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Opinion

It’s Time to Bring MTA’s Paratransit Into the 21st Century


mta aar residents

(photo: MTA)


There is a reason why Access-A-Ride is better known as “Stress-A-Ride” for the approximately 170,000 New Yorkers who depend on it. 

The bill for Access-A-Ride will hit $616 million this year and the MTA is seeking additional funding from the City of New York. It’s mind-boggling to think this service can cost the cash-strapped agency so much for such low-quality service. That’s why before anyone kicks in additional funding, the MTA must fundamentally transform the way it runs its paratransit program and bring it into the 21st century.

New York City Transit (NYCT), which is part of the MTA, administers paratransit service, which provides 24/7 shared-ride, door-to-door transportation through the five boroughs and in parts of Westchester and Long Island. The scale and scope of this service is unmatched by any other transit system in the nation. However, disability advocates and budget watchdog groups alike have observed for years that the MTA’s byzantine approach to paratransit services leads to inefficiencies and a lack of transparency and accountability, culminating in the highest cost-per-trip ($68.71) in the country. The second most expensive (Chicago) is half the MTA’s at $38. Why? 

Fundamentally, the way the MTA contracts its paratransit services is both cumbersome and inefficient. Right now, the MTA provides Access-A-Ride through a constellation of for-profit and not-for-profit contractors, including 13 Dedicated Carriers, which use specially-equipped buses and cars owned by NYCT, and two Broker Car Service Providers, which provide transportation services to ambulatory passengers through a network of subcontracted livery and black car service providers.

And there are separate contracts that govern Access-A-Ride’s eligibility determination unit, the command center which receives trip requests and designs schedules and routes, and the carriers that complete those trips. Is your head spinning yet?

In addition, more than half of Access-A-Ride trips are “ambulatory” for people who are able to walk to, enter, and exit vehicles without assistance. Vehicles with special equipment are not necessary for these trips. Putting people in taxis or other for-hire vehicles is cheaper. A single trip under the e-hail program costs the authority $35.91. The same Access-A-Ride trip costs the MTA $68.71. 

So how could we turn things around for Access-A-Ride?

Instead of over a dozen contractors and vendors to provide paratransit services, the MTA should unify the entire system with a single, full-service technology platform to handle all relationships with vehicle providers. The MTA could streamline management of Access-A-Ride and ambulatory services, encourage more competitive bidding, and lower administrative costs.

In the last five years, reports by experts at the Citizens Budget Commission, NYU Rudin Transportation Center, and Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office all point to the burdensome administrative and coordination layers that are the direct result of multiple types of contracts and vendors at every step of the service: verification, booking, dispatching, routing, vehicle operations, customer service, etc.  

While they’re at it, the MTA should require that this platform enable on-demand rides in real-time so that people are no longer forced to call to reserve a trip one to two days in advance and wait to be given an unpredictable and often inaccurate pickup time.

We should have a system to match paratransit customers to right-sized vehicles from a variety of modes; increase efficient sharing and routing of vehicles; and create more transparency and accountability for quality-of-service and customer complaints. The technology for this solution is well-established and the MTA should begin the work immediately to transition to such a system.

In the meantime, it should build on the success of the e-hail program – the MTA’s one innovation in this space in recent memory – instead of curtailing it. The pilot provided the city’s paratransit customers with rides in yellow or green taxis through an e-hail app, Curb or Arro, but was only made available to 1,200 users, less than 1% of the service’s customers. The MTA is now looking to severely limit the one bright spot in its paratransit program by capping rides and having customers pay more. It should instead improve the program.

Most of the rides currently booked through the e-hail pilot are single-passenger rides, but where appropriate we should use ride-matching technology to have more multi-passenger ambulatory trips as a way to lower cost-per-trip.

The MTA recently held a conference inviting technology companies to share ideas for slashing time and cost of modernizing the antiquated signal system in the subway. Mark Dowd, the new Chief Innovation Officer at the MTA, declared, “We are looking for cutting-edge technologies, technologies that may have not been designed for this purpose, but can be applied to this purpose.” The MTA needs to apply this type of thinking to transform the costly and antiquated paratransit program. Now.

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City Council Member Justin Brannan represents parts of Brooklyn; City Council Member Diana Ayala represents parts of Manhattan and the Bronx. On Twitter @JustinBrannan and @DianaAyalaNYC.

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Taxpayers and Vendors Realizing Great Value from City’s Procurement Overhaul


ethnic media roundtable

(photo: Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office)


The City of New York has embarked on a mission to transform a procurement system that is outmoded, inefficient, and wasteful, and we are proud to have already made monumental progress. This paper-heavy process has been built up over generations, it is overly burdensome, particularly to small vendors, nonprofits and minority- and women-owned businesses, and, for many years, has plagued vendors with delayed approvals, slow payments, and a lack of transparency.

This reform effort has been underway for a number of years. A system that has been built up over decades cannot be overhauled by a few techies pulling all-nighters.

Procurement transformation is crucially important partly because of its scale. The City of New York enters into contracts every year for over $20 billion in goods and services; nearly $7 billion of that is with nonprofit organizations that deliver health and human services to our most vulnerable neighbors. This purchasing is made by 40 city agencies, with a combined staff of more than 6,000 procurement professionals from a network of more than 14,000 vendors. Last year alone, we managed more than 43,000 procurement actions. 

But it is also important because of the lives it touches. A nonprofit organization that provides housing for the homeless or assistance to children in foster care or meals to the elderly likely delivers its critical services through contracts with the city. They need those contracts to be developed and executed expeditiously and to be paid on a timely basis to ensure uninterrupted services – lives are literally counting on it.

