Mayor de Blasio on the subway (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor’s Office)
Announcing the next steps of his citywide ferry service initiative at a recent press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he is pleased with what his administration has done to improve transit options for New Yorkers, but admitted that he hasn’t put forth a coherent, comprehensive transportation agenda.
Though transit experts have praised some of de Blasio’s moves to expand the city’s transportation network, many have also criticized what they call a piecemeal approach.
Asked about that assessment by Gotham Gazette, as well as restrictions he faces in enacting a transportation agenda given that the city is reliant on the MTA, a state authority, de Blasio said that a lot is moving in the right direction. Pointing to a few examples, he claimed “pretty impressive growth in a city that already has a lot of mass transit.” But, de Blasio acknowledged, “What I don’t think we’ve done is sort of put it together in a single statement for people to see how all the pieces connect, and I think that is a commendable idea.”
De Blasio appeared to think for the first time about having and presenting an overall transportation agenda, perhaps indicative of the fact that he has not approached transportation like he has education or affordable housing.
Like virtually all policy areas, transportation is complex, expensive, and challenging in New York City. For many driving New Yorkers, the top concerns are traffic congestion and smoothly paved roads. For others, the focus, and often the ire, are the city’s subway and bus networks, which are largely controlled by the MTA, which includes several board members appointed by the mayor, and is funded through city and state monies. The majority of the power at the MTA resides with the state, which also allocates a larger portion of the MTA budget.
An age-old problem for New York City mayors, though, is that New Yorkers don’t always realize that the MTA is a state authority, and therefore blame the mayor for travel woes. Mayor de Blasio has taken to a common refrain when the MTA comes up during interviews or press conferences: “The MTA subways, buses are run by the State of New York. That is their process to work through. We contribute money to the MTA, but the ultimate decisions are made by the State of New York,” de Blasio said during an interview Tuesday morning on Hot 97 radio.
The city can propose its own funding for subway extensions, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg did with the 7 train to the far west side of Manhattan, and influence Select Bus Service routes, which are essentially express buses. The city, through its mayor and MTA board members and state legislators, also has influence over many other MTA decisions.
While it is important that any mayoral administration work with the MTA -- additionally challenging these days given the ongoing feud between de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo -- the mayor and his Department of Transportation must find other ways to leave a meaningful impact on city transit, especially in terms of expanding options as the city population, tourism to the city, and subway ridership all swell.
On Tuesday morning, de Blasio said that the city must move on transit projects no matter what is happening at the MTA. “[I]t takes a long time for the MTA to do anything that’s big and new,” the mayor said. “We’re able to do these things a lot quicker,” he said, referring to his administration’s efforts on ferries, bike-sharing, and a streetcar project coming to the Brooklyn-Queens waterfront. “We’re starting them up now, and we’re doing a lot of the Select Bus Service in parts of the outer boroughs that were underserved, so those are, you know, faster buses that are very appealing to people because they can cut their commute a lot.”
Additionally, for de Blasio the issue of “transit equity” is part of the discussion in ways it was not for his predecessors, given that the mayor was elected on an equity platform. Where his transportation initiatives reach and what they cost riders are of utmost importance as de Blasio attempts to increase economic mobility and shrink opportunity gaps.
Three-plus years in, the de Blasio administration has basically established that three-pronged approach to expanding mass transportation options in the city: ferries, Citi Bike, and the Brooklyn-Queens Connector (or BQX) streetcar. Most of this agenda has not come online yet, though. Each reaches or is projected to reach some key, underserved communities and offers attractive alternatives or supplements to the subway and bus map. But, as de Blasio himself appeared to acknowledge, the pieces have not necessarily made for a comprehensive city approach.
These proposals are “piecemeal at best,” said Ben Kabak, who writes the popular Second Avenue Sagas blog, which has focused on the Second Avenue Subway extension but deals with city transit more broadly. “It's hard to say that his administration even actually has a comprehensive plan for transit.”
