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Death by Car

Photo (cc) jonfeinstein

Even if they don't know Diane Schuler by name probably every sentient New Yorker knows what she didand the horror she created. On July 26, Schuler, apparently under the influence of vodka and marijuana, drove the wrong way on the Taconic Parkway, only stopping when her minivan collided with another vehicle, killing herself, her daughter, her three nieces and three people in the other car.

But what about Isaac Chehebar? In 2001, Chehebar raced his Porsche at twice the speed limit down Brooklyn's Ocean Parkway, colliding with two teenage sisters walking along that boulevard's median strip He killed both of them and seriously injured their mother. Chehebar apparently was a reckless driver -- but, at least in this instance, apparently a sober one.

Last week the New York State legislature, after some debate and disagreement, agreed to take another move to crack down on drunk drivers, particularly those, like Schuler, who have children in their vehicles. The vote won widespread praise as one of the few worthwhile things the legislature has managed to accomplish this year.

The action continues what has been the practice in New York and much of the nation: getting tough on drunk drivers and the accidents they cause while doing little to combat the many death and injuries caused by people who, while unimpaired, still drive badly and even recklessly.

Leandra's Law

The bill passed by the legislature last week, Leandra's Law, makes it a felony for anyone to drive with a blood alcohol level of .08 or higher while transporting a child under age 15. It also requires interlocks in the vehicles of anyone convicted of driving while intoxicated in New York State. Interlocks periodically measure the blood alcohol content of the driver's breath and incapacitate the vehicle if the alcohol level is too high. Experts have estimated the devices could prevent between 35 and 65 percent of potential recurrences of drunk driving.

The new law is considered to be among the toughest on drunk driving in the country. Only one other state, Arizona, makes it a felony to drive under the influence with a minor in the car, and while over 40 states utilize interlocks, most of them require it only in extreme cases of multiple offenses or extremely high alcohol levels. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a bill mandating the use of interlocks for those convicted of driving while intoxicated.

A sense of pride and purpose seemed to sweep over legislators as supporters of the bill learned they would pass the legislation. Gov. David Paterson and legislators declared that the bill might not have been signed into law had it not been for Lenny Rosado, the father of Leandra, an 11-year-old girl who was killed when the car in which she was riding flipped on the Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan. The driver, the mother of one of her friends, apparently was under the influence of alcohol and marijuana.

In his effort to pass the bill, Rosado became omnipresent in the capitol, handing out pictures of his daughter, doing interviews and talking about the plans Leandra had before her untimely death. Mothers Against Drunk Driving weighed in in support.

Rosado said that, for a moment, he was overwhelmed by Albany. "I went home and said, 'Wow, politics! This is just insane!'" Rosado admitted moments after the Senate passed the bill. "But today, for these people to come together and all be on the same page and pass the bill was really something."

Chain of Tragedies

According to Assembly and Senate sources it took a perfect storm to allow the bill to make it into law. The storm started this summer with the Schuler tragedy.

In August, Paterson and Republican Charles Fuschillo introducednearly identical proposals to stiffen the punishment for those who drive under the influence of alcohol with minors in the car.

The death of Leandra Rosado followed in October. And Rosado started a petition drive to toughen the laws. Soon the Daily News and other papers were covering Rosado's every move. He even appeared on Oprah. But that was not enough to get the bill passed.

When the legislature returned this month, the Assembly wanted to weaken the legislation by raising the blood alcohol level required for a felony to .18, more than twice the legal limit. As one staffer put it, "It's pretty much the Assembly policy not to increase penalties." Paterson was said to be looking to broker a deal to make the blood alcohol limit for a felony .13. Rosado and senators, including Fuschillo and Democrat Martin Dilan, pressed the Assembly not to make any alterations.

