Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/1456 Fri, 21 Sep 2018 09:58:20 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Max & Murphy Podcast: A New Era at the MTA? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7751:max-murphy-podcast-a-new-era-at-the-mta http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7751:max-murphy-podcast-a-new-era-at-the-mta mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


June 20, 2018 - Max & Murphy Podcast: A New Era at the MTA? with Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Instituteand and columnist at the New York Post.

Nicole Gelinas

Are we in a new era at the MTA? With Joe Lhota one year on the job as chair and a new transit chief, Andy Byford, in place and out with a plan to modernize the signals, where do things stand? Has the Subway Action Plan had any effect? What needs to be done to really improve the subways and buses, and get New York City moving again? Nicole Gelinas is an expert on the MTA and other transit and infrastructure matters, and she joined the podcast just after checking out the June MTA board meeting to answer these questions and others.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax, @JarrettMurphy, and @NicoleGelinas. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: A New Era at the MTA? Wed, 20 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
After Forcing City to Fund Subway Plan, Cuomo Forecasts Next MTA Budget Battle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7607:after-forcing-city-to-fund-subway-plan-cuomo-forecasts-next-mta-budget-battle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7607:after-forcing-city-to-fund-subway-plan-cuomo-forecasts-next-mta-budget-battle govcuomobreakfast

(Don Pollard/Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo)


Following completion of the fiscal year 2019 state budget late last month, Mayor Bill de Blasio was forced into a decision whereby the city will pay half the $836 million MTA Subway Action Plan. De Blasio had for months refused to match the state’s $418 million pledge, put forth immediately by Governor Andrew Cuomo upon MTA Chair Joe Lhota’s release of the plan.

Now, the mayor says, the ball is even more clearly in Cuomo’s court to get the subways running reliably. But just a week after the budget passed, Cuomo said that the Subway Action Plan could move ahead given the city money and that it was time to also start at the long-term plans to improve the subways.

With a modernization plan due soon from the new head of the MTA’s New York City Transit division and another five-year MTA capital plan looming, all signs point to the governor asking the city to yet again allocate additional funds toward the state-controlled MTA. Any funds put forth from city coffers are in addition to the significant portion of MTA revenue that comes from city residents who pay fares and tolls.

But just how much will Cuomo try to get the city to pay? After de Blasio increased the city’s contribution to the current MTA capital plan to record levels last time around, how many billions will the governor ask of the city for the full-scale modernization plan being readied by Andy Byford of NYC Transit?

In an interview on NY1 on April 2, de Blasio insisted the governor must now work with the money he has. “I was willing to put in the money,” he said of the Subway Action Plan funds, which he either had to put up or the state would have taken from city funding. “But let’s be clear: That’s one-time only. Now, the governor’s got everything that he’s asked for. Great. Take responsibility. Fix the subways. There’s no more excuses. There’s no more delays. Just go do it.”

This came before the governor appeared on April 5 at an event hosted by the Association for a Better New York (ABNY). After detailing highlights of the new state budget for the crowd of business and political elite, including the city funding for the Action Plan, Cuomo said that while there are various ways to raise the funds needed for a long-term MTA plan -- such as congestion pricing -- simply asking the city and state to directly allocate funds is the fastest and easiest way of doing so.

“We have to put in a new system, new signals and new cars and make up for the 50, 60 years that we have ignored this system. Where does the money come from? You can either raise fares and tolls and expand congestion pricing -- but that could take three years, if you expedite it,” he said. “Or government is going to have to ante up and put more money in the pot, which is the simplest and cleanest option.”  

Cuomo was looking ahead to the next MTA capital plan, which will include tens of billions of dollars over 2020 through 2024, and be adopted in 2019. Notably, the presentation slide displayed behind him read “NYC must step up,” implying the governor plans to request the city pays additional funds on top of its $2.5 billion committed contribution to the current capital plan, for 2015-2019, which also includes $8.6 billion from the state, much of which comes from the city, and other MTA revenue.

In addition, the flush city has more money to spare than the state, making it a more ideal source of funds than Albany, the governor and Lhota, a Cuomo appointee, have argued, despite the reality of where most MTA funding already comes from. And, they say, the city technically owns the subways.

“I know people don’t like it when I say this, but New York City does own the subway system. They lease it to us and we operate it,” Lhota said at the ABNY event, giving a presentation after Cuomo’s remarks. “The reality is it’s a commitment, they owe it, and they should be paying their fare share when it comes to the capital program.”  

Cuomo also ascribed blame to the city for the MTA’s lack of progress given de Blasio’s initial refusal to fund the emergency subway investment. “The state pledged 50 percent of the funding as soon it was announced by Chairman Lhota last year. The city refused to fund half the plan, we lost eight months before the plan could become fully operational, which was a terrible loss and waste of time,” he said.

Following the ABNY event, Lhota told reporters that if the MTA had had all of the $836 million pledged right away, it could have paid for more workers and repairs, performing its triage to the buckling system more quickly.

Last week’s back and forth is the latest episode in an ongoing dispute between the mayor and the governor over MTA funding. For the governor, if de Blasio would like to see improvements to the beleaguered MTA, the city needs to pay its fare share, which means more than it currently does. Its unwillingness to do so has thwarted progress on improving the subway, Cuomo maintains, and could stand in the way of long-term fixes.

For the mayor, the governor controls the MTA and the city already pays more than it should, and Cuomo is likely to only squander additional funds on initiatives that do not improve subway service. He doesn’t want the governor wasting city money on frills like WiFi and shiny new stations without investing in the subway’s outdated signal systems, for example. De Blasio wants a dedicated MTA funding stream through an added tax on top earners--the millionaires tax-- a call Cuomo has resisted, and has been open to some form of congestion pricing to produce revenue, though the governor only pushed through a first phase in the recently-adopted budget.

“The City of New York committed a record $2.5 billion to the last MTA capital plan, and just last week pledged to help fund a state effort to fix subways the state runs,” said de Blasio spokesperson Eric Phillips in a statement. “Instead of constantly asking New Yorkers for more money, the state and MTA should learn to do their jobs within their budget and finally seek a sustainable revenue source so riders aren’t continually victimized by their blame game.”

And regarding Cuomo’s argument that progress in recent months has been stalled by the city’s reticence to oblige Cuomo’s request for city money, Phillips said the funds would have “gone into the same hole of mismanagement that caused the subway crisis.”

“The Mayor’s advocacy ensured that riders' money couldn’t be diverted and would actually go toward a real plan for their subways rather than station facelifts and light shows,” he continued, of an apparent budget provision clarifying where the money must go. “We wish the Governor were even half as obsessed with fixing his subways as he is with Mayor de Blasio.”

In the debate over funding the Subway Action Plan, de Blasio repeatedly pointed to $456 million he said the state had diverted from MTA funds over the last several years. He said the state should put that money back into the MTA to fully fund the rescue plan.

An MTA spokesperson argued that the city’s criticism misrepresents the facts. “Of the $456M cited by the City, $235M went to pay debt service on MTA bonds, $169M was allocated for direct Capital Aid to the MTA (which freed up MTA operating resources), and $30M went to the MTA in additional operating aid. The final $22M was savings to the MTA by eliminating capital projects dictated by the legislature but paid for anyway in MTA State funding,” said Jon Weinstein, the MTA spokesperson, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.

In response, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for the mayor, said in a statement prior to the adoption of the state budget, “The State can try fudging the numbers all they want,” but to achieve “true progress,” the investment “must coincide with the Governor putting the $456 million the State has previously diverted toward upgrades that get trains moving on time.”

“And he can support a tax on millionaires rather than send his MTA bill to working class riders,” she added, echoing de Blasio’s repeated calls for a millionaire’s tax to fund the subway, a proposal that neither Cuomo nor the Republican-led state Senate has supported, though the Democrat-led Assembly is in favor of it.

While the dispute over the “diverted” funds gets into especially complicated territory of budget buckets and funding streams, there is a clear difference of opinion over whether paying off debt is a wise use of those MTA funds given the immediacy and severity of subway woes.

“Paying off debt with any extra money is certainly unobjectionable, but practically speaking, the MTA has such capital needs, and the federal government’s contribution is so uncertain, that I don’t think that will be a realistic option anytime soon,” Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said in an email on Friday.

Regional Planning Association (RPA) senior fellow Julia Vitullo-Martin said the MTA paying off its debts is a good use of its money. “If you borrow money you have to pay it back, and the MTA has borrowed big: $38 billion. It isn’t really a question of paying off debt versus making repairs. The MTA can pay back now or pay back later,” she said in an email. “But there are good reasons not to defer debt repayment, which has its own set of high costs. And even though investors basically know the MTA will repay the bonds, the combination of huge debt and huge ongoing operating deficits has been making Wall Street uneasy.”

“One result,” she explained, “has been the downgrade in bond ratings.”

On the conflict between the governor and mayor overall, Gelinas casted doubt on the idea the emergency plan was in fact what Cuomo portrayed it to be. “This is not so much a temporary emergency plan, but an open-ended effort for the MTA to do what it should have been doing all along: properly maintain the subways,” Gelinas said. “If it does not have adequate resources to do that, then the state and the city need to work together on a rational cost-control and revenue plan.”

The argument that New York City residents already provide a large portion of the MTA budget has been a favorite of transit experts and local officials as a way of refuting Cuomo’s insistence that the city should pay up. In an August 2017 Gotham Gazette op-ed, for example, former Assemblymember Jim Brennan argued the city already pays the lion’s share of the MTA capital plan, and the mayor should make that better known.

“Even when the State finally comes up with the money, it will likely come from the MTA region, either through some form of congestion pricing or a diversion of some current tax receipts from the region,” he wrote, while also outlining how the next MTA capital plan will need a major influx of funds. “If the Mayor wants the public to understand why the City won’t contribute further funds to the MTA, he needs to clearly explain that the City’s residents and businesses already cover the costs.” 

Richard Barone, RPA’s vice president for transportation, said Cuomo and de Blasio should find common ground wherein the city believes resources are used in a way that meets its interests. “The city is in better fiscal health. The city should probably try to bring some more [funding],” he said. “The state needs to understand what the city’s priorities are as well. And there needs to be some compromise there. It’s been a power struggle and neither side is willing to give.”

Barone cited the state’s emergency action plan as an area where the state would have been wise to seek the city’s consultation and cooperation rather than the MTA crafting it on its own.  

“Do I think the mayor should be willing to spend more on something that’s critical to the functioning of the city? Yes,” he said. “Do I think the state needs to learn the city’s priorities more and give it a seat at the table when it comes to determining the MTA’s priorities? Totally. There needs to be a better dialogue between the two. Right now that’s not the case, unfortunately.”