The new ferry service, which will launch this summer, will build out over multiple years; the streetcar is in the planning stages and a few years off; and the ongoing expansion of Citi Bike continues. These marquee measures each fit into the de Blasio equity frame in different ways, though they each also have limitations in that regard.
“We’re creating alternatives for people,” de Blasio told Hot 97. “We’re going to have citywide ferry service starting this year, and including some communities that have really been left out of the equation like Soundview in the Bronx and the Rockaways…We’re [also] talking about a light rail system from Astoria, Queens down to Sunset Park, Brooklyn.”
The mayor is faced with major funding and program decisions: how much to contribute to the MTA; how the BQX will be paid for; where to install ferry landings and when; whether to invest public dollars to speed Citi Bike’s move into new neighborhoods; and whether to fund the “fair fares” proposal that would provide subsidized Metrocards to poor New Yorkers.
De Blasio is also facing questions about costs related to the ferry system and BQX: fares for each will be pegged to the price of a subway ride, according to the mayor, but there will not necessarily be fare integration, which would allow a free transfer from, say, the BQX to a subway near the route.
On “fair fares,” de Blasio has thus far argued the city cannot afford its estimated $212 million annual price tag and said it should be the state’s responsibility anyway. For some, this has detracted from de Blasio’s equity mantel, and a broad coalition of groups and individuals are calling on him to reconsider. Meanwhile, the MTA chair has said it is a city responsibility, calling it a “social program,” not under the MTA’s purview.
In its April 3 response to de Blasio’s fiscal year 2018 preliminary budget, the City Council offered the mayor a $50 million compromise for a pilot fair fares program. Nancy Rankin, vice president of policy, research and advocacy for the Community Service Society and City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee, discussed the specifics of that proposal outside a City Hall subway station on Wednesday. They explained a three-year ramp-up proposal to fully fund fair fares: first for the 380,000 New Yorkers living in “deep poverty” (families of three making less than $10,00 per year, or families of four making less than $12,000) and eventually for all 800,000 living in poverty.
“Look, it’s a world of choices,” de Blasio said at a March press conference centered around his Vision Zero street safety program, when asked why he was subsidizing the ferry service but wouldn’t back the fair fares plan.
“Your choices matter” happens to be a slogan de Blasio has used, alongside the NYPD, when promoting Vision Zero. De Blasio has encouraged New Yorkers, especially drivers, to be more careful, and has put largely successful efforts in motion to reduce pedestrian, cyclist, and motorist fatalities. While it is not exactly about transit options or equity, per se, Vision Zero has a transportation focus and implicit in its safety goals is the use of bikes and expansion of bike lanes.
De Blasio’s transportation choices have received mixed reviews -- some wonder if the BQX will actually get built, while some question if it should, for example -- and the mayor has promised an imminent plan to battle congestion on city streets, especially in Manhattan.
Paul Steely-White, executive director of advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, told Gotham Gazette in an interview last year that he believes “the city should get more intentional and more systematic in terms of how it's addressing these different options, and how they are going to be greater than the sum of their parts.”
Though he did admit he has not shown that overall vision, the mayor thinks that things are going well. “What the city is doing on its own and what the MTA is doing, I think they’re complementary,” de Blasio told Gotham Gazette at a March press conference. “You look at the routes and how they function, I’m very comfortable with the fact that everything is supporting everything else.”
“I think there is a vision in that we’re grabbing every opportunity to fill gaps and reach places that don’t have enough service and it’s moving very steadily by any measure,” the mayor said. “You look at just over the last few years, the growth of Select Bus Service, the ferry system coming online after 100 years, the light rail...I feel good.” The mayor did not acknowledge that much of what he was citing is not yet functional.
While de Blasio might characterize his approach as “filling gaps” left by the subway system, others see it as disjointed. “It’s not a comprehensive plan,” Nicole Gelinas of the Manhattan Institute told Gotham Gazette in a 2016 interview. “It makes for part of a plan, but it shouldn’t be a whole plan.”
