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Transportation

A Strategy For Paving The Way To Fewer Traffic Fatalities


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ALBANY, N.Y. — Almost as many people will die in New York City each year in traffic accidents as are murdered. The city’s own stats show that traffic deaths involving pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers went up 23 percent from June 2011 to July 2012 — 236 to 291 — and yet it remains a struggle for the city to set policy to deter the unsafe behavior that can contribute to these fatalities.

What stops the city from enacting measures to stop traffic carnage? In one word: Albany.

For decades the city has had to defer to Albany to address key policies from the way rent control is set to speed limits. The state Constitution grants a degree of self-governance — known as home rule — to the city and all municipalities across the state. But, often, city lawmakers have had to press the state Legislature to grant home rule on a raft of policy issues.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance, got home rule to take over the city’s education system. Yet, for every territory of policy that city lawmakers are able to grab back from the state, there is still plenty that advocates and officials say remains outside of city control.

With a new mayor entering office in January, a number of advocacy organizations are calling for home rule to set long-gestating policies that affect everything from how elections are run in the city to affordable housing.

Advocates believe that Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will use his political skills and connections to be more aggressive in pressing Albany for home rule. Nowhere, though, is the fight for home rule as clear and evolved as the one for increased street safety.

The importance of reducing traffic fatalities was further emphasized during the announcement of Bill Bratton as the next police commissioner.

"It is ironic that even as the death totals have declined dramatically with violent crime in this city, this year the number of people killed on our streets — pedestrian and traffic — will almost equal the homicide total," Bratton said last week.

HOME RULE AND SAFER STREETS

De Blasio has already sent a strong message to transportation advocates that he plans to deal with traffic fatalities with his “Vision Zero” strategy for reducing fatalities. Key to that strategy is getting home rule.

In his campaign’s transportation plan, de Blasio said he would “stop waiting on Albany and fight for home rule” so the city can “install red light cameras and speed enforcement cameras around hundreds of schools and senior centers.” He also promised to “establish more 20 mph zones in residential neighborhoods, so kids and seniors can walk their streets safely.“

The city has long battled the state for control of its own destiny — and by long we are talking Teddy Roosevelt-long. “Teddy Roosevelt was the first Assemblyman to a get home rule bill passed,” said State Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan. That was in the 1880s. The current home rule policy was adopted in 1963.

{pullquote}”All the cities we compare ourselves to around the world rely on automated enforcement,” said one advocate for speed cameras.{/pullquote}

Gerald Benjamin, professor of political science at SUNY-New Paltz and an expert on the state Constitution, said the battle between city and state for control has been going on “forever.” In the late 19th century, he said, the two levels of government battled over the creation of police and park districts in an attempt to woo voters and control patronage. The battles continue to this day in other forms, but the state has the legal advantage whenever issues come before the courts.

“You can view New York City politics as city politicians at the state level fighting New York City politicians at the local level for control over the city,” Benjamin said.  “This isn’t a question of home rule — it is really a question of policy.”

The difficulty in deciding city traffic policy became extremely apparent last month as the City Council tried to pass legislation to reduce the city speed limit.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn announced that Councilman David Greenfield of Brooklyn would be introducing a bill to reduce the city speed limit to 20 mph and that the city’s legislative branch would push to pass the bill by the end of the year. But problems quickly arose. The city Department of Transportation told the Council that reducing the speed limit would conflict with state law.

State law requires that streets that aren’t school zones must go under further adjustment before the speed limit is dropped to 20 miles per hour. So Greenfield tinkered with his bill to lower the speed limit to 25 miles per hour on one-way streets that don’t have more than one lane of traffic — not the sweeping change advocates were looking for.

The battle to reduce speed limits will now go to Albany where advocates also want to expand on a pilot program for speed cameras that was approved late in the session this year.

STRUGGLE FOR AUTOMATED TRAFFIC CAMERAS

After a decade of fighting with Albany, state lawmakers finally approved a simple pilot program for automated traffic enforcement cameras back in June.

Upstate legislators were major impediments to the passage of the home rule message — which would allow the city to install the cameras — due to concerns over civil liberties and the concerns of the law enforcement lobby.

Transportation Alternatives has issued study after study showing that most drivers don’t obey the city’s 30 mph speed limit and that it has lead to a rising number of fatal crashes. The studies also show that pedestrians have an 80 percent chance of surviving if they are hit by a car traveling at 30 mph as opposed to a 98 percent chance of survival if the car is traveling at 20 mph.