But according to Gelinas, it is understandable that de Blasio is instinctually reticent to comply with Cuomo’s calls for the city to pay more money to fund his initiatives. “These were deficiencies in the MTA just doing its job,” Gelinas said in an interview on Friday. “There was no exogenous disaster to cause this to happen. This is just the MTA missing obvious things -- that ridership was going up, and they were not able to handle a record number of riders because they were not invested in the system well enough. So I don’t know why this is the city’s job to fix.”

The governor not only appoints the MTA chair, but also a plurality of the agency’s board members, while a handful are mayoral appointees. The recent de Blasio-Cuomo dispute also comes on the heels of reports in The New York Times detailing the sky-high costs for MTA projects as well as rampant waste and corruption at the agency.  

However, since “the city is a creature of the state,” resisting bad spending practices in Albany would prove a difficult task, Gelinas said.

Still, she said, the MTA would be wise to improve its spending practices before asking others for more money. “The MTA needs to look at its costs and what it spends its money on before it starts hitting anybody up for more revenue,” Gelinas said, echoing her calls in a recent City & State op-ed to reduce the high construction costs in the city. “But when it does need more revenue, it should be on a rational, permanent basis, not just, ‘It’s an emergency, we need money. Let’s ask the city for more money. And let’s ask them for more money later.’”

“It’s like If someone is extorting you,” Gelinas explained. “You pay once and they’re going to come back and extort you again.”

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After Forcing City to Fund Subway Plan, Cuomo Forecasts Next MTA Budget Battle Wed, 11 Apr 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Council Speaker Boxes In Mayor on MTA Action Plan Funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7502:council-speaker-boxes-in-mayor-on-mta-action-plan-funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7502:council-speaker-boxes-in-mayor-on-mta-action-plan-funding Corey Johnson Mayor de Blasio budget briefing

Speaker Johnson talks with Mayor de Blasio (photo: William Alatriste)


The City Council is set to begin hearings next week on Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $88.67 billion preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 2019, with a smaller but significant figure likely to become an issue of controversy in negotiations between the two sides of City Hall.  

Council Speaker Corey Johnson seems to be gearing up to push the administration on funding half of the MTA’s $836-million action plan to stabilize the city’s ailing subways. The plan, announced by MTA Chair Joe Lhota in July, has become another point of contention between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats, as Cuomo and his appointee, Lhota, have called on de Blasio to fund half the action plan, which the mayor has refused to do. De Blasio has pointed to more than $450 million he says the state has raided from the MTA and should return in order to fund the action plan.

While de Blasio fights the governor’s demand, Johnson may be closing in on the mayor from the other side.

“It is no secret that our subway system is in crisis. Though I am glad the Governor appointed Chair Lhota to fix the MTA’s ongoing problems, we still have serious concerns and we finally need to get the job done,” Speaker Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette on Friday, when asked about his position on the MTA action plan. “The New York City Council will consider a one-time payment to fund the proposed subway action plan and we look forward to working with the Mayor, Governor, the Senate and Assembly and MTA in repairing the transit system.”

Johnson’s remarks came after a recent interview with the amNew York and Newsday editorial board in which he indicated that perhaps the city should consider paying half the cost of the plan in exchange for more accountability from the MTA, and possibly more. “Maybe if the mayor were able to get some other good things for the city that are really important to him, maybe he would be more willing for the city to come up with a one-time payment,” Johnson said in the interview, perhaps previewing his role as a deal-broker on the issue.

Not only will all the parties be negotiating the action plan funding, but also long-term funding for the MTA, which may include a congestion pricing scheme. Johnson said he is worried that a potential “lock box” for revenue raised through congestion pricing -- a hotly debated policy issue that has taken center stage in the MTA funding conversation -- would not be failsafe. That concern appears to muddy de Blasio’s demand that any congestion pricing plan include such a lock box guarantee that any money raised in the city stays in the city for MTA subway and bus improvements.

At an unrelated news conference on Thursday, de Blasio brushed aside any concern about Johnson’s contrasting perspective, and denied that it may be undercutting his position in budget negotiations with the state. “I have a lot of respect for the speaker. We have talked about it. We have a different view but it’s with real respect,” de Blasio said, when asked by Gotham Gazette about Johnson’s openness to funding the MTA action plan. “He’s the leader of a separate part of government. He’s going to issue his opinions, the important thing is we always talk about them.”

De Blasio expressed appreciation that Johnson was pushing for “real checks and balances” to ensure money raised in the city is spent within the city and with oversight and approval from local officials. “So I think the speaker was right on point on those things he said about what the conditions would be. But no we’ve had a very collegial relationship. I’m very happy with it.”

It was a similar exchange to that de Basio had with Comptroller Scott Stringer last summer, when Stringer said that the city should put up half the action plan funds.

De Blasio and the City Council must agree on a new city budget deal by the July 1 start of the next fiscal year. The state fiscal year begins April 1, and negotiations in Albany are about to heat up.

At the Thursday press conference, the mayor reiterated his preferred policy of implementing a so-called millionaire’s tax that would both fund transit infrastructure and subsidized MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, and called the new congestion pricing plan, put forth by the governor’s Fix NYC panel, that would implement a surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles “a very promising one.”  

“Look, there’s going to be a whole negotiation over the state budget. We’re going to be actively involved in that,” he said. “And we’re going to be listening for any plan that guarantees results for the people of New York City. If it doesn’t have a lockbox, we’re not going to part of it.”

As Johnson noted, any agreement on funding the MTA and on a potential congestion pricing plan will have to be negotiated between the governor, the state Assembly and the state Senate. But state elected officials have so far vacillated on how to move forward or presented options that have been unpalatable to de Blasio’s administration. The governor has not presented actual bill language around congestion pricing, though his panel put forth detailed recommendations with a three-year phase-in.

“We had an initial conversation internally,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, told reporters earlier this month. “I can clearly say the funding sources for the MTA is a priority for members, but I don’t think the members at this point are ready to go forward. But I do think we will come up with some ideas because the importance of funding the MTA — even the biggest critics realize some sort of long-term funding is necessary.”

The Senate leadership, on the other hand, has been far more hostile to the mayor’s priorities, as is typical. “The city has to ante up its share. The state has already made a commitment,” said Senate GOP Majority Leader John Flanagan, at an unrelated news conference on January 10. Flanagan has already come out against any new taxes and has been noncommittal on congestion pricing. During a Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum on January 26, he said, “When someone asks me about congestion pricing, I don't want to gratuitously say ‘no’ because we have not conferenced this.”

The Senate’s Independent Democratic Conference, which helps Republicans control the chamber, has put forward separate legislation earlier this month that would force the city to bear half the cost of the MTA action plan by diverting a percentage of sales tax revenue.

That measure, among others, was also part of Governor Cuomo’s executive budget proposal, which includes cost shifts for MTA capital improvements from the state to the city and a proposal to create special tax zones in the city to capture revenue for the MTA from increasing property values around transit investments. The Citizens Budget Commission, an independent fiscal watchdog, criticized the proposals and called the shifts “unjustified” and said they would require “a sevenfold increase in City capital contributions.”

“These proposals are an attempt to impose an onerous cost shift onto New York City residents and businesses, who already pay an estimated 72 percent of MTA dedicated taxes and subsidies,” said CBC President Carol Kellerman, in a statement on Cuomo’s executive budget in January.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Council Speaker Boxes In Mayor on MTA Action Plan Funding Tue, 27 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
What's The [Data] Point? $418 million, with Dana Rubinstein http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7477:whats-the-data-point-418-million-with-dana-rubinstein http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7477:whats-the-data-point-418-million-with-dana-rubinstein whats the data point


What's The [Data] Point? Episode 31 -- $418 million, with Dana Rubinstein [You can download What's The [Data] Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

wtdp dana rubinstein lg

$418 million is the amount that MTA Chair Joe Lhota and Governor Andrew Cuomo want Mayor Bill de Blasio to commit to the Subway Action Plan, the emergency plan to address essential subway repairs and -- in their own words -- stop failing customers. De Blasio has refused.

Dana Rubinstein, who covers the MTA and transit for Politico New York, joined the podcast to discuss the city-state disputes over the MTA, as well as other related topics, including congestion pricing, de Blasio's transit agenda, and more. Rubinstein recently wrote about Lhota's leadership of the authority and about his possible conflicts of interest given his work for Madison Square Garden and discussed those stories as well.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis of CBC (@MariaDoulis) and guest Dana Rubinstein (@danarubinstein). Listen below or download wherever you get your podcasts!

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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What's The [Data] Point? $418 million, with Dana Rubinstein Thu, 15 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
MTA Funding Fight May Dominate This Year’s City-State Budget Struggle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7447:mta-funding-fight-may-dominate-this-year-s-city-state-budget-struggle http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7447:mta-funding-fight-may-dominate-this-year-s-city-state-budget-struggle 36468561375 7f08a42b5b z

Gov. Cuomo in the subway (photo: The Governor's Office)


Three key points of contention between the city and the state have emerged over transit funding, highlighted during Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) Chair Joe Lhota’s testimony at the joint legislative hearing on transportation Thursday in Albany.

The hearing, which included discussion of the MTA plan to restore New York City’s ailing subway system, occurred amid an ongoing feud between New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo over the funding of crucial repairs for the deteriorating transit system, which is controlled by the state.

In a four-hour session that was at times good-natured and at others tense, members of the Senate and Assembly repeatedly questioned Lhota on three controversial and relevant aspects of Cuomo’s 2018 agenda: cost shifts of capital funding for the city’s subway system from the state to the city as outlined in Cuomo’s budget; a “value capture” plan to allow the state to reap property tax revenue spurred by transportation improvements in the city; and the recently unveiled congestion pricing plan outlined by Cuomo’s “Fix NYC” panel.

These issues were addressed by de Blasio officials in a press conference call with reporters two days earlier. “We are objecting strongly to language that was inserted into the budget that would create a new, capital liability, a new capital commitment liability on the part of the city for New York City Transit, which is breaking a long-standing history of how the MTA is funded,” said First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan during the call. He and the other officials on the call also pushed back against the value capture proposal, calling it an unprecedented intrusion into the city’s tax system.

Mayor de Blasio himself also expressed his opposition during his weekly appearance on WNYC radio’s The Brian Lehrer Show, saying Friday morning.

“To take our property taxes which pay for our police, our schools, you know, our parks, our sanitation, to try and take from our property taxes for something the State wants is absolutely unacceptable…the first thing the State should do is return the $456 million diverted away from the MTA,” de Blasio said, referring to funds that were earmarked specifically for the MTA diverted by the State to other purposes over the last few years. “Put that money back and then we can discuss how to move forward.”

De Blasio will testify himself at a state legislative budget hearing in Albany on Monday, February 5. MTA funding, including the state’s insistence that the city pay about $450 million toward Lhota’s emergency subway stabilization plan, will likely be topics of discussion.

