Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Don't Be Fooled, Woodhaven BRT Spells Progress for Queens


Projected Queens roadways (image via NYC DOT)

Last week, an op-ed appeared on these pages in which the author, Allan Rosen, slammed the proposal for Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevard. Woodhaven is broken for all road users right now, and we cannot afford to stick our heads in the sand and do nothing to make it safer and more efficient for everyone.

As a member of Queens Community Board 5 and a Glendale resident, I was disappointed by Mr. Rosen's op-ed where conjecture was passed off as truth, and scaremongering was embraced in a concerted effort to stymie much needed transit improvements.

Mr. Rosen's op-ed trots out the same arguments made by the Queens Public Transit Committee, members of which advocate for the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Rail Line. For a group that has public transit in its name, members are consistently opposed to any transit plans that mean better bus service. Rail and bus along Woodhaven are not mutually exclusive. But in the time it takes to secure the funding needed to merely start an environmental study on the rail line, BRT could be rolling up and down Woodhaven Boulevard.

Mr. Rosen, a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit, falsely claims BRT will make Woodhaven Boulevard more congested. The BRT plan will normalize traffic patterns on Woodhaven and reduce conflicts between vehicles. A smoother flow of traffic will increase the capacity of the road.

Mr. Rosen claims safety problems along Woodhaven are "exaggerated." The numbers don't lie. According to a Tri-State Transportation Campaign study, Woodhaven Boulevard is the most dangerous street in Queens. The Boulevard is the second most dangerous road in the city. Between 2010 and 2012, eight people were killed by crashes. Mr. Rosen's claims are not supported by clear-eyed data.

I have young and elderly family members who cross Woodhaven on a daily basis. Safety for the most vulnerable road users should be more important than the perceived convenience of single occupancy vehicles. We should have a robust discussion about the best transit options for Central Queens, but for someone who doesn't live in the borough to downplay the threat posed by Woodhaven Boulevard is questionable, to say the least.

Mr. Rosen claims improvements to transit on Woodhaven Boulevard could divert Federal funding from the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway. The Federal government has supported the Second Avenue project and SBS along First and Second Avenues simultaneously. The notion bus and rail projects are exclusive is not supported by evidence. If we don't get the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway, the cause will be the massive gap in the MTA capital budget, not a DOT project in Queens.

Moreover, given the desperate need for better transportation infrastructure in Queens, it is especially inappropriate to live elsewhere and argue that Queens ought not advocate for resources in deference to Manhattan.

I have been to many DOT public workshops, and have been struck by planners' interest in hearing from people who use Woodhaven every day. I've seen changes made to the plan in response to concerns from residents, and been impressed with the thoughtfulness and thoroughness of the process.

Select Bus Service has proven to be a success in corridors across the city. DOT's plan to implement BRT service on Woodhaven will make the corridor more livable for all users - as long as the shortsighted naysayers don't get their way and condemn tens of thousands of bus riders to the harm of ever more unreliable service.

Toby Sheppard Bloch is a Glendale Resident and member of Queens Community Board 5.

New York Should Act to Protect Our Constitutional Rights

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New NYPD officers take their oath (photo; @NYPDnews)

Watching cases of police brutality over the past year, I've recalled my own interactions with the police and those of young people like Keeshan Harley. At the age of 20, Keeshan, a Bushwick resident, has already been targeted and profiled many dozens of times by the NYPD through stop-and-frisk and other discriminatory tactics of broken windows policing. Keeshan once told me that the worst part of being subject to these police practices was "being put on display in front of my entire community. When the elders watch from their windowsills with no context of why I am being stopped, I can't help but think that I am being judged in their eyes as well."

Though Keeshan often feels frustrated by the continuous abuses he endures – as he should – I myself can't help to think about how lucky he is to survive those injustices. Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Jessie Hernandez, Rekia Boyd, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, and many others weren't as lucky.

Police accountability and transparency issues have finally taken center stage nationally—and it's about time. The history of incidents like these is long and painful, and the daily transgressions that those who look like Keeshan face are equally painful. Debates have sprung up across this country around what, or who, is to blame. What is certain is that the systemic lack of timely and meaningful accountability, and a lack of even basic transparency, is at the root of problems with policing.