As Albany stewed, waiting for a budget deal, Rosado got more attention for his cause. Finally Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver agreed to the legislation. "I give the father full credit for shaming Shelly," said Sen. Frank Padavan. Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg, the bill's sponsor in the Assembly, said it wasn't shame that brought Silver around but lively debate. "They say it's three men in the room, but in the Assembly there are 108 people, and we all get our opportunity to speak. It’s sort of like group therapy. I told them there is no reason to change the law from what is real!" Weisenberg said.

Some Assembly members worry the penalty might be too harsh and that the bill did not receive enough scrutiny. Assemblymember Vito Lopez told the New York Times, "I believe there are a lot of voices who would like to be heard. They will never be heard, and the reason they will never be heard is because there's too much emotionalism."

On the Senate floor, a number of senators who supported the legislation acknowledged that the bill will not necessarily stop drunk people from driving with children in the car. Revealing that her parents were alcoholics, Sen. Diane Savino said that the bill will not fix everything because alcoholics "are incapable of rational thought." She said she hoped the bill would raise awareness and make people more cautious of who children get into the car with.

Critics also have raised concerns about the efficacy of the interlocks. They say the devices aren't sensitive enough to always properly recognize the amount of alcohol in a person's system and can sometimes mistake other substances for alcohol. Drivers can use an alternative vehicle to avoid the interlock, and there are also privacy issues.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found interlocks can help prevent repeat offenses, but most fatal alcohol-related crashes do not involve someone who had been convicted of drunk driving within the past three years. That has spurred some advocates to call for the use of interlocks in all vehicles.

Whatever the bill's shortcomings might be, Kate Hogan, director of the District Attorney's Association of the State of New York, said she didn't "dare to dream" that a bill that would both up the penalty for drinking and driving with a child in the car and require the use of interlocks in the vehicles of those convicted of driving while intoxicated could actually be passed during the current special session.

Advocates say there is much more to do.

"Making it a felony will go a long way to deterring people from driving while they are drunk," said Sen. Hiram Monserrate, a former police officer. But he noted that New York City has had problems prosecuting suspected cases of drunk driving and pointed to recent cases in which police officers refused breathalyzer tests after killing people with their cars. "It's harder to get the evidence you need for a prosecution than you might think," said Monserrate.

Breath and Blood

In September at 1 o'clock on a Sunday morning, officer Andrew Kelly of the 68th precinct struck and killed Vionique Valnord as she tried to hail a cab in Brooklyn. A sergeant at the scene reportedly saw alcoholic beverages in Kelly's vehicle, smelled alcohol and reported that Kelly's speech was slurred. Kelly initially refused a breath test. It took seven hours for police to secure a warrant to force Kelly to submit to a test, and when he did he tested clean.

Only a month later, Detective Kevin Spellman struck and killed 67-year-old Drana Nikac in the Bronx. Responding officers reported that Spellman appeared intoxicated, but Spellman refused a breath test at the scene. He eventually submitted to one at a hospital, five hours later. Even, then, officials have said Spellman had a blood alcohol level of .21, more than two and a half times the legal limits.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has created a panel to consider how to handle instances when someone refused a test. Currently police generally take a person who won't take a test at the scene to the precinct. If the driver refuses the test there, police must obtain a warrant to allow blood to be drawn at a hospital. That can take hours.

Some advocates would like the legislature to remove the warrant requirement for Breathalyzer use in cases where someone has died or been seriously injured. Hogan, Fuschillo and Weisenberg say they see one particular piece of legislation as being paramount: Jack Shea's law, which would remove the state requirement that a doctor supervise a blood draw. Shea, a 91-year-old former Olympian, was killed in upstate New York by a driver who was charged with driving while intoxicated, vehicular manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. The charges were eventually dropped over a technicality. The driver wound up in a rural clinic where a technician drew a blood sample to check alcohol levels without the supervision of a doctor.

Fuschillo said he had assurances from Paterson that he wants to move on that bill. Paterson's office did not return calls for comment.

