The New York state Legislature passes a lot of bills with good intentions, without thinking through the logistics, costs and possible alternatives.
The result is often an unworkable bill that either doesn’t fix the problem or makes it even worse.
Such is the case with a new bill (A5735/S0922C) that would prohibit construction of new schools within 500 feet of a highway.
Who, you ask, could be against that? Who wants kids exposed to air pollution?
The National Bureau of Economic Research even concluded that kids going to school closer to highways results in slightly lower test scores, implying that the fumes they’re inhaling is affecting their growing young brains. And because schools built close to highways are often in cities, there’s a discrimination component to address.
So what’s wrong with this particular piece of legislation? A lot.
For starters, it wouldn’t have any impact on student health anytime soon, given that its provisions don’t take effect for five years. The law excludes school projects that are in even the earliest planning stages, including the prior acquisition of land to construct a new school. So get your bids in now.
Second, it wouldn’t protect students in the 375 schools, including 225 in New York City, that already sit in the shadow of highways
The bill doesn’t mention what happens if a district with a school building in range of a highway wants to add on to an existing building. And what about schools that operate on campuses, like several in our area?
Would the state allow the existing buildings near a highway to stay open and force the district to build a new building off campus?
Another problem with the bill is that in cities, there is very limited land available for new school buildings at an affordable cost.
What will those districts do and how will their taxpayers pay for it?
The bill offers exemptions if the district’s choices are so limited that they must build a school in the 500-foot range. Many districts will obtain exemptions and end up building close to highways anyway. So how many future students will this bill really protect?
A more effective, reasonable solution to air pollution affecting kids is for the state to monitor air quality at vulnerable schools and to provide funding for better ventilation, insulation and filtration systems so students aren’t breathing in fumes while learning.
Creating buffer zones with trees and berms and walls to absorb and deflect the pollution could also help.
A bill that prohibits construction near highways won’t fix the existing issues. And the few districts that can’t manage to fit through the bill’s loopholes will be forced to find more expensive, inconvenient options.
This is a well-intentioned bill that falls flat on practicality because lawmakers didn’t think it through.
The governor should veto it.