Transportation Gridlock in the Northeast Bridges over Troubled Partisan Waters

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Democrats, Republicans, and independents don’t agree on much in an era when politics is all vinegar and venom. But as the urbanized Northeast Corridor verges on 24/7 gridlock, most people can get over the political divide and agree that getting where they want to go, when they want to get there, is well-nigh impossible. They want to see transportation arteries revitalized, quality public transit options worthy of this century, and serious attention paid to health threats like air pollution and climate change.

That’s the upshot of a new Sierra Club survey on transportation modernization in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic that finds deep, bipartisan impatience with the status quo in 11 states—Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia—plus resounding interest in concrete regional approaches to dealing with aging arteries and derelict public transit systems. (Voters’ attitudes in Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont got an even closer look.)

Regionwide, transportation is the major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, and significant majorities of residents believe climate change and air pollution from cars and trucks are critical problems. They support moves to reduce transportation sector pollution, make transformative investments in mass transit and other modes of transportation, and establish a regional plan that stresses clean transportation choices. Conducted by Public Policy Polling, the June survey of 4,037 voters found that 81 percent of Democrats, 67 percent of Republicans, and 69 percent independents favor creating some sort of region-wide framework to get the job done.

This bipartisan concord is not really surprising in an area of the country where the red-blue clash has not undermined the political relationships in or between most states as much as it has in other regions. Moreover, government officials and business leaders in this part of the country recognize that regional economic health hinges not just on good roads, but on viable public transportation choices (even if they have not embraced a palatable means to pay for new options and upgrades of existing networks).

Climate change elicits a similar set of responses. Majorities of Democrats and independents (84 percent and 63 percent, respectively) think climate change is a “very serious” or “somewhat” serious problem, as do 47 percent of Republicans.

Views on climate change may be influenced by proximity to the coastlines. A May Pew Research Center survey found that 59 percent of coastal Americans think that climate change has a “great deal” or “some” effect on their community: 42 percent of Republicans and independents who lean Republican and live within 25 miles of a coastline believe that climate change has affected their area (only 28 percent of Republicans who live 300 miles or more from a coastline do).

Among Democrats and independents who lean Democratic, 81 percent of respondents who live within 25 miles of the coast see the effects of climate change on their areas (compared with nearly 69 percent of Democrats who live hundreds of miles inland). (The percentage of Americans employed in fossil-fuel production is lower in coastal regions than it is in much of the nation’s heartland.)

Despite the awareness of a longstanding need for better transit and how vehicle emissions degrade air quality and contribute to climate change, public transportation continues to run on fumes in many of the region’s metro areas and rural communities. That little is being done to move to cleaner-running vehicles has led to public unhappiness with state leaders: Nearly 50 percent of respondents believe that their states are “off on the wrong track” when it comes to investments in mass transit, cleaning up air pollution, and encouraging new automotive technologies like electric cars.

The disconnect with state leaders is especially high in the most congested area of the Northeast: the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. A whopping 68 percent of those surveyed in Connecticut believe that the state is on the wrong track, compared to 50 percent in New York, and 49 percent in New Jersey.

Connecticut’s profound budget woes may contribute to this pessimism. The state’s Special Transportation Fund, a $1.5 billion pot of money that goes to the state’s Department of Transportation operations and to paying down bond debt will run a deficit this fiscal year and could be empty by 2020. Traffic congestion along I-95 in southern Connecticut, which has sent some expanding businesses fleeing to only marginally less snarled places like northern New Jersey, may also play a role in Connecticut attitudes. “We’re getting our ass kicked,” Democratic Governor Dannel Malloy said earlier this year, “because you can’t get from place A to place B in Connecticut.”

A little farther north, in Massachusetts, 54 percent of those surveyed were pleased with the state’s direction, while 30 percent were not. That majority viewpoint may be linked to the Bay State’s status as one of the greenest places in the country, thanks to strides on issues like air pollution, its climate leadership in forums like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and consumer-focused clean energy programs, like the tax rebates of up to $2,500 that go to people who own or lease electric vehicles.

But the transportation networks in Massachusetts are another story entirely. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which serves metro Boston, as well as with the regional transit authorities that provide bus service to smaller municipalities across the state. Drivers aren’t any happier, since road and highway conditions vary widely.

Vermonters were conflicted: 44 percent believe that the state is on the wrong track, while 42 percent have more positive views. (Delaware had similar results.) Mark Kresowik, the Sierra Club’s deputy eastern regional director, says that while many Vermonters see their state as a national leader in climate and clear air issues, there is  a corresponding recognition that their rural state relies heavily on its road and highway infrastructure while the public transportation takes a back seat. Nearly 70 percent of Vermont respondents said they “strongly support” or “somewhat support” investments in mass transit and other public transportation options, and policies that promote electric vehicles and fuel efficiency efforts.