Late last year, President Obama established the President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, consisting of police commissioners, law enforcement experts and community stakeholders, including me. After we heard directly from impacted communities across the nation, the Task Force released a report full of recommendations. Task Force members had the incredible opportunity to acknowledge and urgently confront some serious problems with policing in America.

Ultimately, the next critical step is for state and local elected officials across the nation to demonstrate leadership by actually adopting reforms to substantively tackle issues plaguing our communities.

New York City is in a unique position to demonstrate national leadership in responding to this crisis - there are ongoing robust conversations about many of our recommendations that even preceded the Task Force's report.

In New York, City Council Members Antonio Reynoso and Ritchie Torres have introduced, and many other members have sponsored, a legislative package called the Right to Know Act. It mirrors Task Force recommendations that call for requiring police officers to 1) identify themselves and explain their reason for subjecting a person to law enforcement activity and 2) explain a civilian's Constitutional right to refuse a search when no legal basis exists for it except consent, and securing proof of consent when a person agrees.

These are basic common sense requirements that can begin to help change the fundamental nature of how communities are being treated by police on a daily basis. They will provide transparency and mutual understanding of people's basic rights for encounters where a clear power imbalance exists that too often leads to an unnecessary escalation of tension.

By passing the Right to Know Act, the New York City Council can show other cities and localities how to respond by advancing the transparency and protection of fundamental rights that's so sorely lacking in everyday interactions between civilians - like Keeshan - and police.

The current system is failing to protect our communities. We must fix that, and the first step is passing 'Right to Know' into law this year.

José López is the Organizing Director at Make the Road New York, New York's largest grassroots immigrant organization. Follow their work: @maketheroadny

New York City Can Shine with Solar Power

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Solar panels (photo: @NYGovCuomo)

Cities are economic centers, engines of commerce and trade. Cities are also cultural centers, for everything from fashion and food to art and architecture. Now, thanks to a nationwide solar energy boom, cities are increasingly becoming centers for energy production, and New York City is no exception.

A new Environment New York Research and Policy Center report, Shining Cities: Harnessing the Benefits of Solar Energy in America, found that New York City ranks ninth in the nation for solar power installations. According to researchers who examined solar installations in 70 major American cities nationwide, New York City had enough solar panels online at the end of last year to power more than 6,300 homes.

Solar energy is transforming the way we view energy in America, as people convert their homes and businesses from passive energy consumers to active energy producers. And cities like New York, as centers of population and energy consumption, are taking the logical lead in this energy revolution.

Solar power makes sense for cities. From improving urban air quality and resiliency to power disruption to creating local jobs, solar carries real benefits for cities. And with the price of the average solar PV panel having dropped more than 60 percent since the third quarter of 2010, solar is now accessible to more New York City residents than ever before.

Cities across the country are wielding many different policies as tools to expand solar development. The city of Denver, for instance, has cut cost and time required to acquire solar energy permits. New York City has partnered with its local investor-owned utility to create designated "Solar Empowerment Zones" where solar energy can be most beneficial.

On Monday, Governor Cuomo acknowledged the important role of solar energy in accomplishing his ambitious plan to curb New York's carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030. And right now, the New York Public Service Commission (PSC) is considering establishing a program, called Community Net Metering, to allow expanded access to clean energy. Following through on Governor Cuomo's commitment to expand access to renewable energy, the PSC is working to establish an innovative program that would empower low-income families, renters, and millions of other New Yorkers to choose solar. The program would allow energy customers to subscribe to a local renewable energy project and receive a utility bill credit for their portion of the energy produced.

Cities can most effectively promote solar power when city, state, and utility policies come together. That means we need state leaders to continue the policies that allow solar energy to shine.

With the cost of solar going down and concern about global warming going up, solar power is growing rapidly in New York City and across the state. By building on the progress already made, New York City can continue to be a center of solar growth in the state and an example for other cities to follow.

Heather Leibowitz, Esq. is the Director of Environment New York, a statewide environmental advocacy organization. New York City Council Member Donovan Richards represents the 31st Council District, in Queens.

Proposed Select Bus Service in Queens Could Jeopardize Phase 2 of 2nd Avenue Subway

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Construction of the 2nd Avenue Subway (photo: Philip Plotch) 

The proposed Select Bus Service (SBS) on Woodhaven and Cross Bay Boulevard scheduled for completion in 2018 is not like any other that we have seen in these parts. According to the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), it is "bigger and bolder." It is also much more expensive. While other SBS routes have cost between $10 million and $20 million for installation, the proposed SBS route in Queens would cost a minimum of $231 million and could cost many millions more after all the necessary engineering studies are completed.

