Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics




Taxi Choice Not the People's Choice

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Photo courtesy of the City of New York
Th city has selected the NIssan NV200, a minivan not currently available in the U.., as the Taxi of Tomorrow.

When Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the Taxi of Tomorrow project in 2007, New Yorkers rejoiced at its the potential to create a custom-built fleet of taxis designed specifically for their city and their needs. In 2010 when the finalists were unveiled, the realization of a mode of transportation designed to accommodate all New Yorkers seemed even closer. But now, four months into 2011, the vehicle overwhelmingly supported by New York residents has been rejected, leaving the city with a feeling that the project may not have focused on their needs at all.

Yesterday, Bloomberg announced the city had selected the Nissan NV200 as the winner, choosing a car that some have described as "bulky and ugly." Apparently, according to the New York Times, an analysis commissioned by the city decided that Karsan's model proved to be the riskiest of the three finalists, because the Turkish company is "a new manufacturer, with a new manufacturing paradigm, not familiar with the U.S. regulatory framework, with no current sales, service or support infrastructure."


Therefore, eliminating the car from the competition was not based on the merits of the design or its concurrence with the project guidelines, but because of its lack of pedigree.

According to Jan Nuham, the executive director of Karsan, the company had never been informed of the analysis or of the city's specific. In fact, the city's analysis failed to mention that Karsan that has been manufacturing cars in Turkey for over 40 years and has built cars for Hyundai, Peugeot and Renault, all respected foreign models. In the past few years, a number of automakers -- Hyundai, for one -- that had been unknown names in the U.S. have become a reliable commodity -- something that the report seems to ignore.

(My father works for Karsan but the views here are entirely my own.)

Popular Appeal

What it comes down to is that the decision from City Hall shows a decidedly business emphasis and complete lack of regard for public opinion. From the outset of the project, information on the taxi competition was hard for the average New York resident to come by. In fact, when the finalists were announced in November, many people did not even know that there was a competition.

When the public was finally asked for its input, one model seemed to stand out among the rest. In a poll on the Taxi of Tomorrow website , about two-third of those responding preferred the Karsan taxi. The Daily News ran its own survey that showed dominant support for the Karsan model and in yet another poll, this one commissioned by the Taxi and Limousine Company, 66 percent of New Yorkers either liked or loved the Karsan model, supporting the 61 inches of leg room (the most of any finalist), four seat designed and clear sky roof for optimal viewing of the cities famous skyscrapers.

"The people of New York City have spoken, and they've found the taxi designs from both Ford and Nissan lacking," Zach Bowman of Autoblog wrote in February. "Around 66 percent of respondents either liked or loved the design of the Karsan V1, and that was enough to seal the vehicle's fate as the people's choice for the Taxi of Tomorrow."

Furthermore, as Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz laid out in a press conference Sunday boosting Karsan's bid, the Karsan model brought the promise of new jobs for the city. If it was awarded the contract, Karsan had pledged to manufacture its vehicles at the Brooklyn South Marine Terminal in Sunset Park, creating up to 800 new jobs for residents. Contrarily, the Nissan model will reportedly be built in Mexico, while the Ford model would be built miles from the Karsan plant in Turkey.

Markowitz as well as representatives of labor unions and additional city officials from throughout Brooklyn, lauded Karsan's proposal to manufacture in Brooklyn as being an important step toward creating well-paying, middle-class jobs for New York residents. As recently as November, Brooklyn had the second highest unemployment rate in the state of New York, just behind the Bronx, at 10.8 percent . The plant would begin to alleviate some of that pressure and start the process of rebuilding Brooklyn’s economy.