Rosado isn't giving up the fight, either. He announced at the signing of the bill named for his daughter that he intends to try to take his campaign to make driving under the influence with a minor in the vehicle national. "This is not going to be our last stop," Rosado promised. Later, he added, "I guarantee you that my daughter's death will not be in vain. She is here now to protect all our children, and anyone else who is a victim of DWI."

When Bad Driving Turns Deadly

Not all children who die on the streets are killed by drunk drivers. The parents of Hayley Ng, age 4, and Diego Martinez, 3, know that all too well. Their children died on a Chinatown sidewalk in January when an unoccupied delivery van plowed into a group of children on a school outing. The driver, Chao Fu, left the van idling without realizing it was in reverse. He did not face any criminal charges.

Some 292 people -- including people in cars, on bicycles and on foot -- died in traffic fatalities in 2008, an increase from 2007, which saw a record low 274 such deaths.

Bad or reckless driving causes many of these deaths and many more injuries. Speeding and inattentiveness are the leading causes, according to Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group.

"Notwithstanding the outrageous and tragic death of Leandra, and the egregious and tragic 'Taconic Mom' incident, the number of people killed and maimed as a result of adults driving drunk with minors is dwarfed by the numbers killed and maimed by more mundane but often lethal behaviors such as turning into pedestrians in crosswalks (the documented number one 'mode' of pedestrian fatality in NYC), aggressive passing of bicyclists (the documented number one 'mode' of cyclist fatality in NYC), and of course the run-of-the-mill speeding, red-light running, distracted driving, aggressive driving, etc.," Charles Komanoff, a long-time transportation activist, wrote in an email.

The number of these cases that result in criminal, let alone felony, charges remain minuscule. Examples abound. Chehebar reached a plea agreement and served only four months in jail.

Alexander Aponte was driving a campaign bus for a candidate for City Council -- even though his license had been suspended. He ran a red light and killed 9-year-old Ibrahim Ahmed. Aponte got off with a misdemeanor charge: driving with a suspended license.

Attorney Robert Fader said he handled one case where a driver and a bicyclist had a dispute on the road, prompting the driver to deliberately back up and run down the cyclist. The driver's only penalty was a ticket for leaving the scene of a crime.

"If somebody is drunk, they'll be prosecuted, but if someone is driving without a license they'll get a ticket," Fader said. "You can't arrest people who are negligent."

Legal Barriers

In New York, people whose bad, but sober, driving kills someone can face a charge of criminally negligent homicide. But courts, law enforcement and relatives of victims rarely concur on when a traffic death becomes a criminal act.

Reckless behavior is not generally viewed as criminally negligent, according to attorney Barton Slavin. "I don't know where the line is drawn," he said. Earlier this fall, a jury in Manhattan convicted Auvryn Scarlett, a garbage truck driver, of second-degree murder. Scarlett struck and killed two British tourists last winter after he apparently neglected to take his epilepsy medicine. At the time, Komanoff said he could not recall any other instance when a driver who was not intoxicated was convicted of murder.

Why here? A police spokesman said, "Apparently, he stopped taking his medication. it was a conscious decision, so he's being charged."

But Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, failed to see the distinction. "Don't people make a conscious decision to speed or a conscious decision to turn without yielding?" he said in Streetsblog. "Are we saying that people are somehow unconscious when they're breaking the law? … Scarlett's actions were no more deliberate than the majority of negligent motorists who routinely get off scot-free."

A variety of factors -- public attitudes, prosecutorial and police practices and judicial rulings -- have combined to create leniency. Deaths caused by reckless drivers -- not drunk ones -- "have not receive the grassroots consciousness raising" that alcohol related accidents have gotten, said Maureen McCormick, chief of Vehicular Crimes in Nassau County. While the public has become increasingly aware of the risks posed by dangerous drivers, the criminal justice system lags behind, she said: "It's like turning around a battleship."

