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Citizens Union


Transportation Bond Act

With mayoral candidates giving little attention to transportation issues, voters' biggest choice in the transportation arena will be their vote on the 2005 Transportation Bond Act. The bond act, approved by the Legislature this spring as part of a 5-year, $36 billion capital plan, would authorize $2.9 billion in state-backed borrowing for transportation, to be repaid through general revenues. One-half of the bond act funds would be dedicated to public transportation in New York City and its suburbs. Projects to be funded include:

• $450 million to move ahead with the Second Avenue Subway
• $450 million for the East Side Access project, connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal;
• $100 million for a rail link between lower Manhattan and Kennedy airport;
• $115 million for purchase of new subway and commuter railroad cars;
• $90 million for new buses; and
• $161 million for track replacement and tunnel lighting. An additional $235 million is set aside for upstate public transportation systems.

Although many people think of New York City as synonymous with transit and upstate as synonymous with highway spending, in fact, a substantial amount of statewide highway spending goes to New York City projects. Twenty-three percent of the bond's highway funding will be spent in the city. New York City highway projects (In PDF Format) include:

• $81 million for Kew Gardens Interchange/Van Wyck Expressway Improvements;
• $30 million for closed circuit television cameras, electronic message signs, vehicle detection devices and highway advisory radio on the FDR Drive and Henry Hudson Parkway;
• $23 million for Henry Hudson Parkway Rehabilitation;
• $25 million for West Shore Expressway Access and Safety Improvements;
• $19 million for the Bronx River Greenway; and
• $11 million for Long Island Railroad Bridge Upgrades to allow heavier, larger rail cars to access the Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island market areas.

Bond act spending also aims to maintain the percentage of state highway bridges in New York City that are rated as in good or excellent condition and slightly improve the proportion of interstate highway lane mileage in New York City that is rated as in good or excellent condition.

No one seriously disputes the importance of maintaining and upgrading the state's transportation system. The Bond Act has thus attracted a long list of supporters including Governor George Pataki, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, State Comptroller Alan Hevesi, and transit advocacy, environmental and civic groups, including the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign and the New York Public Transit Association. Both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his opponent, Fernando Ferrer, support the bond act.

Supporters say that the Transportation Bond Act funds are vital to maintaining the state's sprawling and aging transportation infrastructure. The funding is also critical to construction of the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access -- projects long discussed and planned but only now garnering the necessary funding. As much as $4 billion in federal funding is contingent on the bond act passing since the federal government evaluates projects on the level of local financial support. Supporters also point out that bond act spending will create construction jobs in the short term and spur economic growth for years to come.

The bond act has also attracted opposition, primarily from groups that feel the state already has too much debt. The Citizens Budget Commission (In PDF Format) says that the state is poised to take on $19 billion in new debt in the next five years. Only the $2.9 billion in the bond act requires voter approval, however. The budget commission argues that voters should reject the bond act as the only way to say no to the overall growth in borrowing.

The Automobile Club of New York also urges voters to reject the Transportation Bond Act. The Auto Club criticizes the state for raiding the highway trust fund, whose revenues come from the gas tax and auto registration fees. The Auto Club says that the state has used trust fund revenues to plug general budget shortfalls. The Auto Club argues that instead of borrowing to pay for transportation improvements, the integrity of the trust fund should be maintained and used for these projects.

Supporters reply that the real choice -- aside from underfunding transportation -- is between state-backed borrowing and borrowing that would be paid back through transit fares. They point out that after the 2000 Bond Act failed, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority borrowed heavily, leading to two fare increases since then.

In 2000, a $3.8 billion Transportation Bond Act narrowly failed to win voter approval. Prospects for this year's proposal are uncertain. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found voters statewide supporting the measure by a 56 percent to 36 percent margin. New York City voters supported it by 67 to 26 percent and suburban voters by 60 to 32 percent. Upstate voters were about evenly split.

While encouraging to supporters, these poll numbers also provide reason for caution because polls before the 2000 election also showed a majority in support. On election day, many New York City voters "who would be expected to vote favorably" overlooked the proposition in the lower right corner of the ballot. In fact, had the dropoff from the presidential vote to the bond act vote been the same downstate as upstate in 2000, the measure would have passed.