Clearly, this is too important an initiative for the city, our vendors, and our communities to allow the project to be denigrated or mischaracterized — as it was in a recent op-ed column, “Taxpayers Fleeced for Nearly $47 Million in Tech Boondoggle...” (Dec. 13).

The company we chose to help us build our new platform, Ivalua, was selected through an open competitive bidding process. Its proposal was evaluated and selected by an evaluation committee, pursuant to the city’s procurement rules. Its original contract was for $30 million and increased not because of any cost overruns, but because we decided to expand the scope of the work, based on the success of early system releases and the demand from our stakeholders. Moreover, the strength of Ivalua’s product is validated by other jurisdictions across the country that have effectively implemented its e-procurement technology. 

Trying to compare what New York City is doing here with a smaller municipality purchasing 15 software licenses for a light procurement tool is like comparing a canoe to an aircraft carrier.  It is in no way comparable to the design of an end-to-end procurement system that involves 40 city agencies, 6,000 staff, thousands of vendors, and more than 43,000 procurement actions annually.

Like many other large citywide transformation projects, this one – called the Procurement and Sourcing Solutions Portal (PASSPort) – is being developed and launched in stages. It has been live since August 2017, phase two was launched in April 2019, we are on track to release phase three, our largest release, in Spring 2020, and another component, which will digitize citywide budgeting and invoicing, will be released by early 2021. Our expansion of PASSPort has been fueled by the quantifiable efficiencies we have seen already and the demand by vendors and city agencies to go completely digital. 

No reform of this magnitude is going to take place without some mistakes along the way. When those happen, we will be transparent about them, take responsibility, and work hard to fix them. But we all need to be clear about the facts – which show that the City of New York’s procurement transformation is happening as planned and on a reasonable timeframe, that it has already produced enormous benefits, and that it will prove to be of great value to city agencies and vendors, as well as to city taxpayers.

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Dan Symon is the City of New York’s Chief Procurement Officer and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services.

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Celebrating Renewal, Inclusive Planning and Mixed-Use Development in the Bronx


roundtable community groups

The Peninsula in the Bronx (rendering via @nycgov)


The lights were off and the countdown was on. “One, two, three,” over a hundred people called out until the lights on the Christmas tree flickered to life. With that, the Hunts Point holiday celebration was in full swing. Hot chocolate was served, pictures were taken with Santa, the Point’s youth choir sang carols, and gifts were given to the neighborhood’s youngest residents.

Last Friday’s celebration of community was a stark contrast to holidays past in Hunts Point. For the nearly 50 years it was in operation, the Spofford Juvenile Detention Center had been a blight on the community. The institution isolated the city’s youth rather than empowering them. And the dark and decaying structure sent a clear message to the community that this was a dangerous place. 

Nearly a decade after Spofford shut its doors, we joined the Hunts Point community last week for an inaugural tree-lighting, celebrating both the start of the holiday season and a new, brighter chapter for the neighborhood. Working with the local community, we are transforming the Spofford site from a place of suffering into a celebrated community hub. The Peninsula will be a vibrant live-work campus that will include 740 affordable homes, open plazas, and ground-floor retail stores. And, to integrate this campus into Hunts Point’s robust manufacturing sector, there will be close to 50,000 square feet of light industrial space on site that will spark new manufacturing jobs. If Spofford was a symbol of neglect, the Peninsula stands for promise—more housing, more jobs, more hope.

From the start, local leaders and city agencies spearheading the redevelopment, including our offices at the City Council and Economic Development Corporation, the Department of City Planning (DCP), the Department of Housing, Preservation, and Development (HPD), and the Public Design Commission (PDC), recognized that Hunts Point residents had to be intimately involved with reimagining this site.

Early on, we hosted roundtables with local stakeholders and community groups -- including Bronx Community Board 2, Urban Health Plan, The Point, Hunts Point Alliance for Children, SEBCO, and Sustainable South Bronx -- about what should be built on the five-acre site. It was important for us to hear people’s priorities firsthand and identify needs the new development could meet. Following these conversations, we held information sessions in the neighborhood where over 100 community members voiced how they would remake the site. From these conversations, we developed a plan for the site that would address some of the neighborhoods most pressing needs, including a lack of open space, jobs, affordable housing, and access to quality food.

The next step for the plan was going through the public approval process. There was broad support at community board meetings, an affirmative vote by the Bronx Borough President, and detailed discussion by the City Planning Commission and then a vote to approve. This was followed by a hearing and a unanimous City Council vote. The constructive tone of discussions as this project advanced through the public approval process made it clear that the community felt heard during the planning phase. Hunts Point was ready to tear down this building and everything it symbolized to pave the ground for its future. 

All of this rolls up into a blueprint for how best to engage residents in comprehensive and complicated redevelopment projects. Spofford’s evolution into the Peninsula highlights how we can do better by New Yorkers when these opportunities present themselves and continue to engage the community as projects take shape. On Friday, when Hunts Point came together at the holiday celebration, we marked a new era for the neighborhood and inclusive community planning in New York.

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James Patchett is President of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (EDC). City Council Member Rafael Salamanca represents parts of the Bronx. On Twitter @jbpatchett of @NYCEDC and @Salamancajr80.

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Is the MTA Correctly Performing its Bus Network Redesigns?


mta priority bus

(photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit)


In the year since I wrote “Designing Bus Routes to Attract Passengers and Reverse Declining Ridership,” the MTA announced the results for the Staten Island Express Bus Redesign, completed a Bronx study, and began studies of the bus networks in Queens and Brooklyn.  

These studies make incorrect generalizations resulting in formulas attempting to correct problems. It is not true that simple direct bus routes always better serve the public; or that underperforming bus routes should readily be eliminated; or that exclusive bus lanes are needed on every wide street with bus operation.