During his testimony Thursday, Lhota said the state’s $836 million Subway Action Plan launched last summer to restabilize the city's subway service is working, citing the MTA’s ability to prevent the predicted “summer of hell” in 2017, though the data does not necessarily support his claim, as explained by Nicole Gelinas of The New York Post.

“That’s not true — or only true if you compare summer and autumn to winter and spring, instead of a season to the previous year’s season. The latter is a far better measure because of similar crowding and weather,” Gelinas writes.

Despite this, Lhota said he attributes the MTA’s success at preempting a disastrous transportation summer to heightened “vigilance” on the part of the agency, something he said must continue year-round.

He also announced technological improvements coming to the MTA, such as a new signaling technology, a fleet of electric buses, and the Freedom Ticket, which allows Long Island Rail Road commuters to seamlessly transfer to the subway system. "I fully expect it to happen this year," Lhota said of the Freedom Ticket.

Cuomo's executive budget allocates $9.7 billion for the departments of transportation and motor vehicles, the Thruway Authority, and the MTA. However, the budget shifts all of the responsibility for capital costs to the City of New York, which would “require a sevenfold increase in City capital contributions,” according to Citizens Budget Commission President Carol Kellermann.

“What we are talking about here is a radical restructuring of where the [Capital] money comes from,” State Senator Gustavo Rivera, of the Bronx, said to Lhota on Thursday. “Is that correct?”

Lhota said this type of fluctuation is typical of past capital plans for transportation.

“When you look at funding over the last 20 or 30 years, sometimes the city has given more than the state, sometimes the state has given more than the city -- it goes back and forth,” said Lhota. “There was a period of time when the federal government gave more than the city and state in various different five-year capital plans.”

Mayor de Blasio is expected to continue to push back on the proposal in the coming weeks, while also relying on state legislators from the five boroughs to take up the cause in budget negotiations with the governor’s administration.

De Blasio has reluctantly agreed to consider the congestion pricing plan released by Cuomo’s advisory panel. The plan, which is similar to one previously proposed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Cuomo has indicated he will tweak as he also negotiates with the Legislature, outlines a three-year, three-phase program aimed at reducing congestion in Manhattan and raising funds for transit improvements, especially the subway system. It also includes calls for the city to increase enforcement of certain traffic measures, like double-parking and placard abuse, that currently contribute to congestion.

Fully phased in, the Fix NYC proposal would charge cars entering the most congested areas of Manhattan $11.52, while trucks would pay $25.34, and those riding in cabs or for-hire vehicles like Uber would see a $2 to $5 surcharge. The congestion fees would vary based on location and time of day, and would likely apply to non-commercial vehicles driving below 60th Street in Manhattan. The plan calls for new transit investments early on and estimates about $1.5 billion in annual revenue when fully implemented.

De Blasio has previously called general congestion pricing, with new tolls on the East River bridges, a "regressive tax" that would disproportionately impact low- and middle-income commuters from outer boroughs, though there have been holes punched in that argument given the low percentage of people who commute into Manhattan from Queens and Brooklyn that are low-income. The mayor appeared less dismissive of the Fix NYC recommendations, calling them an improvement from prior congestion pricing plans.

At Thursday’s hearing, lawmakers were divided on the congestion pricing recommendations, which will be parsed through the legislative process in the coming weeks. Senator Diane Savino, who sponsored the Move New York version of congestion pricing, approves of congestion pricing as a way to make the city’s transportation system more equitable for commuters from the outer boroughs.

However, Savino, a member of the Independent Democratic Conference representing parts of Staten Island and bits of Brooklyn, questioned whether appointees to the Fix NYC board considered the Move New York plan as a “better proposal” to eliminate “winner and losers” while enabling the city to generate transportation revenue without going through Albany. A key element of Move New York not included in the Fix NYC recommendations is lowering tolls on the Verrazano and other currently-tolled bridges, something Cuomo indicated he wants to consider.

Lhota said that panel produced a plan that they believe is a good starting point and that such concerns have yet be addressed during the legislative process. “The basic concept is there. Now, how do we make it fair?” he said.

“Fairness is important,” agreed Savino, adding, “We need to find a more steady stream of revenue for the MTA region, not just the transit system, but the region itself.”

Alex Matthiessen, the founder and director of Move New York, a group that evolved out of former Mayor Bloomberg’s failed attempt to pass a version of congestion pricing, has also thrown his support behind the Fix NYC plan despite its differences with his group’s proposal.

“I thought that we had created the gold standard of congestion pricing plans, especially for the City of New York, tailored for the City of New York, and these guys actually improved upon our plan in a number of ways,” Matthiessen told Gotham Gazette and City Limits during a recent podcast.

Other lawmakers and transportation experts are not yet sold on congestion pricing. Senator Leroy Comrie, a Queens Democrat, expressed skepticism of the plan, saying it does not solve the problem of congestion in Manhattan nor does it generate a reliable source of revenue for the MTA.

“My concern with congestion pricing is it doesn’t relieve the congestion,” Comrie told Lhota during Thursday’s hearing. “Why are we going to do a program where we are just taking more money from people and still the essential business districts will be crowded with the elements -- it won’t fix the truck traffic in the city, it won’t fix the issue of people coming from New Jersey into the City…so there’s a lot of things wrong with the plan.”

Regarding Cuomo’s value capture plan, the mayor’s office maintains that the administration was not consulted ahead of time, and just learned of it from Cuomo’s executive budget. The budget proposal, which targets zones around transportation projects such as the makeover of Penn Station, the 125th Street Metro-North Railroad stop, and expansion of the Second Avenue Subway, would deprive the city of control over its own potential revenue, de Blasio officials say.

“This is the City’s property tax base, it’s our major source of revenue,” said Fuleihan during the January 23 phone conference. "For the MTA to arbitrarily take City tax revenues, determine what those tax revenues are, on established neighborhoods...it’s outrageous and there is no logical argument for this.”

“The City has significant obligations that we need to keep, that we need to make sure we are able to commit to—safest big city in America, universal pre-K for four-year-olds, expansion of pre-K, we can go on, addressing the opioid crisis,” said Fuleihan.

At the hearing, Lhota fended off criticisms of Cuomo’s plan from New York City lawmakers, including Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat. “I can't emphasize enough why I think that this is a terrible idea, and I was hoping you would agree with me,” Krueger said of the value capture proposal.

When asked by reporters why the city was not consulted in the drafting of the legislation, Lhota said he could not speak for the governor’s office. “You are asking me questions that should be directed at the [executive] chamber,” he said, but noted that Bloomberg used value capture to extend the 7 train to the Upper West Side of Manhattan (something de Blasio officials acknowledged but pointed out was a city decision).

A spokesperson for Cuomo’s office addressed the criticisms saying that other major cities have used this strategy and they expected all affected to be on board with the plan.

“Transit systems in cities across the world use this method, including New York City,” said Cuomo spokesperson Dani Lever. “We'd think anyone who wants to improve the subways would support it, and we will work with the legislature and all our local partners throughout the budget process to pass this law.”

Lhota indicated that the value capture tax could be extended indefinitely after the investment is recouped, arguing that there was a good case for the tax to be continued to maintain the quality of the subway service. “There’s unanimity in the entire MTA board that if we are using taxpayer dollars, we should try to recoup some of that wherever we can,” he said. He also said that the state is constitutionally authorized to utilize the value capture plan in other parts of the city, as needed.

Assembly Ways and Means Chairperson Helene Weinstein, a Democrat representing Brooklyn, noted the absence of communication between Cuomo’s administration and the community representatives of affected areas, questioning why the value capture wasn’t applied to suburban areas that are benefiting from major transportation investment. Of the Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s West Side, she said, “That was a negotiated, agreed-to proposal, that both the city and MTA board worked out, and that worked on properties that were not really developed. There was clearly much more of a nexus between the extension of the 7 line [and the linked value capture program], than this sort of open-ended situation here.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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MTA Funding Fight May Dominate This Year’s City-State Budget Struggle Fri, 26 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Mapping the Mayoral: Where De Blasio and Malliotakis Each Did Well http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7313:mapping-the-mayoral-where-de-blasio-and-malliotakis-each-did-well http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7313:mapping-the-mayoral-where-de-blasio-and-malliotakis-each-did-well wnyc map interactive

image: WNYC Data News team map of the 2017 mayoral race


Mayor Bill de Blasio was reelected for a second term on Tuesday with two-thirds of the vote in a low turnout election that saw only about 22 percent of registered New Yorkers cast a ballot for mayor.

There were few surprises across the five boroughs, and voter behavior was largely consistent with the 2013 mayoral election, in which de Blasio beat Republican Joe Lhota, 73 percent to 24 percent. But in certain enclaves of the city, de Blasio’s main challenger, Republican Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, built on Lhota’s vote share and cut into the mayor’s margin of victory. The neighborhood by neighborhood break down of the vote not only tracks similarly to 2013, it also shows racial and ethnic divisions that have been consistent throughout de Blasio’s term. Meanwhile, Malliotakis’ performance was buoyed by her home borough of Staten Island.

De Blasio received 66.16 percent of the vote, with Malliotakis pulling 27.67 percent, according to unofficial election night returns from the Board of Elections (absentee and affidavit ballots are still being counted). In absolute numbers, more New Yorkers voted on Tuesday -- 1.09 million -- than in 2013, when 1.08 million people cast ballots, which was 26 percent of registered voters at the time.

A glance at the CUNY mapping service electoral maps from 2013 and 2017 show that de Blasio did not manage to either keep or expand on his vote share in several parts of the city. Some neighborhoods in Staten Island that voted for him in 2013 went deep red on Tuesday to back his Republican challenger. Similarly, parts of southern Brooklyn flipped to Republican, as did a section of northeastern Queens. Locales that were already Republican went further that way to varying degrees.

mayoral election 2013v2017 large

“I think Malliotakis definitely did better in terms of vote share in most places” compared to Lhota, said Steve Romalewski, director of CUNY Graduate Center's mapping service. “The turnout is also higher than average in those areas, compared to the citywide average.”

As expected, Malliotakis’ strongest performance was on Staten Island, her home borough that she represents in the Assembly along with a sliver of Brooklyn. She won both the 50th and 51st Council districts, which cover the central and southern parts of the island. In the 49th Council district, represented by Debi Rose, a Democrat, de Blasio pulled votes along the northern shore. In total, Malliotakis received more than 67,000 votes on the island, while de Blasio got just over 24,000.

In southern Brooklyn, Malliotakis won more neighborhoods across four Council districts than Lhota did in 2013. “She did better there but voter turnout wasn’t that high,” Romalewski pointed out. Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and Midwood all went for Malliotakis. Notably, although Malliotakis carried most of the areas covering City Council District 43, the competitive open seat in that district went to a Democrat, Justin Brannan. Brannan, a progressive who had worked under de Blasio at the Department of Education, distanced himself from the mayor publicly, though aides to de Blasio helped Brannan on the ground.

