Gotham Gazette https://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/578 Thu, 16 Jul 2020 15:06:17 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9526-pandemic-primary-most-impoverished-congressional-district-in-the-country-bronx-15 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9526-pandemic-primary-most-impoverished-congressional-district-in-the-country-bronx-15 Ritchie Torres Ruben Diaz Sr congress

Ritchie Torres looks at Ruben Díaz Sr. (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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New York City has had very limited success in the voter turnout department for congressional elections in recent years. For the 2018 congressional primaries, the turnout did go up — to 11 percent, from a shockingly low 8 percent in 2016. Though the Bronx was part of a huge surge in turnout for state elections in 2018, the last primary election to take place in the borough’s heavily-Democratic 15th congressional district, in 2016, netted a voter turnout of just under 3 percent.

That’s during ordinary times in a district that encompasses south and west Bronx neighborhoods including Hunts Point, Melrose, Tremont, Fordham, and Bedford Park, which collectively make up the country’s poorest and most nonwhite district.

To add to the structural obstacles, would-be voters are now contending with the swirling maelstrom of a still-ongoing pandemic that has ravaged poorer communities in the global epicenter of New York, and its vast social and economic consequences; a mass popular uprising against police brutality that was met with a heavy-handed response from the NYPD; and confusion over whether the primary is even taking place, and if so, in what format.

The 15th congressional district has been one of the hardest hit by the novel coronavirus in what is thus far the most affected city in the country. A mix of higher prevalence of pre-existing conditions and higher concentrations of essential workers who couldn’t work from home has led to higher death rates in the Bronx and a dire socio-economic picture.

Beyond that, the district has some special political upheaval and intrigue this year: an “open” congressional seat, up for grabs for the first time in 30 years. Longtime Rep. José Serrano announced last year that he would not be seeking reelection following a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease, setting off a scramble to succeed him.

Even by normal-year standards, it’s a crowded race with a deep bench of political figures with history in the district, many of whom have been waiting for just such an opportunity. No fewer than five of the primary contenders are current or former elected officials — City Council Members Ritchie Torres, Ydanis Rodríguez, and Rubén Díaz Sr.; Assemblymember Michael Blake (who is also a national vice chair of the Democratic National Committee); and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Also in the race are Samelys López, a community organizer and former aide to Serrano who has received the endorsement of the Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party, as well as progressive heavy hitters like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders; Chivona Newsome, a former financial advisor who co-founded Black Lives Matter of Greater New York; Tomas Ramos, a program director at the Bronx River Community Center; and a handful of others from outside the established political channels.

“I watched a panel the other day, and there were about five candidates that I wasn't even aware were running that were on that panel talk,” said Ed Mundo, a city tunnels and bridges worker who said he’s lived on the same South Bronx street since he was six years old. Mundo volunteers for a few community organizations, is active in pro-bike advocacy, and is more politically engaged than most of his neighbors, yet he still feels that there is precious little information trickling out about the candidates and the election.

In the current moment of crisis, Mundo worries that “a lot of folks are not aware there is a primary. So many folks are just accustomed to the November elections, see whoever is on that ballot, then they vote.”

The race has become particularly high-profile as a result of its position at the intersection of several broader political currents and movements — longtime political establishment versus insurgent outsiders; the chance to shift the balance of power for the first time in decades; the acute power of federal policy-making during moments of crisis in particular. There’s also the Díaz Sr. factor, as a long-serving, socially-conservative Democrat with strong name recognition, a solid base of support, and a polarizing presence is within striking distance of victory. He has no dearth of critics in the district, a fact that has seemed not to phase him; in fact, he appears to thrive in controversy. His presence in the race has driven local and national attention to the primary.

For the residents of the district, it’s an opportunity to collectively exert real influence, and the race has appeared very much up in the air. Motivating even small groups to turn out can make all the difference, lifting the voices of those living in a district with such great needs.

Several campaigns told Gotham Gazette that they were focused on providing support and services to the community in lieu of pure campaigning. “What we do is we ask people how they're feeling, how they're doing. If they need anything, if they need an errand to run, if they have a need for food,” López said in late May.

“Whenever my volunteers and I are out in the field,” said Torres, “we're limiting ourselves to distributing food and PPE and doing no electioneering out in the field at the moment. The reason for which is simple: campaigning, business as usual, would come off as insensitive to the deep suffering in the South Bronx.”

Newsome said she had her volunteers teaching people how to file for unemployment, and had been riding around the Bronx in a truck with supplies including diapers and baby food. Mark-Viverito has been working with a local restaurant to provide meals to undocumented residents. Not everyone has executed this notion without controversy; Díaz Sr. has been accused of piggybacking off of food distribution events that neither his office nor campaign was involved in to raise his profile, distribute campaign materials and electioneer.

The aid strategy has also been embraced by community organizations, who are focused on simultaneously providing the type of support that their members and clients have always relied on them for, while gently prodding them to exercise their civic voice in the election.

“We started doing care packages, and in those care packages we have a bunch of those safety supplies, some tea, some canned foods, some Asian groceries and veggies. And then we've also put resources and materials in there,” said Khamarin Nhann, campaign director for Mekong NYC, which provides community organizing, cultural activities, assistance with public benefits, and other social services for the Southeast Asian community. These materials include those related to the 2020 Census, access to health care, and elections, including information about where to vote and how to vote in-person and via mail.

The question of tone is one that comes up often as a contentious, high-stakes election unfolds amid a multi-faceted humanitarian crisis. There is real and obvious devastation throughout the district. Yet the overlapping crises to some degree present the opportunity to very plainly tie the political questions at stake to Bronxites’ lived experiences. Questions related to jobs, affordable housing, food security, health care, and police relations have never been abstract in what is the poorest and most nonwhite district in the country, but the pandemic and the social unrest have brought everything into stark relief.

“There are absolutely competing needs for our folks. We've seen our members really struggle with food or worried that when the eviction moratorium ends, will they become homeless and what that looks like,” said Sandra Lobo, the executive director of the Northwest Bronx Community & Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). “What we've tried to do is really equip our folks with an understanding, a deeper analysis that, what they do, how they vote, and how they organize, absolutely impacts what's next for all of us.”

This has involved emphasizing that none of these issues exist in isolation, and in fact they compound; any effort to tackle the current emergencies must also tackle the circumstances that let them get so bad, especially in the district. “I think communities of color, low-income communities, have always struggled with layered issues,” said Lobo. “We've seen our folks really understand and be sophisticated about, where does the power lie, both in organizing and in the electoral system?”

There are particular groups for whom federal policy-making looms particularly large; for example, healthcare workers, many of whom are represented by 1199SEIU, a union that has endorsed Blake, who has amassed a great deal of labor support in the race.

“We've had our members engaging our congressional leaders. We've done roughly 20 video conferences with our New York delegation, where we've had members…explain the realities of what's going on in the frontline,” said an 1199SEIU official who asked not to be identified. “I think that helped our members make the connection, or made it stronger, that politics is the way that we make the transition” to a system more responsive to their needs.

Nhann said that particularly in the last couple of weeks, he’d actually seen a spike in the number of community residents interrogating the decisions of their political leaders. He dismissed “this whole notion that just because folks don't speak English, they're not aware of politics or they're not aware what's going on in the news. For the most part, our folks are actually pretty savvy.”

Dariella Rodríguez of The Point CDC, a community development nonprofit, said the organization’s approach partly centered around making clear that the district was particularly hard hit not just because of decisions made during the pandemic, but decisions made before. “Although we are struggling with the impact of covid in our community, we've been burdened with issues around respiratory health and asthma, issues with water quality — we've been burdened with those issues for a very long time. We've been saying we know when something like this happens, our community is at higher risk.”