Formulas lead to poor decisions resulting in unexpected consequences. Problems need to be studied and decisions to correct them made on a case-by-case basis. 

There is currently too much emphasis on: improving bus speeds, while ignoring passenger trip times; increasing frequency on heavy-demand routes at the expense of reducing network coverage; using articulated buses to reduce service; and expanding Select Bus Service (SBS) and exclusive bus lanes. 

Improving bus speeds and improving passenger trip times are different. The latter results from better reliability, more frequent service, reduced walking time, and the need for fewer connections, as well as from improving bus speeds. Fewer bus stops and more direct routes could improve bus speeds, but could also increase passenger trip time. Some underperforming routes might be necessary to provide adequate coverage in low density areas. Exclusive bus lanes may not be a cost-effective way to improve reliability.

Routes cannot always be simple and direct because of grid system irregularities; major destinations may not be accessible with a straight route without a long or inconvenient walk for many riders. The positives of an indirect route may outweigh the negatives.

Several years ago, the B36 route was made more direct by no longer stopping in front of the Sheepshead Bay Station. My experience showed minimal change in bus travel time, while that station has the sixth highest bus/subway transfers in Brooklyn. The savings from straightening the route added two additional minutes of walking for those making bus/subway transfers and significantly increased the chance of a missed connection, which could add 10 or even more minutes to passenger trip time.

About 40 years ago in Denver, simple and direct routes failed miserably. Riders complained of longer trips due to increased walking and switched to cars. Bus ridership plummeted; many old routes were restored. 

Bronx riders were asked to choose between frequency or coverage. This assumes the MTA cannot provide both, when both are crucial to a well-functioning system. It is like asking a prisoner who hasn't had anything to eat or drink for the past 24 hours if he wants food or water. A survey showed more passengers preferred frequency to coverage; routes that have fewer bus stops to ones with more bus stops; simpler and direct routes to indirect routes; and SBS or LTD service to local service. Those results are being cited so the MTA can claim the effort is customer-driven. Data should not be used to support predetermined conclusions. It is curious that no MTA recommendation was also made to permit riding three buses for one fare, which riders also suggested.

The MTA could do a far better job in advertising its bus design workshops and encouraging meaningful participation by those who do attend.

One goal of the Queens Bus Redesign is to eliminate bus routes that are redundant with or compete with the subway. Whenever there is a subway blockage, it can often take hours for replacement bus service that is usually inadequate for the demand. These redundant routes are necessary.

These studies emphasize SBS and articulated buses because they are perceived to be more efficient. Articulated buses are also more difficult to maneuver, have less traction during snow storms, and have higher labor costs. Though more efficient when ridership is heavy, they are less efficient when ridership is light, such as overnight.

According to the Bronx Bus Existing Conditions Report (p. 98) five routes are profitable, with the Bx12 SBS leading the pack. However, when considering the cost for fare enforcement and fare machine maintenance, all SBS routes are financial losers. After I explained why SBS is not a panacea, the MTA placed a moratorium on new routes for three years.

The MTA declares success by analyzing data and finding something positive to say, ignoring negatives. After one year, Staten Island express bus service is 1.3 mph faster, and the average dwell time is down 23 seconds. However, complaints about reduced service spans on some routes, adding precious time to many commutes, or that more passengers must now stand, are dismissed. Rather than first considering a lower off-peak fare to encourage ridership during those times, the MTA chose to eliminate trips.

A good plan requires minimal fine-tuning. The Staten Island Express bus redesign continues to undergo revisions for over one year with many passengers still dissatisfied. 

Clear criteria should be established to measure the effectiveness of a network redesign. To what extent: Has reliability improved? Have passenger trip times decreased? Has ridership increased?

Is the MTA’s real purpose to save operating costs? Bus routes with fewer bus stops and buses cost less to operate. Straight routes cost less than ones that divert to better serve major traffic-generators. Is a minor bus speed improvement with no regard to passenger trip time the best use of funds?  

The Fall 2019 schedule revisions saved $7 million. Reducing service was chosen over reallocating it. Service cuts were recently announced for the B38 and severe cuts to the B46 Utica Avenue route, while instituting articulated service. Articulated buses originally were purchased to reduce crowding, not to enable service reductions. 

B46 paid ridership declined since the introduction of SBS three years ago. How much was due to increased fare evasion? No SBS progress report was ever issued, though they were with all other SBS routes after the first or, for the B44, second year.

In 1975, B46 service during rush hours was cut in half although the buses were already severely overcrowded. The result was private for-hire cars started picking up passengers, followed by “gypsy cabs” that morphed into dollar vans following future cuts. The MTA is now repeating its past mistake; at the same time, it is spending $5 million to study a new Utica Avenue subway line it will never build. 

Fare evasion on buses has reportedly been high and on the rise, with the MTA just starting to really address it. Is cutting service wise when patronage may not have really declined? And is cutting service the way to win back riders who may have abandoned bus?

These bus redesign are also myopic in their approach, focusing only on paid customers, and ignoring latent demand. Simplistic solutions have resulted in today’s transit and traffic problems. 

In April, the city proposed spending $280 million to add 30 miles per year of exclusive bus lanes that will increase average bus speeds by only 1-2 mph! That plan has since been expanded to 150 miles of exclusive bus lanes over three years at a cost of $1.7 billion, which will also pay for many miles of new bike lanes and other streetscape changes. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s Let’s Go Transit plan (p. 9) proposes each redesigned bus route feature an exclusive bus lane. That is expensive and unnecessary when bus service is infrequent, risking avoidable increased traffic congestion. 

My Brooklyn Bus Network Redesign improves accessibility and reliability. Increased operating costs would be offset by increased revenue. My 1972 master’s thesis correctly predicted the addition of free transfers would greatly increase bus ridership. It rose to its highest level since World War II after they were instituted. Better routes and reliability would have the same effect. 