Supporters are aiming to heed the lessons of 2000. A group of business and building associations has funded a statewide Vote Yes for Transportation campaign. The $1.5 million campaign will include door to door canvassing and upstate radio ads.

Supporters have also moved to shore up support on Staten Island. The MTA recently shifted funds to build a third MTA bus depot on the island after the borough president, James Molinaro, criticized the measure.

Chances for passage of the 2005 Bond Act appear to be better than the 2000 measure, which failed narrowly, but are not assured. Voters thus have an important and very real choice to make on November 8.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

Mayoral Issue Grid: Transportation

Mayoral Issue Grid


-2nd Ave Subway
-7 Extension
-Rail Link from Lower Manhattan to JFK Airport
-Rail Freight tunnel
-East River Tolls
-Congestion Pricing
-Subway Commute?

The last new subway line opened in New York City nearly 65 years ago, but candidates for mayor are making bold promises to undertake new mass transit plans.

For years, officials have been promising a Second Avenue Subway. It was first proposed in the 1920s. Recently, the MTA committed $1 billion for the subway line that would run from 125th Street to Hanover Square. It will cost an estimated $12.5 billion and take 17 years to build.

As part of his plan to develop the West Side of Manhattan, Mayor Michael Bloomerg has also proposed an extension of the number 7-subway line to 11th Avenue. It will cost an estimated $2 billion.

In Lower Manhattan, officials have plans to build a direct rail link from downtown to John F. Kennedy airport.

Some officials are also calling for a cross-harbor rail tunnel to be built between New Jersey and Brooklyn. The 5.5-mile tunnel would ship goods into the city and reduce truck traffic on area roads. As part of a new federal transportation funding bill, U.S. Rep. Jerrold Nadler secured $100 million to help launch the project.

While there are tolls on many bridges and tunnels in New York City, there are 12 city-owned bridges between Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx that are free to cross. Some estimate that charging $7 to cross the East River bridges and $3 for the Harlem River bridges could generate as much as $690 million a year.

Another way to reduce traffic and pollution is called "congestion pricing," charging drivers varying prices to come into the city at certain times of day. The city of London has instituted congestion pricing, charging people higher fees for driving in and out of the city at rush hour. The practice has reduced traffic in the city by 30 percent.

When running for office in 2001, Michael Bloomberg committed to ride the subway to City Hall to demonstrate his commitment to the environment and to public transportation.

Fernando Ferrer

Fernando Ferrer supports the construction of the Second Avenue subway and the 7-train extension to the West Side of Manhattan.

He is also a supporter of the cross-harbor freight tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn.

Ferrer is opposed to tolls on the East River bridges. At a recent forum he said, "Tolls on the East River bridges, even Mike Bloomberg walked away from that because he knows one other thing: There are people in this city who work hard every day who depend on their vehicles to make deliveries or get in to work. We've got to find a way to get them to use mass transit. But I'm not going to be the one to say they can't earn a living in New York City."

However, Ferrer does support congestion pricing. In a questionnaire for the New York League of Conservation voters, he wrote; "I do favor a congestion pricing policy, but one that is part of a larger framework; a framework which incorporates an expanded freight rail system, an efficient subway system, and an expanded ferry system."

At a recent forum, Ferrer said, if elected, he would take the subway from Gracie Mansion to City Hall.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg has expressed general support of the Second Avenue subway line, but has spent considerable effort on the plan to extend the 7-train, because it was part of his plan for a West Side stadium.

Bloomberg supports a lower Manhattan rail link to JFK, which he called “the single most important project for the future of Lower Manhattan” in his 2005 State of the City address

In March, Mayor Bloomberg withdrew city support for the cross-harbor rail freight tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn. Some residents of Brooklyn are opposed to the project because they say it will bring more traffic and pollution to their neighborhood. Bloomberg says he now agrees with them.

Bloomberg proposed tolling the East River bridges to help raise money during the fiscal crisis, but he dropped the idea.