Prosecutors, according to Slavin, may be reluctant to bring cases in traffic deaths because the likelihood of getting a felony conviction is slim. Unless an officer saw the accident proving it involved, for example, going 60 in a 30 mile per hour zone may be difficult.

Then there is the so-called "rule of two." Although not actually a law, this rule --more a kind of practice or belief, really -- holds that drivers who are not drunk cannot be prosecuted for criminally negligent homicide unless they did two things wrong: speeding and running a red light, for example, rather than committing just one of those offenses.

Two recent Court Ruling in New York have raised the bar even higher, according to McCormick. In one, the Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, overturned the conviction of Brett Cabrera, a 17-year-old with a junior license who had killed three passengers in his car. The court found he had been speeding and violating the terms of his junior license. Despite that, it threw out his conviction.

"Our decisions have uniformly looked for some kind of morally blameworthy component to excessive speed in determining criminal negligence," the court said. That, it continued, did not appear in Cabrera's case.

Proponents of tougher penalties hoped the court had given Cabrera a break because of his age, McCormicksaid. Then came a second ruling involving limousine driver James McGrantham. After realizing he had entered the Belt Parkway via an exit ramp and so was headed the wrong way, McGrantham decided to make a three-point turn in the middle of the highway. As he performed this maneuver, his car stretched across traffic creating a kind of wall. A motorcyclist, unable to stop, crashed into that barrier and died.

The Court of Appeals threw out that homicide conviction, McCormick said, because the limo driver had not acted with malevolence. Or as a the court phrased it, "Driver was sober, not speeding, and the decision to extricate himself from a dangerous situation while unwise was not morally blameworthy so as to support criminally negligent homicide."

McCormick believes such interpretations have gone beyond what the legislature intended. To correct that, she said, the legislature may have to step in and clarify its laws.

Some advocates have endorsed another piece of legislation, this one proposed by Assemblymember Robert Sweeney, that would make vehicular assault and manslaughter felonies if the driver involved had a suspended or revoked license. Sweeney proposed his bill after the death of Ibrahim Ahmed.

Whether prosecutors would use harsher laws remains unclear. And would juries be wiling to convict a generally law-abiding person for the mistake of running a red light -- even if that mistake had horrible consequences. As McCormick puts it, these kinds of crimes "are committed by average Joes."

Preventive Measures

Undoubtedly, though, average Joes commit such offenses very frequently. Anyone who drives -- or walks -- in New York City knows how often drivers shoot red lights or fail to yield to pedestrians. Some 30 percent of drivers exceed the 30 mile per hour speed limit in Manhattan, according to a Transportation Alternatives study released earlier this year. While most were going 40 miles per hour or less, the study found people driving "in excess of 60 mph in school zones and other areas with heavy pedestrian traffic."

"It's New York and everyone wants to get there in a hurry," said Slavin. "If people would just slow down and act less crazed and come to a stop at a stop sign," fewer people would be injured on accidents.

Transportation Alteratives has looked at some of New York's most dangerous intersections and urged the police to focus on them. Norvell likens this to the way the city has reduced crime.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has called for installing speeding and red light enforcement cameras.

The incoming Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, has said he would establish a Vehicular Crime Unit that would, among other things, pay special attention to dangerous intersections or stretches of road. It also would focus on traffic assaults, reckless driving and other roadway offenses. He has also said his office would work with the police to reduce speeding Manhattan.

"There is no second chance on the road -- when a car crashes and someone is killed – no apology, no claim that it was strictly an accident, will ever bring that loved one back," Vance said in response to a questionnaire during the campaign. As a result, he continued, "strong preventative measures must be taken by police and prosecutors with the ultimate goal of reducing incidents of dangerous driving."

All of this assumes that people are ready to take bad driving seriously. Norvell and McCormick think that can happen.

"A generation ago, somebody who was caught drinking and driving was sent home with a wink," Norvell said. Leandra's law provides evidence of just how much that has changed. Now, said Norvell, "the way we tolerate and encourage dangerous and reckless driving on our streets is in need of a similar cultural shift."

