New York plans for green makeover are hit by cuts

Manhattan skyline centred on Empire State building
Image caption Plans to clean up New York City have been hit by budget cuts

In many ways, New York looks every inch the modern city.

It is home to some of the world's most powerful companies. Its gothic towers and gleaming modern glass skyscrapers are elegant symbols of its heritage and its aspirations.

But there is another side to New York. A city of nine million inhabitants, its streets are heavily congested, its air is badly polluted and much of its infrastructure is decaying.

Four years ago, New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, launched a radical scheme to transform the city's urban environment.

It was called PlaNYC, and it included more than 120 projects to reduce energy consumption, improve quality of life for its citizens and modernise its crumbling transport network.

The jewel in the crown was to be a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. This was described by Mr Bloomberg as "the most dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases achieved by any American city".

Budget cuts

But if the plan was laudable, its timing was far from perfect.

Just a few months after the launch came the financial crisis.

New York initially benefited from the US government's stimulus funding, with billions being poured into infrastructure, health and social programmes.

But now there's a price to pay.

Political pressure to bring down the US budget deficit, which is expected to exceed $1.5 trillion (£931bn) this year, means budgets are being cut at every level: federal, state and city.

As a result, Mayor Bloomberg has been forced to rein in his ambitions. Programmes have been altered, scaled back and in some cases abandoned altogether.

According to Nancy Ploeger, president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce, cuts to energy efficiency schemes have been particularly worrying.

"Energy in New York City is key," she says.

"We keep using more and more gadgets and so forth, and if we don't have enough energy, there's going to be a meltdown.

"New York State was one of the top five states in the country that were giving tax credits for energy saving, and now a lot of those programmes have been cut."

High-profile disputes

PlaNYC has also suffered from politics.

Mr Bloomberg wanted to introduce congestion charging in Manhattan, to bring down traffic levels and raise money for transport improvements.

Image caption Are Mayor Bloomberg's policies pointing towards a better future?

But the plan failed, because powerbrokers in the New York State Assembly refused to back it.

It was just one of many high-profile disputes between the mayor and the lawmakers of Albany, but it deprived PlaNYC of a potentially lucrative source of revenue.

David Bragdon is New York's head of sustainability and one of the Mayor's closest aides. He has little time for the naysayers.

"You know, human nature being what it is, it's easier to say no to something that's unknown than it is to say yes, even if the yes would ultimately benefit a greater number of people," he says.

"Certainly the status quo is not acceptable. To have congestion that's completely unmanaged, our streets and roads and bridges under strain and our transportation system underfunded, that's certainly not a good situation to persist."

Green taxis

The mayor has also shown a stubborn streak.

His attempts to force cab companies to replace their uneconomical Ford Crown Victoria cars with more efficient petrol-electric hybrids failed after four years of legal battles.

But he continued to lobby for a cleaner taxi fleet.

In May the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission announced that the old Crown Victorias will be phased out, to be replaced by a new fleet of purpose built Nissan NV200s.

Image caption Mayor Bloomberg won the battle to replace the New York taxi fleet with greener vehicles

The new cars will be much more efficient than their predecessors - and will be designed so that they can be converted to run on electric power if necessary.

The campaign to clean up New York City was intended to provide new opportunities for businesses in the region, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.

One entrepreneur who has taken advantage is Brent Baker. He runs Tri-State Biodiesel, a company that collects waste cooking oil from New York's restaurants, and turns it into transport fuel.

He says the backing he has had from City Hall has been vital.

"This mayor was the first mayor to have an office for long-term planning and sustainability," Mr Baker says.

"I've been in touch with that office throughout my time as a business, and I think they're very genuine in terms of their dedication to making a greener city.

"Just recently, the mayor signed a bill requiring the use of biodiesel in all heating oil sold in New York City. That's a huge support for this industry."

Ambitious plans

PlaNYC was always intended to be ambitious and many of its goals may ultimately come to be seen as unrealistic.

The mayor's office says that nearly all of the initiatives set out in 2007 are now under way, and claims that greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 13% compared with 2005.

But almost a third of its schemes are running behind schedule, and it is clear that budgetary constraints are likely to weigh heavily on the programme over the next few years.

Mr Bloomberg himself appears unconcerned so far. His latest review of PlaNYC, published in May, sets out yet more initiatives, along with more targets.

But if the spending squeeze continues, meeting those targets may start to look like a pretty tall order, even for a city that is used to reaching for the skies.

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