Also appearing at the press conference on Sunday were members of the disabled community, which has steadfastly supported the Karsan model. Currently, fewer than 300 of the city’s 13,000 taxis can accommodate a passenger using a wheelchair. The Taxi of Tomorrow Project was supposed to require 100 percent accessibility, but when the finalists were unveiled in November, only the Karsan model fully complied with the Americans with Disabilities Act. It featured retractable ramps on either side of the vehicle, making curbside loading and unloading possible for all passengers in wheelchairs without the assistance of a cab driver. Once inside the vehicle, there were lock-ins to keep wheelchairs in place and 47 inches of headroom to comfortably fit even the largest model wheelchairs. The Karsan vehicle would have made it possible for a passenger in a wheelchair to hail any of the 13,000 cabs in the city and enjoy the benefits of public transportation, just like every other New York City resident.

Yet, somehow, despite vast public support, the promise of jobs for New Yorkers and the commitment to make Taxis accessible to every New Yorker, whether they use a walker, wheelchair or push a stroller, City Hall turned a deaf ear. In its announcement the administration did not address either jobs or handicap access, though it did say the Nissan "received high scores" in the categories selected as high priorities by 26,000 people surveyed.

It did not take long for some other city leaders to express their displeasure. Brooklynites Markowitz and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio have written to City Comptroller John Liu asking that he look into a possible conflict of interest that may have tipped the competition against Karsan. They charge that the consultant the city hired to analyze the Taxi of Tomorrow finalists had prior relationships with both Nissan and Ford.

For now, though, Nissan has the city's endorsement. In rejecting Karsan, the Bloomberg administration squandered an opportunity for New York to be a beacon of individuality and accessibility, as well as the chance to create momentum for an economy that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. But New York's loss may be some other city's gain. In a statement issued shortly after Bloomberg announced New York's decision, Karsan's Executive Director Jan Nahum said, "We fervently believe that there is a strong market and an acute need for a true Taxi of Tomorrow, and we look forward to working with other forward-looking cities around the globe to make the Karsan vision a reality." So you may see that slightly futuristic car with the curved glass top soon -- just not in New York City.

Eric Samulski is a writer/filmmaker and life-long New York City resident. He is the son of Karsan USA's project manager, but the statements expressed above are his own.

Council Cracks Down on Pedicabs Again

Photo (cc)

The City Council tapped the brakes on New York's pedicab industry Thursday by approving legislation to further regulate the sometimes rogue, tourist-friendly tricycles rampant in Midtown.

The council capped the number of pedicabs at 850 and made it easier for the city to suspend pedicabs' licenses after drivers receive multiple violations.

The move was the second attempt by the City Council in two years to curtail the growth of pedicabs, which up until 2009 were completely unregulated.

"We are at our saturation point with pedicabs," said Councilmember Dan Garodnick, the bill's sponsor, who represents Midtown East. "This is not the appropriate time to issue new licenses.

In addition to the pedicab proposals, the council also approved legislation that could ease alternate side parking regulations across the city.

A spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the administration supported both measures.

Pedicab Problems

Stop by Central Park and you can't miss them.

The oft-colorful wheeled wagons shuttle tourists and Midtown revelers from the park to Broadway to restaurants. While the human-powered taxis are often full, residents and the taxi industry have complained about them for years, citing safety hazards.

The council initially attempted to regulate pedicabs in 2007, but the rules were struck down in state court.

In 2009, the council successfully established a licensing system for the industry for the first time.

Under the current system, pedicab operators had a limited time frame to apply for a pedicab license at the Department of Consumer Affairs. The pedicabs must stay out of bike lanes, pass inspection, and have seatbelts, tail lights and insurance.

On Thursday, the council went a step further. Under the legislation, which was approved by a vote of 44 to 1 with Councilmember Charles Barron dissenting, the city will not issue new pedicab licenses unless the number of vehicles falls below 840.

The new proposal would rescind a pedicab's registration plate for a year if it receives three violations within one year. Those violations could include broken seatbelts or brakes.

The Department of Consumer Affairs also would have the power to revoke a pedicab driver's license if he or she operates the vehicle twice in one year without a valid driver's license or with a suspended license.

The council also approved legislation to force pedicabs to abide by the city's parking regulations. Pedicabs would no longer be able to park in no standing or no parking zones, and they would have to steer clear of fire hydrants.

The city's leading pedicab association, the New York City Pedicab Owners' Association, testified in favor of the proposals.

But not everyone in the industry has lent their support.

"I think its pretty unnecessary," said Robert Tipton, the owner of Mr. Rickshaw, a pedicab company, of the parking regulations. "There are other issues that are more pressing, one being the driver's license issue."

Currently, to obtain a pedicab license you only need a driver's license that is valid in New York State, which would include those issued in other countries. Tipton suggested the city should only allow drivers with U.S. driver's licenses.

From Pedicabs to Parking

Moving to the curbside, the council also approved legislation to allow community boards to reduce the number of days for alternate side of the street parking if the neighborhood meets certain cleanliness standards.

The street would have to obtain an average 90 percent cleanliness record for two consecutive years before the community board could move to reduce the number of alternate side days.

Under the legislation, which was passed by a vote of 44 to zero with one abstention, no street would be allowed to go below one alternate side day per side.

The city initially piloted reduced alternate side in Brooklyn starting in 2008. The council also approved legislation to require the Department of Information, Technology and Telecommunications to create an interactive map that would keep track of all street closures.

Republicans Look to Trade Payroll Tax for Bridge Tolls

A proposal by some upstate state senators would allow the City Council to place tolls on the Brooklyn Bridge and other East River crossings.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been conspicuously absent from the Albany debate this year. But as the session winds down slowly, the MTA and its issues are creeping back to the forefront, thanks to a group of upstate and Long Island Republican senators who want to drastically cut back the payroll tax that helps pay for mass transit and commuter rail. At the same time, they would pave the way for tolls on the East River bridges, an idea that has been touted as a solution to both the MTA's chronic fiscal woes and Manhattan's traffic congestion. This time around though, even some supporters of the tolls have their doubts.

The Tax

In 2009, with the MTA facing a huge budget gap, the state government enacted a tax in the city and counties serviced by the MTA including Putnam, Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Suffolk, Dutchess and Nassau. The tax as it stands raises $1.34 billion annually for the MTA. Although it amounts to only 0.33 cents on every $100 dollars paid by employers, many politicians from these areas have opposed it, saying the MTA provides limited service in their districts and most of the businesses in their counties don't benefit from it.

Sen. John Bonacic, whose district encompasses Delaware County, Sullivan County and parts of Ulster County and Orange County, has introduced a bill that would do away with the payroll tax in all counties except New York City. To make up the revenue he would allow -- but not require -- the New York City Council to set tolls on the East River Bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge and the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. The charge could be between $2.50 and $5. This idea has been frequently proposed before -- most recently in 2009-- and has always failed.

Bonacic has the support of fellow upstate Republican Sens. Gregory Ball, William Larkin, Stephen Saland and Lee Zeldin. The bill does not have a sponsor in the Assembly as of this writing, although Bonacic has reached out to possible sponsors and notes that a number of Assembly Democrats y voted against the payroll tax in 2009.

Time for Tolls?

Although some transit advocates have supported tolls or charging people to drive into Manhattan in the past, they expressed reservation about Bonacic's plan.

Advocates like New York Public Interest Research Group's Gene Russianoff say there are simply too many variables that could leave the MTA with a gaping financial shortfall. If the council decided not to implement tolls or implemented very low tolls the MTA would end up losing money. "The bill does not set a toll rate," says Russianoff. "It only allows the council to implement them." He added that some studies concluded that a $3 toll, such as one previously recommended by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, "would cost us money."

Neysa Pranger of the Regional Plan Association says that the MTA's finances are not particularly strong especially when it comes to its capital plan. "We need to be looking for new sources of funding not getting rid of them," she said.

Bonacic, however, thinks the tolls would provide more than enough money. He says that the payroll tax in the suburbs is supposed to generate $343 million a year, while the tolls could generate as much as $533 million annually. "I think the revenue stream from tolls would generate about a $200 million surplus. It's a revenue enhancer they can spend as they see fit." Bonacic did not say how much he thought motorists should be tolled.

The debate revives talk of congestion pricing, which many transportation advocates, including Russianoff, favor. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has reportedly been working on a revamped version of congestion pricing called "traffic pricing" as a way to better fund the MTA and perhaps reduce fares. Bloomberg's plan, however, supposedly would not roll back the payroll tax. Bloomberg recently talked about funding mass transit through "pilot technology and pricing based mechanisms," while introducing his environmental plan earlier this month.

The City vs. The Suburbs

For Bonacic the debate comes down to one of usage and services. He says train service in the small part of Orange County that he represents has not improved since the tax was implemented. He describes the situation as, "taxation without transportation."

At the same time, Bonacic says the payroll tax hurts not-for-profits and businesses. "This stunts job creation," he said. He said that the payroll tax raises $18 million per year in Orange County where only 2 percent of resident use MTA services. "The legislature implemented this when everything was controlled by Democrats from New York City. The passion against it has not subsided," he said.

But Russianoff disagrees. "People may say, 'Well, I don't take the train,' but the people who go to the florist may come up on one, the people pushing the shopping carts may have gotten there thanks to MetroNorth or the subway or bus."

Russianoff described the situation as a slippery slope. "If they think it isn’t worth paying for the service then what about the other MTA taxes, like the sales tax? I don’t think it would be fair for subway and bus riders. I think in the end it would cost the MTA funding."

Pro and Con

Meanwhile, city legislators say that tolls on the East River bridges would hurt their middle class constituents. Sens. Tony Avella and Toby Ann Staviskyissued a press release slamming the plan. "Tolls are a tax, and middle class families can’t afford to keep paying more while getting less in return. The legislation proposed by Long Island and upstate Senate Republicans to place tolls on the East River bridges will adversely affect commuters, small businesses and working families in outer-borough communities who have very limited access to public transportation," it said.

Bonacic is trying to sell the plan as environmentally friendly. His arguments for the tolls are similar to the ones made for congestion pricing. "Everyone who goes into New York should pay their fair share. It would reduce traffic and be better for the environment if people started using public transportation more."

But the truth is any bill that features bridge tolls faces an uphill battle in Albany, and Bonacic does not yet have bipartisan support on the bill, although the first supporter he wants to bag is a big one. "I need [Gov. Andrew] Cuomo to get behind this, because he has said he doesn't like the payroll tax. But this is just the beginning," the senator said.

During a visit to Poughkeepsie in January Cuomo called the levy on payrolls "a very onerous tax.' He went on to tell reporters, "It's not just in this area; people are complaining about it on Long Island, the entire metropolitan region. ... I understand the need to finance the system. If we can find a better way to do it, I’m open."

The Independent Democratic Conference, made up of Sens. Diane Savino, David Carlucci, David Valesky and Jeff Klein, also has made repealing the payroll tax part of its agenda. Klein, the leader of the breakaway group, listed the payroll tax as one of the biggest mistakes the Democrats made while they were in the majority. However, Savino and Valesky voted for the tax in 2009.

It's not clear if the four would support tolls. The group has said it blames gross mismanagement" for a third of MTA’s current fiscal debt." In its agenda, they say, "Our goal is to conduct a comprehensive forensic audit of the MTA to find areas of waste and corruption and determine the need and the efficacy of the current MTA tax."

Whether or not his bill gains traction, Bonacic expects the next two months will see more legislation that will propose other ways to fund the MTA and do away with the payroll tax on upstate counties. "There are enough upstate legislators who recognize this is simply unfair," he said.

Russianoff also anticipates major debate over how to fund the MTA before the end of the session. As for Bonacic's bill, he said, "We don't support it, but I think it raises an interesting question about what would it take to get the legislature to seriously consider bridge tolls, whether they were connected to payroll tax or not."

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