Stated Meeting: Easing Parking Rules and Opposing Gas Drilling

In its first meeting since Mayor Michael Bloomberg won re-election by a narrower than expected margin, the City Council took on the administration's enforcement of parking regulations and passed four bills on how the city issues tickets. The mayor has vowed to veto at least one of them.

At Monday's stated meeting, the council also approved a land use measure paving the way for a new police academy in College Point and passed a resolution calling for the state to ban drilling for natural gas in the city's upstate watershed.

The parking rules, though, attracted the attention and heated discussion. The most controversial of the measures, Intro 907, would allow drivers a five-minute grace period at MUNI meters and after alternate-side parking restrictions go into effect.

The other bills would ease parking restrictions on members of the clergy, require advance notification of changes in parking meter rules, and improve procedures alerting people of parking regulation changes and make it easier for drivers to avoid being fined for offenses five days after a new rule goes into effect.

Repealing the 'Ticket Tax'

In total, Council Speaker Christine Quinn said, the package would make enforcement of parking rules in the city clearer and fairer. Supporters said they would bring some courtesy and common sense to a system that now, justifiably or not, angers many New Yorkers.

Several members accused the administration of using tickets to raise money rather than to move traffic and protect public safety. "Fines and tickets and fees are not supposed to be revenue generators," Quinn said.

The mayor reiterated Monday that he would veto the grace period bill. "I think it's a very misguided piece of legislation,” he said, adding, "A five-minute grace period is only going to lead to chaos and enormous increases in the number of contested tickets, and in argument.”

Quinn, though, said the bill reflects the fact that "everyone isn’t on some universal clock."

According to Councilmember Simcha Felder, one of the bill's sponsors, 300,000 tickets out of more than 1.4 million issued in 2007 were given within five minutes of the time a regulation went into effect or the meter ran out. Neither Felder nor Quinn would estimate how much not issuing those tickets would cost the city -- but it stands to be at least several million. Council members, though, said that is beside the point.

"If the administration wants to say this is about revenue, then we should call it a ticket tax and issue it to people who don’t even have cars," Felder said.

The bill passed by 47 to 2, with members Tony Avella and Daniel Garodnick voting no. ( Maria Baez did not attend yesterday's meeting reportedly because of medical problems.) This provides well in excess of the number of votes needed to override any veto.

Religious Exemption

The bill on the clergy, Intro 0662-A, would allow members of the clergy with a permit to park for extended hours near their houses of worship and outside a hospital or a funeral establishment. It would also provide permits to clergy who work in New York City but live outside the state and to those who work for at least 20 hours for a religious organization even if they do not receive full-time pay.

"God's work is not controlled or dictated by traffic rules," said Councilmember Letitia James, speaking for the measure.

While supporting the intro, a number of council members said it does not go far enough.

"It's a shame we even have to have this type of bill," said Councilmember Helen Foster, whose father is a minister. "Common sense and common courtesy indicate that, particularly in the black community, the black clergy is where you go first" when someone has died, is sick or in trouble."

She urged the mayor to sign the bill, saying if he did not he would be "sending a message that what you [clergy] do is not important."

Sending Out a Warning

Intro 1017-A would require the Department of Transportation to give advance notice of permanent and temporary changes in parking restrictions. It also allows any driver who gets a ticket for violating the rules within five day of the rules change to contest the ticket -- assuming the car was legally parked under the old regulations.

The fourth measure, Intro 1076-A, was apparently prompted by a rash of tickets issued after the city changed meters to reduce the amount of time one bought for 25 cents from 30 minutes to 20. It requires the city to provide 30 days notice of any such change and to alert people through mail, email and the Department of Transportation website.

"An orange parking tickets should never be the most common way of discovering the rules have changed," said Councilmember Vincent Gentile, a sponsor of the bill.

All these measures passed by a vote of 49 to 0.