For her part, Newsome has found a natural connection between her work with Black Lives Matter and the campaign, particularly as the outrage over police brutality again takes center stage in New York and nationally. Even before current wave of protests, Newsome said she had been part of a group pressuring Governor Andrew Cuomo to acknowledge that “the NYPD was incapable and incompetent in handling the enforcement of social distancing.” The current popular movements presented an opportunity to connect police brutality directly with political participation.

No one knows how many of the roughly 337,000 eligible Democratic voters in the 15th congressional district will cast a ballot, absentee or in-person, for this month’s election. In 2016, Serrano received just over 9,000 votes in the Democratic primary, beating an opponent who received just over 1,000. A total of about 74,000 votes were cast in the district during the 2016 presidential primary. In 2018, Serrano did not have a primary, but won the general election with around 125,000 votes to his opponent’s 5,000.

One quirk of a low-turnout race is that very small differences in the number of votes cast for each candidate can determine a win and a loss. This fact has taken on an added salience for progressives in the district given the candidacy of Díaz Sr., an always controversial and regularly offensive political figure. A pentecostal minister, he is probably the most socially-conservative Democrat holding political office in the city, having staked out positions opposing abortion and marriage equality. A comment claiming that the City Council was “controlled by the homosexual community” last year got his issue committee disbanded and prompted calls for his resignation. He has also called into question the mandate to report sexual harassment.

Nonetheless, he has held political office in the Bronx for nearly 20 years continuously and enjoys a base of support with religious and conservative Latino residents, who have a strong presence in the district. He won his seat at the Council just three years ago, edging out more progressive challengers as he moved from the state Senate with at least tacit support from much of the political establishment. The concern that candidates to his left will split the vote and hand Díaz Sr. the primary win is being used to varying extents by rival campaigns.

Torres in particular appears to be making opposition to Díaz Sr. a centerpiece of the turnout effort. “From day one, I have been sounding the alarm about the threat of a Trump Republican representing the most Democratic district in America,” he said, adding that in the home stretch of the campaign, he would be pitching himself as the candidate most able to head off this threat. Díaz Sr. did not respond to messages seeking comment. He has repeatedly ducked debates in the race.

A significant concern is that there will be issues not only of enthusiasm, but mechanics. An attempt by the state Board of Elections to cancel the Democratic presidential primary over coronavirus concerns failed when a federal judge ruled that it had to be held, in response to a lawsuit filed by former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. Yet a number of voters may have heard that the primary was off, but not back on.

Disseminating the information can be difficult, partly because some of the community groups and campaigns involved aren’t entirely sure what the correct information is. “Is the election going on? Where's my polling station? Can I vote early? Who are the candidates? Where's the platform? All of those have been communicated via text via email, via phone,” said Lobo.

The point was echoed by some of the candidates. “There's a lot of confusion. There was that whole back-and-forth around the presidential primary and canceling it, not canceling it. So some people assume that the primary completely is canceled,” said Mark-Viverito.

Some number of voters won’t want to go to the polls due to the extant viral threat, leaving the option of absentee voting, and herein lies another problem: unlike 34 other states, New York typically doesn’t allow “no excuse” absentee voting. In April, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order making the coronavirus part of the existing “excuse” of illness and directing county boards of elections to mail absentee ballot applications to all eligible voters, but the lack of a prior generalized avenue for absentee voting has left many voters unfamiliar with how it works and the New York City Board of Elections appears to be straining under the demand, leaving many unanswered questions as voting of all kinds wraps up on primary day, June 23.

Mundo, the community resident, said he’d gotten a ballot application in late May. “It looks like traditional junk mail. So if you're not actively looking for it, you may bypass it. Or someone like my mother, who's been out of town since April, she's not even going to get that application.”

Rodríguez of The Point said that the group had been providing staff members specifically to explain to voters how poll sites (both for early voting and primary day) work and how to access absentee voting. “We're using apps to do mass texting, we're using social media, we're using Zoom, WhatsApp and Signal. There's even been suggestions of other kinds of apps that folks from other countries use, especially Southeast Asian communities,” she said.

The Point, NWBCCC, and Mekong all had a built-in advantage in that they were part of a coalition that spent months crafting a “people’s platform” that had community delegates participate in crafting a set of issues and proposals meant to be representative of the entire district’s political priorities. The listserv has been useful in disseminating information to the community at large, even via word-of-mouth from individual influential residents.

Fundamentally, the winning approach seems to be one of illuminating how the extant crises are manifestations of broader systemic issues. “You can’t separate the political from the personal, especially at these times,” said López. “So this is the time that we need to rally and organize for the kind of society that we want to live in. And those are the kinds of conversations that we've been having through the phone banks.”

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This story, and the series it is a part of, has been supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems.

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by Felipe De La Hoz, Gotham Gazette
     

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A Pandemic and A Primary in the Most Impoverished Congressional District in the Country Mon, 22 Jun 2020 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9394-watch-democratic-primary-debate-bronx-15th-congressional-district-serrano-retiring-election https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9394-watch-democratic-primary-debate-bronx-15th-congressional-district-serrano-retiring-election bx debate 514

left to right: (top) Michael Blake, Chivona Newsome, Frangell Basora, Samelys Lopez
(bottom): Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres


On Thursday, May 14, eight Democratic candidates vying to replace retiring Bronx Congressional Rep. José E. Serrano met for an online debate hosted by Gotham Gazette, City Limits, The Point CDC, and other partners.

The debate, watched by hundreds on Zoom and Facebook Live, with a Spanish translation phone line, can be viewed via the embedded video below.

Participating candidates were Frangell Basora; Michael Blake; Chivona Newsome; Samelys Lopez; Melissa Mark-Viverito; Tomas Ramos; Ydanis Rodriguez; and Ritchie Torres.

The debate was moderated by Gotham Gazette's Ben Max, with questions asked by Daniel Parra of City Limits, Sierra Straker of The Point, and Parker Quinlan of Hunts Point Express/Mott Haven Herald.

Serrano is retiring from Congress after 30 years due to health reasons, so his seat in New York's 15th Congressional District is effectively open and a crowded field has formed in the Democratic primary, set to be decided in June. Given it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country, the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the next member of the House of Representatives from the Bronx district home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

Voting is just around the corner: primary day is June 23, with early voting from June 13 through June 21, and all eligible voters will be mailed an absentee ballot given the coronavirus outbreak.

Ruben Diaz, Sr., also a candidate for the office, did not agreed to participate in the debate. (There will be other candidates on the ballot, but they have not mounted serious campaigns as indicated by a total lack of fundraising and were not invited to the dbeate: Mark Escoffery-Bey, Julio Pabon, Marlene Tapper.)

The 15th is the only Congressional district located entirely within the Bronx. It covers Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose, High Bridge, Port Morris, Clason Point, Morrisania, Concourse Village, East Tremont, Tremont, Morris Heights, Castle Hill, University Heights, Bronx River, Belmont, Shorehaven, Claremont Village, Fordham, West Farms, Longwood, Mount Hope, Soundview and Harding Park.

Watch the candidates discuss their records and platforms and answer questions about the coronavirus response, housing, immigration, jobs, and more:

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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WATCH: Democratic Primary Debate in the Bronx's 15th Congressional District Sat, 16 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9378-bronx-congressional-district-15-democratic-debate-2020-house-serrano https://www.gothamgazette.com/state/9378-bronx-congressional-district-15-democratic-debate-2020-house-serrano Michael Blake, Renee Chivona, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres

left to right: (top) Michael Blake, Chivona Newsome, Ruben Diaz Sr., Samelys Lopez
(bottom): Melissa Mark-Viverito, Tomas Ramos, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres


With longtime Representative José E. Serrano retiring from Congress after 30 years due to health reasons, his seat in New York's 15th Congressional District is effectively open and a crowded field has formed in the Democratic primary, set to be decided in June. Given it is one of the most Democratic districts in the country, the winner of the primary is all but certain to be the next member of the House of Representatives from the Bronx district home to some of the highest poverty rates in the country.

With the vote just around the corner -- primary day is June 23, with early voting from June 13 through June 21 and all voters eligible for absentee balloting given the coronavirus outbreak -- 8 of the Democratic candidates will debate on Thursday, May 14, from 6-8 p.m.

The debate, hosted by Gotham Gazette, City Limits, The Point CDC, and other partners, will be streamed via Zoom (at this link) and Facebook (at this link).

The debate will also be translated in Spanish at 1-800-719-6100 followed by the access code of 1157388. Those interested in Spanish translation can watch the debate by Zoom or Facebook while listening via the aforementioned phone line.

The participating candidates include: Frangell Basora; Michael Blake; Chivona Newsome; Samelys Lopez; Melissa Mark-Viverito; Tomas Ramos; Ydanis Rodriguez; and Ritchie Torres.

Ruben Diaz, Sr., also a candidate for the office, has not agreed to participate in the debate. (There will be other candidates on the ballot, but they have not mounted serious campaigns as indicated by a total lack of fundraising: Mark Escoffery-Bey, Julio Pabon, Marlene Tapper.)

Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max will moderate the debate, and panelists will include Sierra Straker of The Point CDC's youth advisory group; reporters Daniel Parra of City Limits and Parker Quinlan of the Hunts Point Express and Mott Haven Herald.

The 15th is the only Congressional district located entirely within the Bronx. It covers Mott Haven, Hunts Point, Melrose, High Bridge, Port Morris, Clason Point, Morrisania, Concourse Village, East Tremont, Tremont, Morris Heights, Castle Hill, University Heights, Bronx River, Belmont, Shorehaven, Claremont Village, Fordham, West Farms, Longwood, Mount Hope, Soundview and Harding Park.

Tune in at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 14 via Zoom or Facebook.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Intense Competition for 'Open' Bronx Congressional Seat: Watch the District 15 Democratic Debate on Thursday May 14 Wed, 13 May 2020 04:00:00 +0000
Electeds, Advocates Rally Behind New Bill to Expand Municipal Voting Rights to Some Non-Citizen Residents https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9076-electeds-advocates-rally-expand-municipal-voting-rights-non-citizens-green-cards-work-permits https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/9076-electeds-advocates-rally-expand-municipal-voting-rights-non-citizens-green-cards-work-permits electeds yr

Thursday's rally (photo: Samar Khurshid)


About 1 million foreign-born New York City residents who have permanent residency status or are legally authorized to work in the United States could become eligible to vote in municipal elections under a new bill introduced before the New York City Council on Thursday.

Sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, a Manhattan Democrat, the bill (Intro. 1867) would extend the franchise to green card and work permit holders who can show they have lived in the five boroughs for at least 30 days. The bill is the latest attempt to give immigrant New Yorkers a voice in the city’s democracy, after previous proposals failed years ago. It has the support of 26 other Council Members, a majority in the 51-member body, as well as Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who can sponsor but not vote on bills.

“The immigrant voting right will be expanded, [it] will make our democracy stronger because it will connect close to 1 million New Yorkers with the right to vote,” Rodriguez said, pointing to his own past as a green card holder for years before he was naturalized. He appeared at a rally on the steps of City Hall with advocates from more than 40 groups to launch the #OurCityOurVote campaign, just prior to the bill’s introduction at a City Council meeting.

Allowing a largely disenfranchised immigrant population to vote would make the city’s elections more democratic, Rodriguez emphasized, by requiring candidates running for local office to ask for support from the immigrant communities that they seek to represent but that have no say in who represents them. Immigrants pay taxes that fund city services they rely on. “Allowing more people to vote does not weaken our democracy. It makes it stronger. It brings more people to the table and encourages more involvement,” he said.

As several Council members and advocates after him noted, noncitizen voting is not a novel notion. As recently as 2002, noncitizens could vote in elections to community school boards before they were dissolved by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg after he won mayoral control of city schools from Albany.

“This idea that we’re talking about is not a new idea,” said Council Member Carlos Menchaca, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Committee on Immigration. “We are restoring this ability for our residents who are not citizens to vote.” Other jurisdictions across the country also allow some form of noncitizen voting in municipal polls, including in Takoma Park, Maryland and San Francisco.

Council Member Daniel Dromm, a Queens Democrat who unsuccessfully sought to pass similar legislation in his first term in 2010, noted that 68% of the residents of his district are recent immigrants, and about 55% of his district cannot vote. “This is really about empowerment and enfranchisement of our immigrant communities and other communities as well,” he said. “Because if you have rule by the minority, which is what I have in my district, that is not an American principle. The American principle that we all stand by is no taxation without representation.”

Though the bill has more than the requisite votes to pass, it has yet to receive the support of Council Speaker Corey Johnson. When he was running for speaker, Johnson said he would support voting rights in municipal elections for permanent residency holders. Rodriguez’s bill goes beyond that. Asked about the bill at a news conference on Thursday, Johnson said it could raise legal concerns. “I have to look at it, I haven't done that yet,” he said. “I will go through the legislative process. I'll meet with Councilman Rodriguez and the other folks who are involved, and then we'll have a conversation around it. But I haven't had a chance to sit down, understand the details.”

He later added, “Given that it's really important that we do things by the book, and also given that we have a xenophobic, racist president who has weaponized [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] across the country, I want to be really careful about how we do things.”

Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, said he intends to vote against the bill. He said in a Twitter thread that the measure should go through a ballot referendum as with other changes to the City Charter. “This way, it can’t be used as a ploy to change the electorate for the current election cycle and benefit anyone now running, and so that our current citizen-voters have a say in whether or not their votes get diluted. This seems like a play to change the election map for the next city races, and devalues New York citizens’ vote in the process.”

Council Member Eric Ulrich, a Republican from Queens, was more direct. “Should Non-Citizen New Yorkers Have the Right to Vote? I say no!” he tweeted.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office did not provide comment on the bill by publication time.

To those assembled outside City Hall on Thursday, the bill is particularly poignant at a time when Republican legislative majorities in conservative states are making efforts to limit access to voting either through cumbersome voter identification measures or through bureaucratic election administration rules. “For too long, members of our communities who live here, work here, raise their families here and pay billions of dollars in taxes have been shut out of the process,” said Theresa Thanjan, manager of member engagement for the New York Immigration Coalition. “We would like to open it up now for them to have a voice in the direction of our city.”

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Electeds, Advocates Rally Behind New Bill to Expand Municipal Voting Rights to Some Non-Citizen Residents Thu, 23 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Ruling Endangers Better Planning for City's Future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9030-inwood-rezoning-ruling-endangers-better-planning-for-citys-future https://www.gothamgazette.com/130-opinion/9030-inwood-rezoning-ruling-endangers-better-planning-for-citys-future Ydanis Rodriguez Inwood

Council Member Rodriguez with a constituent (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Shortly before Christmas a judge of the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan issued a ruling annulling the rezoning plan for Inwood that had been in the works since 2017 and was approved by the City Council in August 2018. The City has appealed the decision to the Appellate Division; the case may well go all the way to the Court of Appeals before it is finally resolved. But even if the decision is eventually reversed, this legal challenge has upended the long-established legal and political process for achieving rezonings and could have a detrimental impact on all future rezoning efforts in New York City.