Why so expensive? We don't know. Neither the MTA nor DOT has explained why the original projected cost of $20 million suddenly rose tenfold after community meetings and workshops were held when switching from SBS to Bus Rapid Transit (BRT). The distinctions are numerous, but DOT has muddied the waters by using both terms interchangeably.

DOT currently is short of the funding necessary for project completion. The intention as stated before a City Council hearing last fall is to spend as much federal funding as could be obtained, perhaps beginning the project as BRT and completing it as SBS. That is where the Second Avenue Subway comes in. The two projects are in competition for the same federal funds under the "New Starts" program.

During the 1970s when costs started to escalate, the MTA proposed splitting the Second Avenue project into two phases postponing work that had already been started on the Lower East Side. The powerful (and now recently disgraced) Assembly Member Sheldon Silver protested, resulting in postponement of the entire project for decades. When work was finally resumed, costs had increased so much that the project had to be split into four phases with numerous delays to Phase 1, now scheduled for completion next year. Phase 2 funding would extend the project from 96th to 125th Street and is uncertain with a $15 billion shortfall in the MTA capital program and the governor missing in action.

Therefore, if the SBS route is constructed in Queens as currently envisioned, the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway could be delayed, but that is not all. Most likely this SBS route would mean the nearby parallel abandoned Rockaway Beach Line would never be reactivated as the same powerful groups who seek to turn it into parkland support SBS on Woodhaven. What's more, this obvious alternative was not included in the study of the SBS line, which was a forgone conclusion before the first community meeting was held where it was merely presented as "one alternative."

Numerous questions have been asked by community members, which have not been answered. Not only is the initial cost prohibitive, but each SBS route, of which there are now seven, costs between $2 and $4 million a year more to operate than existing local and limited services.

This is mainly due to the enforcement required to ensure fares are being paid and for maintenance of new offboard equipment these routes require. Yet ridership on these routes mostly continue to decline as does bus ridership on the rest of the bus system with the exception of routes in the Bronx. Paid ridership on the B44 SBS in Brooklyn declined by 4.4 percent during the past year, a metric possibly explained by increased fare evasion.

The problems and disadvantages with these SBS routes are too numerous to fully mention here. However, if you attend any of the DOT presentations you would think that SBS is a panacea with no disadvantages. But rather than first recognizing and attempting to solve these problems, the city is moving full steam ahead to create 13 new SBS routes before the end of Mayor de Blasio's term.

The basic premise is "trust us." Neither traffic nor transit modeling data which supposedly justify the need for these routes has been released while safety problems in the Woodhaven corridor have been greatly exaggerated.

SBS buses operate no more reliably than existing routes and still often bunch two or three buses at a time. Exclusive bus lanes at all times and prohibition of an additional 23 left turning movements and elimination of left turn lanes on Woodhaven and Cross Bay will tie existing traffic into knots, while minimally improving bus service for some and making it more inconvenient for others by the removal of some bus stops.

All SBS routes with the exception of one have had an initial first year assessment. That is because ridership initially increased on those routes, sometimes by as much as ten percent. The MTA is using that statistic to justify new routes and is ignoring the more recent SBS bus ridership decline. Ignoring it so much that they still have not and may never release a first year assessment for the B44 SBS due to the fear of jeopardizing future SBS routes. After all, how would they explain a 4.4 percent reduction in bus ridership, which is more than twice the borough average decline, when SBS is supposed to be the city's panacea for improving mass transit?

Allan Rosen is a former director of Bus Planning for MTA New York City Transit and is now retired and blogs for

A Budget Victory for NYC Military Veterans

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Mayor de Blasio and Council members announce budget deal (photo: William Alatriste)

With almost half of Mayor Bill de Blasio's term in office complete, it has been well-documented that military veterans have seen a number of administration policies as perplexing and frustrating. What's made this all the more disappointing is that the mayor has unique insight into the difficulties veterans and their family members face through the experience of his own father, a World War II veteran who struggled when he came home.