Passenger trip time must not be ignored. Criteria for evaluating bus network redesigns must be established; minor improvements do not indicate success. A broader approach that considers latent demand, a time-based fare, and express bus fare discounts is also needed. 

Congestion pricing monies should offset operating cost increases needed for service improvements, rather than used solely for capital improvements such as unnecessary bus lanes to improve average bus speeds by 1-2 mph. A state law requiring vehicles to give the right of way to buses pulling out of bus stops would speed buses more than SBS.

A bus network redesign should seek to improve travel accessibility between neighborhoods with strategic investments, not to lower gross operating costs.

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Allan Rosen is former Director of Bus Planning, MTA NYC Transit. On Twitter @BrooklynBus.

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Surveillance and the City: Sex, Lies, and Wiretaps


police comm grad

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


How many of us would think being jailed is a form of help? Not many, I’m guessing. But that’s the twisted rationale faced by countless New York sex workers, forced to endure the constant threat of imprisonment by people who claim it’s “for their own good.”

At a time when the American political establishment is witnessing a nonpartisan revolt against the waste and destruction of mass incarceration, one area of the carceral state is potentially headed in the wrong direction: the war on sex work. Not only is this puritanical crusade endangering sex workers’ lives, but it created yet another justification for the over-policing of communities of color. Even worse, it’s facilitating some of the worst abuses of the Trump Administration’s attack on undocumented communities. And let’s not forget that it’s the latest rationale for expanding the surveillance state.

Guised in the language of combatting forced “sex trafficking,” new measures have given law enforcement agencies sweeping powers to take down websites used by consenting, adult sex workers. Federal measures like SESTA-FOSTA, have driven many sex workers offline and into dangerous conditions. Sex workers have faced an increase in violent attacks, and some have even died, because of the laws that were purportedly passed to “protect” them. The impact has been so disastrous that lawmakers are now pushing a bill to study just how much damage their own law did.

The federal government hasn’t been alone in using the rhetoric of “sex trafficking” to target consensual sex workers. In New York, anti-sex work policing has birthed an array of surveillance tools, using everything from wiretaps to A.I. driven chat bots to try to identify sex workers and their customers. At the same time, the NYPD rapidly expanded its policing of sex work in immigrant communities, before pledging to sacale back, followed by a deadly raid in Flushing, Queens.

The NYPD’s campaign against sex work hasn’t gone unanswered. This year, the fight to decriminalize sex work accelerated in Albany, as lawmakers and sex work activists pushed to end the outdated, discriminatory, and paternalistic statutes that jail sex workers. Even as Governor Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio, and much of the political establishment came out against reform, advocates still gained momentum. In the end, the measure didn’t pass last term, but it gained more support than prior attempts at decriminalization, laying the foundation for enactment next year.

But not if the anti-sex worker lobby has its way. Rather than listening to the sex workers who speak out against continued criminalization, the anti-sex worker movement has tried to co-opt the progress with a watered-down bill. They call it the “equality model.” Sex workers call it an invitation to deportation.

But let’s not get distracted by the branding. Before “equality,” they labeled it as “Nordic,” in honor of the small selection of Nordic countries that prosecute sex work consumers, but not sex workers. But when you look at the details of how these laws work overseas, it’s clear that the facts fall short of the hype.

Sex workers in Norway and Sweden still operate without the protection of the law. Many face threats of retaliation when they report robberies and rape. When Ireland adopted this approach, violent crimes against sex workers increased nearly 50%. Every country that has tried to enact watered-down decriminalization has seen an increase in violence targeting the sex workers that the bills supposedly help. And the same thing will happen here in New York if lawmakers allow the decriminalization momentum to be hijacked.

As with SESTA-FOSTA, many of the sex workers these laws are supposed to help will end up in the crosshairs of the law. Watered-down decriminalization is designed to not just punish the New Yorkers who purchase sex work services, but the business owners who rent space, help with marketing, or give any other assistance.

But many sex workers wear more than one hat. Someone who might be “protected” by watered-down “decrim” for the sexual services they provide directly would be in the NYPD’s sights for sharing a hotel room or apartment with a friend who does the same. Even retweeting a friend’s advertisement might get you a knock at the door from police.

And this doesn’t begin to address the myriad of other ways that sex workers face collateral consequences from law enforcement, child services, and even ICE. Watered-down reforms won’t restore parental rights to the sex workers who are loving parents. And in the era of the Trump Administration assault on undocumented immigrants, half-hearted reforms will do nothing to help the countless New York sex workers put at risk of deportation because New York’s anti-sex work laws.

Rather than falling into the predictable trap of half measures and compromise bills, it’s time for New York to take a bold step and enact evidence-based reforms that are driven by impacted communities. Anything else would simply reenact the mistakes of the past.

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Albert Fox Cahn is the founder and executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. He writes the monthly "Surveillance and the City" column for Gotham Gazette. On Twitter @FoxCahn & @STOPspyingNY.

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Financing the Restoration and Repair of NYCHA Property


nycha superstorm aftermath

(photo: NYCHA)


In his recent column, “Hidden in Plain Sight: Billions in Potential Revenue for NYCHA” (Dec. 2), one of the nation’s leading housing experts, Nicholas Dagen Bloom, writes in support of a study by the Regional Plan Association proposing to finance the repair and rehabilitation of NYCHA public housing properties by selling unbuilt-upon open space in those properties. Those air rights would be sold to real estate developers who would erect apartment buildings in surrounding neighborhoods.

This is bad for NYCHA residents, bad for the surrounding neighborhoods, and bad for the city as a whole. Moreover, there is a better, more effective source for the roughly $32 billion that NYCHA needs to restore its property to livable standards.