Asked what would constitute a comprehensive plan, Gelinas offered the following: “a goal of something like, you can get anywhere in the five boroughs within 45 minutes…and saying, what do we need to do to make that happen.”
Others prefer to point a finger at Gov. Cuomo, arguing that de Blasio is handicapped by the MTA governing structure, the same structure that has Cuomo eyeing a $65 million cut in MTA operations funding, a move being met with significant opposition as state budget talks wind down.
“The mayor does not control the MTA, he does not control the subways, and that's really a problem...so what the mayor's doing with the BQX, with Select Bus Service, the ferries, and Citi Bike, is really focusing on what he can control...that I think is a very smart direction to go in, because we can't count on the state, we can't count on the governor,” said Steely-White.
Kabak, of Second Avenue Sagas, said last year that he believes for de Blasio, “some of it is perspective...I think he just doesn't have a good grasp of what transit means to so many people in New York.”
The Brooklyn-Queens Connector (BQX) is a 16-mile streetcar system that, if approved, will stretch from Astoria to Sunset Park. De Blasio announced his vision for the project as a centerpiece of his 2016 State of the City address, explaining that it would be an essential piece of his fight for more equity.
“The BQX has the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” he said at the time.
While the espoused intention behind the BQX is to connect residents of Brooklyn and Queens, especially those in several public housing projects, to job-laden areas along the East River or other transportation into Manhattan, the proposal has been met with considerable skepticism from those who argue that it will only raise real estate prices and advance gentrification.
In an interview with Gotham Gazette last year, DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg dismissed such claims. “Equity was a huge part of it…I’m not sure we would have been able to convince the mayor if it was only luxury housing, or some of the hipsters moving in. I think what really turned a corner is that there are 44,000 people that live in public housing [along the proposed route]...So I see everything that comes out of the administration through the glasses of, ‘is this good for lower income people?’”
Critics wary of too much government-developer collusion have pointed to the involvement of developers such as Jed Walentas, CEO of Two Trees Management, who sits on the executive committee of Friends of the BQX, a non-profit set up to rally public support for the project. While this partnership might make sense considering increased property values are essential to the financing plan for the BQX, which the city says will largely pay for itself, it nevertheless does not sit well with some.
“This seems to be very driven by Two Trees, who own a lot of property in DUMBO, and are looking at ways to make that area more accessible,” said Kabak. “So it's a transportation proposal that's put forward by a private entity that stands to gain and may not really solve the problem that the city has regarding mobility.”
Some experts, however, are more optimistic. “If anything,” Steely-White of Transportation Alternatives said, “we're recommending that the mayor go even further in this direction, looking at more innovating financing mechanisms for city-led transit expansions…if you look at the innovative, value-capture approach they're taking to the BQX, you know, there's no reason that or other similar approaches could not be used to do more.”
Steely-White was referring to a New York City Economic Development Corporation estimate that the $2.5 billion for the BQX will be recaptured by the city as it takes a percentage of increased property values and development each year.
“It very well might pay for itself,” said Gelinas, when asked about the BQX, “but that doesn't make it our top transit priority…improving capacity along a very crowded [subway] line may not pay for itself directly, but it affects more people.”
De Blasio has not voiced any intentions to pursue subway expansion, though he did celebrate the opening of phase one of the Second Avenue Subway extension. He has not pushed to advance the Utica Avenue extension in Brooklyn that many want to see made a priority by the city and state.
Transit equity advocates have one major concern about the BQX: whether it will allow for free transfers between the streetcar and MTA-operated buses and subways it is projected to connect with. Such a one-swipe ride would take negotiation between the city and the MTA, and some kind of financial plan.
If construction adheres to schedule, work on the BQX will begin in 2019-2020, with the first streetcar expected to be running by 2024, long after de Blasio is out of office, even if he serves two terms.