Bloomberg is open to the idea of congestion pricing. In a questionnaire for the League of Conservation Voters, Bloomberg wrote; "To determine the feasibility and effectiveness of implementing a congestion pricing program, the administration is closely studying the impact of London's program on that city's traffic congestion, as well as any corollary effects of the policy. While London's program has reduced traffic congestion dramatically in the business district, according to reports by the London Chamber of Commerce and the Royal Institute for Chartered Surveyors, there has been a significant decrease in business activity in the area since the policy was introduced. The program's high operating costs have also limited the city's net revenue. We will continue to study the issue, but will not implement such a policy that could have a deleterious effect on local businesses."

Mayor Bloomberg regularly takes the subway from his house on the Upper East Side to City Hall.


- Security and the NYC Subways
- The State Budget’s $38.5 Billion Transportation Program
- What's Better, What's Worse During Bloomberg's Administration?
- Rail Freight Tunnel
- New Subway Projects and Their Benefits
- The Proposed Trains to Planes



Katrina's Wake-Up Call For New York?

Could a disaster like Hurricane Katrina happen in New York City? If it did, could New Yorkers find the transportation they need to move to safety?

“If we don't view Katrina as a wake-up call in New York City and surrounding areas, then we are fooling ourselves," Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, chairman of the committee that oversees the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, declared (as reported in Newsday and the Daily News ), when he released a report this month critical of the MTA’s evacuation plans.

Although hurricanes are less common in New York than in Florida and along the Gulf Coast, the city is still quite vulnerable. Major hurricanes have hit the metro area in 1938, 1954 and 1999. In 1821, a hurricane raised the tide 13 feet in an hour in the city. A hurricane expert at Queens College, Nicholas Coch, says that a major hurricane in the city is “inevitable.”

The key failure in New Orleans was the failure of the city to evacuate residents of its low-lying areas. Louisiana’s emergency operations plan, adopted in 2000, recommended that cities use public transportation to evacuate residents if necessary. Yet as the Houston Chronicle reported, the city of New Orleans emergency management plan suggested that people develop their own way to get out. But many poor residents living in the lowest lying areas of New Orleans do not have a car and were thus left stranded at the same time that the city left 550 buses sitting idle.

A second key failure in New Orleans was not ordering evacuation sooner. Mayor Ray Nagin issued the order at 10 a.m. Sunday for a storm expected to hit Monday morning. That left inadequate time for the evacuation to proceed, especially for people in hospitals and other special needs populations.

New York is in many ways less vulnerable to a hurricane than was New Orleans. While much of New Orleans is below sea level and thus relies on levees and pumps to stay dry, New York is above sea level. Even if inundated, the city will drain dry in a few days. Thus, even in the worse case, residents could return home in a matter of days instead of months.

On the other hand, there are a whole lot more people to evacuate in New York than in New Orleans. But unlike the plan in New Orleans, the New York emergency evacuation plan emphasizes the use of public transportation. Residents of low-lying areas in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx would be urged to use trains and buses to move to friends or relatives on higher ground or to go to one of 20 “reception” centers around the city – many without any parking whatsoever. City officials would then channel evacuees to up to 300 shelters.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said that, “We have ways to call and get MTA buses to take residents who likely wouldn’t have cars or money for transportation.” With most outlying areas of the city lacking direct subway service, buses would presumably be the primary mode for evacuees. How buses would be deployed, where they would run or how quickly residents could get to shelters is not clear from the emergency plan on the city’s Web site, however.

New York’s plan explicitly urges residents not to use their automobiles. The plan recognizes that roads will be jammed and the trip will be very long. If you do drive, the plan advises that you make sure you have a full tank of gas.

Would there be time to evacuate? That depends on when the order is issued and how quickly residents pack up and go. Bloomberg has made clear that he would use forcible means to evacuate residents if necessary. Whether he or another mayor would order a disruptive evacuation 36 or more hours in advance – when no one knows whether the storm will divert from the city – cannot be known in advance.

Could it happen here? The city seems better prepared and better positioned to handle a major hurricane than was New Orleans. If fully deployed, city buses could move tens of thousands of people over a 36 hour evacuation period. But the human response –- when a mayor issues the order to evacuate, whether residents would voluntary leave their homes -– is as key an unknown in New York as it was in New Orleans.

Bruce Schaller, who has been in charge of the transportation topic page since its inception in 1999, is head of Schaller Consulting, which provides research and analysis about transportation. He is also a Visiting Scholar at the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University. 

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