As a result of the administration's decisions and the belief that we weren't being heard, my group (NY MetroVets) banded together with several other veterans groups to push for real progress. After months of testimony at hearings and engaging with local elected officials and the media - while keeping the veterans community informed and engaged - our hard work paid off in the city budget.

Late last week the City Council voted to adopt the New York City Fiscal Year 2016 budget. The spending plan, which starts July 1, contains an increase of almost $2.9 million dollars for veterans services.

This increase will double the Mayor's Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) budget and allow Commissioner Loree Sutton to not only hire additional staff but perhaps even address some veterans issues that are outside the mayor's strategic plan. It also puts money into the city's veterans homelessness-fighting initiative to assist the federal Departments of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on the final push to end veteran homelessness here in New York City.

Lastly, and quite significantly, the Council's veterans initiative was more than doubled with funding for organizations that will provide direct services (legal, health services, job placement, and support programs) for veterans and their family members.

All in all, while some may still be disappointed, this is a victory and there is much to be happy about.

To be clear, more could have been done for veterans. But, take stock at what has just been accomplished after much effort and what felt like a steep uphill climb. As an advocate for 20 years, I can say that the budget increases and commitment from city government have not happened on this scale in a very long time. The wins are especially important now as the country was at war over the last decade-plus. It also shows that with all the groups, non-profits, and others fighting for funding, we were able to have our community's voice heard and some of our needs directly addressed. Progress.

Are there still battles to be fought? Absolutely. This budget is a move in the right direction, but this increase can be expanded by the administration in future spending plans, with further prioritiaiton of veterans services. With the talk of a new city Department of Veterans Affairs tabled (for now) we will need to work with the city to see how we can get budgetary funding to our local veteran organizations - which are doing the work on the ground and in the community - faster than what the current process allows. Veterans and our allies will also need to watch what Commissioner Sutton does with her newly increased budget and we look forward to seeing where veterans fit into First Lady Chirlane McCray's mental health roadmap initiative.

With veterans still returning home from overseas, with those already here, and with many coming to New York City for economic opportunity, we look to the administration, through its policies and its agencies, to do even more to help veterans.

But today I thank Mayor de Blasio, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Council Members Eric Ulrich and Paul Vallone, and the rest of the Council's veterans committee for their work and acknowledgment of the challenges veterans face and attention we deserve. I encourage my fellow veterans to enjoy the moment, focus on tracking smart, helpful spending by our government, ready to access new and improved services, and prepare to begin the work all over again toward Fiscal Year 2017.

Joe Bello served 11 years in the U.S. Navy/Naval Reserve and has been a veterans advocate in New York City for two decades. He is the founder of NY MetroVets.

The Assembly Must Act to Prevent Wrongful Conviction

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The author, Yusef Salaam, middle, & other members of the Central Park 5 (photo: @venusinorbit)

We were interrogated for over 30 hours. We were accused, threatened, lied to, unable to eat or drink. All of this culminated in severe physical and emotional exhaustion and eventually prompted some of us - teenagers at the time - to provide false confessions to the infamous attack of the Central Park jogger.

Almost none of this interrogation process was video-recorded. Instead, the jury saw video-snippets of what appeared to be damning confessions; not the hours of coercion or the details of the crime that police were feeding us and demanding that we include in the well-rehearsed video "confessions." Although I did not provide a signed or video-taped confession, the police and prosecution claimed that I had offered an admission implicating myself in the crime. I made no such statement, but because there was not video capturing our interrogations from start to finish, the truth was buried. The jury never saw what led to Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise and Antron McCray, all teenagers, to falsely confess on tape. And as a result all of us – the Central Park Five – were wrongfully convicted.

The system failed us, but now New York can enact simple and practical changes in police procedure to ensure that false confession does not result in additional wrongful convictions. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie should use his leadership to pass A8157 out of his chamber. This bipartisan bill, which the Senate has already passed, would address two of the root causes of wrongful conviction in New York and nationally: false confession and misidentification. The bill would require police to video-record interrogations from start to finish and would provide law enforcement with the necessary training and resources to implement eyewitness identification practices that have been scientifically proven to protect against misidentification.

