Much of the money was dedicated to public transit and will fund marquee projects like the Second Avenue Subway expansion. But a giant pot was left to states to decide how to spend — either on maintaining and widening roads, or, with federal sign-off, on climate-friendly infrastructure like subways, trains, and sidewalks.

So far, Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration has overwhelmingly chosen the former.

By August 2023, the state Department of Transportation had spent over $1 billion in infrastructure law “flexible funds” that could have gone to either roads or climate-friendly projects. Over 90 percent went to roads, and less than one percent to projects primarily focused on public transportation, according to data compiled by the nonprofit Green New Deal Network and reviewed by New York Focus. (Some of the road projects did include non-car elements like bike paths and bus shelters.)

The law will ultimately deliver New York nearly $6 billion in “flexible funds” that are earmarked for highways but can be spent on transit instead, if the federal government gives its permission. But New York has rarely asked for it.

Meanwhile, the Transportation Department is using the bonanza to pursue dozens of highway expansions. A single highway widening project in Queens is slated to use over $700 million in federal funds.

New York isn’t unique in doubling down on highways, but some states and localities are taking different approaches.

Massachusetts and Oregon have both spent 20 percent of their flexible funds on biking and walking infrastructure, according to the Green New Deal Network — more than twice as much as New York. And New York City plans to include non-car, sustainable, or safety-focused components in every project it administers with the highway cash.

Hochul and state Department of Transportation Commissioner Marie Therese Dominguez have said they’re committed to expanding transit options besides cars. The state’s ability to meet its statutory climate targets hinges on expanding public transit and reducing car trips, according to the state’s energy management agency. And the official plan for hitting those targets recommends that state agencies be “required” to prioritize non-car infrastructure, and should use federal funds to do so.

Yet the Transportation Department, which did not respond to repeated inquiries for this article, continues to prioritize highways.

The department has at times redirected funds away from pedestrian or mass transit and toward car infrastructure, according to documents obtained by New York Focus through a public records request. In 2022, the department took nearly $3 million that had been allocated to pedestrian and accessibility improvements around the main branch of the New York Public Library and devoted it to traffic management. In 2021, it moved $1.6 million from a school safety infrastructure program to traffic management and $1.2 million from a high-speed rail project to a Rochester area highway.

Last year, Hochul and state lawmakers used over $20 million from a fund meant to boost options in New York City’s transit deserts to offer free bridge tolls to some drivers in the Bronx and Queens, Gothamist reported.

Sindhu Bharadwaj, senior transportation policy analyst at the New York City comptroller’s office and author of a report on New York’s use of federal transit funding, said that the state’s lack of focus on eco-friendly transit is “really a question of priorities.”

“There aren’t that many standards at the state level that dictate how money can be spent and which projects are selected,” she noted, unlike New York City’s policy documents that steer funds towards mass transit.

A Hochul spokesperson did not respond to specific questions for this story, but noted the governor’s support for the Metropolitan Transit Authority and for New York City’s congestion pricing.

To be sure, New York is not starving mass transit of funds.

The infrastructure law dedicated more than $20 billion to transit projects in New York, mostly to bring the Second Avenue Subway to Harlem and expand train service to New Jersey. Last year’s state budget sent the MTA billions of dollars, averting a looming fiscal crisis and allowing the nation’s largest mass transit network to mostly escape cuts and fare increases that have struck other systems.

“The fact that the MTA is on strong financial footing right now is truly remarkable,” said Kate Slevin, executive vice president at the Regional Plan Association. “It’s really the governor who’s been in the lead, and the legislature with her, in ensuring that was the case.”

Still, there’s a lot that could be accomplished with more transit funding, from digging tunnels for the proposed Brooklyn-Queens Interborough Express light rail line to boosting notoriously spotty bus service in New York City’s suburbs or the state’s smaller cities.

Federal road dollars can go toward projects like bus or bike lanes on roads that are part of the national highway system, which includes many roads that aren’t massive freeways, especially in cities. States can also request permission to spend up to half of their federal road cash on any transit-related construction project, whether or not it’s on a highway.

From 2013 to 2020, before Hochul took office, New York redirected seven percent of its federal road funding to transit — more than most states, but less than heavily Democratic peers like California and Maryland, and less than half of New Jersey’s rate.

If states continue to pursue highway expansions, the infrastructure law could become a net cause of increased emissions.

In recent years, politicians in several blue states have steered their transit departments away from excessive road spending. California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and Minnesota each required that new infrastructure projects reduce emissions, vehicle use, or both. Colorado’s law led to the cancellation of two planned highway expansions, allowing the state to redirect $100 million to expanding bus service.

A bill written by state Senator Andrew Gounardes seeks to follow these states’ lead by setting a goal to reduce total vehicle mileage in New York by 20 percent by 2050 and only allow highway expansions compatible with that target.

Climate-friendly planning “should not just be a nice add on, it should be at the core of how road projects are developed,” Gounardes told New York Focus. “That’s not how we think about these projects right now, or if we do, it’s only on a limited basis.”

The Biden administration tried to push states in this direction. A 2021 memo encouraged states to invest in non-car transportation methods and discouraged them from using the infrastructure bill’s funds to expand highways. But after Republican complaints, the administration retracted the non-binding document in 2023. It replaced the memo with a vaguer one that didn’t mention cutting down on car trips or highway expansions.

Industry voices caution that an increased focus on transit could lead the state to neglect its roads.

“I don’t think that some of the people who think about that have ever been to other parts of the state. You can’t take the subway to work in Buffalo,” said Michael Elmendorf, president and CEO of the Associated General Contractors of New York, a highway construction trade group. “I recognize that there are some who don’t believe that people should have cars, but that just doesn’t reflect reality.”

Mass transit boosters say keeping highways and bridges in usable condition doesn’t require widening highways, which research generally shows boosts carbon emissions while doing little to speed up travel times.

That hasn’t stopped the transportation department from moving ahead with roughly two dozen of them around New York.

The most expensive is a project to widen the Van Wyck Expressway, one of the main roads to John F. Kennedy International Airport. The transportation department projects the $1.3 billion project will save drivers up to 15 minutes and use $730 million of infrastructure law funding.

“The stated goal of that project was to make it easier to drive to the airport, which is a ridiculous goal to have had then, and is actually bananas today,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director of the mass transit advocacy group Riders Alliance.

Other highway expansions are still in the planning stages, such as a possible $1 billion widening of a highway through the Catskills and a $160 million project to potentially widen a road in southern Brooklyn. Hochul supports the Catskills project, which her office says will “relieve road congestion” and fuel the region’s “explosive growth.”

If states continue to pursue highway expansions, the resulting emissions from car trips could cancel out the climate-friendly aspects of the infrastructure law, potentially making it a net cause of increased emissions, a Georgetown study found.

That would defeat one of the main purposes of the infrastructure law, noted Mary Buchanan, a researcher at the TransitCenter think tank.

“One goal of that law was to help transition the country to greener forms of transportation,” she said. “That could start at the top with Governor Hochul being more clear that it’s a priority to use federal money to meet her ambitious climate goals.”

Sam Mellins is senior reporter at New York Focus, which he has been a part of since launch day. His reporting has also appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Intercept, THE CITY, and The Nation. 
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