New NYS DOT Commish on Smart Growth: “We Need to Go Further”

State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald had positive words for progressive transportation planning at today's NYMTC annual meeting. Photo: NYMTC.

Coming two days after her confirmation as the new commissioner of the state DOT, Joan McDonald’s keynote speech at today’s annual meeting of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council offered her the chance to lay out her agenda for statewide transportation policy. McDonald’s remarks should provide cause for optimism among New Yorkers hoping for a more progressive transportation system: She strongly endorsed smart growth principles and indicated to Streetsblog after her speech that she welcomes the planning process that could advance the Sheridan Expressway teardown.

“I am a very strong proponent and advocate for those smart growth principles,” McDonald announced in her keynote, citing the fact that transportation accounts for nearly 40 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

She said that the state DOT has the responsibility to ensure that last year’s smart growth law is implemented and that she believes there is a real movement within the department to embrace it. “It’s going to take a little bit to get to the practical side of it,” she said after the event, “but I am committed to pushing that envelope as much as we can.”

In particular, McDonald highlighted the department’s nationally-recognized GreenLITES certification system as a model around which to build. “We are expanding it to all areas within the department,” she said. “We know that we need to go further.”

Substantively, McDonald said making NYS DOT a smart growth agency is “pedestrian improvements, it’s bike improvements, it’s always looking and making safety our top priority.” During her speech, McDonald also singled out high-speed rail as a necessary investment for the state.

Though she cautioned that she hasn’t reached any conclusions on the fate of the Sheridan, her comments suggest that her administration will be more in tune with neighborhood activists seeking to replace the under-used highway with new housing, jobs, and open space.

“I’m thrilled that the city of New York is undertaking a land use study,” said McDonald, adding that conversations have begun about the Sheridan between the state DOT, the city DOT, and the city Department of City Planning.

The land use study, which was funded by a federal TIGER grant, is the key to an honest accounting of the costs and benefits of a Sheridan teardown. Last year, state DOT officials said that they could only compare the current Sheridan to a shuttered but still standing highway, because no officially sanctioned plan existed for what would replace it. If McDonald is excited about working with the city on the plan, she would seem to be open to the idea that replacing the Sheridan with a new mix of uses would add more value to the community than the highway does.

There was one worrisome contradiction in McDonald’s remarks, however. While she said that “we need to address our aging infrastructure through fix-it-first strategies,” implying that repairs would take precedence over making more room for cars at the cash-strapped agency, McDonald also expressed support for three road capacity increases in the downstate area: on the Staten Island Expressway, on the Gowanus and BQE, and on the Tappan Zee corridor. “I think society demands it,” she explained after the event.


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