If the camera had been rolling throughout our interrogation, there might not have been the false confessions, and there would have been a record of the fact that I did not offer any "admission." But the phenomena of false confession leading to wrongful conviction is not limited to the Central Park Five; false confession played a role in almost half of New York's wrongful convictions that were proven by DNA evidence. In fact, false confessions or misidentification were contributing factors in nearly all of New York's 29 wrongful convictions that eventually resulted in DNA exonerations. And keep in mind that DNA exonerations only represent a small share of wrongful conviction cases. Physical evidence that can be subjected to DNA testing that can prove innocence is only available in a small percentage of cases, yet the contributing factors that led to the DNA exonerations – eyewitness misidentification, false confessions, etc. – are present in many cases.

In addition to protecting the innocent, A8157 would also strengthen public safety. The real perpetrator who raped the Central Park jogger, Matias Reyes, went on to commit three additional rapes and one murder. In New York's 29 DNA exonerations, 11 real perpetrators were identified. Five of those real perpetrators committed 11 additional violent crimes, which included three rapes, six murders and two other violent crimes.

With the legislative session in overtime, I implore Speaker Heastie and the Assembly to pass A8157. Lawmakers have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that no one else in our great state has to endure the horror of wrongful conviction.

Yusef Salaam is a member of the Central Park Five and was wrongfully convicted of rape and assault.

Certificate Programs Offer Opportunity for At-Risk Youth

BK Army Terminal

Brooklyn Army Terminal (photo: @NYCEDC)

Today, there are many problems facing disadvantaged New Yorkers but one of the most pressing is the large share of youth who are not transitioning well. This is most apparent with black boys who experience a disproportionate share of suspensions and have low high school graduation rates. Indeed, in New York City, only 28 percent of black males complete high school on time. This weak school progress, however, is not limited to black boys and is so pervasive that New York City has initiated a number of alternative high schools attended by youth who are significant credits behind and often older than eighteen years of age. It is reflected in the almost 200,000 youths, 17 to 24 years old, who are neither in school nor in paid employment.   

What can be done? City school chancellor Carmen Farina has instituted policy changes to dramatically reduce the number of school suspensions. As I wrote earlier this year, policies that reduce suspensions will not be very effective if they ignore an important source of anti-social behavior: often chaotic and sometimes abusive home environments. In another initiative, Farina announced that General Electric Corporation will provide funding to support Career and Technical Education (CTE) pilot programs at ten schools. CTE programs link high school coursework to community college occupational programs.

While CTE programs can be effective, certificate programs can be very beneficial for a large share of the most at-risk students. Certificates are recognition of completion of a course of study based on a specific field. They differ from industry-based certifications and licenses which typically involve passing an examination to prove a specific competency or completing an apprenticeship. By contrast, certificate programs take place entirely in the classroom.

A comprehensive report began, “In America, the postsecondary certificate has become a cost-effective tool for increasing postsecondary education attainment and gainful employment.” The survey involved pointed to studies that found certificates of at least one year provided a wage premium identical to Associate’s degrees—almost 40 percent for women and around 20 percent for men.

While the average certificate of less than one year has more limited value, this is not true in all cases. For example, police and protective services certificates are predominantly short-term and earned by men, but exceed the average 27 percent wage premium for male certificate holders. Certificates in business and office management are predominantly short-term and earned by women, but exceed the earnings of the median female certificate holder.

Nationally, public colleges award half of all certificates. However, in large cities where many at-risk students reside, public community colleges award only one-third of certificates; less than five percent in Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. The extremes go from New York City, where community colleges award only 1.5 percent of certificates, to Chicago and Detroit, where two-thirds are awarded by the community colleges.

This evidence indicates that the CUNY system is an outlier and is ill-serving adolescents who are most at risk. CUNY’s neglect leaves many with no choice but to seek certificate programs in the for-profit sector. These schools have been demonized for their high failure rates and level of indebtedness many of their students experience. Yet they do have strengths that other institutions lack. The education sociologist James Rosenbaum suggests “that many for-profits have developed good counseling departments that help student not only with their academic goals, but also with their economic and social problems…They put resources into counselors and they’re much better at retaining students than community colleges.” A recent New York City study contends that the best for-profit schools offer real opportunity.

At-risk students too often must navigate the for-profit world after leaving school and many will make uninformed selections of schools and/or programs. Certainly, if the CUNY system would dramatically expand its certificate offerings this problem could be ameliorated. In addition, if high schools form partnerships with best-practice for-profits, at-risk students can be channeled into the best schools and the most appropriate programs. Given how valuable these links would be for the for-profits, high schools could negotiate very favorable conditions, enabling students to avoid high debt burdens while gaining valuable occupational skills.