Other smaller pockets that skewed Republican were Bergen Beach, Mill Basin and some neighborhoods adjacent to Marine Park.  

Malliotakis also received significant support in Council District 32 in Queens, represented by Eric Ulrich, a moderate who is one of the three Republicans currently in the City Council. Breezy Point, Rockaway Park, Howard Beach, and Lindenwood chose Malliotakis, while the northern part of the district, including Ozone Park, Woodhaven and Richmond Hill, voted for de Blasio. Ulrich won reelection convincingly against a Democratic opponent.

District 30 in Queens saw the closest City Council race and is yet to be called in one candidate’s favor. Incumbent Democrat Elizabeth Crowley may be headed to a loss against challenger Robert Holden, a registered Democrat who lost the primary to Crowley but ran on multiple ballot lines, including Republican and Conservative, in the general. Holden has a 133 vote lead and Crowley has yet to concede the race as other ballots are counted and a potential recount looms. A similar dynamic played out on the mayoral level, with Malliotakis winning most of the district, which covers Glendale, Maspeth, Ridgewood, Woodhaven and Woodside.

Wide swathes of northeastern Queens, including College Point, Whitestone, Bayside and Little Neck, voted for Malliotakis. The neighborhoods fall within Council Member Paul Vallone’s constituency, District 19. Yet Vallone, a moderate Democrat, was comfortably reelected.  

Malliotakis also made inroads in Schuylerville, south of Pelham Bay Park in the East Bronx, in outgoing Council Member James Vacca’s 13th Council District.  

Manhattan voted almost entirely for de Blasio, save for swaths of the 4th Council District on the East Side, where Malliotakis won stretches along Museum Mile, and miniscule pockets in the 5th Council District. District 4 was one of the few Council seats with an open race, and one of only a handful with a Republican candidate running an assertive campaign, in which Democrat Keith Powers defeated Republican Rebecca Harary. [See map below from the WNYC radio Data News team]

“I think de Blasio did more than well enough in pretty much all the areas where people supported him in 2013,” Romalewski noted. The areas Malliotakis won are those with high percentages of white residents, though de Blasio did well in parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan home to many white, liberal voters. Throughout the 2013 race and the mayor’s first term he has polled significantly higher among people of color than white people.

De Blasio did best on Tuesday in neighborhoods such as his home area of Park Slope, as well as in areas of central Brooklyn (Crown Heights, Clinton Hill, East Flatbush, and beyond), southeast Queens, the south and north Bronx, and upper Manhattan. These are the areas where his win was by the largest margins.

“The one thing I was surprised about was turnout,” Romalewski said, about the increase in the number of voters, if not the rate of voting. “That’s encouraging. It’s too early to say if it’s a trend but compared to going the other way, it’s good.” On Wednesday, de Blasio declared a “mandate” from the voters and said that a slight increase in overall turnout was indicative of a backlash against President Donald Trump.

“I don’t think you should get too hung up on percentage turnout,” Romalewski said, noting that the increase in the number of registered voters is affected by the Board of Election’s efforts to maintain the voter rolls and it’s hard to decipher truly how many new voters have been added. “I have more faith in looking at total voters as a measure of civic participation.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Mapping the Mayoral: Where De Blasio and Malliotakis Each Did Well Thu, 09 Nov 2017 05:00:00 +0000
What About the Buses? http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7109:what-about-the-buses http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7109:what-about-the-buses governorandrewcuomo photo by marc a. hermann mta new york city transit

(photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA)


Newly-minted MTA chief Joe Lhota held a press conference last week to announce a rescue plan for the city’s ailing subway system. The agenda includes signal fixes, maintenance work, new emergency response teams, and even rider communication shifts. Lhota’s blueprint comes with $800-plus million price tag, he said, which set off another round of feuding between Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo about how much the city and the state will each pitch in.

While there is a great deal of attention necessarily being paid to the state of the city’s subway system, absent from the new MTA plan was measures to improve bus service. Transit advocates, city and state elected officials have subsequently pointed to buses as an overlooked but essential factor in improving New York City’s transit system, to provide commuters more reliable options and to reach people who live outside subway zones.

Indicative of the need for attention to buses is the fact that subway underperformance and drops in service reliability have not spawned an increased reliance on the city’s bus system. In fact, as the New York Times reported in February, bus ridership fell by approximately 1.6 percent on weekdays and 4 percent on weekends in 2016 from the year before, in keeping with a multi-year trend of falling bus usage.   

Following Lhota’s announcement of the new “NYC Subway Action Plan,” State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz, who chairs the Assembly committee with MTA oversight, commended Lhota for releasing an emergency subway plan, but also encouraged him to address buses in the near future.

“While I recognize that our signals, tracks, cars, and user experience are all at the forefront of public concern and discourse, there are many New Yorkers who need improvements in other areas as well,” said the Dinowitz statement. “Accessibility concerns and bus service remain in need of attention also, and I encourage Chairman Lhota to address these issues soon,” he said. While Dinowitz’s committee has done little by way of MTA oversight in recent years, the Assembly member has put forth some of his own recommendations and took part in a two-day series of subway rides on Thursday and Friday to talk to riders directly.

John Raskin, executive director of transit advocacy group Riders Alliance, who has written and spoken favorably of Lhota and his plan, also said he would like to see advancements on buses.

“Focusing on bus service is a quick and affordable way to improve public transit for millions of daily riders. Implementing long-overdue bus improvements would be a great compliment to the longer, more expensive work that will be needed to overhaul subway service,” he wrote in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “In the near future, the MTA could improve bus service by switching to a system of boarding through all doors, as well as redesigning bus routes to match how people travel today,” he continued, also proposing “adding bus lanes to local routes so buses don't get caught in traffic jams.”

The bus system, particularly bus lanes, as many transit experts point out, can be changed relatively quickly, and by the mayor, if need be. Still, the state-run MTA holds the majority of control over buses as a whole.

There is growing consensus among experts and elected officials pointing to expanding both Select Bus Service (SBS), essentially express buses, and transit signal priority (TPS), which helps buses move more quickly through traffic light changes.

SBS is one of the joint ventures set in motion over the past few years that has shown signs of success. Ths mode differs from traditional buses in that passengers board from all doors, speeding up the process at each stop, and the stops are less frequent on routes, making SBS something of an “express.” SBS also uses proof-of-payment, where instead of dipping a metrocard, riders buy tickets at bus stop kiosks prior to boarding (they are checked randomly).

SBS has been deployed on 14 routes across the city; several potential routes to expand the service have been proposed as well. Prominent current examples of SBS are on 1st and 2nd Avenues in Manhattan; the newly-added crosstown 79th Street and 86th Street routes Uptown; the B41, B44 and B46 in Brooklyn; the S79, connecting Bay Ridge and Staten Island; the Q70 which goes to LaGuardia Airport; and several others.

“Both the MTA and New York City DOT can speed up the installation of Select Bus Service, which has proven both popular and effective, making buses run faster and attracting more riders who had given up on the slow local service that came before it,” wrote Raskin.   

Mayor de Blasio, for his part, often refers to SBS as a model. “That’s something we think has been a real success story -- so there are sometimes when things have been done the right way, and that’s one of them,” he said when asked about the buses by Gotham Gazette at a Thursday press conference. “Then we want to keep expanding. It’s a good news story,” he continued. “I’d put it in the same category as the other, newer types of transportation that are being developed rapidly: the ferry system, light rail, and obviously the expansion of Citi Bike -- all of these are going to be necessary to give people more options,” he said.

“For [SBS expansion] to be achieved,” de Blasio said, “it requires cooperation between the city and the state and the MTA, and obviously investment by the city on the capital elements of each route.”

Advocates and experts have also called for an expansion of bus service to places that are particularly distant from a subway stop and existing bus routes, such as certain parts of Brooklyn and Queens.

With the impending closure of the L train in 2019, transit advocates have called for augmented bus service during the shutdown, which former MTA chief Tom Prendergast pledged to address last year.

Last month, a coalition of eight transit advocacy groups gathered to announce a list of commitments they would like New York City lawmakers to champion and implement. Improving bus service was among the seven demands. “Unfortunately, service is often slow and unreliable, and buses are generally neglected by policymakers, at the expense of residents who already have the most punishing commutes,” the plan states.

The coalition of advocates is urging the city to add additional bus lanes to local routes along with expanded Select Bus Services. But new bus routes are not the only way to improve service. Stricter, even dedicated bus lanes -- through physical barriers and NYPD enforcement -- are other options in the city’s toolbox. All-door boarding, an important component to SBS, is another endeavor for the city to consider putting into place across the system.

Asked about attention to buses as the subway system has become more unreliable and MTA Chair Lhota said more temporary subway line shutdowns would be needed, an MTA spokesperson said, "We are also focused on our bus customers and several initiatives are already in place to improve bus service. As you know, the MTA is committed to maintaining and expanding Select Bus Service, which has been successful in reducing dwell times at bus stops. Every bus in our system can be tracked with GPS and customers can access this information on the MTA Bus Time app. The same data we use for the app we use to monitor bus schedule and service to help mitigate issues that may arise on the road in real time. Installation of a new fare payment system, which is being worked on, will also speed up boarding," said Kevin Ortiz, of the MTA.

"Additionally, we continue to work with DOT to advance the rollout of Traffic Signal Prioritization city-wide and are looking at implementing all-door boarding where it is practical to do so," Ortiz added. "However, we don’t have direct control of road conditions on city streets. We are continuing to collaborate with DOT and NYPD to prioritize bus service as they address traffic congestion, unauthorized vehicles in bus lanes, double parked cars, and other factors that have the most direct impact on bus speeds and service reliability."

Advocates have argued in favor of expanding transit signal priority (TSP) as a way to speed up existing bus routes. “Mayor de Blasio's administration could also make a difference, by accelerating the implementation of transit signal priority, where lights turn green faster when buses are waiting,” Raskin explained.

Along these lines, TransitCenter, an organization of transportation experts, published a report on TSP. It notes that trips take longer than needed because “New Yorkers are stuck spending 21% of their bus rides stopped at red lights—but they shouldn’t be.” “Transit signal priority (TSP) can be used to extend green lights or shorten red ones when a bus is approaching, speeding up trips and improving schedule reliability,” it says.

The report also outlines New York City shortcomings compared to buses in other major cities. “Other cities around the world aren’t waiting for the light: New York is behind peers like London and Los Angeles, which have been utilizing signal priority for nearly two decades,” the TransitCenter report notes. “There are around 260 intersections providing bus priority in New York today, versus 3200 such intersections in London and 654 in Los Angeles.”  

