New Yorkers will vote on an ‘historic’ $4.2B Environmental Bond Act

New Yorkers will vote on an 'historic' $4.2B Environmental Bond Act

ALBANY – When New Yorkers cast their vote on Nov. 8, they will have to turn over their ballots to decide on a $4.2 billion bond act that promises a significant investment in clean water and climate resiliency — the first such act in nearly 30 years.

The Clean Water, Clean Energy, Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act has amassed a legion of supporters since its inclusion in this year’s state budget. (It was initially passed by the Legislature last year, but in September Hochul asked lawmakers to increase the measure by $1 billion.) Hundreds of environmental preservation groups, unions and businesses have endorsed it, hailing it as the largest down payment on climate change and infrastructure projects in a generation.

It’s also coming at a crucial moment, advocates have said, pointing to what they say are both increasing impacts of climate change as well as the issue gaining political momentum among voters.

“This is really transformational for New York,” said Jessica Ottney, the New York policy director of The Nature Conservancy. “It’s not the one solution for every problem, but it’s a major solution that’s going to solve a lot of problems.”

The bond would position the state to take advantage of federal funding from the recently passed congressional infrastructure bill that requires local fund matching. Julie Tighe, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said she estimates that will result in a potential $8 billion pool for municipalities to draw from.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Tighe said, adding that since the bond act was passed as part of the state’s budget voters will not see a tax increase.

First proposed as a $3 billion pot in 2020, COVID-19 curtailed public and political appetite for the measure; the bond act ultimately passed with much fanfare and an additional $1.2 billion in 2021 — an increase that the Legislature approved this year.

The funding includes a key provision: that the state designate at least 35 percent of the money to projects in historically disadvantaged communities.

Water infrastructure

Passage of the bond act would allow the state to pour millions of dollars into water infrastructure across the state, with at least $200 million earmarked for improving wastewater systems. Another $250 million or so would boost local stormwater projects, which municipalities — especially in areas prone to flooding — likely already have queued up to apply for grant funding should the measure pass, Tighe said.

Protecting drinking water will be another key focus. One project, included in another $200 million pot, will be removing and replacing lead service lines that run from the water main to homes. These pipes, lined with lead, still exist in older cities or older neighborhoods and expose residents to contaminated water.

Climate change mitigation

The Environmental Bond Act would provide $500 million to help school districts ensure their school buses are all electric by 2035, which the state mandated earlier this year.

“We hope that they focus first on those routes that are in disadvantaged communities already overburdened by pollution,” Tighe said.

At least $400 million would contribute to ensuring that school buildings or other state-owned properties are energy efficient, with some projects slated to update HVAC systems.

And up to $300 million will be designated for initiatives including urban greenery projects, including planting street trees or restoring forest areas. Experts point to urban forestry as a key tool in combating heat waves that can pose severe risks to older people or those with asthma; research shows that street trees are responsible for lowering temperatures as much as 10 degrees in some areas.

Flooding resilience

With every county in the state issuing a disaster declaration related to flooding in the last 10 years, urgency for floodproofing the state has skyrocketed, Tighe said.

Around $1.1 billion would fund a score of projects directly related to flood-risk reduction. That would include resizing culverts and upgrading dams and bridges in order to equip municipalities to deal with heavy rainfalls that could potentially flood roads — a significant problem for smaller towns in much of upstate.

“Boy, when we get a big hurricane really tearing through upstate New York, and a road gets blown out — it might be the only road in and out of town,’ Ottney said. “So you’re cut off from your hospital, you’re cut off from your safety facilities. … We need to make sure that our infrastructure is ready to handle what’s coming at us.”

It would also allow the state to roll out a proactive buyout program for flood-prone areas — instead of waiting for people living in flood zones to be hit with irreparable water damage, then swooping in to acquire ravaged properties, Tighe said.

Green jobs

Environmentalists, businesses and labor rights groups have commended the bond act’s creation of a projected 84,000 jobs in the state, which would pay workers prevailing wages.

James Hanley, a policy analyst with the Empire Center for Public Policy, said while adhering to the state’s wage laws, paying workers above market rate could reduce the act’s efficacy.

“We’re leaving a lot of potential environmental benefit on the table so that we can get a select group of people, higher wages,” Hanley said. “The question is whether that’s a good use of taxpayer money. We’re not getting the biggest bang for the buck.”

Though Tighe said voters from all political backgrounds have increasingly indicated widespread bipartisan support for investments in environmental and climate-related projects, at least one state party has voiced opposition to the measure, also citing fiscal concern.

In a statement earlier this month, the Conservative Party referenced millions of dollars left unspent from the previous environmental bond act of 1996. Around $82 million is still available and $100 million authorized to borrow, though 95 percent of the money has been spent.

Conservative Party Chairman Gerard Kassar said that while it had opposed federal public works funding – a key component of President Joe Biden’s policy agenda — the state should rely on that money before taking on more debt.

“We fear New York state’s reputation for unchecked spending will result in the possibility of the state Legislature spending the entirety of the $4.2 billion on projects that should be paid with existing authorized debt, new federal sources, and pay as you go where possible,” Kassar said.