Green Shoots at NYSDOT

Though New York is the least car-dependent state in the country, the state DOT isn’t known for championing for the state’s millions of non-drivers. In some corners of the large and decentralized agency, however, progressive ideas have taken root and new programs are being developed. At yesterday’s Rudin Center conference on livability, two DOT officials embraced the state’s extremely ambitious climate plan and outlined a course to expand the state’s much-praised GreenLITES certification system. The challenge for new DOT commissioner Joan McDonald will be to embrace the good thinking already coming from within the department and turn it into statewide policy.

John Zamurs, a 30-year veteran of NYSDOT, is head of the sustainability and climate change section in the agency’s statewide policy bureau. At a panel on the connection between livability and climate change yesterday, Zamurs walked through the goals of the New York State climate action plan, including a $25 billion transit expansion, immediate anti-sprawl measures, complete streets, congestion pricing and parking reform. Zamurs not only said that those kinds of policies would make the state more livable, but that we need what he called “a radical change in how travel is done in the state.”

Plans to expand DOT’s GreenLITES program also offered grounds for optimism yesterday. As Paul Krekeler, the GreenLITES program manager explained, GreenLITES is a rating and certification mechanism for NYSDOT to use internally. As in the LEED program to rate green buildings, DOT projects can earn points for hundreds of different sustainability features, from wetland preservation to separated bike paths and transit signal prioritization, which add up to a ranking from basic certification to “evergreen” status. “Our real goal here,” said Krekeler, “is transportation in support of a sustainable society.”

GreenLITES is on track to expand in a number of ways, according to Krekeler. Two new assessments are currently being rolled out, for example. Right now, there’s one GreenLITES certification for project design and another for ongoing operations. Just added, however, is a new project selection tool, which could move GreenLITES from helping staff include sustainability goals in their projects to helping the department as a whole set priorities. Use of the tool is still voluntary at this point, said Krekeler, but “if every [metropolitan planning organization] looks at this, now we have a standardized way of looking at projects within an MPO and between MPOs.”

After that, said Krekeler, the next step is to ask DOT’s eleven largely autonomous regions to chart a course toward sustainability. Using a “regional sustainability assessment table” currently under development, regions will lay out their current state of sustainability, their desired state, and then “tell us how you’re going to get there,” said Krekeler. One year from now, said Krekeler, a conversation about GreenLITES will sound very different.

Expanding GreenLITES has been a top recommendation from transportation reformers and environmentalists, so Krekeler’s remarks are a welcome first step toward a 21st century NYSDOT. Of course, there’s much more to be done. It’s up to Commissioner McDonald to take these progressive seeds and put them at the heart of DOT’s agenda.