In addition to the BQX, the de Blasio administration has also been moving forward on bolstering the city’s ferry service. The only public ferry route currently operating is the Staten Island Ferry, which the administration moved to run every 30 minutes 24-hours per day, as opposed to the hourly schedule it previously offered during off-peak hours.
In an effort to address overcrowding on the subway and provide waterfront commuters with increased transportation access, the city has teamed up with Hornblower, a San Francisco-based boat provider, to build a fleet of city-owned ferries that will eventually provide regular service to all five boroughs.
“If you talk to people in the Rockaways, if you talk to people in South Brooklyn, if you talk to people in Soundview in the Bronx, they will tell you that they didn’t feel like this City’s transportation system was built for them,” de Blasio told reporters at a recent press conference.
The project will receive an initial $55 million capital investment, with an additional $30 million expected to be infused each year over six years. The citywide service is expected to serve 4.5 million passengers annually with stops in Astoria, Far Rockaway, and along the Brooklyn coastline that are projected to be operational by the summer of 2017. Additional stops are scheduled to be added to Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in 2018, with further expansion likely to include Staten Island and other stops.
When asked about additional stops, especially to include spots further south on Staten Island, de Blasio was receptive, but non-committal. “I am very open to making additions after we see how the initial runs go…if they continue to be productive, we’ll be open to expansion,” the mayor said.
However, as with the BQX, there is significant concern among experts that the ferries constitute an ill-advised investment. Arguing that de Blasio is wasting his time with the ferries, Gelinas told Gotham Gazette that “we’re still dealing with the margins…the ferries won’t do in a year what the subway system does in a day.”
Kabak agreed, describing the ferry proposal as “very limited in its scope, in that it really only has an impact on people who live very close to the waterfront.”
Asked about these concerns, Trottenberg argued that the waterfront was actually targeted specifically because “we have a good number of low-income areas along the waterfront,” adding that “the catchment area for the Brooklyn Navy Yard has lots of jobs, meaning the city suddenly takes in Red Hook, suddenly takes in some of the neighborhoods in Brooklyn with lower income.”
De Blasio echoed this notion at a recent press conference about the service and the jobs it is both creating and helping New Yorkers get to: “We’re here at the Navy Yard because we really want to focus on the impact and the connection to jobs with citywide ferry service…We really wanted all of the jobs associated with citywide ferry service to be here, if that was possible to do, that was our goal. And we found with the Brooklyn Navy Yard an extraordinary partner.”
The Mayor’s Office reported that Citi Bike saw a 40% increase in ridership in 2016, with 4 million more trips taken than in 2015. As the program has expanded further into Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, ridership has increased each year, with almost 14 million trips in 2016.
There are growing calls, though, for Citi Bike to expand into more neighborhoods, especially low-income neighborhoods, even if it means a public subsidy, which Mayor de Blasio has said he has no intention to pursue.
Still, Citi Bike has already been touted by transit equity advocates as a positive development. “The biking and walking improvements that have been made are absolutely benefiting lower-income New Yorkers who are more reliant on transit and therefore more reliant on walking,” said Steely-White.
Commissioner Trottenberg agreed, saying she supports more investment in walking and biking options and that she “would love to see a bridge across the East River for bicycles and pedestrians.”
Given its success, both advocates and elected officials are now calling for Citi Bike to expand to less-accessible outerborough communities and the upper reaches of Manhattan. In November, the City Council put forth a proposal to expand the program to every neighborhood across the five boroughs by 2020. Trottenberg testified at a recent hearing that a citywide program would require as many as 80,000 bikes. The current fleet is up to 10,000 and is on pace to grow by 2,000 every year, meaning a hefty funding increase would be needed to expand citywide by 2020.
“When Citi Bike was created, it was created mostly thinking about the financial center,” Council Member Rodriguez, the transportation committee chair, told Gotham Gazette at a January press conference. “Now there’s a lot of transportation deserts that we have in the South Bronx, that we have in Brooklyn, that we have in Queens, that [Citi Bike] can be benefitting to,” he said.
