Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/18 Sat, 20 Jan 2018 01:22:58 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) De Blasio Lays Out Initial 2018 Albany Priorities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7411:de-blasio-lays-out-initial-2018-albany-priorities http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7411:de-blasio-lays-out-initial-2018-albany-priorities de Blasio Albany agenda

Mayor de Blasio in the snow (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


The state Legislature is back in session, beginning the months-long process of deliberating on its $160-billion budget and legislation for the coming fiscal year that starts April 1. For New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a second-term Democrat, it poses the annual opportunity to lobby for the city’s priorities, including small and large policy changes and additional funding for city agencies.

De Blasio had mixed successes in the state capitol, where he has few allies, during his first term, and this year may present the most challenging fiscal situation since the mayor came to office given the new federal tax code, reductions in federal funding, and the $4.4 billion state budget gap that Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Legislature must close.

Cuomo gave his State of the State address last week, where he released his 2018 policy agenda with de Blasio present in the audience. There was plenty for the mayor to chew on, both in the speech and the accompanying policy book that lays out a vast agenda, only some of which will actually be prioritized by the governor. Cuomo’s speech focused on women’s rights and anti-sexual harassment policies, criminal justice reforms, and the federal tax overhaul, which he has vowed to fight, first with a lawsuit. The governor also mentioned specific projects he intended to fund in the city, a continued focus on big infrastructure projects that largely involve the five boroughs, and the prospects of supporting needed subway upgrades through a yet-released congestion pricing scheme.

[Read: New York City Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's 2018 State of the State]

As part of the annual budget ritual, de Blasio will head to Albany later this month to testify hat-in-hand before a joint legislative hearing of Senate and Assembly leaders. This is expected to come after Cuomo outlines his executive budget plan on January 16 and before de Blasio releases his own preliminary budget for the city’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Both after attending Cuomo’s speech and in other venues, the mayor has spoken of the broad strokes of his Albany agenda. Among other things, he wants to see more funding for education, affordable housing, and mass transit. He hopes the Legislature will approve an expansion of speed cameras around public schools, new electoral and voting laws to expand ballot access and participation, and a repeal of a civil rights law that the city argues protects police officers’ disciplinary records from public disclosure.

The dynamics of the mayor’s negotiations with state government officials may prove slightly different this year, though it is unclear how things will play out. Cuomo must close the budget deficit while also reacting to the new federal tax code that is set to significantly increase the overall tax burden on many New Yorkers given the reduction in taxpayers’ ability to deduct their state and local taxes from their federal liability. The governor may seek to offload expenses to the city as he has done on multiple occasions. The mayor has few friends in the Republican-led state Senate, though he has allies in the Democrat and New York City-dominated Assembly.

De Blasio may have little to lose by standing up to a governor facing reelection this year and seeking to secure his left flank, or to a Senate GOP with a razor-thin majority that is under threat. The Trump administration also poses a common foe for the city and state, Democrats and Republicans, to do battle with, which could mean increased cooperation in certain areas.

When asked by a reporter at a January 5 news conference if his ability to negotiate with the governor had changed considering the political landscape of 2018, de Blasio mused that he felt “very liberated” but would continue to follow his first-term script. “Look, I think the simple way to think about this is not to look for too many tea leaves,” he said. “Always have said I’m ready to work with the governor when he proposes things that are good for New York City, and if he does something that is going to hurt the people of New York City, I’ll take him on. And that’s how I’m going to look at each and every issue. That is going to be unchanging.”

At time when the city has billions of dollars squirrelled away, and the state faces its shortfall, the governor’s representatives have repeatedly reference city reserves as ripe for picking. At a December 29 news conference, Gotham Gazette asked the mayor if he was taking preemptive actions to avoid the governor seeking to move costs to the city, as he most controversially did two years ago with CUNY and Medicaid in a move that was mostly beat back.

“You know, I’m hoping for a good faith situation where there’s a lot of communication and coordination,” de Blasio said. He warned that the biggest threat to the city was no longer an expected economic downturn but the federal tax plan, and that he would protect the city’s reserves. “And the notion that we have strong surpluses is not an open season call for New York State to raid New York City’s resources,” he said. “We need them because if anything goes wrong, if we sustain federal cuts we will also sustain state cuts...So, they can talk about it all they want, it’s not going to change my approach.”

Education Aid
The mayor is continuing his push for the state to fully abide by the state Supreme Court’s Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling requiring equitable state funding for public schools. Last year, the mayor estimated that the state was underfunding the city to the tune of about $1.6 billion.  

More practically, a significant priority for the mayor is his proposed expansion of early childhood education to all three-year-olds in the city, building on his signature first-term accomplishment of implementing universal pre-kindergarten for four-year-olds. (The UPK program was put into effect largely with state funding, after the mayor’s calls to fund it through a tax on the wealthy were opposed by the governor and Senate GOP.)

The “3-K for All” program is set to expand to eight districts by 2021 and will cost the city roughly $177 million that year. The city already has another $200 million invested annually in the Early Learn program for three-year-olds from low-income families and a full-scale expansion of 3-K to all 32 school districts in the city would cost an additional $700 million sourced from federal and state coffers, according to city estimates.

“We want to continue the progress we’ve made in our public schools,” de Blasio said, at a news conference after the governor’s address. “We have our highest graduation rate ever. We’ve had continual progress on test-score improvement. We want to go farther. We need to see state education aid continue to expand. We particularly are interested in using that aid to address some key strategic initiatives, such as creating the 3-K program on a universal basis.”

Affordable Housing and Homelessness
The mayor’s affordable housing plan target, which he recently increased from 200,000 to 300,000 affordable rental units, relies on a multi-faceted approach to preserving existing units while creating more housing across the city. It also involves investing in public housing developments and supportive housing for formerly homeless, disabled, and mentally ill individuals.

De Blasio has continued to express frustration with the slow pace of funds being disbursed by the state despite numerous pledges made by the governor and the Legislature. He noted, for instance, funding promised toward the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) in the state budget from two years ago. “We’re still waiting to see some of that funding reach the people who live in public housing,” he said.

Freddi Goldstein, a spokesperson for the mayor on budgetary matters, did not have exact figures for the amount of aid the city is requesting on numerous fronts. On NYCHA funding, she emailed saying the mayor wants “to see the previously authorized moneys [sic] actually flow, rather than continue to be inexplicably held up. Though of course we’d also welcome more funding!”

De Blasio also noted that the city is already taking measures to create 15,000 units of supportive housing while the state has been lax in following up on its own promise to fund another 20,000 units. “We need to see that plan take off and start to have an impact on the ground in New York City so it can help us address homelessness,” he said. In total, the state allocated $2.5 billion in last year’s budget for affordable and supportive housing. It’s unclear, however, how much of that has been utilized and in the city.

During his State of the State, Cuomo indicated that the state will look to withhold funding from localities deemed to not be doing enough to get homeless people off the streets. It was not clear if he believes New York City fits that category. When asked about it, de Blasio dismissed the idea, saying that the city has the most robust street-outreach program it's ever had.

Public Safety
De Blasio and his allies failed to convince the Legislature last year to approve more speed cameras around public schools, a priority in his Vision Zero plan to eliminate traffic fatalities in the city. Vision Zero was continuously successful over the mayor’s first term and the administration announced on Monday that there were a total of 214 traffic fatalities in 2017, an all-time low.

The mayor has advocated for expanding the speed camera program from 140 school zones where it is currently active to 750 school zones citywide, citing a report that found, among other results, that crashes with injuries declined by 15 percent at camera locations between 2014 and 2016, and pedestrian injuries fell by 23 percent in the same time. Like on many fronts, the city needs Albany approval to act.

“We need to continue that progress,” the mayor said at the January 3 new conference, noting that the city was safer in 2017 than ever before. “One of the things that would help us the most, again, is those speed cameras around schools to help us protect kids and community members.”

Design-Build
In his budget testimony in Albany last year, de Blasio emphasized that giving New York City approval to use design-build -- which allows agencies to solicit combined design-and-construction bids for capital projects -- would save $450 million from $7.3 billion estimated for a specific list of projects. A bill passed by the state Assembly authorized design-build for eight projects, to save an estimated $158 million, according to Goldstein, the mayoral spokesperson.

The mayor reiterated on January 3 that design-build was essential for the city, particularly with the threat of federal budget cuts to city agencies and for infrastructure projects. “I think it becomes more important than ever,” he said. “This year, given that we will see tight fiscal conditions, design-build is a common sense way to help us save the taxpayers money, and get more done more quickly. So, we’ll be making that a top item on the agenda.”

The state has used design-build for several years on certain major projects and saved billions of dollars, according to Gov. Cuomo, who regularly touts the process as effective and inefficient. Cuomo has said he supports expanding it to city use, but it has not moved through the Senate.

Police Transparency
De Blasio has faced strong criticism from police reform advocates over his administration’s shielding of the disciplinary records of police officers, particularly in the case of Officer Daniel Pantaleo, whose use of a department-prohibited chokehold led to the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner in 2014. Under de Blasio, the NYPD changed its policy of disclosing “personnel orders” containing summaries of disciplinary actions against an officer, insisting that they had mistakenly done so in violation of Section 50-a of the New York State Civil Rights Code.

The mayor has instead put the onus on the Legislature to repeal the law. At a January 5 news conference releasing the latest crime statistics, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette it would be a priority for him this year. “I think this is the year. I’d love to see 50-a resolved once and for all,” he said, conceding that it might only happen if the state Senate, currently controlled by Republicans, flips to Democrat control. “But I think this is a powerful year to go and try and see if we can have a breakthrough. And there’s a lot of people in the state who think it’s the right thing to do to have that greater transparency. So we’ll be working for it.”

Voting reform
Governor Cuomo’s 2018 priorities include a “Democracy Agenda” of voting reform, political advertisement transparency, and election security initiatives. (He is also proposing a similar slate of campaign finance and government ethics reforms that he offered last year.) Though de Blasio had himself promised a major push on voting reform last year, his effort amounted to little more than a conference call with reporters. The mayor said he had to re-prioritize given the challenges of getting renewal of mayoral control of city schools approved.

This year, the mayor has promised to follow through, saying he was “heartened” to hear the governor address things like early voting in his speech. “We’re going to focus on it intensely, and we’re going to be organizing people all over New York City to put pressure on their legislators, on the Governor to get this done, and, obviously, working with allies all over the state,” de Blasio said.

Transit Funding
The year begins with de Blasio and Cuomo arguing over whether the city will contrivute half the $800-plus million subway rescue plan put forward several months ago by MTA Chair Joe Lhota. De Blasio has insisted that the state use the nearly identifical amount it has raided from the MTA over the last few years. Cuomo and Lhota have told de Blasio to simply put up the money.

Meanwhile, one of the mayor’s priorities that seems least likely to succeed is a so-called millionaires tax to fund the MTA and subsidized MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. The governor and Senate GOP, already averse to new taxes, have indicated that the proposal would be dead on arrival. But the mayor has only doubled down, reinvigorated in his effort by his reelection and the recently approved federal tax plan. “[G]iven that the Trump tax plan was a giveaway to the wealthy and corporations, I think it makes even more sense to have a millionaire’s tax,” he said on his weekly “Ask The Mayor” segment on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on January 5. Critics point out, though, that the wealthy in New York are not necessarily projected to make out very well under the new tax plan, unlike higher earners in other, low-tax states.

De Blasio has also repeatedly rejected congestion pricing as an alternative to raise revenue for the MTA while also reducing traffic congestion in Manhattan. Despite evidence to the contrary, he has insisted that it would be a “regressive tax” that harms outer borough commuters and that he has yet to see a proposal he could support. “The first concern I have is that I don’t think it is the best way to address the MTA crisis,” de Blasio told Lehrer. “I think a millionaire’s tax is a better way and it’s a live, actual proposal. You can see it. You can touch it.” Though Cuomo has floated the idea, he did not propose any details in his State of the State address last week, saying that a panel he formed will present options in the coming weeks.

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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De Blasio Lays Out Initial 2018 Albany Priorities Mon, 08 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
New York City Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's 2018 State of the State http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7402:new-york-city-takeaways-from-governor-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7402:new-york-city-takeaways-from-governor-cuomo-s-2018-state-of-the-state Cuomo State of the State podium

Gov. Cuomo delivers his 2018 State of the State (photo: Philip Kamrass/Governor's Office)


Governor Andrew Cuomo unveiled his full policy agenda for the 2018 legislative session on Wednesday, returning to his traditional State of the State format: a single address at the Empire State Convention Center, chock full of slideshow-aided proposals and lofty rhetoric, with legislative leaders of all five conferences and other statewide elected officials accompanying him on stage.

During the 92-minute speech, Cuomo gave considerable attention on his women’s rights platform -- a timely legislation package in the face of international outcry over sexual misconduct in the workplace — as well as criminal justice reform proposals like significantly reducing the use of cash bail. Cuomo also focused a good deal on policies coming out of Washington, D.C., especially the recent tax overhaul program that will hit New York hard. He said the state will sue while also exploring other ways to blunt the impact of the drastically reduced ability for New Yorkers to deduct their high local and state taxes from their federal burden.

The second-term governor outlined a wide variety of proposals for the state and some that apply to different geographic areas. He touched on only a portion of the proposals listed in his 374-page policy book. The next three months will determine which Cuomo can accomplish through some combination of executive action, the regular legislative process, and a grand budget deal, due by the April 1 start to the new state fiscal year. After that, there will be another three months of legislative session.

Many of Cuomo’s broader proposals, like on criminal justice reform, workforce development, and protecting the environment, impact New York City, while several are aimed directly at the five boroughs, such as the creation of a subway station in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the creation of a new park in Brooklyn, and proposals to address the state’s homelessness problem, which is concentrated in New York City.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was in attendance for Cuomo’s speech and, in a news conference afterward, praised certain aspects of it, such as Cuomo’s promise to fight the federal tax overhaul, while taking a wait-and-see approach as the governor still did not unveil a congestion pricing scheme, and outlining a few of the city’s top priorities for the upcoming state budget, like more funding for the mayor’s plan to extend pre-school to all three-year-olds.

The Democratic governor wields an enormous degree of power over the state’s $160 billion-plus budget. He’ll unveil his executive budget proposal within the next few weeks, which will show at least some detail of how he plans to fund the initiatives in his State of the State while also balancing the roughly $4 billion deficit for next fiscal year.

As he alluded to during his speech, touting his ability to lead the state to bipartisan compromise, Cuomo is again negotiating with a split Legislature. While Democrats handily control the 150-seat Assembly, with most New York City lawmakers sitting in the majority, the 63-seat Senate is controlled by the Republican conference, made up of many members representing suburban and Upstate areas, that has formed a ruling coalition with the eight-member Independent Democratic Conference and rogue Democratic Senator Simcha Felder, of Brooklyn. As a result, downstate and left-leaning interests often rely on the governor to take up their policy items, and watch his annual address closely for signs that he will make them a focal point of the coming budget negotiations.