Given the fact that the city already uses TSP, and is effective along these routes -- the report cited city DOT data showing that TSP reduced travel time by 18% -- the proposal suggests that the city adopt a goal of utilizing TSP for 20 new routes by 2018.

“Chairman Lhota and Commissioner Trottenberg should work together to prioritize transit on NYC streets by applying TSP more aggressively and more quickly,” the report reads. “Strong leadership is needed from both NYCDOT and the MTA to realize the relatively painless gains transit signal priority offers.”

Recently, TSP has garnered more support from New York officials. “Transit Signal Priority gives a Green Light to New York City bus riders,” said Polly Trottenberg, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Transportation, in a recent press release. “We have seen travel time savings of 5-30 percent on the SBS routes where we installed this technology and now that the MTA is moving forward with its TSP procurement, we are pleased to announce that DOT will quadruple our installation rate, covering over 1,000 intersections total and 15 additional routes by 2020.”

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, echoed Trottenberg. “Transit signal priority is a crucial part of improving bus service across the city,” he stated in the press release. “With buses shedding riders over the past few years,” he continued, alluding to the reduction in bus ridership, “improvements like this are how we will regain their trust that buses are a fast and efficient option.”

On the state level, in April, the Governor announced a new line of MTA buses that would be equipped with Wi-Fi and USB ports. Two thousand of these newly designed buses will be put to use in the next five years, according to the governor. Cuomo argued they will help reinvigorate the city’s bus system.

“From opening the Second Avenue Subway, to bringing Wi-Fi and cell service to underground subway stations, we are reimagining the mass-transit experience for the metropolitan area,” Cuomo said in a press release. “These new state-of-the-art buses will better connect passengers who are on-the-go, create a stronger mass-transit system and bring New York into the 21st Century,” the statement continued.

The high-tech bus model introduction and a late April press release regarding the addition of a bus “pilot program,” an introduction of 10 new environmentally friendly buses to the existing system, were the last times the state has given buses attention. The governor has mostly spent his MTA attention on subway-related matters, alternating between celebrating the Second Avenue Subway expansion, deflecting responsibility to the city, proposing additional gubernatorial powers to appoint MTA board members, telling the city to pay more money for the system, and taking renewed control of the situation.

Note: this article was updated with comment from the MTA.

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What About the Buses? Fri, 04 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Calls For Long-Term Solutions As City Transit Crisis Worsens http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7072:calls-for-solutions-as-city-transit-crisis-worsens http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7072:calls-for-solutions-as-city-transit-crisis-worsens 8146324848 d93a71e4cd k 2

Governor Cuomo with MTA Chair Joe Lhota (photo: Governor's Office/Flickr)


Two separate subway track fires on Monday, in the morning and evening, that led to stoppages on multiple lines and delays across the system were just the latest incidents that put the spotlight on problems with New York City’s subways. The last few weeks have seen chronic delays, a recent A-train derailment, and passengers trapped on an F Train for nearly an hour without running air or power. Although issues with the subway system have long been apparent, and only increasing in severity, the official response has widely been deemed insufficient. Transit and infrastructure experts agree that the city and state must act now, and act together, to deal with the system’s overcrowding, aging trains and archaic signal mechanisms, and there seems to be broad consensus among them on policies and proposals that could solve the city’s transit crisis.

The problems with the city’s subways have been decades in the making, stemming from chronic underinvestment in mass transit infrastructure. Earlier this month, in a New York Times op-ed, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel contrasted New York City’s system with Chicago’s own, pointing out that the key to his city’s transit successes was prioritization of maintenance and direct accountability of local officials. “[F]irst, we put reliability ahead of expansion,” he wrote. “We focused relentlessly on modernizing tracks, signals, switches, stations and cars before extending lines to new destinations.”

Although the editorial drew a harsh rebuke from elected officials and New York’s tabloids, Emmanuel’s criticisms were not entirely off the mark. The MTA has largely failed to maintain and modernize the analog signal system in New York, which dates back to before World War II and is one of the key factors in system breakdowns. Although improvements are underway, at the rate the MTA is progressing, a system-wide upgrade is expected to take 50 years.

Official accountability has also been lacking. Mayor Bill de Blasio has faced increased pressure from constituents, activists and political opponents to address the MTA’s poor performance, though he does not in fact control the state agency. The mayor has sought to distance himself from those issues, laying the problems at the feet of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has authority and control over the MTA’s day-to-day operations.

Cuomo, however, has argued that he has insufficient control of the agency despite appointing a plurality of the MTA’s board members and its chair. He recently proposed increasing the number of gubernatorial MTA appointees, declared a state of emergency for the MTA to ease procurement rules, and appointed Joe Lhota, who has previously served as MTA chair, to lead the agency yet again. Cuomo also pledged another $1 billion to the MTA capital plan.

"If suspending procurement rules is a good idea, why is it only being done for $1 billion? Why isn't the governor pressing for more fundamental reform?” wondered Stephen Smith, an urban and transit policy expert who runs the popular Twitter account Market Urbanism. Smith, along with other transit experts, are skeptical that throwing more money at the problem will work unless officials implement multi-faceted solutions that address existing infrastructure, spending efficiency, management and capital project completion, to name a few.

Fixing signals and reducing crowds
One of the main ailments affecting subway infrastructure is the old and neglected signal system, which the MTA has acknowledged is one of its most important challenges. The state has already allocated $2.1 billion, of the MTA’s total $29.5 billion capital plan, for signal improvements. “We’re undergoing a top-to-bottom review, but make no mistake, we must do maintenance and system expansion to underserved communities at the same time,” said MTA Chair Lhota in a statement earlier this month to the New York Daily News, responding to Emmanuel’s op-ed.

On a recent episode of What’s the [Data] Point?, a joint podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and Citizens Budget Commission, Janno Lieber, the MTA's new chief development officer pointed towards expanding use of Communications-based train control (CBTC), a signal system that would allow trains to move in closer proximity to one another due to more precise tracking of trains. According to Lieber, CBTC improves service by allowing more cars to run on a particular lines while reducing the delays and danger that often come with crowded tracks. The upgrade is currently in use on on the 7 and L lines, with plans to implement them in the E, F, M and R lines as well.

But the slow pace of upgrading the system stems from the balancing act that the MTA and State have to strike in implementing physical infrastructure improvements. The MTA’s modus operandi has generally been to shut trains down for nights or weekends at a time in order to make repairs and upgrades, allowing trains to run during high-use periods. But that work is time consuming and less efficient, driving many in the transit world to lean towards avoiding stop-and-go style fixes. “Full shut downs of subway lines get work done faster,” said Ben Kabak, editor of the New York City-centric transit news blog, Second Avenue Sagas. “At some point, that's going to have to be the conversation we’re going to have.”

Kabak supports the MTA’s plan to effect repairs on the L Train, which will involve a complete shutdown of the line starting in 2019. This option, though understandably unpopular with commuters, results in faster and less costly repairs.

David Jones, a de Blasio appointee on the MTA board and long-time transit advocate, echoed Kabak. “I was convinced by the arguments they made that to do this in a piecemeal fashion would have led to chronic delays and lasted a much longer period of time,” he said of the planned L Train shutdown. “I don’t think this is going to be pleasant,” he added, though conceding that it is the best approach to a less-than-ideal situation.

[Related: 7 Transit Commitments Advocates Want From Candidates This Year]

A prime factor that causes a majority of subway delays is overcrowding. In a sense, the MTA is a victim of its own success and, since the 1990’s, has seen ridership rise from four to six million daily riders. Unfortunately, in that time, the system has added less than 30 new train cars, leading to trains running at peak capacity. As a result, overcrowding is now responsible for more than one-third of the 75,000 subway delays each month, according to MTA data.

“The only truly effective way to address crowding on the subway is to run more trains,” John Raskin, Executive Director of Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group, told the New York Times in January. “It’s not a cheap or quick solution.”

An effort to add more miles of track would also improve service. This is evident from the launch of the Second Avenue subway line, which, in its first month, reduced ridership on the busy Lexington Avenue line by 27 percent between 42nd and 110th streets. But Smith is not optimistic that Governor Cuomo will launch large subway expansion projects to reach underserved neighborhoods. “Andrew Cuomo is very focused on the 2020 election, which is why he’s focused on rebuilding bridges,” he said. He doesn’t expect Cuomo to show a similar commitment to mass transit. “I don’t have much hope,” he said.

More bang for the MTA’s buck
It’s widely acknowledged that the MTA has lacked for investment for years, and elected officials and advocates have proposed numerous options to fund repairs. Fare hikes have been used in the past but are unpopular, for obvious reasons. The Empire Center’s E.J McMahon suggested in June the State should use 40 percent of the over $10 billion from banking fines and penalty money in the last three years to finance subway improvements. Recently, State Assembly Member Robert Carroll proposed increasing the city’s 50-cent taxi surcharge to one dollar, and expanding this tax towards black cars and ride-hailing services. A coalition of eight transit advocacy groups have also proposed taxing the property value added through real estate upzonings to finance investment in transportation.

But experts told Gotham Gazette that it’s not a lack of funds, but rather the manner in which they are put to use which is the more significant. Costs for long-term transit projects in the city tend to balloon over time, owing to delays in construction and increasing labor costs. Transportation writer Alon Levy estimated that New York City’s cost per mile of subway construction astronomically outpaces what other major cities such as Madrid, London and Paris spend. The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway first phase, for example, cost $4.5 billion -- $1.7 billion per kilometer, or just under two-thirds of a mile. In comparison, London’s Jubilee Line Extension, Amsterdam’s North-South Line and and Berlin’s U55 cost $450 million, $410 million and $250 million per kilometer respectively. The cost of the Second Avenue Subway, about four times as much as the equivalent in Paris, was not an aberration. The 7 line extension has cost near as much per kilometer of construction and the East Side Access is even projected to surpass the cost of the Second Avenue line.

Smith and Levy agree that until officials figure out how to get more bang for their buck for both tune-ups and new construction, the city’s transit troubles will likely continue. For them, the discourse on the issue features an outsized emphasis on raising revenue while ignoring the soaring costs. “It’s difficult to ask people for more money when they’re not getting much for it,” Smith said.

Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, echoed that argument. “The problem is we’ve implemented a new tax for the capital plans but we’ve never dealt with the cost side,” she said, attributing the bulk of costs to labor. “Labor is 40 percent of the costs, 40 percent materials and then 20 percent overhead and white collar,” she said, referring to a report released in April by the Empire Center for Public Policy. Those labor costs are “25 percent higher than they should be,” she said. Smith concurred, suggesting that high labor costs and a “mind-boggling amount of waste” are the likely culprits.