While it is unclear where the capital for such an expansion would come from, a City Council majority, led by Rodriguez, has called on de Blasio to incorporate the necessary funds into the 2018 budget. Rejecting this possibility, de Blasio told Gotham Gazette in January, “we have no plans for public financing of Citi Bike.”
In its April response to the mayor’s preliminary budget proposal for fiscal year 2018, the Council stood fast on its position, officially proposing that de Blasio add $12 million of baseline funding to the DOT’s allotment for Citi Bike expansion.
Whether it is Citi Bike reach or other options, the de Blasio administration believes his transportation efforts are addressing equity. “The Mayor…has made strides in creating a more equitable transportation system by offering multiple solutions that are tailored to the needs of specific communities,” wrote Raul Contreras, a deputy press secretary for de Blasio, in an email to Gotham Gazette. “[T]he development of brand new transportation options, such as Citibike, ferries and the BQX, impacts the lives of all New Yorkers, no matter what their socioeconomic status may be,” Contreras argued.
Connected to transportation is de Blasio’s street safety program, Vision Zero, which ambitiously aims to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. The de Blasio administration, along with the City Council, took aggressive measures to begin implementation of Vision Zero in 2014 and quickly saw impressive results in reducing pedestrian, bicyclist, and motorist deaths.
There were 223 total traffic deaths in New York City in 2016; down from 233 in 2015; and 258 in 2014, which was the mayor’s first year in office. Though there was strong initial progress, the rate of decline must advance quickly to meet the goals set forth -- advocates and local officials are calling for additional street redesigns, changes to traffic signals, more protected bike lanes, and other adjustments.
De Blasio has succeeded in lowering the city’s default speed limit to 25 mph, installing more speed cameras around schools, instituting the “Dusk and Darkness” initiative, and redesigning Queens Boulevard, aka “the Boulevard of Death,” among other advancements under Vision Zero.
Last year, Steely-White said he saw a lack of full investment from de Blasio. “We're really looking for a much greater contribution in the city budget to the DOT, to undertake specifically those street safety fixes,” Steely-White said, “signal timing, street design, that don't really entail massive digging up of the street and all of that very involved capital work…so really now the ball is in the mayor's court. Will he fully fund Vision Zero or not?”
At the Vision Zero press conference this January, de Blasio did announce an additional $370 million in funding for a variety of street redesigns. Admitting that “there’s a lot more to do,” de Blasio stressed that “a lot of the impact of Vision Zero has not been felt fully yet because it keeps building each year.”
“We are celebrating the good news today that with $370 million in additional capital funding over the next five years, more intersections will see the fully constructed upgrades that they need to keep the number of deaths and injuries on our streets falling,” Council Member Rodriguez said in a January statement.
Many want the city to have more control of the subway and bus systems. “If you look at what New York contributes as a whole in terms of all the taxes that fund the MTA, it's really largely New York City resources that are funding the system, and yet we still have very little control,” Steely-White said, before suggesting to start “thinking more holistically about our transportation system and maybe even starting to make a case for the city taking over some functions that the MTA currently performs.”
On the city-state dynamic, de Blasio indicated some progress. “In terms of Select Bus Service, which again in ridership terms is hugely important, that is a partnership between the city and the MTA that is functioning very well and is based on systematically determining where there are gaps we need to fill,” the mayor said.
Commissioner Trottenberg, who sits on the MTA board, discussed the imperfect system. “Look, it's a challenge in New York...the transportation system here is broken up among several agencies -- you have city DOT, you have the MTA, you have the Port Authority, you have state DOT -- but I think all of us who run those agencies recognize that it's part of our responsibility to work together to create a seamless transportation system,” Trottenberg said. “If you're the customer, if you're a New Yorker trying to travel around the city, you don't care what agency it is, you just want to get where you're going.”
by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette