An MTA fare hike may be only weeks away, and the mayoral election is six months away. As we count down to both, dreading one and perhaps looking forward to the other, we decided to kick off our monthly coverage of the mayor’s race with a look at transportation issues.
Now that the city’s two-term limit rule has been extended to three, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is likely to run for his third term on the Republican and Independence Party tickets. His most well-known environmental legacy will be PlaNYC 2030, which outlines his vision for conserving resources, and updating and adding infrastructure to prepare for a population boom over the next quarter of a decade. The New York League of Conservation Voters, an environmental lobbying group that advocates for mass transit and environmentally friendly solutions to vehicle congestion, endorsed Bloomberg this past week.
One Democratic challenger, City Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr., has served as New York’s chief financial officer for the last eight years. His plan to implement a weight-based vehicle registration fee is now being seriously considered as a solution to the MTA’s current financial crisis.
City Council Member Tony Avella, a Democrat who has represented northeast Queens since 2002, has also thrown his hat into the ring, running on a starkly different platform from fellow Democrats. Like Thompson, he has his own solution to the MTA budget gap: he wants to raise money by legalizing sports betting.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, who made a strong showing in the 2005 Democratic primary for mayor, has yet to officially announce his candidacy but may still join the race. The Queens and Brooklyn representative currently sits on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees environmental protection and the nation’s energy policy, and has been a consistent critic of the Bloomberg administration.
Meanwhile, Albany is struggling to come up with an MTA bailout plan that everyone can agree on. The situation seems to change daily, and proposals have included a $2 toll to cross East River and Harlem River bridges, a payroll tax and taxi surcharge.
Many transportation advocates agree that the current administration has done a good job.
“Under our new commissioner of transportation, things in New York are changing rapidly,” said Wiley Norvell, a spokesperson for Transportation Alternatives, a non-partisan transportation advocacy group. “There’s a willingness to try different things…some of this stuff is going to be a home run and some of this stuff won’t work, but things have been stagnant for so long that it’s a pretty positive place to be.”
Or maybe not. You be the judge.
MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, INDEPENDENT →
When the state-appointed Ravitch Commission unveiled its three-pronged approach to bailing out the MTA through payroll taxes, East River tolls and an 8 percent MTA fare hike, Bloomberg gave his support. The mayor has been criticized, however, for being fairly silent on the topic in recent weeks, with critics saying Bloomberg should be more forceful in pushing the plan through the State Legislature. When asked about his role in bailout negotiations, a spokesperson responded: “Any MTA bailout must distribute the benefits and the burdens equitably both geographically across the state and among straphangers, drivers, businesses and residents. If and once such a solution is devised and agreed upon by Governor Patterson, Speaker Silver and Majority Leader Smith, Mayor Bloomberg will work very hard to rally votes for the plan.”
BUS RAPID TRANSIT/SELECT BUS SERVICE
Under the Bloomberg Administration, the Department of Transportation has piloted a program similar to bus rapid transit known as select bus service. The initiative incorporates fare pre-payment, high-visibility red bus lanes and traffic signal priority to create more efficient and speedier bus trips. Although the plan has been derailed in the past due to insufficient funding, a spokesperson said that the program would come to First and Second avenues next year.
One of the major components of Bloomberg’s PlaNYC 2030 includes completing a 1,800-mile bike lane master plan throughout the city. The mayor and Department of Transportation have touted bike lanes as an environmentally efficient and low-cost way to travel around the city that’s good for your health, too. To promote bicycle riding, the department has also worked with the City Council to create rules requiring new buildings in the city to include bike parking.
MASS TRANSIT EXPANSION
The mayor, who likes to remind New Yorkers that he is a subway rider himself, supports the construction of the Second Avenue subway, East Side Access (which will connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Station) and a project called “Access to the Region’s Core,” which is a railway tunnel connecting New Jersey to New York. His administration is also funding extension of the Number 7 line, a $2.1 billion project that will improve access to the far West Side and Hell’s Kitchen.
Converting paved, vacant traffic islands into a park-like space where pedestrians could stroll on a warm and sunny Sunday afternoon is also a part of the mayor’s PlaNYC 2030. The $391 million plan will create 800 new “green streets” over 10 years.
To help reduce air pollution, the mayor unveiled a plan to require all taxis to operate hybrid engines by 2012. Not everyone jumped on board. A federal judge blocked the requirement that all taxis switch to fuel-efficient vehicles by 2012. Still, Bloomberg’s plan is coming along. Most recently, the Taxi and Limousine Commission approved a measure that would allow fleet owners to charge taxi drivers more money for a non-hybrid vehicle than a hybrid vehicle.
In 2007, Bloomberg announced a plan that would charge an $8 fee for cars entering Manhattan’s central business district, with the goal of reducing traffic, improving public health and generating billions of dollars for mass transit improvements. While he garnered significant support, the State Legislature ultimately crushed the initiative a year later. A spokesperson said: “Mayor Bloomberg remains committed to finding alternative solutions to our congestion problem,” but would not elaborate on what those solutions might be.
WILLIAM C. THOMPSON, JR., DEMOCRAT →
WEIGHT-BASED REGISTRATION FEES
The comptroller presented plans back in November to charge vehicles that weigh 2,300 pounds or more a $100 registration fee, plus a 9-cent charge for every pound of curb weight more than 2,300 pounds. The plan encourages lightweight and fuel-efficient vehicles. The fee, which would be applied to the entire region served by the MTA, would bring in an estimated $1 billion in funding to the MTA, according to Thompson.
Although Thompson supports a small fare hike and payroll taxes, he is vehemently against the idea of placing tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges. Parts of the Ravitch Commission recommendations—like increased MTA oversight and efficiency—he likes, but tolls “penalize people who live outside of Manhattan.” Thompson said his proposal to create a weight-based vehicle registration fee would go a long way in closing the MTA’s budget gap.
MASS TRANSIT EXPANSION
Expanding and updating the mass transit system is the primary transportation issue facing the city, according to Thompson. He wants the MTA to upgrade and fix the crumbling infrastructure and he supports expanding subways and buses. In a February 2007 report, Thompson uncovered major delays in the system and insufficient state funding for New York City transit.
BUS RAPID TRANSIT/SELECT BUS SERVICE
Thompson said he would make expanding select bus service across the city a priority of his transportation department. He also pointed to the mayor’s failure to get funding for select bus service on First and Second avenues back in 2001.
While Thompson is a supporter of bike lanes, he said there was a lack of communication between the mayor and residents during previous attempts to implement them throughout the city.
HANDICAPPED ACCESSIBLE TAXIS
Thompson has been a vocal supporter of greater transportation access for people with disabilities. But he’s said that Bloomberg’s plan to create a dispatch system will require long waits for wheelchair users.
Thompson supports the introduction of both hybrid and other higher mileage cars.
Thompson ultimately supported the plan that made its way to Albany, but said he is not sure whether he will revive the program because it is viewed as a toll by too many people. He knocked the mayor for failing to engage the public on the issue and speaking only to editorial pages.
TONY AVELLA, DEMOCRAT→
Unlike his opponents, Avella does not approve of raising the subway and bus fares at all. Not surprisingly, he also opposes the East and Harlem River bridge tolls. “Every time you raise the fare, it’s shown that less people use [mass transit],” Avella said. Instead, he offers a few creative ideas for raising revenue, like legalizing sports betting, which he says would generate between $15 billion and $30 billion in New York City alone. He has also proposed that the State Legislature break apart the MTA, and give control of the transportation network to the city. At the very least, Avella said he wants the city to have a majority of votes on the MTA board (the mayor currently nominates only four of the 17-member board).
Avella is a recent supporter of light rail across 42nd Street from river to river. Light rail uses cars that have a lower capacity and speed than a subway and can run on the street. “We have to start coming up with alternatives that serve the need but are a fraction of the cost,” he said.
“I don’t think it accomplishes anything,” Avella said of the mayor’s plan to convert paved streets and traffic intersections into park-like spaces.
Avella wants more bike lanes, but said Bloomberg has been forcing bike paths on residents. Recent kerfluffles over the implementation of bike lanes in Brooklyn and other boroughs have made Avella come to the conclusion that “the city doesn’t communicate with anybody.”
While Avella admits there are significant unforeseen challenges involved in turning over the entire New York City taxi fleet, he supports the idea. His big problem is again with the way Bloomberg handles communication. “He’s treating the city like it’s a big business and he’s the CEO. A CEO doesn’t bother to ask anybody anything.”
Congestion pricing is nothing more than a tax and taxes are never the answer, according to Avella, adding that the proposal would have devastated small businesses. “You want to reduce traffic, you do it by increasing mass transit,” he said.
ANTHONY WEINER, DEMOCRAT →
Along with business groups, Weiner has said he is opposed to the payroll tax because it places an unfair burden on middle class families and small businesses. But he says the federal government will come to the rescue. “We should take a step back from the apocalypse,” Weiner told the New York Times in February. “There’s going to be help coming from Washington.” Weiner’s spokesperson did not return calls for comment about the status of a potential federal bailout.
Weiner has been putting pressure on Ford to make a hybrid version of the Crown Victoria, the preferred vehicle for taxicab drivers.
One of the first elected officials to come out against congestion pricing, Weiner has pretty much stayed true to his original position. He says that trucks are the real problem and if the city cracks down on truck violations traffic will vanish. The Congressman has also said that implementing the city’s own revenue-generating congestion plan would make the federal government less inclined to fund local transportation projects.
Grading the Candidates
We asked StreetsBlog.org, a New York City transportation blog that advocates for more public transit, bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets, to rate the candidates from A through F. They based grades on the eco-friendliness of each candidate’s transportation plan. StreetsBlog.org is part of the nationwide Liveable Streets Initiative, an online community that promotes environmentally friendly urban planning.
Michael Bloomberg: B+
William C. Thompson: B-
Anthony Weiner: C
Tony Avella: C+
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