MTA’s Lieber conceded as much on the Gotham Gazette-CBC podcast, pointing out that the agency has not been sufficiently scrupulous in its procurement and project coordination, leading to costly labor. Lieber, who previously worked for Silverstein Properties as president of World Trade Center Properties, believes the MTA can take lessons from the private sector to lower costs. “You have to have design process that is going to resolve all the design questions and then not reopen them,” he said, contending that continuous arguing and haggling over design often delays and increases project costs. To do this, the parties involved need “close collaboration on design, so you don’t have change,” he said, insisting that the agency needs to ensure efficient and timely construction work.

Another factor behind high prices is the premiums that contractors place on construction when faced with uncertainty going into a project, Lieber said. “Sometimes we say to the contractor, ‘take all these risks about conditions that you don’t know about and throw a huge premium on it,’” he said. He suggested that hiring outside contractors may not be the best approach. “We’d probably be better off letting the public sector own and manage those risks and try to eliminate them,” said Lieber, “rather than having the contractor in effect charge you...much, much higher price for risks that he or she doesn’t really understand or can’t envision.”

Lieber also noted that builders often squander money on excessive last-minute repairs to completed projects, which adds to the final price tag. In his new role, Lieber said he’d enact measures to tackle these inefficiencies and improve how the MTA conducts its business.

Opportunities for the City
In the absence of state action, experts agree that there are initiatives de Blasio can take on his own. Earlier this month, a coalition of transit advocates rallied around seven transit initiatives they want City Hall, and any candidate running for elected office in the city, to adopt. These include discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, alternatives for when the L Train shuts down, and enhancing bike and bus lanes.

For his part, the mayor has touted the expansion of the express Select Bus Service and the New York City Ferries as examples of incremental improvements his administration has made. And, more ambitiously, his administration is exploring the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) proposal, a streetcar that would run along the waterfront from Sunset Park in Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens. Similar to the procedure with which former Mayor Michael Bloomberg expanded the 7 train to the West Side, the de Blasio administration hopes to finance the project with value capture funding, which collects the value of increased property taxes in the neighborhoods along the route.

Other than the Select Bus Service, transit experts are skeptical about de Blasio’s ideas and priorities. Ferries, while useful for some, have a relatively limited capacity. And the BQX draws mostly harsh reviews from transit experts, who say it would neither serve a currently popular and overcrowded route nor a necessary one with demand. Smith called it a “terrible idea’ and “a solution in search of a problem.”

Kabak concurred. “Their plan is suspect from a transit routing perspective and the plan is suspect from a financial perspective.” He argued that real estate interests were the driving motivator behind the misbegotten idea. Kabak suggested what he believes to be better alternatives to the BQX route, that the mayor can work on without state cooperation. He pointed to the Triboro RX proposal, a proposed route that would run from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn through Queens to Co-op City in the Bronx. It would serve an “unmet demand” for trains in areas such as Flatbush and Flushing, he said.

Smith favors more significant structural and jurisdictional reforms. “My personal opinion is that the city needs to take back the NYC Transit Authority for it to ever really be fixed,” he emailed. “Leaving it in the governor's hands is just a recipe for political unaccountability, since the vast majority of voters in New York State do not ride the subway or buses and don't care about their fate.”

He said Mayor de Blasio should take steps towards getting mayoral control of the MTA, starting with buses. “They're much lower-stakes – lower ridership, less capital funding – and the governor might be more willing to give them, and, of course, their funding, back to the city,” Smith said. “And if the city shows that it can be a better steward of the buses than the state was, I think the case for taking back the big prize – the subway – becomes a lot more convincing.”

He continued, “This would have the effect of both fixing the substantive and the jurisdictional unaccountability problems by making the powers-that-be that manage the city’s mass transit more responsive to the cohort that uses it.”

Easing congestion
Coinciding with mass-transit troubles, and partly because of them, New Yorkers have also experienced an uptick in traffic congestion, and continued subway dysfunction is likely to make matters worse. Gelinas said this is an area where de Blasio can take small steps such as making the streets safer for bicycles and improving street management. “When you look at the streets, the streets are just complete chaos, so you can understand why people don’t want to ride bikes,” she said. Along these lines, the City Council has discussed pushing the NYPD to increase bus lane enforcement and crack down on placard abuse, as well as adding bus and bike lanes.

[Related: Calls for Small & Large Fixes to City Congestion, Transit Woes]

A more ambitious measure requires encouraging ridership from the outer parts of Queens via the Long Island Rail Road. In fact, as transit experts are quick to note, one of the few advantages of gubernatorial control of all New York public transportation agencies is the ability to integrate different modes of transportation.

Levy argued that the LIRR, though passing through decidedly urban parts of Queens, better serves suburban commuters. He recommended that the LIRR be integrated, like the subways and buses. This would reduce E train ridership and take drivers off the road, he argued. He also proposed matching subway schedules with the LIRR to allow for quicker commutes from Queens.

In Kabak’s view, the most impactful option available to lawmakers is congestion pricing, with strategically increased tolls to discourage driving on busy roads. “I think the only real way to get these cars off the road is to price traffic accordingly,” he said. “It’s a tough sell because people who drive have a loud political voice but until you’re willing to say this traffic comes at a price that the rest of us are paying, as opposed to the drivers, then you’ll have traffic.”

Jones, the MTA board member, voiced support for gas taxes and congestion pricing to discourage driving. These measures would, however, need the backing of the governor and the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has said congestion pricing is a “nice idea” but insists that the legislature, which has rejected it in the past, still lacks the appetite for it. Mayor de Blasio similarly has insisted that congestion pricing is contingent on state action, and has shown little interest in pushing the issue.

Instead of redirecting responsibility and kicking the can down the road, Jones hopes that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together to push these fixes as commuters desperately await action. “The public doesn’t really care about the dispute between the mayor and the governor,” he said. “They just want to be able to get to work on time.”

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Calls For Long-Term Solutions As City Transit Crisis Worsens Wed, 19 Jul 2017 05:25:19 +0000
Despite Record Low Crime, Massey Attempts to Make Public Safety a Campaign Issue http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6840:despite-record-low-crime-massey-attempts-to-make-public-safety-a-campaign-issue http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6840:despite-record-low-crime-massey-attempts-to-make-public-safety-a-campaign-issue Massey City Hall presser

Paul Massey (photo: Samar Khurshid/Gotham Gazette)


Real estate executive Paul Massey, a leading Republican mayoral contender, held a week-long campaign launch earlier this month, concluding with a focus on community policing. Having visited each borough with a daily theme, Massey said in an email blast on March 17, “I’ve heard many concerns in my discussions with city residents this week and one that stands out is that our city feels less safe.”

It wasn’t the first time Massey made the claim, and it wasn’t the last, as he takes to the campaign trail attempting to paint Mayor Bill de Blasio as an ineffectual and corrupt leader who has presided over declining quality of life in the city. Massey has repeatedly pointed to cherry-picked statistics that show certain crimes are up in the city, or in certain geographic areas, contributing, he says, to unease among New Yorkers about their safety. In doing so, Massey is attempting to make a campaign issue out of one of de Blasio’s strongest overall metrics -- in reality, major crime has declined over the last three years and the city continues to hit historic lows in crime rates virtually each month.

De Blasio, a first-term Democrat, has already positioned himself to run on declining crime. The mayor has taken to holding monthly press conferences with NYPD leaders to tout new crime numbers, while also arguing that he has reformed the police department to improve police-community relations. The mayor’s campaign often recycles a statement for news stories about the mayoral race that includes “crime is at historic lows” in summarizing de Blasio’s record.

Still, Massey and his team see an opening. The first-time political candidate, who recently moved to the city from Westchester in order to run for mayor, ran a real estate business throughout the five boroughs for decades. While his campaign has been focused on critiquing de Blasio, Massey must first win the Republican primary (though he has already secured the Independence Party line).

In its early stages, Massey’s campaign identified what it saw as a few major areas of failure for de Blasio: housing, jobs, quality of life, and schools. Each issue presents a debate de Blasio and his supporters are seemingly ready to have. Yet, Massey has struck the chord on several points of substantive criticism of the mayor that have more supporting evidence than claiming rising crime -- homelessness, the administration’s top-down approach to rezoning neighborhoods, crumbling infrastructure in public housing, and long-struggling public schools, for instance.

Massey has also decided to take on the mayor’s record on public safety, arguably the most important job for the Mayor of the City of New York.

“We will maintain public safety and fight terrorism by providing the resources, support, and leadership our police officers need and deserve,” Massey’s campaign account said in a tweet on March 17. Another refrain of his campaign is that NYPD members “feel like they can’t do their job because the mayor doesn’t have their back.”

Asked for further explanation of those points, Mollie Fullington, a spokesperson for the campaign, said in an email to Gotham Gazette, “Perhaps it goes without saying that men and women in uniform do not feel [de Blasio] has their backs for a variety of reasons, and we also know our public spaces feel less safe, with random slashing attacks targeting pedestrians, commuters being pushed in front of subway cars, and a 55% increase in hate crimes and bias attacks.”

Fullington also pointed to a 32 percent increase in crime in city parks, a 4 percent increase in crime at public housing, and 14 percent increase in crimes in a South Bronx precinct last year. She added, “The Mayor has failed to maintain the counter terror capabilities of the NYPD, resulting in the first major terror attack in New York since 9/11,” seemingly referring to the bombing in Chelsea last year.

Those numbers are countered by the fact that major felony, or “index,” crimes tracked by the NYPD have decreased overall by about 9 percent between 2013 and 2016 under de Blasio, according to year-end statistics released by the NYPD in January. The number of murders, 335, was the same as three years ago after having seen slight fluctuation each year, and rapes and felony assaults did increase from 2013 to 2016, by 4.2 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. But, overall, 2016 was the city's safest year on record -- robberies were down 19 percent, burglaries were down by 25.5 percent, grand larceny was down by 2.4 percent. Gun violence also decreased significantly - there were 998 shooting incidents in 2016, the first time that number was below 1,100 in the decades of modern data-tracking.

Massey’s campaign appears to be the first and only entity to attribute the jump in hate crimes, widely seen as having been sparked by forces in and around Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, to a failure by the de Blasio administration, which includes the NYPD.

Massey may have difficulty gaining traction on public safety as a campaign issue, though he will certainly not fall on deaf ears. Voters are divided along demographic and party lines on the mayor’s handling of crime, with the city’s lopsided enrollment tilting things heavily in de Blasio’s favor (Democrats outnumber Republicans six-to-one in New York City voter rolls; there are also over 1 million unaffiliated voters Massey is hoping to woo). At the same time, Massey and other Republicans have pointed largely to the perception that crime is getting worse, even if the numbers look good.

The latest Quinnipiac University Poll from March 1 shows 54 percent of voters approve of the way de Blasio is handling crime while 39 percent disapprove. Along party lines, the difference is stark -- 69 percent of Democrats approved of the mayor’s handling of crime while 17 percent of Republicans felt the same. The polling also shows racial differences -- 73 percent of black voters approve and 56 percent of Hispanics approve, while 44 percent of white New Yorkers gave the mayor a thumbs up on crime.  