Despite the universal carping over gridlock in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., a plurality, 46 percent, of Maryland respondents thought that the state was headed in the right direction, which may be indicative of the strength of the state economy and the popularity of Republican Governor Larry Hogan.

But while the survey also showed that even though a healthy majority of Marylanders surveyed support additional public transportation investments, Hogan plans to take Maryland in a different direction. His administration plans to focus on road-widening projects on the state’s major highways, including Interstate 95, Interstate 695 outside Baltimore, and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, rather than investing more in mass transit.

In 2015, Hogan canceled the Red Line, a metro Baltimore light-rail project, which forced the state to give up nearly $1 billion in already dedicated federal funding. Many Marylanders still lament that loss and every Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 has expressed support for picking up the pieces and restarting the plan, according to Brian O’Malley, president of the Central Maryland Transportation Alliance.

“There is a lot of our energy and resources going to widening highways and they’re calling it ‘congestion relief,’” says O’Malley. “But voters have more on their minds than just being frustrated in traffic.”

Like the rest of the country, the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states are approaching a moment of truth with the ridesharing sector. Despite incremental progress on curbing greenhouse gas emissions, companies like Uber and Lyft have put more polluting vehicles on the road, while giving people new options to avoid the seemingly neverending onslaught of subway delays and breakdowns in Boston, New York, and Washington.

“Ridesharing is a tool,” says Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the New York–based Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “It can be used for good and it can be used for evil: Right now, we are in this weird world where we are doing a mix of both. We can do a tremendous amount to take polluting vehicles off the road if Uber, Lyft, and public transportation [authorities] were to commit to electric vehicles.”

However, expanding the use of electric vehicles poses its own problems. Electric vehicle drivers suffer from “range anxiety,” Sifuentes adds, since EVs don’t currently have the widely distributed charging infrastructure that gasoline and diesel-powered vehicles have in the service stations along key routes like Interstate 95.

Speeding up the transition to electric vehicles, along with a comprehensive regulatory framework, would help solve air quality issues, but it would do little for traffic congestion—indeed, measurably worsening it. One idea percolating in metro New York is putting a cap on the number of Lyft and Uber vehicles that can operate the city, in much the same way that the number of yellow cabs has been capped. (Sifuentes is not enthusiastic about that idea, since low-income neighborhoods would suffer: Uber and Lyft tend to serve those areas while yellow cabs don’t. He would rather see congestion pricing implemented to reduce the number of vehicles coming into the city.)

The outlook for progress on these issues in Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states remains hazy. It may be easier to get bipartisan agreement from voters on specific transportation investments than it will be to motivate regional political leaders to choose and coordinate what improvements to make— and, most importantly, how to pay for them.

Can 11 very different states agree on a viable regional transportation compact, when New York and New Jersey alone have wasted decades of political capital and millions of taxpayer dollars squabbling over replacing an antique rail tunnel, which culminated in an epic feud between former Republican Governor Chris Christie and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo? And can they do much if the federal government opposes such changes?

“Even under Christie, a funding agreement did emerge to get Gateway [the Hudson River rail tunnel project] done; it was Trump who spiked it,” says Sifuentes. “If anything, that just re-emphasizes the importance of the states working together when the federal government clearly is not going to step up to the plate.”

One Northeast and Mid-Atlantic model already exists: the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, known as RGGI, which sets limits on power plants’ greenhouse gas emissions. The member states require power plant owners to purchase emission allowances to spur reductions in their emissions. The revenues that states take in go toward investments in energy efficiency, renewable energy, job training, and associated programs.

The Sierra Club’s Kresowik suggests that RGGI’s lessons can be applied in “a very targeted and focused [way] to the transportation sector.” An eight-state working group (Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and the District of Columbia) of the regional Transportation and Climate Initiative plans to investigate similar market-based approaches to limiting pollution from transportation sources. The group is currently conducting public listening sessions to gather ideas for a regional clean transportation program outline.

The Sierra Club survey found support for moving forward with a regional modernization plan and with related benefits like improving walking and biking safety: 74 percent of those surveyed expressed support for such an undertaking, with majorities agreeing that such a plan also would have positive effects on jobs and health in the region. Democrats were most enthusiastic, with 72 percent “strongly “or “somewhat” supportive, while 56 percent of Republicans and 59 percent of independents favored moving forward with that effort.

Where do regional transportation and climate advocates look for exemplary progress on these issues? West. Many Easterners hold California’s leadership on climate as a model for change. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown has stepped into the national and international vacuum left by the President Trump’s wholesale rejection of climate science and the effects of climate change. Brown’s example, plus voter-approved ballot measures like Measure M in Los Angeles County, which raised the sales tax to build a countywide rail system, could be grafted onto the transportation sector back east.

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