A New Era?

Whether or not Monday's meeting signals the emergence of a more assertive City Council, much of the rhetoric had a decidedly harsh tone with even some allies of the mayor, such as Felder, criticizing the administration.

"Do you have any doubt there are de facto quotas for traffic agents in this city?" Councilmember Lew Fidler asked. "The people of New York City are sick and tired of being sick and tired of being ticketed to death."

Councilmember James Vacca said he hopes the bills will lead to "a discussion about traffic enforcement fairness" in the city. Now, he said, "people feel the city is judge and jury" and that motorists are guilty until proven innocent.

Last week the New York Post reported that the level of passion about the parking issue prompted Quinn, who has worked closely with the mayor, to postpone debate and voting on parking until after the election.

Quinn denied that. "These bills were not delayed as a favor to anyone," she said yesterday.

The New Police Academy

The council voted 47 to 2 to approve construction of the new police academy on a 35-acre site in College Point, Queens. It would replace the current academy on East 20th Street in Manhattan and also consolidate at a single location other training facilities, such as a driving course and target range, which are now scattered throughout the city. Once complete, the new school would be able to accommodate 1,900 recruits at a time as well as classes for officers already on the job.

"If you want a better police force, you need a better training facility," said Councilmember Peter Vallone in support of the new school.

The measure passed by 47 to 2, with Barron and Avella voting no.

"I don’t know what they're training these people in," said Barron. "We have people coming out of that academy who don’t know how to respect the rights, constitutional rights of black and Latino citizens."

In casting his vote, Councilmember Alan Gerson expressed concern that the New York City Police Museum remain in downtown Manhattan and not be moved to the College Point location, although Gerson said there might be justification for some kind of museum there as well.

Restricting Gas Drilling

The existence of natural gas reserves in upstate New York threatens to put upstate economic interests against those of New York City. Much of the land in the so-called Marcellus Shale formation lies in New York City's watershed. Environmentalists and other have expressed concern that extracting the gas -- drilling and then pumping in millions of gallons of water mixed with various chemicals -- could endanger the city's drinking water.

"This could lead to a situation where the water supply would be degraded," said Councilmember James Gennaro, who has lead opposition to the drilling, and could require the city to build filtration plants which, 10 years ago, were estimated to cost $10 billion. "It's hard to imagine how this could even be proposed by the state, Gennaro said.

The decision whether to allow the drilling rests with the state. But in a voice vote yesterday the council passed Resolution 2191 calling on the state to ban drilling in the city's watershed. It also urges the federal government to regulate the process under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Quinn said the measure was necessary even though the one company that wanted to drill, Chesapeake Energy, has backed away from its plans. Saying the company was "forced out," Quinn continued, "We want to make sure that if anyone wants to come back and do it again, we’re not interested."

Improving Transportation -- Above Ground

Image from NYC's Sustainable Streets Index
Transit ridership has been rising during Mayor Bloomberg's tenure.

Although Mayor Michael Bloomberg's reputation as a bona fide straphanger suffered a bit after the New York Times revealed that two Chevrolet Suburbans regularly ferry His Honor from his home on 79th Street to 59th Street where he catches the Lexington Avenue express to City Hall, it would be unfair to paint Bloomberg as nothing more than a grandstanding populist who only swipes his MetroCard for the cameras.

After eight years in office, it is undeniable that the mayor wants to tackle traffic and improve biking, walking, and public transportation, even if it means ruffling feathers along the way. If Bloomberg's tenure were to end in November, his impact on the city's pedestrian spaces and bicycle infrastructure would surely be on his list of legacies.

That said, he lost the fight for congestion pricing -- easily his most publicized transportation initiative -- and the financial forecast for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which serves 14.6 million people with 2.6 billion trips around the region each year, is grim to bleak, at least in part because of funding choices made by the mayor.