Bloom, with whom I usually agree, begins with the observation that NYCHA projects are dominated by unbuilt open space. It may be “unbuilt,” but it is open space used for playgrounds, athletics, benches, promenades, parking, and other facilities used by both NYCHA tenants and residents and workers of the surrounding neighborhood.

NYCHA’s 316 developments were not built to warehouse persons of low income. They provide an attractive living environment that met the standards of the period in which they were built and went through public approval processes like all government-sponsored redevelopment projects. In many cases the projects involved rezoning and provided public facilities for the entire neighborhood, not just NYCHA residents. The public facilities are provided by city agencies (schools, settlement houses, fire and police stations, libraries, medical services, playing fields, etc.) not just on NYCHA property, but also on contiguous city-owned sites, across the street, and further away.

It is true that many NYCHA properties are the product of long-discredited, mid-twentieth century notions of design and development. Surely, we can find ways to knit NYCHA property together with the surrounding communities without transferring bulk to nearby properties that would be built at heights and densities that exceed what current zoning would permit in the neighborhood. Moreover, that would be vigorously opposed by NYCHA’s neighbors and very likely fail to be approved.

In fact, in many cases such proposals would be illegal. In 1973, the Supreme Court of New York County, in the case of Fred F. French Investing Co. v. City of New York, ruled that New York City could not rezone Tudor City so the unbuilt open space of its private parks could be transferred to receiving sites that would suffer from added noise, traffic, density, and other problems while being too far away to benefit from the light, air, and recreational opportunities of the now permanent parks space.

Zoning is a planning technique for maintaining a balance between the occupants of an area (people, businesses, and institutions) and the infrastructure (water supply sewers, transportation, etc.) and community facilities (schools, parks, medical services, libraries, etc.) needed to support them, without burdening the area with too much noise, traffic, and pollution. It should not be misused by becoming a device to monetize the value of “unbuilt” open space to pay for housing repair.

When homeowners need to make repairs, they do it the old-fashioned way: they borrow the money, often with a second mortgage. There is no debt on NYCHA properties. There are two obstacles that are preventing NYCHA from borrowing the money. First, neither the tenants nor NYCHA have money to pay additional debt service. Second, the federal government does not permit Housing Authority property to be mortgaged. But, there is a solution to both problems.

The City of New York could issue tax-exempt bonds, whose revenue could cover the repair of every NYCHA property. Today the low cost of public borrowing means that annual debt service would be $1-2 billion annually. Surely that amount could be paid from the city’s growing annual budget ($94 billion for 2020).

The federal government has a program that would allow NYCHA to transfer its property to a public-private partnership that would be responsible for development and management, while retaining low-income residents who would be transferred to a long-term Section 8 contract, so they would not have to pay additional rent. It is called the Rental Assistance Demonstration project (RAD).

That is exactly what NYCHA has done in Far Rockaway, Queens, where it has rehabilitated Ocean Bay Apartments, a 24-building public housing project with 1,396 apartments. It is a joint effort of New York State Homes and Community Renewal (HCR), U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and RDC Development (a joint venture between MDG Design + Construction and Wavecrest Management).

NYCHA, working with other city and state agencies, should begin immediately to transfer all its properties to RAD and the City Council should agree to cover through the city budget the needed annual debt service. Surely, the decent thing to do is to spend 1 percent of the city’s budget on repairs that would provide NYCHA residents with decent, safe, and sanitary housing within a suitable living environment – something that was promised in 1934 by Mayor La Guardia when NYCHA was established, three years before the Housing Act of 1937 began providing subsidies for public housing.

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Alexander Garvin has worked in urban planning, government, and real estate for five decades. He is currently President and CEO of AGA Public Realm Strategists, Inc., a planning and design firm in New York City, and previously was managing director for planning at NYC2012, the committee established to bring the Summer Olympics to New York in 2012. In 2002-2003, he was responsible for planning the rebuilding of the World Trade Center for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Garvin is the author of several books including The American City: What Works and What Doesn’t.

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Veterans Stand Up for Our National Parks, Time for the Federal Government To Do So Too


vets parks mbb

(photo: @missioncontinue)


The Statue of Liberty has stood as a symbol of American values for more than a century. Throughout its life in New York Harbor, the landmark has welcomed immigrants to the United States and served as a historical resource for millions.

It embodies the values that have driven our nation from its founding and that our military veterans have dedicated their lives to protect — that of freedom, acceptance, and hard work, all in search of the American Dream.

Since the National Parks’ founding, United States veterans have served as their stewards – protecting and caring for public lands since before the National Parks Service was established in 1916. These veterans created many of the roads, trails, and other infrastructure that visitors to the parks still enjoy today.

Yet, like many National Parks, the Statue of Liberty, the embodiment of those ideals, is currently lagging under $90.2 million of deferred maintenance needs — or maintenance requests that have been put off for a year or more. Nationwide, the National Park Service reported a total of nearly $12 billion of deferred maintenance last year. If we fail to address these needs, they will only get worse and costlier.

The Mission Continues empowers veterans to become advocates for positive impact in communities and has partnered with the National Parks Service and National Parks Conservation Association since 2015 to tackle deferred maintenance projects at parks across the country. Through countless service projects, they’ve restored trails at Sequoia National Park, revitalized campgrounds at Dry Tortuga National Park, constructed new benches for the Statue of Liberty’s Liberty Island, and removed blighted structures while beautifying the grounds at Ellis Island through landscaping and fresh coats of paint.

According to the Ellis Island Park Service, just one day of volunteer service by The Mission Continues can help clear over two months’ worth of the deferred maintenance backlog. These veteran-led volunteers are on the ground, continuing the work of stewarding and improving public lands for future generations, just as the generations of veterans before them did.