Supreme Court Judge Verna Saunders found that a number of potential socio-economic impacts raised by community groups were not considered during the state- and city-required environmental review of the plan and sent it back to the Deputy Mayor for Housing and Economic Development to study and address these concerns.

While I am neither a land use nor an environmental attorney, it seems to me common sense that some of the highlighted issues are impossible to fully assess because they are speculative and depend on so many economic, legislative, sociological, and other factors beyond local zoning. For example, ambulance response times or the impact on minority- and women-owned businesses.

Other issues may well have been considered but not explicitly addressed in the environmental reports. For example, the impact of the loss of the neighborhood public library was addressed: the zoning plan adopted by the Council included a brand new, larger, and better-equipped public library in a new building with 175 affordable apartments and a plan for a temporary relocation while the new library building is constructed.

But the specifics of the judge’s decision are not as significant as the fact that it creates uncertainty about the validity of a lengthy public review process in which the Mayor and the locally elected City Council Member were actively engaged and the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Procedure was carefully followed.

The methodology for conducting environmental reviews of zoning proposals is set forth in a manual (the “CEQR Manual”) written and updated by a panel of experts that contains clear rules and standards for analysis. If litigation can successfully overturn a zoning plan by demanding that specific factors not included in the manual must be considered and addressed then there can be no certainty that any plan is final, no matter how robust the public and political review process and how carefully the standards of the manual have been followed.

The new buildings that were to be authorized by the Inwood rezoning, which would provide 1,300 units of affordable housing, are now on hold. The immediate consequences of derailing the zoning changes are that the demand for more housing in Inwood will force prices higher, not only depriving potential new residents of housing opportunities, but affecting current residents as well.
There may well be a broader impact. If, after three years of development, including 22 public meetings, input from the Community Board, the Borough President, the City Planning Commission, and Council approval, a rezoning plan can no longer be regarded as firm and final, builders will be reluctant to get involved in these efforts at the outset and neighborhoods that need them will miss out on thousands more affordable housing units.

Moreover, the role of the local City Council Member in providing input and negotiating additional community benefits as part of rezonings is called into question. Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who represents the Inwood neighborhood, succeeded in including hundreds of millions of dollars of benefits to the community as part of the plan, including the new library, improvements to the local public school complex and park and community spaces, and funding for local anti-displacement and homeless service programs. All of these investments are now in doubt.

If the duly elected representative who knows the needs of the area best cannot be relied upon to definitively sign off on behalf of his constituents, why would other Council Members put themselves out there to influence and endorse a plan?

Change is hard and can be frightening. But it will happen, either haphazardly through as-of-right development under existing zoning, or through a more managed growth process in a thoughtful and coordinated way, through the land use review process with the input of community leaders who help maximize the benefits for the people who live there. The activists who challenged the Inwood rezoning plan, though undoubtedly well-intentioned, may have won a battle but hurt the long-term health of the City by leaving officials with no clear path to follow in their efforts to keep the city’s neighborhoods thriving.

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Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.

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

 

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Ruling Endangers Better Planning for City's Future Sun, 05 Jan 2020 05:00:00 +0000
Johnson Says City Council to Pass Streets Master Plan Bill This Month https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8845-speaker-johnson-city-council-to-pass-streets-master-plan-bill-bike-bus https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8845-speaker-johnson-city-council-to-pass-streets-master-plan-bill-bike-bus city council co jo keynote address

Speaker Johnson (photo: John McCarten/City Council)


New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is advancing his legislation to create a master plan for city streets, promising Thursday that the Council will vote on the bill this month.

Johnson, a Democrat from Manhattan, first proposed the idea of creating a five-year plan for the city’s streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces in his State of the City speech in March, alongside a proposal for municipal control of the city’s subways and buses. The “master plan” would require the city’s Department of Transportation to implement a long-term strategy to improve surface transportation and street safety, which transit advocates say Mayor Bill de Blasio has not done sufficiently despite his administration’s Vision Zero program to eliminate traffic fatalities.

Speaking on Thursday at the Vision Zero Cities conference hosted by Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group, Johnson said his plan was moving ahead and that the Council would vote on it during October. “I don’t expect all New Yorkers to give up their cars and swear to never drive again. That is not a solution,” he said. “But here is one. My master plan legislative package. This month, this month -- this month -- the City Council will vote on my bill.”

The bill would mandate the installation of 50 miles of protected bike lanes and 30 miles of bus lanes each year, add Transit Signal Priority for buses to move more quickly to 1,000 intersections annually, and expand the city’s plaza program, quadruple shared streets by 2025 and redesign intersections to make them accessible to people with disabilities by 2030. The city’s Department of Transportation would design the full details of the plan and implement it, and it would be updated every five years.

The issues the bill would address have taken on a particular urgency this year amid jumps in cyclist and pedestrian deaths from last year at this time, though overall traffic fatalities have dropped drastically since the mayor announced Vision Zero in 2014. While de Blasio has moved to increase bike and bus lanes and recently offered new plans to both protect bike-riders and speed the city’s buses, many advocates, Johnson, and others still say the mayor is not moving aggressively enough.

The full Council has two Stated Meetings, where legislation is passed, scheduled this month. It’s unlikely that a vote on Johnson’s bill will happen at the October 17 meeting, where the Council is expected to approve the borough-based jails plan to facilitate the closure of Rikers Island.

The streets master plan would likely be on the agenda for the October 30 meeting. It would first have to be approved by the Committee on Transportation, chaired by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez.

“I am confident that Speaker Corey Johnson’s Master Plan bill will take to us a safer tomorrow, for all New Yorkers,” Rodriguez said in a statement, noting that the majority of the 24 cyclist deaths this year were in areas without a protected bike lane. “I thank all of the advocates for the work they are doing each and everyday to increase the awareness of these crashes across the 5 boroughs. I will continue working with the advocates, my colleagues and Speaker Corey Johnson to ensure we don’t see another life lost on the road.”

Johnson’s push for his master plan has been in contrast to de Blasio’s more measured attitude towards reducing private vehicle usage or promoting mass transit. Johnson has sought to break the city’s “car culture” with street redesigns, new traffic calming measures, reducing congestion, and improving access to mass transit. A likely 2021 mayoral candidate, Johnson has said he does not envision ending car usage in New York City, but that his master plan bill is part of a vision to prioritize mass transit users, bike-riders, and pedestrians over those in cars, while making other modes of transportation as attractive as possible to encourage less car traffic.

When Johnson’s bill was examined at a hearing of the Council’s transportation committee in June, DOT officials said it would require a massive infusion of funds and new personnel for the agency. But the administration has signalled that it shares Johnson’s goals.

“We are continuing to work with the Council on this legislation,” said Seth Stein, a spokesperson for the mayor, in a statement. “We agree with the values underpinning this bill, that we must continue to aggressively pursue street redesigns under Vision Zero to save lives across the city.”

A spokesperson for Speaker Johnson said there have been no changes to the master plan bill so far.

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by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Johnson Says City Council to Pass Streets Master Plan Bill This Month Fri, 11 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8695-city-officials-debate-what-to-do-about-taxi-medallion-debt-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8695-city-officials-debate-what-to-do-about-taxi-medallion-debt-crisis taxi medallion drivers rally city hall

Council Members Levine & Rivera & drivers rally at City Hall (photo: Jeff Reed)


City Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what sounded like a simple question: should the Taxi & Limousine Commission apologize for its role in the taxi medallion debt crisis, in which thousands of taxi owner-drivers have been trapped in predatory loans unchecked by city and state watchdogs?