“The truth of the matter is, whether [Massey] likes it or not, crime is down,” said Christina Greer, professor of political science at Fordham University. “By saying that crime is up and everything’s violent, he’s trying to tap into the white fear that [former New York City Mayor] Rudy Giuliani and [President] Donald Trump consistently tap into.”

Greer believes that Massey could get some amount of support by hammering home his message on crime. “But the type of people who believe that,” she said, “are people who aren’t interested in looking at the data.”

Before de Blasio came to office and early in his term, there were those who worried about his rhetoric concerning the NYPD and its tactics, and warned that he would oversee a rise in historically low crime from the Bloomberg era. De Blasio stringently opposed the overuse of stop-and-frisk policing, and his opponents pounced on that to paint him as anti-police. Over much of the last three years, he has been at pains to correct that impression, portraying himself as a strong ally of the police department, especially after his mayoralty hit a low point in late 2014 and early 2015 when two police officers were killed and others publicly turned their backs on the mayor.

Many who warned that curtailing the use of stop-and-frisk would lead to a spike in crime citywide were proved wrong, and some admitted so. The New York Daily News Editorial Board, which was strongly critical of de Blasio’s position on the policing tactic, published a mea culpa in August. “We are delighted to say that we were wrong,” the editorial read, admitting that the increase in murders that they foresaw never occurred while crime hit record lows.

Even de Blasio’s harshest critics have conceded that he’s kept the city secure. “Keeping the streets safe is one thing de Blasio has managed fairly well, by avoiding too much political interference with the NYPD, the best police force in America,” wrote the editorial board of the New York Post in December. (The Post and de Blasio are frequent targets of each other’s ire, with de Blasio famously feuding with the tabloid last year, refusing to take questions at a news conference from one of its reporters and calling the paper a “right-wing rag.”)

But crime is an “emotive topic,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and state prosecutor who teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I think that public safety never goes away as an issue,” he said. “It may appear to be taking a holiday, but every mayor knows you’re never more than one day away from public safety catapulting to the top of the list.”

Poll numbers bear this out. The March 1 Quinnipiac poll shows that 82 percent of voters said crime is a “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problem, compared to 17 percent who said it is “not very serious” or “not a problem at all.” O’Donnell said a single incident -- like the recent terror attack in London or the murder of a black man in midtown by a white supremacist from Maryland -- could easily dominate the conversation. “Emotion can quickly eclipse statistics,” O’Donnell said. “New York City is provably super safe,” he added. “The difference between perception and reality can change quickly.”

O’Donnell did acknowledge that public safety would resonate as an issue in the mayoral primary, particularly with the Republican base in the city, but it will be “daunting” for Massey to venture beyond that group. It also smacks of the irony in the public safety conversation, as O’Donnell points out. “A lack of safety mostly affects minorities. White New York has generally been safe but they’re the ones that are fearful,” he said.

Former Republican mayoral candidate Joe Lhota, de Blasio’s main general election opponent in 2013, said that crime and quality of life issues “are always high on the agenda.” “Some people are more worried about street cleanliness than they are about crime and vice versa, but crime is an issue because it’s the quality-of-life nature of it,” he said. In 2013, Lhota’s campaign argued that de Blasio was a risk to public safety. (Some of the consultants who worked on that campaign are working for Massey, who has raised and spent about $2 million.)

Although he couldn’t speculate whether public safety will gain traction as the race progresses, and he gives credit to de Blasio and the NYPD for continuing reductions in crime, Lhota echoed O’Donnell’s point that singular events could change that. “Campaigns are a function of things that happen in the city and in the world,” he said. “Events take control of elections, events take control of campaigns.”

But Lhota reiterated that there is indeed anxiety among New Yorkers about crime. “Polling is showing people still have a sense of fear. So another question is, how do you eradicate that fear and is it [eradicable]? I’m not sure.”

He added, “The argument will be, ‘People don’t feel safe’ and the mayor’s argument’s gonna be, ‘But the numbers say that they are safe.’ And so where does that debate go? What’s the next question? What is your policy on homelessness? What are you going to do about reducing the rate of growth in the budget in the city of New York? Those issues could become more important. Homelessness could be, sanitation pickups could be. That’s where I’m saying events can take over. An opponent will talk about the feeling of crime and the mayor will have the ability to stand behind his record on crime.”

Perhaps the one constituency that Massey may be able to spotlight is rank-and-file law enforcement, which has had an adversarial relationship with the mayor since before he took power. Although de Blasio has taken many opportunities to try to repair that dynamic, especially over the past two years, there are few signals that much has changed.

Last year, an internal survey by the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents more than 24,000 rank-and-file officers in the NYPD, found that morale among its members had bottomed out under de Blasio. About 96 percent disapproved of the mayor’s policies on public safety and policing, and 95 percent said they felt “less safe” on duty. This has become one of Massey’s consistent talking points.

“Nothing’s changed,” said Albert O’Leary, PBA communications director, of officer sentiment towards de Blasio. “He’s still mayor, he’s still perceived as a supporter of anti-police segments of our society. He’s viewed as anti-police by police.”

O’Leary also indicated that the recent settlement of the PBA contract with the city, which de Blasio and PBA President Patrick Lynch announced in a rare joint appearance, had done little to assuage those sentiments.

Using this relationship as a foil, Massey has emphasized that he will show the NYPD the support he says the mayor has failed to display. “I will always stand with police and work with the police commissioner to fully empower and fund the NYPD’s community policing,” he said in the March 17 statement. It is not clear what additional empowerment or funding the NYPD needs for community policing given what de Blasio has invested in the effort that is one of his hallmarks, including adding 1,300 officers to the force.

De Blasio is now fighting for NYPD funding in terms of $110 million in federal anti-terror funds that are currently under threat from the Trump administration. Greer, from Fordham, said this actually works in the mayor’s favor. “I think that relationship is on the mend,” she said of de Blasio and the police, “and the mayor’s in a good position because Trump’s trying to defund the NYPD.” Greer also said Trump, with his proposed cuts to NYCHA, the NYPD, and elsewhere, has inserted himself into the mayoral race and that any Republican candidate would have to address that. Massey has repeatedly said he will not make the mayoral race a “referendum” on President Trump as he thinks de Blasio is trying to do.

At a November 29 news conference, when asked about morale in the police department, NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said, “There are ebbs and flows with morale depending on what goes on around the city and what the sense of appreciation that the police feel from the residents of the city. I think we’re in a good place now. It can always be improved, but we look constantly to make things better for our police officers.”

He continued, “And the number one thing that I do is that I respect that the work that they do, and they know that because I’ve come up through the ranks. So, I think that having a police commissioner that’s come up through the ranks, I think that’s appreciated by the vast majority of the members of the New York City Police Department who continue to do an outstanding job every day.”

De Blasio then added, “There’s tremendous appreciation for how the NYPD protects people from any terror threat. I hear that from the public all the time and I hear it from the officers that I talk to that they get those thank-yous and they appreciate those thank-yous.”

He also said that the department’s new neighborhood policing model is improving relationships between cops and communities. “There’s a lot of mutual respect and a lot of appreciation and it’s stated quite frequently. I know our officers appreciate that. And I agree that having a leader who came up through the ranks means a lot to our officers. I’ve also heard that from many officers that they really appreciate that their leader experienced everything that they experience, and they know that Commissioner O’Neill has their back.”

De Blasio quickly named O’Neill, who had been chief of department, as commissioner after former Commissioner Bill Bratton announced his intended retirement from the NYPD last year. De Blasio has stressed that O’Neill is the architect of neighborhood policing and, in announcing the new PBA contract, focused on the agreement that all officers will wear body cameras within three years. This has become a campaign talking point for the mayor as he seeks to assure his base he is a reformer who is improving accountability at the NYPD. Some see de Blasio as more vulnerable on policing from the left than the right -- activists have questioned the scale of de Blasio's reform of the NYPD, attacked him for a lack of transparency and accountability at the NYPD, and long-time policing reformer Robert Gangi, executive director of Police Reform Organizing Project, has declared his candidacy in the Democratic mayoral primary.

The mayor’s campaign is scarcely worried about Massey’s attacks. A Quinnipiac poll from Feb. 28 showed de Blasio handily beating Massey in a head-to-head contest, winning 59 percent of the vote over Massey’s 25 percent (with about 15 percent undecided). Massey’s campaign has spun the poll as a positive, stating that voters have begun to recognize their previously unknown candidate and winning approval from one-fourth of voters this early in the race is a promising sign.

Massey’s campaign is also set to roll out detailed policy positions over the next few weeks. At his first official news conference in February, Massey had little to say on policy and said he hadn’t “established an answer” yet on stop-and-frisk, the controversial policing tactic that dominated much of the 2013 election cycle. At subsequent events Massey said that the NYPD is “currently using stop-question-and-frisk and I believe it’s one of the necessary tools and that there are many that we need to have for our police.” He stressed the importance of the Mayor supporting the police and said, “They will never turn their back on me because I will never turn my back on them."

Dan Levitan, a spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign was confident when asked about Massey’s public safety positions. “Mayor de Blasio ended the overuse of stop-and-frisk and brought crime to record lows while improving relations between police and the communities they serve,” Levitan said in an email. “That’s a record we are happy to compare with anyone.”

As Lhota also said, “[Crime] won’t be the only issue in the campaign I guarantee you. Will it be an issue? Yes. Will it be the issue that makes the difference? Probably not.”

Note: this article has been updated to provide more specific felony crime data for 2013 to 2016.

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Despite Record Low Crime, Massey Attempts to Make Public Safety a Campaign Issue Wed, 29 Mar 2017 04:00:00 +0000
With De Blasio Appearing Vulnerable, Heightened Examination of Paths to Defeat Him http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6480:with-de-blasio-appearing-vulnerable-heightened-examination-of-paths-to-defeat-him http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=6480:with-de-blasio-appearing-vulnerable-heightened-examination-of-paths-to-defeat-him de blasio balcony

Mayor Bill de Blasio (photo: Ed Reed, Mayor's Office)


Mayor Bill de Blasio often says he doesn’t put much stock in public opinion polls; he believes they’re about as accurate as weather predictions. When asked, he didn’t express much concern after a Quinnipiac University poll released August 1 showed that 51 percent of New York City voters don’t think he deserves to be re-elected in 2017. But even if de Blasio didn’t care, his critics and potential opponents surely did, and are likely buoyed in their belief that there is a way to beat an incumbent Democrat who has been arguably the most progressive mayor in the city’s history and overseen dropping crime, growing jobs, and a record tourism.

