NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson's Fast Green Start

NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson: An Emerging Environmental Champion
Credit: Twitter

Corey Johnson has sprung out of the starting gate by embracing a surprising number of progressive environmental initiatives in his first six months as Speaker of the New York City Council.

Since assuming his leadership post in January, the new Speaker has shepherded through two important pieces of environmental justice legislation and has signaled his support for a handful of other forwarding-looking, high-priority environmental bills. 

Taken together, these early moves suggest that the new Speaker, who represents Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, could lead the City Council into a period of significant accomplishment on environmental health and quality-of-life issues between now and 2021, when his term expires.

“Fair Fares” for Hundreds of Thousands of Low-Income Transit Riders

Speaker Johnson’s first big environmental victory came on the issue of public transit. The City’s subway and bus system is its mobility and economic lifeline. And nothing is more important to clean air in New York City than a vibrant public transit system that is accessible to and reliable for all residents.

Early in this year’s city budget deliberations with the Mayor’s office, the Speaker endorsed a proposal that would provide low-income New York City residents with half-fare bus and subway discounts, similar to those already available to school children and senior citizens.

The funding plan, which had been championed for years by the Community Service Society of New York and the Riders’ Alliance, was initially opposed by the De Blasio administration. 

(The Mayor, to be sure, had long expressed support for the concept of assisting low-income transit riders. But he sought to secure funding from a state tax on couples earning more than one million dollars a year—a proposal that met little enthusiasm in the State Legislature.)

Speaker Johnson and his fellow councilmembers made the fair fares idea a top priority for city funding. Reportedly, the Speaker even walked out of one behind-the-scenes budget negotiation session with the Mayor’s office to demonstrate his commitment to this issue. 

When the dust settled and the FY ‘19 budget deal was announced in June, the De Blasio Administration had agreed to set aside $106 million to create a reduced fare Metrocard program for hundreds of thousands of city residents who live at or below the federal poverty line (those with household incomes of just under $25,000 for a family of four). The new program launches in January 2019.

Speaker Johnson has pushed through several environmental advances, including funding for discount transit passes to help hundreds of thousands of low income residents.
Credit: NYCTourist

Less Trash for Three Neighborhoods Drowning in Waste

A second green triumph came earlier this month, when the City Council passed legislation that for the first time limits the amount of trash that can be sent to neighborhoods that are already home to disproportionate concentrations of waste collection depots and other environmentally undesirable facilities.

For decades, roughly two-thirds of New York City’s commercial trash has been trucked to privately owned waste transfer stations in just three neighborhoods—the South Bronx, north Brooklyn and southeast Queens. And for almost as long, reducing this concentration of facilities has been a goal of city government.

But legislation that would cap the amount of trash going to these overburdened communities has long been stalled in the City Council, thanks to opposition from the private waste transfer station owners and a lack of commitment to the issue by council leadership.

The dynamics shifted in 2018.  Sanitation Committee Chair Antonio Reynoso made the issue a top priority on behalf of long-suffering community residents. But the biggest change was the personal commitment of newly elected Speaker Johnson. He used his political muscle to secure the needed votes for passage of the bill.

Under the legislation, for which groups like New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and New York City Environmental Justice Alliance had long been pushing, permitted capacity for waste transfer stations will be cut by 50 per cent in north Brooklyn and 33 per cent in both the South Bronx and southeast Queens. 

(The impact on waste transfer operations will not be nearly so dramatic, since “permitted” tonnage is much greater than actual tonnage that the facilities receive on a daily basis. Nevertheless, the legislation will at least prevent further increases in waste heading to these overburdened districts and will cut actual trash shipments at a handful of stations.) 

The bill, which the Administration has supported and the Mayor is expected to sign, will also incentivize recycling and composting, and the transfer of commercial waste by rail (instead of long-haul, diesel trucks).

Speaker Johnson is expending political capital to move environmental legislation, including a bill that will cap waste tonnage going to facilities in overburdened neighborhoods.
Credit: Michael Schwartz (NY Daily News)

In the On-Deck Circle

Here are four other environmental issues on the wish-lists of many community and environmental groups.  In every case, Speaker Johnson has sent encouraging signals of support, if not outright endorsements:


  • Congestion Pricing: The concept of a congestion pricing to discourage unnecessary motor vehicle traffic in the Central Business District and to create a stable, permanent source of transit funding has long been a high priority of environmental, transit and good government groups. Speaker Johnson has been a solid supporter of this critical strategy, telling business leaders back in January: “We need to convince the state legislature that congestion pricing is the right thing to do.”


  • Lead Pollution: Blood-lead levels in city preschoolers have declined dramatically over the past couple of decades. But the recent NYCHA scandal and a 2017 Reuters analysis of lead paint in private housing demonstrate that the problem has not yet been completely solved. Speaker Johnson and his colleagues have introduced a bucketful of bills to address the remaining challenge, several of which are likely to advance in 2018-2019.


  • Plastic Straws: Single use plastics—including carry-out bags, utensils, foam cups and containers, and straws and stirrers—are an ever-growing litter and pollution headache.  While plastic straws and stirrers are just a piece of a much larger problem, we toss out millions of them every day in New York City and cutting back would create momentum for further reform.  In a recent interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer, the Speaker—while not wanting to get ahead of fellow councilmembers and careful to state that the special needs of disabled New Yorkers must be fully addressed in a final version of the bill introduced by Councilmember Rafael Espinal—stated: “I support getting rid of plastic straws.”


  • Commercial Waste Zoning: The current system for collecting the city’s commercial trash—in which privately-owned garbage trucks race across neighborhoods in irrational, dangerous and duplicative traffic patterns—is completely broken. The Speaker has recognized the problem and made clear his support for commercial waste zoning legislation. As he tweeted this summer: “I committed to supporting zoned collection during the Speakers race.  I believe it is the right thing to do.”


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If Speaker Johnson’s early actions and statements are indicative of his long-term commitment to environmental progress, the next three and a half years of City Council action could catapult New York City to the top rung of national leadership on sustainability, equity and improved quality of urban life.