Jeffrey Roth, nominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to lead the TLC, failed to give a direct “yes” or “no.” Johnson asked again, to which Roth said, “whether or not the TLC leadership there should apologize, I don’t know.” Visibly frustrated, Johnson moved on to a new question.

The exchange took place at a July 18 hearing to discuss Roth’s nomination for TLC Commissioner – a nomination that has since been temporarily withdrawn in part due to Roth’s performance at the hearing.

Roth’s evasiveness on the apology questions and others, and Johnson’s resulting exasperation highlighted a growing debate over the culpability of city government in facilitating the medallion crisis. As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May revealed, the TLC ignored warning signs of a highly inflated medallion market (the city sells taxi medallions and sets baseline prices for auction) and risky lending practices, leaving many medallion owner stranded in colossal debt when the market collapsed. A wave of suicides among driver-owners, along with the Times' series, has elevated the discussion to emergency status.

But, as policymakers, drivers, and others have been asking, should the city itself be responsible for forgiving the debt? What is the best path for helping driver-owners get out from under their loans?

For the Taxi Workers Alliance, the most prominent organization representing for-hire vehicle drivers, the answer is a resounding yes: New York City government should prepare a bailout. But Mayor de Blasio has repeatedly said a bailout would be both out of the city's purview and too costly to the city's budget. On the other hand, several City Council Members, including Speaker Johnson, have expressed some initial support for the idea of a partial bailout of driver-owners.

Bhairavi Desai, the head of the union since its inception in 1998, has called for a city-run program to determine the current market value of medallions, then buying out and forgiving loans down to that value. At the height of the market in 2014, medallions were going for more than $1 million, compared to a $200,000 price tag a decade earlier.

The TWA has calculated that, based on a current medallion market value of $150,000 and an average owner-driver debt of $600,000, the program would cost between $1.6 and $2.4 billion – an increase from the $1 billion the TWA estimates that the city made from inflated prices at medallion auctions.

City Council Member Mark Levine, who represents Upper Manhattan and has long been one of the TWA’s strongest allies in government, claimed at a July 11 rally outside City Hall that a clear precedent for a city-run bailout exists.

“During the housing mortgage bubble, an entity here called the Center for New York City Neighborhoods did exactly that for New Yorkers with underwater housing mortgages,” he said alongside Desai and dozens of assembled owner-drivers. “The fact is, there is a myriad of precedents for this here in New York City, and it’s simply inexcusable to say this isn’t possible when we have done projects like this in the past.”

Levine is not alone in his support for the TWA’s proposal. Council Member Carlina Rivera of Lower Manhattan appeared at the same rally to call for loan forgiveness; City Comptroller Scott Stringer and Council Member Ritchie Torres, among others, have also expressed some measure of support for city-financed debt relief. Because bailout legislation has yet to be introduced to the City Council, it is difficult to gauge how broad the proposal’s support is.

Desai and the TWA have also called for a cap on medallion mortgage payments at $900 per month (compared to an average of $3,000 a month currently) and the creation of a retirement fund for drivers, among other things. But with chants of “Loan forgiveness now!” and pre-printed signs calling for “Debt Forgiveness NOW!” at the July 11 rally, owner-drivers have made their first priority clear.

On the other hand, de Blasio, as well as officials in the TLC, have expressed skepticism about, even dismissal of such an idea. Their preferred plan of action is for the city to instead pressure the private banking lenders to downsize loans, without the city itself directly buying or bailing out anything.

De Blasio, in a June interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show, said that he would “absolutely pressure banks and lenders to be fair to these drivers, we’ll do that.” But he rejected the possibility of a city bailout, saying the city “doesn’t directly fund the drivers…There’s some things the City of New York simply has limits on.” He has indicated on multiple occasions that the city simply doesn’t have the billions of dollars that would be needed for a bailout, that it would be too costly of a one-time expense.

Meera Joshi, formerly the commissioner of the TLC, listed in an email to Gotham Gazette several proposals to address the crisis, all of which involve the city leaning on banks to modify loans so that they match drivers’ income. “State and city officials should publicly name those that refuse to work with borrowers,” she suggested, “much like the 100 worst landlords list. Publicity about their inflexibility will go a long way in making a change, and will achieve change quickly.”

Two other possibilities Joshi mentioned involve conditioning medallion ownership on viable financing, thus causing “banks that do not modify loans within a prescribed period [to] lose the medallion as an asset,” and “chang[ing] state tax law to ensure that forgiven loans are not considered taxable income for individuals below a certain income level.”

When asked directly about the possibility of direct loan forgiveness by the city, Joshi stated that she supports “all real assistance, but prioritizes what can realistically happen, affects the largest group, and most of all happens quickly, which is pressuring banks to restructure loans.”

Current Acting TLC Commissioner Bill Heinzen, during a June 24 City Council oversight hearing on the crisis, expanded on this assessment, saying that “the people who have the power and money here are the banks and the credit unions that hold those loans, and they should be the ones who should be forced to write down those loans to something that is human and possible to pay.”

And Roth, responding to pointed questioning from Johnson, said that he thinks “there are measures short of financial bailout...that might be sufficient and not excessive.”

Writing in a City & State op-ed column the day after the July 11 rally, Nicole Gelinas argued that the roughly $2 billion required for a bailout of many owner-drivers would make a significant, arguably unfair dent in the city’s budget. “The city must follow only public need,” she wrote, “not the extraordinary circumstances of one industry.” Others, including Roth, have pointed out that a city-financed bailout might inadvertently reward lenders for their predatory behavior.

While she echoed some of the other ideas that have been offered for alleviating the crisis, another of Gelinas’ proposed fixes involves city- and state-level regulation, without either funding a bailout. “The city,” she wrote, “should make it much clearer whether it is giving up on the medallion system or not, guiding both lenders and borrowers on underlying value, and allowing lenders to keep an interest in the future, possibly higher value of a medallion in exchange for debt relief.”

For their part, the TWA and its Council allies have also called on the city to lean on lenders to forgive debt and ease burdens on owner-drivers. Levine noted that, if the city can successfully push lenders to downsize loans, then the pricetag the city pays for a bailout decreases and becomes more politically feasible.

But some who support a city forgiveness program worry that the focus on outside forces like credit unions makes concrete solutions harder. Council Member Brad Lander, at the June 24 oversight hearing, said he worries “that if we only focus on accountability, we will fail to come up with a real approach to relief...We must find a way to do both.”

A spokesperson for the City Council said in a brief Thursday statement to Gotham Gazette that “Speaker Johnson and the council are committed to helping drivers, and the newly appointed task force is exploring a variety of ways to help including various forms of a bailout.”

Appearing on Thursday evening’s Inside City Hall on NY1, Johnson was asked by host Errol Louis about what he thinks should be done for the medallion owners. “I think the mayor is right in one aspect,” Johnson said after disagreeing with the mayor’s claim that if a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses had been instituted in 2015 much would have been different, while also reiterating his regret for not supporting the cap back then, “which is $17 billion for a full bailout is not realistic, and it would be inappropriate and disingenuous for me to say that’s what we can do. But there has been a proposal -- Council Members Levin and Levine and Lander have been talking about doing a partial bailout for some of the medallion owners who are under water, maybe at $100,000 or $200,000, to get them out of debt in a way where they’re not as under water. It’s something we need to look at.”

Underlying the debate over debt forgiveness is a deeper question over who, exactly, bears the blame for the crisis to begin with. Mayor de Blasio has called the crisis a “private market reality,” and the TLC released an investigation it conducted laying the responsibility on lenders and the National Credit Union Association while insisting that “TLC and the City have no regulatory oversight or control over lending practices.”

Additionally, Roth, Heinzen, and Joshi – the prospective, current, and former TLC commissioners, respectively – all pointed to the specific ways in which the TLC worked to mitigate the crisis, including loosening restrictions and reducing taxes on drivers. The cap on vehicle hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft has also been highlighted as a measure that the city took to help owner-drivers (de Blasio has repeatedly said he wishes the City Council had gone along with his 2015 push for a FHV cap, rather than stalling for several more years until its passage in 2018). 

For many, however, these measures were too little and too late. Though the city was not directly responsible for reckless lending practices that may have helped thrust owner-drivers into severe debt, Levine and others claim it still has a “moral debt” to pay for its lack of oversight. Levine charged that “the city itself was asleep as thousands of drivers entered into a world of financial hell.” 

Council Member Torres, who co-chaired the oversight hearing with Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, said that the TLC “is inclined to scapegoat everyone except itself.”

The TLC, as many debt-relief proponents have pointed out, was not just a regulator asleep at the wheel. Faced with a $3.8 billion budget deficit early in his administration, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his TLC commissioner, Matthew Daus, advertised the medallion market as a stable, “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity in order to increase city revenue. In 2011, Andrew Murstein, the former president of a prominent medallion lender, called the city his “partner,” because “they want to see prices go as high as possible.”

Debt relief, either from the city or from lenders, is not the only measure being discussed to address the medallion crisis. At the June 24 oversight hearing, four bills were proposed that would increase accountability at the TLC, with the goal of preventing future crises.

Additionally, Council Member Rodriguez, who chairs the Transportation Committee, has proposed a bill that would exempt taxi drivers from congestion pricing. The TWA held a rally on July 18 demanding that the cap on for-hire vehicles be extended, which would continue to restrain competition to the taxi industry. And, as Roth mentioned in the July 18 committee hearing, the TLC plans to set up a driver assistance unit to provide drivers with financial and mental health services.

But, as these legislative proposals’ backers have attested to, such fixes are not enough to help those already in massive debt. Regardless of who bears the blame for the crisis and who needs to pay for it, thousands of drivers remain in dire straits. “This may have taken years in the making; it cannot take years more in the fixing,” said Desai at the July 11 rally.

“Otherwise," she said, "thousands of families are going to simply break.”

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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City Officials Debate What To Do About Taxi Medallion Debt Crisis Thu, 25 Jul 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Council to Examine City’s Role in ‘Taxi Medallion Crisis’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8621-council-to-examine-city-s-role-in-taxi-medallion-crisis https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8621-council-to-examine-city-s-role-in-taxi-medallion-crisis bloomberg gillibrand nadler yassky fed

(photo Credit: Edward Reed/City Council)


Amid a new flurry of attention to challenges faced by taxi drivers in New York City, the City Council will hold an oversight hearing Monday on the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission’s “role in the taxi medallion crisis.”

As a New York Times two-part investigation published in May helped bring back into extensive public conversation, taxi medallion prices rose to extreme heights between 2002 and 2014 – as high as $1.3 million – before crashing down amid a boom in the launch of the app-based for-hire vehicle sector. Thousands of medallion owners are in immense debt with their medallions, which allow them to operate a city-sanctioned yellow taxi, worth far less than at point of purchase, when they bought them from the city through loans provided by private banks.

Reporting prior to the Times’ exposé had already documented the mounting debt crisis for medallion owners, connecting it largely to the rise of ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft. All of the city’s 13,587 taxi medallions took significant hits in value, both those owned by individual drivers themselves and those constituting larger taxi fleets. The City Council passed and Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a cap on new for-hire vehicle licenses and new wage guarantees for drivers amid a series of driver suicides in 2018, tragedies that pushed the medallion crisis into public view.

Now, the Times’ investigation has caused a new flurry of legislation after it showed how the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC) was instrumental in the extraordinary inflation of medallion prices. Though the TLC was not directly involved in the reckless lending practices that led to the taxi drivers’ debt, it stood to benefit from skyrocketing prices at medallion auctions and chose to ignore signs that the market was highly unstable. The TLC is charged with regulating the taxi industry, and the Mayor oversees it and the city budget, which has included and relied on revenue from medallion sales.

While much of the Times’ reporting focused on other culprits, including predatory lenders and the National Credit Union Association, medallion owners and their representatives have laid a lot of blame on city government.

Sergio Cabrera and Carolyn Protz, two medallion owners, wrote in a scathing Crain’s New York Business op-ed that “the real scandal...is how the Taxi and Limousine Commission, as well as elected officials, played a pivotal role in taxis’ demise.”

Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, similarly charged that “the city raked in profit while working-class immigrant drivers of color were swindled and pushed into financial despair.”

Many elected officials agree. In an interview with City & State, City Council Member Mark Levine stated that “the city itself also bears responsibility for this, because we were selling medallions with the goal of bringing in revenue to the city and we were promoting them and pumping them up in ways that I think masks the true risks that drivers were taking on.”

The hearing on Monday, which will be jointly held by the Committee on Transportation and the Committee on Oversight and Investigations, will likely feature significant grilling and criticism of the TLC, as well as testimony from non-governmental parties, like medallion owners, pointing the finger at city government. On its website, the Taxi Workers Alliance has already promised to “pack the hearing room.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres, who will be leading the hearing as chair of the Oversight and Investigations Committee, said in a phone interview with Gotham Gazette that “the purpose of the hearing is to examine TLC’s role in creating a speculative bubble in the medallion market, and to identify the regulatory failures, the policy failures, that led to the collapse of the medallion market and the resulting humanitarian crisis.”

“There’s a sense in which TLC was functioning both as a market regulator and a market purchaser, and there is a conflict of interest between those two parts,” Torres said, echoing concerns outlined in the Times articles.

Although his committee began an investigation into the commission in November of 2018, “TLC has [since] been insufficiently cooperative with the City Council,” and the hearing is intended as a continuation of this inquiry. Despite the TLC’s stonewalling, Torres did disclose that the investigation has been productive, saying “there’s more evidence that the City is culpable than even the New York Times exposé suggests.”

In addition to the oversight portion of the hearing, which will begin at 10 a.m. Monday, four new bills aimed at mitigating the crisis will be introduced and discussed.

The first, from Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Transportation Committee, would require the TLC to “evaluate the character and integrity” of medallion brokers. Another, from Torres, would create a department within the TLC to evaluate the financial stability of the industry. This could theoretically prevent another bubble from forming based on false assertions of taxi market infallibility.

A third bill, sponsored by Council Member Adrienne Adams, would require the TLC to collect annual financial disclosures from individuals with interest in a taxi license. Finally, Council Member Francisco Moya is introducing a bill to prohibit the sale or transfer of a taxi license unless the funds used have been reviewed by the TLC.

These four bills are far from the only ones being drafted and discussed. On May 21, Rodriguez and fellow Council Member Fernando Cabrera proposed an exemption for taxi drivers from congestion pricing to lower their costs, saying that legislators had a “moral obligation” to do so.

Rodriguez also recently saw the City Council pass his bill to reduce the commercial motor vehicle tax on medallion owners from $1000 to $400. In a statement, he pledged to continue “to find ways to ensure that Taxi Medallion owners receive the justice they deserve.”

Meanwhile, in the state legislature, State Senators Jessica Ramos and Leroy Comrie have proposed a bill that would establish a taxi medallion guaranty program to help medallion owners who are unable to pay off their loans.

For some activists and lawmakers, these proposed changes don’t go far enough. Levine, writing in the Bronx Free Press, proposed “dramatic plans” to buy back medallions and forgive taxi drivers’ debt to augment smaller changes such as waiving fees and establishing task forces; City Comptroller Scott Stringer has expressed support for a similar solution.