As polls show de Blasio’s relative weakness, some voices have grown louder calling for his ouster, and potential opponents weigh jumping into the race, one key question is the best path to defeating him. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city that saw 20 years of Republican dominance of the mayoralty before his election, it’s not immediately clear where de Blasio is most vulnerable.

As can be expected, political consultants are divided on the prospect of de Blasio’s re-election. Republican consultants believe he can be beaten if an opponent uses the right strategy, aptly highlighting the mayor’s weaknesses, while many Democrats are certain the chances of that are negligible at best.

“[De Blasio’s opponents] need to make it a referendum on his competence and his management,” said Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist. “That includes Democrats, especially in the primaries.”

“An incompetent mayor can lose,” he added.

It is the competence argument that is already being made by the loudest voice to thus far openly declare intention to defeat de Blasio in 2017 - that of consultant Bradley Tusk, who ran former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s third successful mayoral campaign, in 2009. Tusk has said, though, that he believes the most likely path to defeating de Blasio in 2017 is through the Democratic primary. He’s currently waging a public relations campaign to damage the mayor while he attempts to recruit the strongest candidate possible.

As Tusk and others, even Republicans, acknowledge, the voter registration numbers don’t lie. They also see that while de Blasio’s approval rating is low, he still has fairly strong support among Democrats, especially African-Americans.

In order to beat de Blasio, “Republicans and independents will have to appeal to disaffected Democrats and have to bring in pretty much every constituency,” said Siegfried. “Bill de Blasio is absolutely beatable only if you run a good and strong campaign with a solid candidate...They should aim to peel off the pork from where de Blasio is strong, particularly the African-American community.”

On the Republican end, there are already a few candidates who’ve indicated they may run against the mayor, including Queens City Council Member Eric Ulrich; billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, who lost in the 2013 Republican primary; real estate developer Paul Massey; and former professional football player and Harlem pastor Michel Faulkner. The latter two have officially declared their runs.

Republican campaign consultant Jessica Proud of The November Team, who is working for Massey’s campaign, believes there is a path to victory against the incumbent mayor. “Clearly de Blasio has not been able to inspire the confidence of voters,” she said. “He has not shown himself to be a good manager of the city.” Proud said Massey’s appeal is that he’s not a politician. “He’s not an ideologue, his approach would be one of good management,” she said, with an implicit nod toward a Bloomberg-esque technocrat and citing Massey’s top priorities in the campaign: public safety and quality of life issues, housing, and improving city schools.

The management issue is a common refrain and relates directly to competence. Even though crime is down, Republican consultants point to polls that show the perception of crime remains skewed. Many people believe other quality of life issues, like street cleanliness, are getting worse even if there is evidence to the contrary. The Quinnipiac poll released August 1 showed that 49 percent of New York City voters disapproved of how the mayor is handling crime, compared to 42 percent who approved.

George Arzt, a Democratic consultant, said, “[De Blasio is] vulnerable to a challenge but not from a Republican.” He said that contenders like Massey or Catsimatidis don’t have the same level of resources as Bloomberg did, and that they definitely don’t have the political skills or organization. “There were circumstances that cannot be duplicated as we see now,” he said of Bloomberg’s election as a Republican candidate. “It’s doubtful that anyone even with money can make a go of it.”

Another Democratic strategist, Hank Sheinkopf, said a Republican candidate could only be elected if the city were to undergo a serious crisis, say a crime wave, massive corruption, or another recession. De Blasio's administration and campaign allies are being investigated on multiple fronts by state and federal law enforcement officials - the results of those investigations could shift political dynamics drastically, of course. Short of major indictments, Sheinkopf did point out early indicators of problems -- certain crimes have increased, like rape, but overall the crime rate is at historic lows; school test scores may be improving but the schools are underperforming in general; violence in the city’s jails; and future budget deficits despite the city being flush with cash.

Even with those considerations, Sheinkopf said, “A fusion candidate will have a better chance,”  referring to a candidate who runs on multiple party lines. “They have the Republican line and other lines which makes it easier for people to vote for them.” An effective Republican challenger would have to draw crossover votes from traditionally Democratic voting sections of the population, as Siegfried also suggested and any Republican candidate or consultant must understand.

Democrats’ immense voter registration advantage is simply a reality that all involved in New York City political campaigns must recognize. However, one caveat to the voter registration numbers are the voter turnout numbers, which are often quite low. If a certain candidate, incumbent or otherwise, can motivate more people to vote in a significant mass, an election can be swung.

As of April 1, there are more than 4 million active registered voters in the city, of which 2.75 million are Democrats and only 414,478 are Republicans. However, that advantage isn’t necessarily borne out by history, a fact pointed to by Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center. In an interview with Gotham Gazette, Romalewski said, “The enrollment advantage doesn’t necessarily tell you much. It matters less than personality of the candidates and the issues. If everyone turned out to vote who is registered to vote and voted the party line, a Democrat would win. But that doesn’t always happen.”

Romalewski noted that a 2013 general election analysis showed that in certain districts, de Blasio received fewer Democratic votes than the total votes cast by registered Democrats, indicating that some may have voted for his Republican opponent, Joe Lhota. In other districts, de Blasio received more votes than the total Democratic votes cast, meaning he had support from outside the Democratic party as well. There were six major qualified parties and 14 minor parties on the general election ballot, with de Blasio holding the Democratic and Working Families Party lines.

The city also has nearly 800,000 unaffiliated voters, often called “independents,” which adds another facet to the Democrat-Republican enrollment imbalance.

“In 2017, I think the same kind of analysis holds,” Romalewski said in an email. “If none or just a small number of Democrats vote for de Blasio's opponent, he'll do ok.  But if his challenger can persuade enough Dems to "defect," he'll be in trouble.”

But de Blasio’s great strength, as Romalewski pointed out, is that he “not only did well and much better than the prior three Democratic candidates [for mayor] but also did well in areas where Bloomberg did well. He kinda combined the traditional Democratic base -- Black and Hispanic areas -- with liberal white areas.” De Blasio won a dominant 73 percent of the general election vote against Lhota in 2013.

Critics point to the fact that only 26 percent of registered voters cast ballots in that election, which indicates some combination of apathy, recognition that de Blasio had a huge polling advantage heading toward Election Day, and limited enthusiasm for Lhota from Republicans and independents.

A Republican would have to have a “cache” of progressive politics combined with the skills of a good manager, Romalewski said, to cut into de Blasio’s voter base. “The conventional wisdom is that it’s unlikely [de Blasio will] have effective challengers,” he said.

Most observers assume that the mayor will only face a stiff challenge in the Democratic primary, due to the aforementioned factors and no obvious other big name Republican or independent waiting in the wings. And a tough Democratic primary is only possible, some say, if a single strong candidate runs against de Blasio instead of multiple candidates who could split the anti-de Blasio vote. “If two or three Democrats challenge the mayor, he’s going to win,” said Bill Cunningham, managing director at DKC and former communications director for Bloomberg. “If only one runs, there’s a chance to coalesce the people who view [de Blasio] unfavorably and give them a place to go vote.”

One other path some experts float would be for a strong African-American candidate to enter the race - someone like Congressional Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, for example - who would chip away at de Blasio’s deep African-American base, and one strong white candidate - someone like Comptroller Scott Stringer - who could pick up as many other disaffected Democrats as possible.

Cunningham said for a competitive race, “You need a message, a messenger and you need to be able to deliver that to the public. There’s no mystery to what the recipe is. The trick is finding a candidate who is intelligent and can campaign effectively and has the money to deliver the message to the voters.” Bloomberg had those qualities, he pointed out, but the current crop of contenders don’t. Along with Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. is currently seen as the other most likely Democratic challenger to the mayor.

When asked about potential opponents, de Blasio has repeatedly said he’s ready to take on all comers, at times mentioning the pillars of his term: universal pre-kindergarten, affordable housing, and low crime. At one point last year de Blasio discussed his "record of achievement" and said of potential 2017 opponents, "come one, come all."

A spokesperson for de Blasio’s campaign, Dan Levitan, emailed a statement about the prospects for 2017, saying, “Crime just hit another all-time low, jobs are at record highs, the City is building and preserving affordable housing at a record pace, while graduation rates and test scores continue to improve. That is Mayor de Blasio's record and that is what next year's election will be about.”

Even Tusk, who is arguably de Blasio’s most vocal opponent right now, acknowledges that he’ll be hard pressed to find a candidate who fits the bill of a Democrat with appeal among Republican voters. He recently indicated to the New York Times that a successful candidate could run on a third-party line in the general even if they lost the Democratic primary; or a candidate could possibly skip the Democratic primary altogether and run on an independent line.

As CUNY’s Romalewski notes, in the 2009 general, Bloomberg did well in areas where he consistently won votes in the prior two elections -- much of Queens, the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Downtown Manhattan, South Brooklyn, and almost all of Staten Island. His Democratic opponent at the time, Bill Thompson, made it a close race, losing by less than five points. Thompson, who is black, won large blocks in Southeast Queens, Central Brooklyn, Harlem, and the Bronx. Unfortunately for him, though, turnout wasn’t as high in these areas as he needed for a victory. De Blasio upended the pattern in 2013, pulling votes from constituencies that voted for both Bloomberg and Thompson in ‘09.

Romalewski’s analysis of the 2013 election also notes areas de Blasio lost to Lhota, including the traditionally Republican-leaning Upper East Side, Middle Village and other areas in northeast Queens, a few orthodox Jewish communities in Southern Brooklyn, and most of Staten Island. In general, these areas were dominated by white New Yorkers who have been increasingly critical of de Blasio. The mayor overwhelmingly won communities dominated by African-Americans and Hispanics, who continue to support him. The Quinnipiac poll noted as much, finding that in hypothetical match-ups whites largely favored Comptroller Scott Stringer and former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn over de Blasio, who maintained huge margins among African-Americans and Hispanics. (The poll did not include possible Republican candidates.)

In terms of approval rating, 63 percent of black voters and 50 percent of Hispanic voters approve of de Blasio’s handling of the job, while only 25 percent of white voters felt the same. The Democrat-Republican divide is even greater, with 55 percent of Democrats giving de Blasio a thumbs up and only 9 percent of Republicans doing so. Among independents, 30 percent approved of the mayor.

On Tusk’s “NYC Deserves Better” podcast, Democratic consultant and pollster Jefrey Pollock pointed out that despite the mayor’s weakening numbers, he has enough support among African-Americans and Hispanics for a strong showing in the Democratic primary. Pollock noted, and Tusk reiterated, that popular adage that almost every political expert and consultant says of the mayoral race -- “You can’t beat somebody with nobody.” Pollock said independent groups support an opponent of de Blasio, if an effective one were to emerge.

“That is the great challenge,” Tusk said.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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With De Blasio Appearing Vulnerable, Heightened Examination of Paths to Defeat Him Sun, 14 Aug 2016 04:00:00 +0000