Bloomberg by the Numbers

The most comprehensive analysis of the administration's transportation record is, like so many other comprehensive analyses offered by the administration, an internally authored document. Released in December, the Department of Transportation's Sustainable Streets Index tracks transportation trends over the past decade. It's a well-designed, fact-packed, reader-friendly report that unsurprisingly depicts the agency that authored it quite favorably.

That is not to say the department doesn't deserve to toot its own horn. Since Janette Sadik Khan took over the department in April 2007, it has converted acres of street space to pedestrian plazas, installed hundreds of miles of bike lanes, piloted a new bus service that is significantly speeding commutes in the Bronx, launched the wildly popular Summer Streets initiative, and made the city safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

The index includes a slew of figures detailing these facts, but the most staggering, and the one that casts Bloomberg in the best light, is that transit ridership increased by nine percent between 2003 and 2007, while citywide traffic volumes remain the same. As the report points out: "These years mark the first time since World War II that the city experienced a period of entirely transit-centered growth, where non-auto modes absorbed all growth in travel in New York City."

Congestion Pricing

Bloomberg has always fancied the English. Back in his private-sector days, his media empire's second largest office was in London, and one of his first transportation-related rows as a public figure came over toll for the East River bridges, an attempt to emulate the then brand-new congestion charge that revolutionized transportation in London. The phrase "congestion pricing" even made its way into a 2002 proposed budget, but after it proved poisonous in public opinion polls, the initiative was dropped, at least for a few years.

In 2007, congestion pricing came crashing back onto the scene, stealing the show from all 126 other points in Bloomberg's omnibus sustainability initiative PlaNYC. For months advocates and newspapers opined. Depending on whom you asked, the proposal was either a regressive tax on the working class or the city's salvation. In the end, the plan died in Albany, as did an attempt, launched by a blue ribbon panel earlier this year, to charge drivers to cross the East River bridges.

Under Whose Authority?

The pieces of New York City's transportation pie that Bloomberg directly controls have been handled very well, according to most advocates and urban planners. His transportation department has garnered more positive media attention than any in recent memory and truly revolutionary transformations are underway on streets throughout the five boroughs. On the other hand, the single most significant actor in our urban transportation drama, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has had no shortage of trouble in the past eight years.

Although the authority is far from under the mayor's control (his appointees fill only four of the board's 17 seats), its successes and failures are intensely intertwined with the city's well-being and Bloomberg's transportation track record.

The 2005 transit strike stalled the city during one of the busiest shopping weeks of the year. It was only the third strike ever against the MTA, and as such it is imprinted in the minds of millions of straphangers with heavy ink. A New York 1 poll taken during the transit strike showed mixed opinions about Bloomberg's actions: Fifty-one percent said his handling of the situation was not so good or poor, while 45 percent said it was great or good.

The authority's financial standing did see some good years under Bloomberg. The real estate boom helped the MTA unload large parcels of land for big bucks. That balanced the books for a bit, but when the bubble burst and dedicated tax revenues dropped precipitously, the authority was back in the red.

During those long-gone good years, Bloomberg cut the city's contribution to the MTA. It is now about $60 million a year, or just 1 percent of the authority's capital budget. Previously, the city's contribution equaled about 10 percent of the MTA's capital budget. The cut has inspired some advocates, like John Petro of the Drum Major Institute, to claim that Bloomberg is "shortchanging mass transit" and others like Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign to call for the city to increase its aid to the MTA.

Certainly, Bloomberg has campaigned as though the decrease hadn't happened. In August he released Moving NYC, a populist, voter-friendly, MTA-dependant transit platform that suggests a slew of new proposals, like free cross-town buses, that are either inspired ideas or empty promises.

If the voters re-elect Bloomberg in November, we'll have four more years to find out if he is really the MetroCard Mayor or merely another politician in a big black SUV.

Graham T. Beck is the managing editor of Transportation Alternatives' StreetBeat and a freelance writer. He lives in Brooklyn.

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