The Taxi Workers Alliance, one day after the Times article was published, proposed a slightly less drastic plan. It would create a Council-appointed task force to determine the proper current value of taxi medallions, and any loan amounts exceeding that value would be forgiven (the specifics of how the loans would be forgiven have not been made clear).

Unlike Levine’s proposal, this would still likely leave many drivers hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. And as transportation expert Bruce Schaller pointed out to City & State, many medallion owners have already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay off their loans, money that a debt forgiveness program would not help them reclaim.

Any debt forgiveness bill may also face a difficult path under the de Blasio administration. Though the mayor has embraced investigations of lenders and higher wages for drivers, he dismissed the possibility of bailouts in an interview with Brian Lehrer, calling the crisis a “private market reality” that the city is not culpable for, mostly side-stepping city government’s role in selling such inflated medallions and TLC’s lack of oversight. De Blasio did acknowledge that the city allowed something of a bubble to develop, but cited his administration’s efforts to stop selling medallions and to cap app-based for-hire vehicles (a 2015 push by de Blasio to cap FHVs failed, only to be achieved three years later).

The June 24 Council hearing comes at a time of upheaval at the TLC. On June 18, de Blasio announced that Department of Veterans’ Services official Jeffrey Roth will become the new TLC commissioner. He replaces Meera Joshi, who departed the agency in March.

Joshi, for her part, was concerned that direct bailouts would benefit banks too much and drivers too little. Her preferred solution instead was to encourage banks to take a loss and downsize the loans. That way, the banks could “at least have a good live loan at the right price, [rather] than have someone who’s out of work and the bank with a loss.” Roth, who will need to be approved by the City Council before he becomes commissioner, does not yet have a stated position on the issue.

Though relief for medallion owners is likely still a long way off regardless of policy direction, Council Member Torres hopes that the upcoming hearing can begin the process of recovery. “My overall message is this: the city has been part of the problem, and it’s time to make the city part of the solution.”

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by Joey Fox, Gotham Gazette

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Council to Examine City’s Role in ‘Taxi Medallion Crisis’ Thu, 20 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8590-city-council-to-hear-speaker-s-bill-requiring-master-plan-for-city-streets corey jo public

(photo: Emil Cohen/City Council)


[Note: this hearing was indeed held on Wednesday June 12; this article is a preview of the hearing]

On Wednesday, the New York City Council transportation committee will hold a hearing on a bill sponsored by Council Speaker Corey Johnson that would mandate the creation of a five-year “master plan” for city streets with a variety of specifications aimed at making the city more friendly to bikers and pedestrians, and less deferential to cars. If passed and implemented, the legislation would have a major impact on the physical landscape of the city and how New Yorkers, as well as visitors to the city, get around and utilize public space.

The plan, which Johnson first announced during his State of the City speech earlier this year, in which he called for municipal control of subways and buses and for ‘breaking the car culture’ in New York, is widely seen as a response, and complement of sorts, to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Vision Zero street safety program. It calls for substantial increases in the number of new bike and bus lanes created each year, as well as additional pedestrian plazas, and more.

De Blasio launched Vision Zeroed in his first year as mayor, 2014, with the goal of bringing the number of traffic-related fatalities to zero by 2024. While it has been successful, some, including Johnson, believe de Blasio is not moving quickly enough to make city streets safer and more welcoming to those who get around by bus, bike, and foot.

While the city has seen a significant reduction in traffic-related fatalities since the inception of Vision Zero, there’s been a spike in fatalities so far this year compared to the same period last year. The uptick has prompted intensifying calls for de Blasio to do more for the initiative.

Johnson will preside over Wednesday’s hearing on his bill along with City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the transportation committee. The committee will also hear a bill from Council Member Carlos Menchaca that would allow bicyclists to obey traffic signs and signals as if they were pedestrians instead of cars.

The speaker’s master plan legislation would require the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT) to issue and implement a master plan for the use of streets, sidewalks, and pedestrian spaces every five years.

“The way we plan our streets now makes no sense and New Yorkers pay the price every day, stuck on slow buses or risking their own safety cycling without protected bike lanes,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette. “That’s why I said in my State of the City speech that I want to completely revolutionize how we share our street space, and that’s what this bill does. This is a roadmap to breaking the car culture in a thoughtful, comprehensive way.”

Representatives from the DOT are expected to testify at the hearing, along with others from transit advocacy groups and members of the public.

“This last few months have been really tough and we – it’s painful because we have had five years of steady decreases in traffic fatalities,” de Blasio said during a May 10 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. In 2013, the year before de Blasio took office, there were 297 traffic fatalities (among those in cars, on bikes, and on foot) in New York City. That number has fallen virtually each year since to 202 in 2018.

Under de Blasio’s approach to Vision Zero, “projects are too often planned on a one-off basis, leaving the fate of their actual implementation up to the inscrutable push and pull of local politics,” Families for Safe Streets co-founder Amy Cohen said in a Transportation Alternatives press release about Vision Zero. “In each case, the final outcome is too often determined by who yells the loudest, and not by what will save the most lives.”

Families for Safe Streets is an advocacy group of victims of traffic violence and families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured by aggressive or reckless driving.

“We need to think seriously about how we share space on our streets,” Johnson, who does not own a car himself, said in March. “Cars cannot continue to rule the road.”

Ten cyclists have been killed in crashes so far in 2019, matching the total number for all of 2018. Johnson’s legislation champions cyclist and pedestrian safety, prioritizing their safety over the convenience of cars. It includes provisions to improve public transportation, especially buses, to incentivize its use.

“Giving our streets back to people is good for business, good for the environment, and good for all New Yorkers,” Johnson said in March, referencing his call for more pedestrian plazas, which often shut off some ground previously open to cars.

Over the course of de Blasio’s five-plus years in office, Vision Zero has continued to evolve, including several announcements this year. De Blasio and DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg announced a new “Vision Zero action plan” in February to “target the next wave of streets and intersections the City will make safer for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers,” using crash data to target some of the most dangerous streets and intersections for alterations, including different signal timing to give pedestrians a head start before cars are able to move.

“Over the last four years, DOT’s groundbreaking Borough Pedestrian Safety Plans have enabled us to target our resources where they will save the most lives,” Trottenberg said in the February press release. “In these updated plans, we have used the freshest data to identify new crash-prone corridors and intersections most in need of our full menu of safety interventions.”

More recently, thanks in part to new legislation in Albany, the city announced its plans to add hundreds more speed cameras near schools across the five boroughs. And on Monday, de Blasio and Trottenberg announced the formation of the “Better Buses Advisory Group,” which will help the administration plan and execute the “Better Buses Action Plan” “to increase bus speeds by 25% across the five boroughs by the end of 2020.” The action plan includes 300 more “Transit Signal Priority” intersections, automated camera and NYPD enforcement of bus lanes, improvement of five miles of existing bus lanes per year, installation of 10 to 15 miles of new bus lanes per year, piloting “up to two miles of physically separated bus lanes in 2019,” and working with the MTA on bus network redesigns that are underway.

The Johnson bill would require DOT, which oversees Vision Zero, to achieve specific benchmarks for street redesigns, protected bus lanes, protected bicycle lanes, bicycle parking, pedestrian spaces, commercial loading zones, truck routes, and parking. DOT would be held accountable for the status of the implementation of each benchmark on an annual basis.

“Smart street design saves lives. We need to make our streets safer. We need to break the car culture. When we make our streets safer, we make our streets better. We know this, but we’re moving way too slowly,” Johnson said in March.

Breaking “car culture” does not mean completely stopping people from driving, said Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group in support of the bill. However, “the extent to which our streets are saturated with cars and trucks is not something that we need,” Conner said during an appearance last week on the Max & Murphy podcast. “And so the ideal New York City that I imagine is one where everyone in New York can get around without a car if they have to.”

Mayor de Blasio has not yet expressed approval of Johnson’s plan, instead expressing concerns about some of the bill’s “specifics.” He declined to mention what specifics he found concerning.

“Now we have aggressive plans in our budget to keep changing street designs to make them safer. So I think there’s a lot of agreement on the basics, some of the specifics we have to work through,” de Blasio said on May 10’s Brian Lehrer Show.

“We have a plan out already to aggressively continue to build out bikes lanes, and it’s a very costly plan, but it’s the right thing to do,” de Blasio said during a question and answer session following a press conference on crime statistics. “It also takes time to do these things. So, I think the plan we have now is the right plan.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation declined to provide insights into how the DOT will testify at the hearing, saying the tesimony was still in process.

City Council Member Menchaca’s legislation will also be heard at the hearing. His bill would establish that “bicyclists crossing a roadway at an intersection must follow pedestrian control signals when local law, rule or regulation provides that those signals supersede traffic control signals.” The hearing follows a pilot run by DOT that showed significant reductions in fatalities on some of the city’s most historically dangerous streets.

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by Noah Berman, Gotham Gazette

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City Council Hears Speaker’s Bill Requiring ‘Master Plan for City Streets’ Tue, 11 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Assessing Vision Zero Amid a Spike in Traffic Fatalities https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8583-assessing-vision-zero-amid-a-spike-in-traffic-fatalities https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8583-assessing-vision-zero-amid-a-spike-in-traffic-fatalities Vision Zero

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


Soon after Mayor Bill de Blasio stepped into office in 2014, he championed Vision Zero, a signature street safety program with the goal of reducing traffic-related fatalities from 297 in 2013 to zero by 2024. About halfway through that ten-year timeline, the program has become a significant de Blasio success, even as some advocates and lawmakers have said the administration could and should be moving ahead faster to protect pedestrians and bikers, and limit deference to cars.

Through increasing the number of protected bike lanes, reducing speed limits, redesigning intersections, increasing penalties for dangerous drivers, and other street safety improvements, the number of traffic fatalities fell to an all-time low of 202 last year. But the first half of this year has seen a dramatic spike.

Through June 2, the number of fatalities due to traffic crashes on city streets has risen to 82, a 26.2% increase over the same time period from the previous year, according to city statistics. Advocates and legislators alike are calling on the de Blasio administration to address the increase as an emergency and do much more to continue and accelerate the trend VIsion Zero had been following.

During a press conference last week, de Blasio said he would not stop until he had  “done everything conceivable,” and that is why he “takes a Vision Zero approach.” Yet some view de Blasio as too timid in implementing key elements of Vision Zero. Last year, de Blasio’s administration built 21 miles of new bike lanes, a decrease from 25 in 2017.

“The frustrating thing in light of this epidemic of traffic violence is that under de Blasio, even though many of these tools have been implemented, they simply have not been implemented at the pace that the crisis and the epidemic requires,” Marco Conner, interim executive director of Transportation Alternatives, said during a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast.

Transportation Alternatives is an advocacy group whose mission is “to reclaim New York City’s streets from the automobile and advocate for better bicycling, walking, and public transit for all New Yorkers.”

Conner would like to see a city less dependent on cars, he said, though he acknowledges car transportation will remain a key aspect of city transit and street use. It’s the degree that matters. His comments are in line with Speaker of the City Council Corey Johnson’s recently introduced legislation to mandate a “master plan for city streets” to help accomplish his goal to “break the car culture” in New York. Johnson’s plan would have the city create within five years at least 150 miles of protected bus lanes, at least 1,000 intersections with signal priority for buses, at least 250 miles of protected bicycle lanes, many more pedestrian plazas, and citywide upgrades to bus stops.

Others, including Conner and Transportation Alternatives, have called for narrower vehicle lanes and more pedestrian islands to decrease crossing distance and improve pedestrian safety.

“The extent to which our streets are saturated with cars and trucks is not something that we need,” Conner said. “And so the ideal New York City that I imagine is one where everyone in New York can get around without a car if they have to,” he said.

De Blasio has emphasized a lower speed limit and speed cameras and appeared less enthusiastic about increasing the number of bike lanes (and though he recently took more of an interest, he’s been especially slow to show much interest in speeding up the city’s buses). The mayor recently announced that the city will install speed cameras in all 750 of the city’s school zones by June 2020, the result of his and others’ advocacy and a new state law.

“The central problem still is motor vehicles. The central problem is changing behavior, getting people to actually slow down, getting people to actually follow the laws, stop at the stoplight, stop at the stop signs, yield to pedestrians,” de Blasio said on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on May 31.

Many of the city's existing bike lanes leave cyclists at high risk to nearby traffic, but some still blame cyclists for creating a traffic hazard. “We also have to overcome the victim-blaming that we see, and that’s something that we actually see in part with the mayor now, who has directed a crackdown against food delivery workers on e-bikes in this city,” Conner said.

Johnson’s proposal to create more protected bike lanes would be a “tremendous step forward,” Conner said.

City Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee, sees bike lanes as instrumental in decreasing the number of cars in the city.

“I think that our goal should be to reduce the number of New Yorkers who own vehicles, from 1.4 million car owners that we have today to 1 million by 2030. And by doing that, we have to continue building more protected bike lanes,” Rodriguez said on Max & Murphy. “And I feel that when we look at protected bike lanes and see how we’re building around 20 protected bike lanes last year, we could do better,” he said.

Rodriguez also noted the importance of improving public transportation in “transportation deserts. We need to create jobs besides the Midtown area, Long Island City, and Brooklyn, so that people, they don’t have to travel to go to work,” he said.

However, Rodriguez offered only vague answers to possible costs that would come as a result of the solutions being offered by legislators like Johnson and advocates like Conner. Asked about the reduction of free on-street parking that may come from an increase in bike lanes and other measures to “break the car culture,” Rodriguez said he was focusing on “how drivers are still driving over the speed limit, and how we can redesign our intersections and also how we can redesign our streets.”

Rodriguez’s own legislation, developed with Transportation Alternatives and others, known as the “Vision Zero Street Design Standard bill” just passed through the City Council, and is expected to become law.  It mandates the city Department of Transportation “to develop a standard checklist of safety-enhancing street design elements that the department must consider for major transportation projects,” according to a press release from Rodriguez’s office, including things like ADA accessibility, protected bicycle lanes, dedicated unloading zones, narrow vehicle lanes, pedestrian safety islands, and more.

DOT will also “be required to post the standard checklist on its website for public access” and “to complete a checklist stating which street design elements were applied and justify which elements were not applied.”

During the interview, Rodriguez also offered an ambiguous answer about what to do with the city’s taxi medallion crisis, though he acknowledged that the city had failed those to whom the city marketed medallions and pledged a proposal is in the works.

“I think that we need to put together a team of individuals that brings recommendations on how to reorganize the TLC industry and how to be helpful to all sectors that interact with the Taxi & Limousine Commission,” Rodriguez said. He said that he is working with Speaker Johnson and others on a plan, but did not provide specifics.

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: Is Vision Zero Stalled?]

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by Noah Berman
@GothamGazette

Ben Max contributed to this story.

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Assessing Vision Zero Amid a Spike in Traffic Fatalities Sun, 09 Jun 2019 04:00:00 +0000