During his Wednesday remarks, Cuomo took slightly different approaches to two hot-button issues, important to many in New York City, that are also indicative of the political moment Cuomo finds himself in. Democrats in New York want to see Cuomo fight for Democratic takeover of the state Senate, including through special elections for two Senate seats that the governor has not yet called, despite being able to as of January 1. A long list of progressive legislation has been blocked in the Senate, with many believing Cuomo largely prefers to deal with a split Legislature so that he can better control spending and policy.

Advocates have been turning up their pressure on Cuomo to push for the Child Victims Act, legislation that makes it easier for people who were victims of childhood sex abuse to bring charges. The legislation has overwhelmingly passed the Assembly, but stalled in the Senate.

Those pushing for the the bill were disheartened by the governor’s omission in his State of the State speech, though it is included in his policy book, as it was last year.

"In the #MeToo moment it’s especially disappointing to see the Governor fail to mention child victims of sexual abuse in his State of the State address, even as he correctly prioritizes the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Michael Polenberg, VP of Government Affairs at Safe Horizon, and survivor and advocate Bridie Farrell in a joint statement. “Survivors of childhood sexual abuse, advocates, and elected officials have been fighting to pass the Child Victims Act (CVA) for over a decade.”

Meanwhile, the governor did give a brief shoutout to the New York Dream Act, which would allow undocumented college students who arrived here as children to obtain student financial aid as part of a comprehensive immigration package. Cuomo mentioned the Dream Act, which has also easily passed the Assembly but stalled in the Senate, when discussing the next phase of his Excelsior Scholarship, the middle-class college-tuition supplement he announced and passed last year.

Women’s Rights
Cuomo released more than 20 planks of his 2018 agenda in the lead-up to his speech, including his proposals related to fighting sexual harassment in workplaces.

The governor’s full women’s right platform is wide-ranging, from policies Democrats have pushed each year like the codification of Roe v. Wade into state law and the Comprehensive Contraception Coverage Act, to his new call to criminalize “sextortion” and non-consensual pornography, often known as revenge porn, under state law, as well as legislation to remove firearms from domestic abusers.

In addition, the governor is proposing legislation to prohibit public dollars from being used to settle sexual harassment claims against individuals, and a proposal to void forced arbitration policies in employee contracts. He vowed that any companies doing business with the state would be required to disclose the number of sexual harassment adjudications and nondisclosure agreements they have executed. There appears to be a good chance that some, possibly most, of these measures will pass, as Republican and Democratic lawmakers in both houses have introduced legislation aimed at tightening sexual harassment laws.

“No taxpayer funds should be used to pay for any public official’s sexual harassment or misconduct – period. It is the bad act of the individual, let the individual pay,” said Cuomo.

Cuomo is also proposing that state pension funds only be invested in companies that have “adequate” representation of women and people of color on their boards of directors. And Cuomo is calling for the reauthorization and expansion of his Minority and Women Business Entrepreneurship program.

Criminal Justice Reform
In a dramatic moment, Cuomo addressed Akeem Browder, the brother of Kalief Browder, the young man who took his own life after being held for three years at Rikers Island jail complex, awaiting a trial for allegedly stealing a backpack that never came. “Akeem, I want you to know that your brother did not die in vain,” Cuomo said, with the audience giving Akeem a standing ovation.

Referencing Kalief Browder’s ordeal, Cuomo announced a comprehensive package including bail and speedy trial reforms, and improving the disclosure of evidence in the discovery process.

“To begin, our jails are filled with people who should not be incarcerated,” said Cuomo. “Race and wealth should not be factors in our criminal justice system.”

Many, including Public Advocate Letitia James and Tina Luongo, attorney-in-charge of the criminal defense practice at The Legal Aid Society, commended the governor.

“This comprehensive package of criminal justice reforms places a spotlight on the current system’s flaws and the need for strong reforms to New York’s criminal discovery, bail and speedy trial statutes. Reforming these core issues is required to end mass incarceration, avoid wrongful convictions and, for New York City, expedite the closing of Rikers Island,” said Luongo. Mayor de Blasio has pointed to state-level bail reform as key to the goal of closing the Rikers jails by continuing to help reduce the city's detainee population.

New York Civil Liberties Union’s Donna Lieberman noted that the initiatives could have gone further, including the passage of Kalief’s Law, which ensures the right to a speedy trial, and the STAT Act, which would disclose policing data to improve transparency and accountability.

Affordable Housing
Cuomo lamented the state’s homelessness crisis, noting that he began his work in public service running a non-profit aiding homeless families, but critics say his proposals to address the crisis are slim.

“Homelessness is on the rise in our cities and worse than ever before. It pains me personally to acknowledge this reality,” he said. “It has become a part of our new normal, but it is abnormal and it is wrong,” he later added.

Cuomo vowed to build on the $20 billion investment made in 2016 on a five-year plan to combat homelessness, including thousands of supportive housing units that provide stable housing and social services. The governor said he would instruct the appropriate state agencies to expand street outreach, homelessness prevention activities, rapid rehousing, and ongoing housing stability for the formerly homeless.

He said he would direct the state’s mental health and substance abuse agencies to increase access at homeless shelters across the state. He also implored localities to do more to help mentally ill homeless people, saying that some claim their hands are tied. He vowed to “change the law this session.”

In a variety of directions, affordable housing and homelessness policy has been a topic of conflict between Cuomo and de Blasio.

During his post-speech press conference, de Blasio said one major area the city wants to see more from the state is affordable housing. He called for the delivery of NYCHA funds allocated two years ago, among other items.

“The supporting housing plan – as everyone knows, the City of New York is committed to, and is funding, and is acting on and implementing a plan for 15,000 supportive housing apartments. The State has a plan for 20,000. We need to see that plan take off and start to have an impact on the ground in New York City so it can help us address homelessness,” said de Blasio.

“And then the broader affordable housing plan that was put together at the end of the legislative session – again, we’re looking for action, we’re looking for results that will help us address the huge affordability challenges in New York City.”

In her statement reacting to Cuomo’s speech, Public Advocate James praised Cuomo on several fronts, but pointed to a need for Cuomo to improve his commitment to creating and preserving affordable housing. “I urge the Governor to push Albany legislators to adopt vacancy decontrol, make preferential rent permanent and repeal the twenty percent vacancy bonus and introduce a housing bond act to create more affordable housing,” she said. “In order to truly protect New Yorkers, we must ensure that everyone has access to safe and decent housing. It is the most critical step to creating a New York that is just and inclusive for all.”

Public Transportation
While Cuomo suggested that there is a congestion pricing plan in the works, he did not provide details, saying that he is waiting for his Fix NYC commission to "present options" to the Legislature. Any plan would be intended to create revenue for the MTA and reduce congestion into much of Manhattan, likely would add tolls on the East River bridges and other access points to the “Manhattan business district.”

He also appeared to take one of several jabs at de Blasio, who opposes congestion pricing and wants to see an added tax on high earners to additionally fund the MTA.

“These are difficult choices, but difficult choices do not get easier by ignoring them,” Cuomo said. “They only get harder. And in the meantime, cheap political slogans are just that—cheap political slogans. It's not a real policy or policy discussion. And that's what we need. Santa Claus did not visit the State Capitol this year. I was watching. Funding must be provided in a very tight budget and funding must be provided this session because the riders have suffered for too long, politics has gone on for too long, and we can't leave our riders stranded anymore -- period.”

Speaking with reporters, de Blasio reiterated that he believes passing an additional millionaires tax to pay for subway system repairs is achievable because his proposal only impacts New York City residents, not the main constituents of the Senate Republicans outside the city.

“It’s a way that we can solve our own problems. So, I’m going to keep working for that because I think it’s the right solution,” de Blasio said, adding, “No, I don’t think we’ve seen enough now to know what any congestion pricing option may look like.”

Public Safety
Cuomo opened his speech by noting the growing threats of terrorism, extreme weather, rising anti-semitism, and increasingly divisive politics. He proposed a number of initiatives aimed at making New York City, which is often a target for attacks, safer.

“Looking back, 2017 was a tough year by any measure, but New Yorkers once again rose to the occasion. We had frightening incidents of terrorism in New York City -- as Mayor Bill de Blasio well knows -- but we have the best police and first responders in the country and some of them are here today,” said Cuomo.

To address gang activity, Cuomo has proposed a plan to cut off the recruitment pipeline to eradicate MS-13, which has a strong presence in Long Island and parts of the five boroughs. Cuomo’s five-point plan would improve access to social programs -- including after-school education and job training for at-risk youth -- additional support for unaccompanied minors and bolstered law enforcement in gang hotspots.

He also introduced a number of counter terrorism initiatives, such as the construction of a new firefighter training facility to support the city’s first responders, expanded vehicle rental regulations, and a terrorism tip line.

“[T]he state owns many of the places of potential vulnerability, our bridges, tunnels, trains, buses and airports, our transit hubs like Penn Station and Grand Central,” Cuomo said. “Our transportation system must be better protected, and we must do it now. We have had warning.” He specifically cited Penn Station as vulnerable and said he already has plans in motion, while also referencing the possible use of eminent domain to make the surrounding area more secure.

Voting and Other Reforms
Leading up to his speech Cuomo unveiled parts of his “Democracy Agenda,” which aims to protect the integrity of elections, requires transparency for digital advertisements, and enact voting reforms.

Reform advocates, like Common Cause/NY’s Executive Director, Susan Lerner, welcomed the proposals but said that “the Governor proposed a high tech blanket to protect an antiquated election system that cries out for common-sense low-tech improvement.”

“It's not enough to simply pitch the idea of early voting – a crucial change that will bring New York in line with 37 other states- as well as same day voter registration, and no penalty absentee voting,” she said. “The Governor must put money behind it. Initiatives like automatic voter registration, electronic poll books, flexibility to change parties, and parolee voting rights are pivotal upgrades to our current system of elections administration that can not be ignored.”

The governor did not give much airtime to his government ethics and campaign finance initiatives this year, many of which are recycled from past years in his 2018 policy book. On Wednesday he talked briefly about ending outside income for lawmakers, and “spent less than a minute total discussing his remaining reforms,” said Jennifer Wilson, of The League of Women Voters.

Education
The governor put forth several education initiatives, including to expand the availability of early childhood care, pre-kindergarten education, and afterschool; a proposal to guarantee free food for school children; and supports for teachers.

He also introduced a slew of measures to address the student loan debt crisis. Planks include appointing a Student Loan Ombudsman; requiring colleges to provide simple 'truth in lending' facts for students; and increasing consumer protection standards throughout the student loan industry.

De Blasio, after the event, told reporters he hopes to see a boost in education aid in the governor’s 2018-2019 budget proposal, which would help fund the city’s 3-K for All initiative.

Infrastructure 
Cuomo said he would call on the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to study potential options for relocating and improving maritime activities and enhancing transportation access to Brooklyn's Red Hook neighborhood and harbor. The plan would include the creation of a new subway line extending into the South Brooklyn neighborhood “to stimulate Red Hook’s community-based development.”

Citing the Trump administration’s efforts to scale back national parks, Cuomo vowed to open the largest state part in New York City, a 407-acre plot of land on Jamaica Bay.

He vowed to finally complete the Hudson River Park on Manhattan’s west side, a project started by his late father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, and Mayor David Dinkins.

“It was supposed to be finished in 2003. It was derailed by ongoing disputes. We now have settled the disputes. We now have a full completion plan that completes the park from Battery Park City to 59th Street,” said Cuomo.

Next Steps
Along with congestion pricing recommendations, Cuomo is also awaiting the results of a study he’s ordered of the possibility of eliminating a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, which could have significant impact in New York City.

Threats from the federal government loomed large at the State of the State, as the governor, who is facing reelection in 2018 and has presidential aspirations, painted himself as a unifying leader in the face of a divisive and hostile president.

While Cuomo prepares to release his executive budget plan in the coming weeks, he will continue to fight the federal tax overhaul and deal with other ways in which federal policies are cutting funds to New York. Still, Cuomo spoke in grand terms, saying that New York can accomplish anything it puts its mind to, as his tenure has shown.

“Ladies and gents I am a realist,” Cuomo said. “I know that this an ambitious agenda and I know it is probably the most challenging agenda that I have ever put forth. But these are challenging times, and we have to rise to the challenge for the very survival of our state.”

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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New York City Takeaways from Governor Cuomo's 2018 State of the State Thu, 04 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Ahead of 2018 Session, Cuomo Mum on Pursuing MTA Board Overhaul http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7361:ahead-of-2018-session-cuomo-mum-on-pursuing-mta-board-overhaul http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7361:ahead-of-2018-session-cuomo-mum-on-pursuing-mta-board-overhaul Cuomo MTA control

Gov. Cuomo (photo via the Governor's Office)


In June, as New Yorkers became increasingly frustrated with subway performance and braced themselves for the expected “summer of hell,” Governor Andrew Cuomo was the focus of intense criticism, responding with a series of measures he said were needed in order to fix the ailing Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).

Among them, Cuomo introduced last-minute legislation that would allow the governor to appoint a majority of MTA board members, a gesture some saw as an attempt to bolster his sometimes claim that he does not actually control the MTA and its beleaguered subway system. Currently the governor appoints a plurality of board members as well as the chair and CEO of the MTA, giving the state’s chief executive de facto control of the board.

Cuomo’s bill, announced June 20, the final day of the session -- giving it minimal chance to be passed through the Legislature this year -- adds two state seats to the MTA board appointed by the governor and an additional vote for the chair. The proposal drew swift criticism from board members not appointed by the governor, who believe the body’s independence is hampered enough, and transit experts, who see it as a cynical ploy.

The measure was not included in the final legislative deal of the session and the governor has been silent on the subject since, though his nomination of Joe Lhota to once again lead the MTA was accepted and the governor appeared to retake responsibility for the future of the subway system.

Cuomo’s board reform proposal came amid a debate between the governor and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, over control of the state authority. The governor, while appointing the leadership and six members, has argued that the board’s organizational structure -- which allows city and downstate suburban appointees to total a slight majority of votes over budgetary and contracting decisions -- is flawed and has historically led to finger-pointing and dysfunction.

"Who's in charge? Who knows! Maybe the county executive, maybe the president, maybe the governor, maybe the mayor," the governor said, during a press appearance where he defended the bill.

“If you believe I have control with six [voting members], then you shouldn't have a problem giving me actual control. And if you have a problem giving me actual control, you know what that means? You were disingenuous when you said I had control," he added.

Along with the governor’s six board appointees and the mayor’s four, Westchester, Suffolk, and Nassau Counties each get a board member, and Rockland, Orange, Putnam, and Dutchess Counties appointees share a collective vote. There are six non-voting members of the board. If Cuomo had his way, there would be 16 total voting members and the new structure would give the state eight board appointees and nine votes.

When asked whether the governor still stood by the proposal and whether he would promote it as part of his 2018 agenda -- his State of the State speech and policy platform release will occur January 3 -- a spokesperson for Cuomo’s office said that the governor’s view on the issue had not changed but that the governor’s agenda was not yet finalized.

“The MTA’s board structure was purposefully created to avoid accountability, which is why in June Governor Cuomo advanced legislation to update it. Unfortunately, the Legislature failed to adopt the bill,” said spokesman Peter Ajemian.“That design flaw still exists today with the city’s refusal to pay for the system without recourse, and the MTA’s inability to implement its full Subway Action Plan.”

Ajemian emphasized that Cuomo’s administration has appointed a new leadership team is still making significant gains with the half of the plan that is funded by the state.

While the MTA board approves the budget and the chair and CEO run the authority, there is no credible argument that the governor does not effectively control the subway. Critics, including de Blasio, quickly pointed to the governor’s attention to and oversight of the completion of phase one of the Second Avenue subway extension as evidence of Cuomo’s control of the MTA.

“The governor controls the MTA. That’s a hard, accepted fact in the eyes of New Yorkers, said mayoral spokesperson Austin Finan, in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “What’s needed now is a new, dedicated revenue stream to modernize the subways and buses that city riders depend on.”

The current board structure dates back to 1965, though in 1983 Cuomo’s father, former Governor Mario Cuomo, similarly attempted to add members to the board to gain a majority, The New York Times has pointed out. The elder Cuomo gave up due to opposition from then-New York City Mayor Ed Koch and suburban officials.

After the board convened and objected to the legislation, Cuomo appointed Joe Lhota, who briefly ran the authority before leaving for a 2013 mayoral run, as its chair -- a move that was hailed by transit experts as a step in the right direction in terms of taking responsibility for the transportation system and its ongoing woes.

hRegardless of whether the governor decides to move forward with controversial MTA board restructuring, he and his chair seized a collective unilateral control over much of the authority’s actions.

Days after appointing Lhota, Cuomo declared a state of emergency at the MTA, ordering Lhota to assess the transit authority’s needs within 60 days. The administration has extended the order every 30 days, granting Lhota the authority to execute many contracts without a board vote.

“State of Emergency declarations must be renewed every 30 days, and as such, the Governor has renewed MTA’s order every 30 days so the MTA can continue to work swiftly and without constraint,” said Ajemian in statement, when asked when the order would be allowed to expire.

While MTA board members interviewed by Gotham Gazette declined to comment on the record about Cuomo’s restructuring bill, those from New York City have made clear that the governor already calls the shots at the agency. At least one gubernatorial appointee, Scott Rechler, sided with Cuomo on the legislation, when speaking to the New York Times in June.

“Let him put 100 percent of his political capital, his expertise, his energy, his relationships into fixing something that is immensely broken,” he told the outlet.

The general consensus is that the governor already has more than enough power over the MTA.

To restructure the MTA board, Cuomo would need the support of Legislature, which is led by an Assembly member from New York City and a Senator from Long Island.

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said no legislation had been proposed in the Assembly, so the speaker could not comment. A bill was hastily introduced and sent to the Senate’s rules committee on the last day of this year’s legislative session, and a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan did not return a request for comment.

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by Rachel Silberstein, State government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Ahead of 2018 Session, Cuomo Mum on Pursuing MTA Board Overhaul Sun, 10 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
The MTA’s Long-Term Financial Problem Is Severe and May Soon Be Worse http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7220:the-mta-s-long-term-financial-problem-is-severe-and-may-soon-be-worse http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7220:the-mta-s-long-term-financial-problem-is-severe-and-may-soon-be-worse MTA restored montague tube

(photo via MTA)


Summer 2017 saw a political breakthrough for mass transit riders when Governor Cuomo declared a “Transit Emergency“ after the Harlem subway derailment, effectively acknowledging the State’s responsibility for addressing the deteriorating and delay-plagued subway, bus, and commuter rail system.

Within a month, the MTA’s new Chair, Joe Llota, proposed an $836 million “Subway Action Plan” to address the emergency, meaning major upgrades to the MTA’s maintenance operations and other investments to attack the constant delays and bring some meaningful relief to riders. He proposed the MTA and the State split the cost of the new program with the City, which drew a near immediate rebuff from Mayor de Blasio.

The MTA began implementing the plan, deploying late-night work crews on system segments to clean debris and fix track and signals, without a clear answer to where it will get the money. The Subway Action Plan became part of the MTA’s constant dilemma - where can it pull together resources for both its short-term and its long-term needs, which are far larger than the $836 million action plan. Seemingly aware of this, the emergency declaration and the subway action plan response precipitated another move by Governor Cuomo.

In mid-August Cuomo endorsed “congestion pricing,“ claiming it was “an idea whose time has come.” Congestion pricing puts a toll on the free East River Bridges into Manhattan, as well as a toll for vehicles crossing 60th street toward the city’s business district.

The money from the tolls would provide the cash to repay money the MTA generally borrows for its capital needs. Those needs include buying new subway cars and buses, replacing track and signals, rebuilding stations, elevators, escalators, and railyards, continuing expansion projects like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, and installing computer-based train control, which could increase the number of subway trains running during the crowded rush hours.

Move New York, an advocacy group, has a detailed plan, which includes vehicles paying one round-trip at the same rate as the Battery and Midtown Tunnels ($5.76 with E-Z Pass, $8 without), and lowering tolls on many of the non-Manhattan destination bridges in the rest of the boroughs

The governor does not yet have his own specific plan, and imposing these tolls must have approval of the State Legislature, which is not in session and will not return to Albany until January. This means Cuomo will likely submit a congestion pricing plan with the budget in January, in the hope it would be approved by April 1, 2018. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a congestion pricing proposal in 2007 and 2008, but the Legislature would not approve it, although it consumed a year’s worth of debate. It never even came to a vote.

Meanwhile, Mayor de Blasio said he opposes congestion pricing because it is “regressive,“ by which he means that it is a tax on ordinary working people, not the rich.

I served in the New York State Assembly for 32 years, and in 2007 I was Chair of the Assembly Cities Committee, which dealt with the internal workings of the state’s 62 city governments. I had regular dealings with the Bloomberg administration and endorsed congestion pricing. Most of the debate, however, was not about funding the MTA, but about whether the tolls would really deter cars from driving into Manhattan, and whether the neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens near the bridges would fill up with cars parked by drivers looking to avoid the tolls and then taking the subways into Manhattan for the last leg of their trip. Of course, unfairness to people of modest means was another major concern. My point of view was that the MTA Capital Plan needed a major new source of funding but that perspective was less of a priority then than it is today.

Several years later I became Chair of the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, which has jurisdiction over laws affecting the MTA. I also helped lead the Assembly’s negotiations with the governor and the Senate over the mass transit aspects of the transportation budget. By 2014 the MTA’s 2015-19 Capital Plan had become the subject of extensive discussion, and the MTA had a $15 billion shortfall in funding for the $32 billion plan that was in the works.

Move New York had made its new congestion pricing proposals by then, which I supported. Concerned that congestion pricing might never be approved by the Legislature, I also introduced about six bills intended to help meet the MTA shortfall. Some of the bills addressed road and bridge funding as well. But the governor’s office argued that providing specific additional funds to the MTA would not work because it could not spend more money (which the MTA leadership did not agree with but would not disagree publicly with Cuomo).

Governor Cuomo vetoed the initial MTA Capital Plan proposal in October 2014, which ended up forcing the MTA to cut the plan from $32 billion to $29.5 billion. In the 2016 budget, the Legislature approved the governor’s plan to commit the State to $7 billion in new funding for the Capital Plan, while New York City would supplement the funding with $2.5 billion of its own.

With those commitments in place, the MTA proceeded with its approved plan. The problem then, as now, is that the $7 billion from the State was just an IOU. There was no identified source of funding for the $7 billion, only a commitment in law that the State would provide the funds after the MTA ran out of its own resources.

In late 2019 the MTA will have to submit a proposal to the Capital Program Review Board for the 2020-2024 plan, which is expected to be similar to the past several plans, needing $30 billion for full funding. In the current plan, the MTA had identified about one quarter of the funding from the federal government and about one third of the funding from its own resources, meaning either cash upfront or enough cash to cover the interest on borrowed funds, before the state government settled on the 2016 plan that passed.

For 2020-24 it is not known how much more cash the MTA can squeeze from its current resources. The MTA Financial Plan adopted by the Board in July showed rising deficits because revenue from real estate taxes is in decline, meaning its ability to generate more cash resources internally will be very limited. A reasonable person could foresee a shortfall for the 2020-24 plan similar to the one that affected early planning for the current capital plan, namely $15 billion. When you combine that with the unidentified resources for the State share of the current plan, some $7 billion, the total ‘shortfall’ going into 2020 would be $22 billion. Does this suggest the MTA needs a new source of revenue?

More than $20 billion in need going into the 2020-24 capital plan is catastrophic. Not all the cash is needed right away, of course, but the governor and the Legislature, I think, should probably do something meaningful pretty soon.

***
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The MTA’s Long-Term Financial Problem Is Severe and May Soon Be Worse Wed, 27 Sep 2017 04:00:00 +0000
At Oversight Hearing, Council Members Seek Answers on MTA Funding and Operations http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7116:at-oversight-hearing-questions-about-black-hole-of-mta-funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7116:at-oversight-hearing-questions-about-black-hole-of-mta-funding 12756177594 f792aac7b9 z

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez (photo William Alatriste/New York City Council)


At a contentious hours-long hearing held on Tuesday by the the City Council’s Committee on Transportation, Council members grilled representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on the problems facing the city’s transit infrastructure and the challenges of finding both short- and long-term funding streams to adequately maintain and upgrade the city’s subway system.

The hearing comes amid an increasingly testy fight between the city and state over the MTA’s recently announced $836 million rescue plan for the crisis affecting the city’s subways. MTA Chair Joe Lhota, recently appointed by Governor Andrew Cuomo, has insisted that the city provide $456 million for the emergency upgrade plan to stabilize the system over the next year. Mayor Bill de Blasio has refused to bear those costs, pointing to an equal amount of city-issued funds that have been diverted since 2011 by the state from their intended use in MTA operations. De Blasio on Monday proposed increasing taxes on the wealthy to fund the MTA, but the proposal was quickly dismissed by state Senate Republicans who would have to approve it.

Tuesday’s hearing kicked off with testimony from MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim, Management and Budget Director Doug Johnson, and New York City Transit Authority Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan. The three fielded questions from members of the transportation committee, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James. Council members largely focused on the costs of modernizing the subway system as well as accessibility issues, but were routinely frustrated by the inability of the MTA representatives to delineate specific figures such as the costs of tunnel construction per mile or of installing elevators at subway stations.

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito emphasized that the city is already providing ample funds to the MTA and bristled at the suggestion that it was shirking its responsibility to fund the agency. “I understand the MTA is a creature of the state and therefore you respond to the governor, but to make it seem that the governor is being so magnanimous and that this city is rejecting its responsibility, I'm not going to sit here and accept that,” she said.

MTA budget director Johnson later attempted to clarify that the $456 million in MTA operating funds from the city, which Mayor de Blasio claims have been diverted elsewhere by the state, were in fact shifted to the MTA’s capital plan and were a form of “relief” for the operating budget.

Mark-Viverito also sought answers on how the MTA prioritized capital projects and controlled costs. “The cost of building subway tunnels in other cities is between $200 million and $1 billion per mile; when we were in phase one of the second avenue subway that cost was approximately $2.3 billion per mile,” Mark-Viverito said, asking MTA’s Hakim what led to the discrepancy.

Hakim pointed out that the city poses its own unique challenges, both physical and regulatory, for infrastructure upgrades. “In other parts of the globe, when subway systems are being built or expanded, they do not remotely come close to the challenges that we face here in New York City,” she said. “You see it when you go by a utility construction pit and you look and are amazed at the spaghetti of utilities you have to deal with underground.”

Mark-Viverito seemed dissatisfied with the response, and emphasized that she was “very disappointed that Chairman Lhota is not here himself, especially considering the significant amount of money he has asked the City to contribute to the MTA’s plan.” Later, when asked by reporters about Lhota’s absence, she said, “I do find it disrespectful.”

Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, the chair of the committee, recounted his recent experiences on a listening tour on the subways, totalling 24 hours over two days, organized by him and State Assemblymember Jeffrey Dinowitz. Numerous elected officials participated in the tour to hear from subway riders, and the results of their survey were released at a news conference Tuesday morning. They found that about 75 percent of nearly two thousand riders they spoke to had been late to school, work or an appointment in the last two weeks. “While less a concern for us, this is part of the reality subway riders face every day,” said Rodriguez, before suggesting that the MTA should spend the “enormous amount of money it does have intelligently, quickly, and efficiently.”

Council members also pushed the agency on the issue of accessibility at subway stations, prompted by an early interruption from a member of the public who pointed out that the panel had not touched on accessibility for the disabled or elderly. “All these plans mean nothing to us if you can't get on the train,” the woman, who was on a mobility scooter, said. Later, Mark-Viverito noted that the Council “usually do not acknowledge and do not accept disruptions in this chamber,” but she thanked the woman and said the issue of disability ridership was legitimate and should be addressed by the MTA.

Asked whether the planned 15-month L train shutdown, scheduled for 2019 to fix damage caused by Hurricane Sandy, would be a good time to install elevators, Hakim said the cost would be prohibitive.

“At this rate we'll have every station accessible by 2450,” lamented Council Member Stephen Levin, who criticized the MTA for using what he called “small-bore” solutions as opposed to big-picture thinking. Referring to Governor Cuomo’s late-June declaration of a state of emergency for the MTA, he added, “We need the MTA to use that power of that state of emergency to truly make an impact.”

Like many of his colleagues, Levin also emphasized the need for long-term solutions. “Yes, we need something now, but to avoid there being summer of hell 2019, summer of hell 2020, summer of hell 2021, every summer of hell, there needs to be long-term investment.” Hakim did not commit to any specific long-term funding proposals at the hearing, saying only that multiple options were being discussed by the agency.

Several Council members were skeptical of the MTA’s ability to manage any funding that could be provided by the city. Council Member Chaim Deutsch criticized the agency for its lack of transparency and it’s inefficiency in spending. “You guys do not know how to spend a dime, how could you spend a billion dollars?” Deutsch asked, before calling the inaccessibility of the subways “unacceptable.”

Only Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of Mayor de Blasio and his administration, seemed somewhat sympathetic to the MTA’s position. “Is it fair to say that the state's contribution to the MTA capital, for not just this capital plan, but the last two capital plans as well, dwarfs the contribution that the city makes to the capital plan?” he asked, with the MTA representatives readily agreeing. He also suggested that the mayor’s appointees to the MTA board – the mayor chooses four voting members out of the total fourteen, while the governor selects six – had not put forth any plans to improve the city’s subways.

In large part, the Council members seemed to want to avoid an outcome predicted by Comptroller Scott Stringer, who said in his testimony, “I’m concerned that you give money to the MTA black hole and you never see it again.” He reiterated his support for a $3.5 billion bond act to relieve some pressure on the MTA issuing and repaying debt. “As we take the time to consider the menu of long-term funding options, we must ensure that those who are actually paying for transit improvements see an equitable, fair return on their investment,” he said.

Polly Trottenberg, Commissioner of the city’s Department of Transportation, and Dean Fuleihan, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, also testified, outlining a concern for permanent funding sources for new initiatives, such as the estimated $300 million that it would cost annually to fill the 2,700 new positions that the MTA’s emergency action plan intends to create.

“At present, the MTA has not identified a way to cover those recurring operating costs,” Trottenberg said.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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At Oversight Hearing, Council Members Seek Answers on MTA Funding and Operations Wed, 09 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +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
The Mayor’s Best Argument on Transit System Funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7107:the-mayor-s-best-argument-on-transit-system-funding http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7107:the-mayor-s-best-argument-on-transit-system-funding de Blasio

Mayor de Blasio (photo: Edwin J. Torres/ Mayor's Office)


Governor Cuomo’s declaration of a state emergency after the Harlem subway derailment in June offered hope to suffering transit riders because it was an acknowledgement there was a crisis and the Governor was taking responsibility for addressing it.

An emergency declaration in New York law requires an affected agency to develop plans to deal with whatever disaster the Governor has declared. After a review, new MTA Chair Joseph Lhota  proposed to spend an additional $450 million in maintenance programming and $380 million in capital investments to reduce delays and breakdowns. The Governor and Lhota also are seeking half the new money from New York City, reigniting public rancor between the Governor and Mayor de Blasio and raising anew the question of responsibility for the transit system between the State and the City.

Both the State and the City have billions of dollars in reserve funds available now and can afford to make the contributions. Whether de Blasio makes a decision to contribute to the plan or not, an understanding of who is paying for the transit system at this time is essential.

The basic facts are that the City and its suburbs already pay virtually all of the MTA’s costs, either directly or indirectly.

The budget adopted by the MTA for 2017 reports that 57%, more than $4.5 billion, of New York City Transit’s costs are paid by the fares from riders of the subway and bus systems. The next largest amount, about $3.5 billion, came from a group of dedicated taxes which, although imposed by the State, are levied within the 12-county MTA region, and not in the rest of the State.

These dedicated taxes include a payroll tax, a corporate profits tax, a sliver of the sales tax, the New York City real estate transfer tax, and others. The New York City government directly contributes $362 million to New York City Transit, including a required match of a corresponding State subsidy, as well as reimbursements for paratransit, students, and the elderly. New York City Transit also receives a cross-subsidy from excess cash available from the tolls of the Bridge and Tunnel system of $287 million.

The State’s General Fund provides about $356 million, including a contribution to compensate for a cut in 2011 of an unpopular payroll tax enacted within the region during the recession. While these funds derive from the general taxes of the State, a Rockefeller Institute study in 2011 reported that New York City and its suburbs were paying 72% of the State’s tax revenue in 2009, and that study did not reflect the fact that most economic growth in the State has occurred downstate since then.

The bottom line is that this all means that only about 1% of New York City Transit’s operating funds come from outside the MTA region.

All these resources together don’t just fund the operating budget, they also pay for the debt service on the tens of billions of dollars the MTA borrowed to pay for the capital programs of prior years as well as the ongoing borrowing  for the new one. About $1.3 billion a year goes to pay interest on debt associated with New York City Transit from these flows of funds, with another $250 million a year covering New York City Transit-related debt from Bridge and Tunnel toll surpluses.

The New York City government also pays substantial subsidies to other parts of the MTA system.

It provides $460 million a year to MTA Bus, the express bus system taken over by the MTA during the Bloomberg Administration; $58 million for the Staten Island Railway; and $98 million for station maintenance for Long Island Railroad and Metro North facilities that are within the City.

New York City also pays the cost of the New York Transit Police, more than 3,000 police officers who patrol the subways and other mass transit facilities. The Police Department budget is $10 billion a year, meaning the 10% of the police force committed to safety in mass transit costs the City roughly $1 billion a year. This large level of support is barely reflected at all in the MTA or New York City Transit budgets. Embedded within the State and City budgets are payments for interest on bonds issued by State and City government for the benefit of mass transit, with $301 million paid by the City and $180 million by the State, according to a 2015 report by the New York City Comptroller.

Commuter rail system support is comparable to New York City Transit. Fares, excess cash from Bridge and Tunnel tolls, and dedicated tax revenues collected from the suburban counties around the City pay the costs of Metro-North and the Long Island Railroad. The commuter rail systems receive more generous subsidies from Bridge and Tunnel tolls than New York City Transit, about $400 million a year compared to $287 million a year. Long Island Railroad fares contribute only 47% of the costs of that system, compared to 57% for New York City Transit and 59% for Metro-North. Money from the General Fund of the State contributes just a very small portion of the commuter rail budget, just like New York City Transit. The MTA Police patrol the commuter rail system, and the costs are included within the commuter rail system budgets.

Governor Cuomo has said that the State was adding a historic level of funding to the current MTA capital budget, the 2015-19 capital plan. There is but a scintilla of truth to that pronouncement. That is because, of the $8.3 billion claimed to be committed, sources for $7 billion of the contribution have yet to be identified, and the State law providing the support says the State does not have to come up with the $7 billion until the MTA exhausts all its own resources first, with a deadline of 2025 for the State’s $7 billion to be found.

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. The City’s $2.5 billion promised contribution to the plan, part of a deal with the State, is to be paid on a schedule concurrent with the State’s schedule, and the City’s own budget does not forecast its contribution being paid until after 2019.

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.

***
Jim Brennan was a member of the New York State Assembly for 32 years, where he chaired four committees. On Twitter @JimBrennanNY.

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Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email opinion@gothamgazette.com

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The Mayor’s Best Argument on Transit System Funding Thu, 03 Aug 2017 04:00:00 +0000
The Week Ahead in New York Politics, July 24 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7079:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-july-24 http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7079:the-week-ahead-in-new-york-politics-july-24 640px New York City Hall

New York City Hall


It's a relatively quiet week in New York politics. The City Council has only a few hearings scheduled this week after holding a full meeting last week where they passed a number of bills, including the 'Right to Counsel' bill to provide free legal services to low-income tenants in housing court.  

Mayor Bill de Blasio is back at City Hall after spending a week in Queens for the third installment of his City Hall in Your Borough initiative. On Sunday, the mayor commuted on the F Train from Park Slope to Downtown Brooklyn for a press conference, taking the opportunity to push back on recent claims by Governor Andrew Cuomo and newly-appointed MTA Chair Joe Lhota that the city is reponsible for funding the MTA. De Blasio insisted that the state has used the MTA as a "piggy bank" and that they must step up with solutions and funding for the crumbling subways. The MTA is expected to unveil a 30-day overhaul plan this week.

As always, there are a number of events to be aware of - see our day-by-day rundown below.

***Do you have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? e-mail Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max: bmax@gothamgazette.com***

The run of the week in detail:

Monday
At 10:15 a.m. Monday, City Council Member Corey Johnson, Assemblymember Richard Gottfried, and State Senator Brad Hoylman will take part in a STEM education workshop held by Google at the Hudson Guild in Manhattan. The elected officials will also give remarks.

At 11 a.m. Monday, Mayor de Blasio will deliver opening remarks to the 2017 Urban Resilience Summit, a conference convening leaders of the Rockefeller Foundation “to spur new solutions and collaborate on best practices to tackle 21st century urban challenges.” The Mayor will also make his weekly appearance on NY1's Road to City Hall during the 7 and 10 p.m. hours.

At 6 p.m. Monday, there will be a community meeting for residents of Battery Park City, hosted by the Battery Park City Authority, with State Senator Daniel Squadron appearing.

At 7 p.m. Monday, the Ernest Skinner Political Association and City Council Member Jumaane Williams will host a forum for Brooklyn District Attorney candidates at Clarendon Road Church in Flatbush. The attending candidates are Acting DA Eric Gonzalez, City Council Member Vincent Gentile, Ama Dwimoh, Marc Fliedner, Patricia Gatling, and Anne Swern.

Tuesday
On Tuesday at noon in Queens, "Chancellor Fariña will join Chancellor Betty Rosa, Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and members of the NYS Board of Regents for a visit to Thomas A. Edison Career and Technical Education High School."

At 1:30 p.m. Tuesday, the New York City Board of Elections commissioners will hold a meeting. The livestream of the meeting is available here.

At 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Riders Alliance will host “Buses, Beers and Bytes: A Happy Hour for Tech and Public Transit in New York” at CARTO in Williamsburg. The event will include a panel discussion on buses featuring Lela Prashad, CEO and founder of NiJeL; Tabitha Decker, Director of Research and NYC program director at TransitCenter; and Natasha Saunders, Riders Alliance “member-leader.”

Wednesday
At 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, City & State will host the “Pride Awards” at 80 5th Avenue in Manhattan, “honor[ing] and celebrat[ing] the work of New York organizations and individuals who serve the LGBTQ community through public service, volunteerism, government, or civic engagement.” Featured speakers include State Senator Daniel Squadron and Christine Marinoni, senior advisor to Deputy Mayor Richard Beury.

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, along with City Council Member Bill Perkins, the New York City Department of Veterans Services, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and other organizations will host a resource fair for veterans at the Adam Clayton Powell Jr State Office Building in Harlem. Loree Sutton, Commissioner of the City Department of Veterans Services, will deliver the keynote address.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the City Planning Commission will hold a public meeting at 22 Reade Street.

At 10 a.m. Wednesday, the MTA will hold a board meeting at the MTA Board Room in Manhattan.

At 6 p.m. Wednesday, the Bronx Chronicle will host a forum for candidates for the 8th council district, an open seat currently held by Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. The forum will be held at DREAM in East Harlem.

At 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Humanities New York will host “Beyond the Ballot: From Suffrage to the Women’s March” at Federal Hall in Manhattan, honoring “the centennial of Women’s Suffrage in New York State by convening a roundtable of women from the fields of journalism, history, and community organizing for a public conversation on the history of women’s rights, and to discuss what’s next.” Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker will moderate a panel consisting of “Jessa Crispin, author of Why I Am Not a Feminist; Tamika Mallory, one of four co-chairs of the Women's March; Kim Phillips-Fein, Associate Professor of American History at New York University; and Sarah Seidman, historian and curator at the Museum of the City of New York.”

Thursday
At the City Council on Thursday
- The Subcommittee on Zoning and Franchises will meet at 9:30 a.m.
- The Subcommittee on Landmarks, Public Siting, and Maritime Uses will meet at 11 a.m.
- The Subcommittee on Planning, Dispositions, and Concessions will meet at 1 p.m.
- The Committee on Land Use will meet at 2 p.m.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Governor Cuomo will speak at an ABNY “Power Breakfast” at 583 Park Avenue in Manhattan.

At 8:30 a.m. Thursday, the New York League of Conservation Voters will host the fourth and final policy forum of its four-part “Getting to 80x50” series at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. This forum will focus on energy.

At 10 a.m. Thursday, the New York City Campaign Finance Board will hold a public board meeting.

At 6:30 p.m. Thursday, the New York City branch of the National Women’s Political Caucus will host a candidate forum for female candidates running for the open seat in City Council District 4. The attending candidates are Maria Castro, Vanessa Aronson, Marti Speranza, Bessie Schachter, Rachel Honig, and Rebecca Harary. The forum will be moderated by Lili Gil Valletta, founder and CEO of CIEN Media.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, NY Indivisible will host a “Where’s Hamilton?” town hall at Union Temple of Brooklyn at 17 Eastern Parkway, allowing constituents of IDC member Jesse Hamilton’s district to get answers on questions “about the IDC and his role in it.” Hamilton has declined an invitation to the town hall. State Senator Gustavo Rivera will appear to talk with Hamilton's constituents.

At 7 p.m. Thursday, Food and Water Watch will host “Save the EPA!” at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, featuring former New York regional administrator for the EPA Judith Enck, on “how EPA cuts would impact New York communities, and discuss the New York Campaign to Save the EPA.”

"From Thursday-Saturday, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer of New York City and the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center (TECH) at Harvard are co-hosting the 2017 Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator at the HUB at Grand Central Tech. The three-day program is a hands-on, immersion accelerator where senior city officials from 17 cities across North America will work alongside fellow city leaders, industrial experts, Harvard Fellows, and researchers. The topics that will be addressed were chosen by and for cities—from mobility and transportation to scaling digital access and managing data. The goal is to send each city home with a specific, actionable strategic plan for the future."

Friday and the weekend
No other events on our radar for Friday or the weekend as of Sunday night, but the mayor is likely to make his weekly appearance on WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show on Friday morning.

***
Have events or topics for us to include in an upcoming Week Ahead in New York Politics? E-mail Gotham Gazette executive editor Ben Max any time: bmax@gothamgazette.com (please use "For Week Ahead" as email subject).

***
by Ben Brachfeld and Samar Khurshid
@GothamGazette

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The Week Ahead in New York Politics, July 24 Sun, 23 Jul 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
What's The [DATA] Point? 30 Days http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7060:what-s-the-data-point-30-days http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7060:what-s-the-data-point-30-days whats the data point


What's The Data Point? Episode 5 -- 30 Days, with Jamison Dague, director of infrastructure studies for Citizens. [You can download What's The Data Point? wherever you get your podcasts, including on iTunes]

For the fifth episode of What's The [Data] Point? we were joined by Jamison Dague of CBC, who discussed issues facing the city's subway system, recent announcements made by Governor Andrew Cuomo that relate to the MTA, CBC analysis of transit system problems, and what to watch for as the MTA enters its summer "state of emergency."

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think: Ben Max of GG (@TweetBenMax), Maria Doulis (@MariaDoulis) of CBC, and special guest Jamison Dague of CBC (@cbcny):

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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What's The [DATA] Point? 30 Days Thu, 13 Jul 2017 20:47:16 +0000