For many educators, the ideal is academic learning – meaning a four-year college education – for all. Disadvantaged youth, however, may do better in the long run if we prioritize better and more immediate pathways into the labor market. At a time when 36 million American workers who attended college did not complete a degree, certificates are piecemeal, attainable, bite-size educational awards that can add substantially to postsecondary completion.

Robert Cherry is Stern Professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center.

Albany Must Keep the Charter Cap

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Council Member Dromm, the author, with his IDNYC (photo: William Alatriste)

Earlier this year, the New York City Council passed my resolution urging the state legislature to keep the cap on charter schools. That was nothing new: Council Members have long showed their opposition to raising the cap. But, with recent efforts by powerful special interests, including more than $13 million spent in lobbying and campaign ads, we need to remind New York why raising the cap is not only unnecessary, but also harmful to our public school children.

First, there is the capacity question. Charter schools have 2,500 unfilled seats in New York City. In addition, current charter agreements could allow for more than 27,000 additional authorized seats. In other words, these charter schools already are not handling their assigned share of students, and that burdens crowded public schools, making it more difficult for those schools to provide quality education.

Second, charter schools are not required to serve students who transfer to or join schools mid-year because of disciplinary measures or because of a family's choice. They also do not serve nearly the same amount of students with special needs as public schools. This means that when the school year starts, charters receive funding for a certain number of students yet actually end up teaching fewer than they are budgeted for. They then pocket the remainder and can boast lower class sizes while public schools again shoulder the burden.

Finally, the Center for Popular Democracy reported that New York stood to lose over $54 million to charter school-related fraud in 2014 alone. Audits can help uncover instances of fraud, mishandling of funds, conflicts of interest within governing boards, and a number of other troubling findings, yet charter schools largely oppose efforts to increase transparency. The State Comptroller's attempt to audit charter schools has already been foiled at every turn, meaning New Yorkers are left in the dark about how exactly our public dollars are spent.

Meanwhile, more than $5 billion in state money is owed to our traditional public schools to provide every child access to a "sound basic education" per the Campaign for Fiscal Equity ruling. Forty-four percent of all schools in New York City are overcrowded. The City's Independent Budget Office reports that most schools are at 102 percent capacity or more, and 88 percent of the city's charter schools are co-located within a district school, adding to the space crunch.

Co-located charter schools, by the way, are an exercise in inequality: privately run schools, with access to both private and public funds, that are taking resources from underfunded district schools. What does this mean for the social climate in these schools? Many students feel, and rightfully so, that district schools and their students are not valued the way they should be.

It is sensible to provide the money and attention owed to our public schools to keep them strong. Charter schools already divert resources from the majority of students, who attend public schools. Charter schools do not serve our children, especially the most needy, with enough accountability to justify increasing their share of funding.

All children deserve an education system that celebrates their potential by giving them the space and funding necessary to achieve educational excellence. The raising of the charter cap would be damaging to our public school system in terms of morale, space, funding, and overall quality. Leaders in Albany should finish their legislative session without altering the cap. Instead, it is time to ensure a feasible means of success for public schools by giving them the focus they need and not investing in a private enterprise that has yet to fulfill its promise to New Yorkers.

Daniel Dromm is the Education Committee Chair of the New York City Council.

MTA Success, Challenges Necessitate Cooperation on New Capital Plan

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MTA work (photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

There is general agreement among New Yorkers that something must be done about the city’s transit system. Both MTA president Thomas Prendergast and Straphangers’ Campaign staff attorney Gene Russianoff have raised the specter of the state of chaos and disrepair into which the system fell in the 1970s and 1980s as a possibility, should the political echelon not get its act together.

Yet the challenges that the MTA faces today are far different from those of decades past. Ridership is surging, not falling, and the stress from which the system suffers is a result of crowding and rapidly rising demand, not popular neglect and apathy towards the urban world. And just as the problems of today are different from the problems of yesteryear, so too will the solutions need to be. Though primary responsibility for the MTA’s fiscal and managerial wellbeing ultimately rests with its legislative supervisors in Albany, fixing the challenges facing the agency today will require complex, nuanced cooperation between stakeholders at all levels of government and civic leadership.

