KOMANOFF: Blame Republicans, Not Democrats, for Less-Than-Robust Climate Bill

Some Good Traffic posters in Midtown. Photo: SEEN Media
Some Good Traffic posters in Midtown. Photo: SEEN Media

Nicole Gelinas, intrepid chronicler for a dozen or more years (in Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, civic discourse generally) of the fight to end car dominance of NYC streets, has delivered an oddly slanted take on the Manchin-Schumer climate deal and Democratic Party politicians.

Writing in Sunday’s New York Post, Gelinas derided the Senate Democrats’ new Inflation Reduction Act as a climate cipher and a monument to Democrats’ cowardice on car dependence. “The only thing hypocritical Dems are producing on climate is hot air,” screams the headline and pretty much the whole column.

There’s just enough veracity there to seduce the unknowing reader. Hey, I got worked up as Gelinas blasted Gov. Hochul, U.S. DOT Secretary Buttigieg and others not just for slow-walking congestion pricing but for shunning policies that “would require anyone to rethink suburban sprawl, multiple daily SUV ‘school runs’ in different directions and generously spaced McMansions and office parks.” Bring it on!

But Gelinas is wrong about the Manchin-Schumer bill and Dems and climate generally. As journalist Mike Grunwald pointed out yesterday about Joe Manchin, “The least climate-friendly DC Dem turned out to be climate-friendlier than every single DC Republican.” Given the 50-to-nothing “No on Climate” wall erected by Mitch McConnell’s Republican Senate caucus, the Inflation Reduction Act was the most that climate-concerned Democrats could get through Congress.

And it’s grossly imperfect. As I wrote earlier today in The Nation, “the bill leaves untouched entrenched, intertwined systems that have long locked in Americans’ profligate carbon consumption: massively overbuilt roads, decrepit public transit, low-density zoning, anti-urban bias, rampant inequality, and falsely priced fossil fuels.”

A close-up of the Good Traffic poster.
A close-up of the Good Traffic poster. Photo: SEEN Media

That’s tragic and enraging. But the subsidy-laden and, yes, automobile-happy, bill is the price we pay for Republicans’ willingness to burn Planet Earth in exchange for money, votes and power. With just slightly larger Democratic Congressional majorities, or, heaven forbid, assent from Mitt Romney, Susan Collins or Lisa Murkowski, the legislation, originally known as Build Back Better, could have gone much deeper — and been voted into law in 2021.

Gelinas’s other charge — that Democrats are too timid to ever fundamentally take on car-dependent infra, subsidies and entitlement — strikes a nerve to all of us who have long fought to overcome automobiles.

Democrats, like practically everyone else, have historically been craven to cars and drivers. But that’s changing. Thanks in no small part to Gelinas’s iconoclastic journalism (examples here and here), the movement to take back New York City from automobiles is making real progress. The latest victory, 2,000 always-on speed cameras, rang in at 10 p.m. on Monday; its legislative architect, State Sen. Andrew Gounardes from Brooklyn, is a Democrat who unseated a dangerous-driving and anti-camera Republican in 2018.

Our movement is pulling Democratic office-holders and party activists along with it. The same cannot be said of New York Republicans, who to a person seem to oppose every meaningful law or regulation to rein in the divine right of drivers.

Gelinas is right to denounce the delays to the city’s congestion program caused by “laborious ‘technical questions’” ginned up by Transportation Secretary Buttigieg, yes, a Democrat. But Gelinas didn’t bother to credit Republican Party ideology and money for constricting our politics and culture around fossil fuels, cars and driving to the point that something as munificent for New York as congestion pricing is easily demonized as an assault on American middle-class values.

The column in question.
The column in question. Click to read (at your own peril).

(It’s worth noting that Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi, despite rooting his center-right-leaning campaign for the party’s gubernatorial nomination in the suburban soil that Gelinas lampooned, refrained from attacking Hochul’s ties to congestion pricing. There is currently no Republican candidate on earth who would display such restraint.)

Where I join with Gelinas’s column, unreservedly, is in its searing condemnation of Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who “corruptly threw around her power half a decade ago to bully New York City into killing a bike lane on 85th Street,” where last week 28-year-old Carling Mott was crushed to death by the driver of an 18-wheeler.

Passages like this reveal Gelinas’s beating heart for victims of motordom, failed by elected officials of all stripes, and her passion to make our city safe and accessible for all. Let’s have more of that, please, and less sanctimony about the one political party that actually tries, albeit haltingly, to make a difference.


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