However, veterans and volunteer groups alone cannot address the staggering $12 billion in deferred maintenance needs of our National Parks. Luckily, there is bipartisan support in Congress to fix our parks with the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act (H.R. 1225), which would address $6.5 billion in deferred maintenance needs in a limited five-year span.

This sound legislation boasts 329 House Representatives as co-sponsors—and it is not just Congress that has demonstrated strong support. A recent survey found that more than 82 percent of Americans back this legislation. It is rare to find such broad support for anything in Congress, so House leadership should move forward on issues where there is common ground and broad public support.

If Congress is truly committed to America’s veterans and the values they fight for, it will do all it can to protect and preserve those values at home. By addressing deferred maintenance at our National Parks through the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, Congress will ensure the safety of visitors, honor veterans’ rich history of serving public lands, protect our values, and ensure that parks and their programs thrive at the Statue of Liberty and across the country.

***
Mary Beth Bruggeman is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and President of The Mission Continues. On Twitter @mb_bruggeman & @missioncontinue.

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Taxpayers Fleeced for Nearly $47 Million in Tech Boondoggle But Few City Leaders Notice


budget hearing joint

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)


What if I told you that in an effort to enable 40 New York City government agencies to buy goods and services more cost-effectively, some city officials have put on a tutorial on how not to buy goods and services – and stuck taxpayers with a bill heading toward $47 million? 

As a New Yorker, you’d probably tell me to “Get the hell outta here!” -- then I’d have to give you details.

So here’s how the flimflam went down. Three years ago, city government hired an inexperienced French technology company, Ivalua, to custom-build procurement software for tens of millions of dollars ($30.5 million, to be more precise) to help the city agencies buy goods and services less expensively.

The company’s partner in landing the contract was KPMG, a global professional services firm with deep ties to the mayor’s office and city agencies through well-connected lobbyists.

Two years after the contract was signed, the design hadn’t been completed. Fast forward to today, and few if any of the 40 agencies benefit from the promised customizable, end-to-end e-procurement system. And while officials had the legal ability to cancel the contract and claw back $25 million of the $30 million they’d spent, they chose instead to give the vendor another $15 million to get the software working.

Another increase will bring the expected cost to almost $47 million.

There is procurement software from Bonfire Interactive, Ltd., a Canadian e-procurement firm, that’s readily available for $50,000 and used by Dallas, Texas. But New York City officials dismissively declare the Big Apple is vastly different from other major cities, but don’t address why proven, far-cheaper options were ruled out.

Forty city agencies continue to rely on old-fashioned methods for finding and paying vendors. Yet officials at two agencies, the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) and the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, that were directly involved in the contract decision-making process, duck basic, reasonable questions about who enabled this boondoggle in the first place.

Why was a French company that had never worked with any government in the U.S. given a $30.5 million contract by the largest municipality in the nation?

Why are the agencies involved hiding emails and other lawful public records that could shed light on the origins of this scandal? 

This is happening now. And few who can do something about it -- like City Council Speaker Corey Johnson -- have taken any action to address it.

Then-DoITT Commissioner Anne Roest, who signed the contract; Chief Procurement Officer Michael Owh, who ran point; and KPMG official Samir Khushalani, who was the “executive sponsor,” have all left town.

Other officials at DoITT and the mayor’s office who were involved have avoided owning the problem. Instead, they have delayed and denied reasonable Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests for documents and emails regarding this troublesome contract.

Based on limited records we at Checks and Balances Project uncovered, we discovered that Ivalua’s design had not been completed and requirements were not validated two years after the contract was signed. These public records show that nearly every milestone had been missed.

DoITT, in charge of the project until the mayor’s office took over in January, replaced KPMG with Accenture. And in June 2018, former Commissioner Samir Saini signed paperwork giving Ivalua another $15 million. Since then, according to Checkbook NYC, the city comptroller’s digital database, an additional increase brings the expected price for the software system to $46.89 million.

In a city with an annual budget of more than $92 billion, nearly $47 million might not seem like that much. But it’s real money, the equivalent of: 

-188,000 new textbooks for public school students
-1,106 police officers, starting annual salary
-1,040 firefighters, starting annual salary
-23,992 Section 8 two-bedroom housing monthly rental vouchers
-740,157 discounted monthly MetroCards to low-income New Yorkers.

Considering Mayor de Blasio’s oft-stated focus on creating more middle class jobs, throwing more wasted money at an expensive, custom e-procurement system that doesn’t work as promised is especially disappointing.

There are several officials and institutions that have the ability to do something about this growing contract scandal: Comptroller Stringer; Public Advocate Jumaane Williams; Speaker Johnson; the City Department of Investigation; City Council Member Ben Kallos, who chairs the Contracts Committee and sits on the Oversight and Investigations Committee, and other Council members; and city media. Only Stringer and Kallos have taken any interest in the wake of a Daily News story on the boondoggle. 

Playing fast and loose with public funds isn’t a new thing in New York City. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK. The question is, who will do something about it? 

***
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative watchdog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists, and corporate management accountable to the public. On Twitter @CandBP.

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A Better Trail to New Rail and Parkland in Queens


queenslink rendering

QueensLink rendering


The Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way is a 3.5-mile, skinny strip of land that holds the key to transforming our borough in two fundamental ways. First, it will connect north and south Queens with the rest of the city in an environmentally sustainable way. Second, it will create up to 33 new acres of park space adding value to local neighborhoods and the entire city.

This dual-purpose project is called QueensLink.

It was disappointing to read “A Greenway for Queens” (December 5), where the authors continue to deny the need for better transportation. While the Manhattan-based Trust for Public Land apparently believes Queens doesn’t need more transit, riders and residents, who face some of the longest commutes in the nation, would disagree.

The QueensLink would bring travel time from Howard Beach to Midtown Manhattan down from over an hour to 45 minutes as well as create faster trips throughout the borough and to Brooklyn.

The authors repeat the myth that new transit and new parks can’t be built along this corridor, but this belies the simple fact that in most other places using land for both uses is common. In Oakland, CA, the BART system was built along an old freight rail line that was converted to rapid transit with land at ground level used for a parkway. Miami, Vancouver, Boston, and Atlanta have all incorporated parks along their transit lines. QueensLink would create up to 33 acres of new park space connecting north and south Queens.

Queens has 2.3 million inhabitants but the fewest subway miles per resident of the four boroughs with subway access. Roads like Woodhaven Boulevard. and Van Wyck Expressway are constantly congested while buses are overcrowded and average just 8–10 mph. Subways are the fastest, cleanest, and most efficient way to move many people great distances.

While adding a modest 3.5 miles to the system, the value is most apparent in the connections the QueensLink offers. Finally, riders could get from north to south Queens on one train without having to ride through Manhattan and Brooklyn. Brooklyn riders could access jobs in Queens more easily. The QueensLink would connect to every east-west transit line in Queens to offer the most options for commuters.

The status quo of pitting two sides against one another so nothing is ever done has to end. At this critical juncture in our borough’s history we need individuals and organizations that will rise above the NIMBYism of the last generation. We need thought leaders and elected officials with vision and the courage to advocate for projects that achieve the greater good rather than continue to protect the narrow interests of the well-heeled and well-connected few.

When you have a valuable public asset like the Rockaway Beach Branch right-of-way it is crucially important to analyze what use or uses represent the greatest public good. We have one shot at getting this right, so let’s take an objective look at that question and see where the facts lead us.

The MTA released its long-delayed Rockaway Beach Branch reactivation study last month and the conclusions were gratifying. The MTA determined that reactivating the line as a subway from Queens Blvd., Rego Park to Howard Beach, JFK Airport was feasible. The study also determined that 47,000 riders a day would use the line, a conservative figure since it does not include connecting passengers.

Much of the extra costs included by the MTA were due to their extended projected construction schedule of ten years that should take no more than two to three. While the total MTA number associated with the project was $8 billion, the hard construction costs are about $1.6 billion. Experts have estimated that a design-build approach should result in a total cost of about $2 billion. Still a formidable number but a more realistic one.

Even with lower costs, building the rail and park will require thinking outside the box. QueensLink is developing a new funding strategy that incorporates transit-oriented development and value capture through a public-private partnership.

QueensLink takes inspiration from the LIRR Third Track, a large rail infrastructure project that, like the Rockaway Beach Branch, was bogged down by small thinking for decades. Now this $2.6 billion, 9.5-mile project is underway and on-time and on-budget. Local communities along the rail played a big part in the planning and design, which ultimately led to its success.

QueensLink represents an investment in transit equity that will help people reach education, employment, and recreational opportunities that were out-of-reach before. It is also fully aligned with city and state environmental initiatives to reduce congestion on our roads and the carbon emissions that come with it.

Queens is now at the crossroads. The borough’s residents and elected officials will soon have to decide if we will rise to the challenge of working together for our common good or against each other to our common detriment. The good news is that we don’t have to decide between a rail and more green space, a well-designed QueensLink can and should provide both.

***
Rick Horan is the Executive Director of QueensLink and Andrew Lynch is the Chief Design Officer. On Twitter @thequeenslink.

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Two Troubling Trends Collide in City Homeless Outsourcing


mbdb flcm mayor

(photo: Michael Appleton/Mayor's Office)


Last week the City of Newark sued New York City over New York’s placement of more than a thousand homeless individuals and families in Newark, through the city’s Special One Time Assistance (SOTA) program. Under the program, New York City employed private brokers to find homes for the families in New Jersey and elsewhere, and, without checking to see if the homes were habitable, paid a full year’s rent in advance and left families to live there. The result was thousands of families sent out of the city into homes that were uninhabitable.

The Newark lawsuit, which details instances of lack of heat and vermin infestations, sought to prevent New York from “coercively relocating” any future families via the SOTA program. Newark’s brief goes on to object to New York’s “ill-conceived, surreptitious efforts to shift the burdens associated with the homeless to other communities in this nation.” In court on Monday, New York agreed to a temporary halt to the program in Newark, but the lawsuit continues.

The SOTA program represents the culmination and convergence of two particularly disturbing recent trends: New York’s failure to provide safe housing for homeless people and New York’s propensity to outsource social services without proper oversight.  

As to the first trend, New York City’s recent history in providing unsafe housing for homeless people is distressing. During our time running New York City’s Department of Investigation we did two Reports outlining the deplorable conditions at New York City shelters. Those Reports detailed fire and safety hazards, dead vermin in bedrooms, widespread prostitution activity, and a lack of essential services.  

The second, equally disturbing trend, is New York’s continued outsourcing of government programs without proper oversight. While at DOI we witnessed the tendency of New York City agencies to hire private vendors to provide essential services yet fail to: one, set standards for the work to be done; two, supervise the agencies; and three, take action against contractors who neglected to carry out their requisite functions.  

For example, one DOI investigation found that while the city’s Administration for Children’s Services hired private providers to carry out certain ACS functions, ACS failed to take action even after learning that some of these providers were not performing up to standards and were putting children in harm’s way. Indeed, ACS continued to pay these providers for dangerously inadequate care.

Similarly, for years, the City’s Department of Correction hired a private company, Corizon Health, to provide health care services to inmates in city jails. Corizon neglected to screen and manage staff, creating a series of dangers without effective oversight from the city.  A report from DOI that exposed the problem finally forced the city to remove Corizon.

City government’s mishandling of SOTA combines both trends with the worst possible outcomes. Not only did the city outsource its problem – hiring private brokers to find apartments – but by sending the families to other jurisdictions, and refusing to provide those jurisdictions with the identities and locations of the families, they made oversight impossible.  

In theory, getting homeless families housing in New Jersey, where rents are cheaper, is not inherently wrong (regardless of whether the motivation is to get families off New York City’s rolls or some other greater good). But doing this without checking to make sure the housing is habitable and refusing to tell the New Jersey localities who has been placed in their jurisdiction, is unacceptable. Only the filing of a lawsuit forced New York to provide Newark with information on the families’ locations.

This goes beyond a failure to set standards and supervise outside contractors. Here, when New York sent these families to Newark and paid the private landlords for a year in advance, New York gave up the ability to have its own agencies make sure the housing was habitable and it failed to give New Jersey that opportunity. The end result was that New York had less money -- having sent it to landlords who provided deplorable housing -- and Newark, not aware of where the placements were, was unable to fix the problem.

Going forward, if New York is to continue sending homeless families out of state – and, it appears that it plans to do so – at a minimum the city must properly check the habitability of all dwellings, stop paying for a full year in advance, and coordinate with the other jurisdictions, providing them full information and cooperation. Anything less is not an anti-homelessness program but a dumping of responsibilities.

***
Peters and Brovner are the founding partners of the law firm Peters Brovner LLP and were, respectively, the Commissioner and First Deputy Commissioner of the New York City Department of Investigation from 2014 to 2018.

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For Future Generations, New York City and State Must Significantly Increase CUNY Investment Now


kids Jumaane school

(photo: John McCarten/City Council)


I’m a CUNY graduate twice over – my bachelor’s and master’s degrees are both from Brooklyn College. Between the seven years I took for my four-year degree, and the four years for my two-year degree, I’ve spent about as much time on a CUNY campus as anyone. My professors, my fellow students, my overall CUNY experience shaped who I am and what my driving principles are -- what I’ve been fighting for as an activist and an elected official.

Now, as tuition rises and investment stagnates, I fear that students across our city will be denied that transformative, invaluable, CUNY experience.

As outlined in my recent report, government funding for CUNY has failed to keep up with booming enrollment. From 2008 to 2017, per-student funding from the state dropped 18 percent, adjusted for inflation and enrollment growth. This continued underfunding has hamstrung CUNY’s ability to provide a quality education for thousands of students, most of whom are people or more color and graduated from our city’s public schools.

In fact, the student body of CUNY appears directly related to its funding. When CUNY was first established, it was tuition-free, in recognition of the need for accessible, high-quality public education. But as the complexion of CUNY students changed, so too did the policy, with black and brown student majorities made to bear the brunt of the expense as the balance of funding CUNY shifted away from government and toward the student population. This has naturally also contributed to the overall challenges of financing this “public” education.

With limited resources, CUNY has seen its operational quality threatened as the system has to rely on underpaid adjunct faculty to teach its students, many of whom work additional jobs to pay their bills. CUNY has also been forced to cut student support services—like academic and mental health advisors or hours at writing centers—and course selections, leaving many students unable to register for a mandatory class.

Financial shortcomings are also evident in CUNY’s physical infrastructure—broken toilets, exposed wiring, vermin outbreaks, flooding, and broken elevators further detract from the educational experience of today’s students.

Unfortunately, the students who suffer the most from underfunding are those who most need our help. CUNY’s constrained budget provides limited opportunity for it to help support its most vulnerable students, many of whom are food insecure, homeless, or come from low-income families. While tuition remains comparatively low, CUNY students who receive tuition assistance still must pay for major expenses like housing and food, forcing them to work for pay and spend more time away from their studies. Without proper support, CUNY students are finding it hard to graduate.

However, there’s a silver lining: CUNY knows what works and just needs the resources to do it.

CUNY has created innovative programming, like ACE and ASAP, which have already boosted graduation rates and improved educational outcomes. Other programs aimed at providing support for specific marginalized communities, including the Black Male Initiative and Citizenship! Now, help campuses retain and support students of more color, who make up the majority of CUNY’s population.

These programs and others are part of why CUNY campuses are among the best nationwide for raising the economic statuses of the system’s most vulnerable students—a pathway and an opportunity for lower- and middle-class students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. It’s also critical to know when something doesn’t work, like the Excelsior Scholarship, which made headlines but not real change, as nowhere near enough students saw relief from ever-escalating costs of a college education.

To ensure CUNY can support its mission of serving as a vehicle of social mobility that provides quality education for all New Yorkers, New York State and New York City must increase investment in public higher education. Crucially, the city must specifically increase its funding for CUNY senior colleges, which have historically received limited city funding, to better match their contribution to our city’s economy and culture.

This month, CUNY’s staff and faculty union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC), ratified a new contract that secured historic gains for nearly 30,000 workers. But any discussion of increasing wages must be coupled with calls to address the underlying issue: the need for New York to increase its financial commitment to public higher education.

Our state and city leaders are now at a critical juncture. They can either decide to build on their investment in higher ed and ensure students receive a quality affordable education, or allow an invaluable, historic educational institution to decline, along with the opportunities it creates.

With greater funding, CUNY will be able to increase the percentage of its faculty that works full-time and raise salaries for remaining adjuncts. It can also expand its student tuition-assistance programs to include more part-time students and even currently incarcerated individuals. And it can continue to build on its world-class programming, providing an invaluable education for generations of New Yorkers like it did for me and so many others already.

***
Jumaane Williams is the Public Advocate of the City of New York. On Twitter @JumaaneWilliams.

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