The MTA’s recent success cannot be overstated. Ridership on the New York City subways—the MTA’s most popular, and core, service—reached the highest level in 65 years in 2014, with growth seen across all boroughs and lines. And ridership growth continues to expand outside the traditional peak hours, setting records for off-peak and weekend ridership. Despite—in fact, to some extent, because of—this success, the system faces a cascade of new challenges resulting from its antiquated infrastructure and from overcrowding.

2014, and its record ridership, also saw a significant rise in delayed and disrupted trains, with about 20 percent of all trains arriving late. At the same time, MTA bus ridership has fallen significantly over the last five years after major service reductions in 2010. And work persists on the subway tunnels and on South Ferry station damaged by Superstorm Sandy, demonstrating the system’s significant need to build resilience.  

Rehabilitating the MTA system and modernizing it to meet the 21st century demands that have hit it so hard require demonstrated commitment from all involved, and that starts with working out an agreement on the 2015-2019 MTA Capital Plan. And right now, it doesn’t look good.

The MTA can certainly help itself by accelerating state-of-good-repair investment (things like advanced signaling systems, new train cars, and track work) that would make the rides of everyday commuters speedier and more reliable. It should communicate better the importance of these maintenance investments and practices to riders, and the economic impact of capital and maintenance investments alike to upstate voters and politicians. And it must show the public and political leadership that it is able to manage projects efficiently and cost-effectively, particularly as major investments like the Second Avenue Subway, LIRR East Side Access, and Metro-North Penn Station Access move toward completion in the coming years. Avoiding embarrassments like the ever-delayed opening of the (essentially complete) 7 line extension would be a good start.

Ultimately, though, responsibility for making sure the MTA gets the investment—and the oversight—it needs rests with the political echelon both in New York City and in Albany. Though the Cuomo administration has professed a significant emphasis on resilience and recovery from severe weather across the state, it has shown little interest in helping guide money to the MTA that would help build the system’s capacity to resist and recover from future damage. The MTA’s status as a state-level authority  has also isolated it from its most important constituency, and New York City’s contribution has lagged well below what would be expected given inflation; had it kept pace, it would have been $363 million last year, rather than an average of $100 million since 2000.

Coming to a consensus on how to fund the MTA capital plan, and on improving the system generally, will require a degree of seriousness and recognition of technical and fiscal constraints from city and state officials that many have yet to demonstrate. The MTA system is at a precipice, staring over a cliff at the process by which dysfunctional governance can debilitate a transit system, the effects of which can be seen not far away. As a result of what some have called “budget chicken” between DC, Maryland, Virginia, and the federal government, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has now entered a self-reinforcing cycle of deferred maintenance, service cuts, and degraded user experience that transit professionals call a “death spiral.” That future—a game of cat-and-mouse between legislators, the executive branch, and local politicians, leading to a service crisis—could be the outcome in the MTA service region if those responsible for the needs of the system do not prioritize its wellbeing.

Sandy Johnston is a student in the Master’s in Regional Planning Program at the University at Albany and a graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan. He blogs at and is on Twitter at @sandypsj. He is an intern for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit organization working toward a more balanced, transit-friendly and equitable transportation system in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Say No to The Media Hype

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NYPD (photo via @CommissBratton)

In recent days our city's leading tabloid newspapers, The Daily News and The Post, published screaming headlines and overheated stories promoting the dubious notion that the uptick this year in homicides - as compared to a similar period in 2014 - is directly tied to the NYPD's reduced use of the discredited stop-and-frisk tactic. This fear-monghering ignores important realities.

Some actual facts, based on the police department's own data, that challenge the wisdom of that argument and that provide an instructive and somewhat longer view about what is really happening on New York City's streets:

Read more: Say No to The Media Hype

Giving New Yorkers a Fair Chance at Employment


Authors Williams, center, and Brewer, to his right

Having a past conviction or arrest should not prevent someone from being able to put food on the table or pay rent. The Fair Chance Act ensures that all New Yorkers, including those who have become stigmatized because of previous convictions, will have an equal opportunity to compete for jobs for which they qualify. Today is a National Day of Action urging President Obama to adopt a fair chance hiring policy for federal contractors. To mark the occasion, the New York City Council is expected to vote on and pass the NYC Fair Chance Act and join 17 states and more than 100 cities and counties who have already adopted similar legislation.

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