The pilot program established a five-year program that allows for the installation of 20 speed cameras around schools in the city. Drivers that violate the speed limit are fined $50.

”All the cities we compare ourselves to around the world rely on automated enforcement,” said Juan Martinez of Transportation Alternatives. “So we know it is effective. I’m glad we have cameras at 20 schools but there is no need to test it. This technology has been working for decades in DC, Portland, and Boulder. A rapid expansion of this program is going to be necessary to save lives.”  

Last session it was hard to get a straight answer out of legislators who controlled the fate of traffic cameras about whether it would come to a vote. Sen. Marty Golden of Brooklyn was thought to be very influential in the Republican caucus and be key to the bill's fate. Golden dodged the Gazette’s questions about the bill a number of times but as session came to an end advocates say Golden changed his mind and decided to back the test program.

During the episode, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tore into legislators for failing to act on the measure — and recommended reporters give the phone numbers of legislators who didn’t back the pilot program to the public.

“Maybe you want to give those phone numbers to the parents of the child when a child is killed,” Bloomberg said to reporters. “It would be useful so that the parents can know exactly who’s to blame.”

Opponents in the Legislature have questioned the effectiveness of the cameras, some are concerned about civil liberties aspects of using cameras and The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association — the union that represents many police officers — lobbied against their implementation saying that more money should be spent on hiring police for traffic enforcement.

Hoylman, a supporter of the speed camera pilot program, says he thinks a push from de Blasio could help change minds in Albany and give the city the discretion over transportation policy.

“The mayor will be approaching this issue from a progressive democratic place. He is concerned about civil liberties and how this data will be used so it could help change minds,” said Hoylman. He said that “to the extent de Blasio makes this a priority it will be extremely helpful.”

Benjamin said that whether the state Legislature ultimately supports home rule messages at de Blasio’s request comes down to politics. “It depends on their predisposition to support de Blasio, based on his power, his popularity and the policy he supports,” he said.

Keeping It Running: Mass Transit's Future


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NEW YORK — Subway trains arrive at stations late at night too crowded to board. A train that usually travels express often runs local after a certain hour, and some routes have been remapped entirely thanks to Superstorm Sandy repairs or other long-term upkeep. Scores of the city's bridges and highway overpasses are considered structurally deficient and fixes have been progressing at a snail’s pace. When construction happens, cars sit on highways for upwards of an hour, waiting to get from point A to B.

The city’s mass transit is groaning under the weight of age and use. A labyrinth of governmental agencies that govern and fund construction, operating costs and daily repairs all share the same problem: they are either broke, in debt and set to sink further, and not one of them has figured out how they will get necessary funding.

Yet if the city and state fail to maintain or expand mass transit, there is a possibility that the entire mess of it all could choke on its own congestion.

Figuring out where new transit money might come from is perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing policymakers — and the next mayor — in the years ahead. Transit advocates say there are workable solutions, from levying “impact fees” on new development to a “toll swap” proposed by "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz.

But past attempts to raise money for transit, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for congestion pricing or the (Richard) Ravitch Plan that included imposing more tolls on bridges along with other schemes, have failed once they made it up the political ladder to Albany.

During the primary, some Democratic mayoral candidates argued for the city to have a greater voice at the table of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-dominated agency that runs the subways and buses. But, for that to happen, City Hall can ill afford to sit on the sidelines.

"If the city is going to have some say, they are going to have to cough up more cash," said Ellyn Shannon, transportation planner at the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

THE CITY’S SHARE OF THE COST

However you look at the MTA’s financial problem, long-time mass transit advocate and Straphangers Campaign spokesman Gene Russianoff argues the city's current contribution to transportation is inadequate. Just on the capital side, Russianoff says the city provides only $100 million a year or $500 million of the MTA’s $25 billion, five-year program.

"It's been this way since 1982, with the exception of the late 1980s when Koch gave $200 million a year. So inflation has also eaten away the value of the city's share of funding,” Russianoff said. He called the arrangement “quite a bargain for a transit system that literally is the engine of the city's economy."

Both leading mayoral candidates have refrained from detailed discussions on how to raise the city's voice at the MTA — if they'd even do that at all.

In a radio interview on Oct. 9, Democrat Bill de Blasio told Mark Riley on WWRL-AM that the city wasn’t in any position, fiscally, to increase its MTA budget contribution at this time. The mayoral frontrunner has proposed working with trustees of the city’s $140 billion-worth public pension funds to identify strategic local transportation infrastructure investments. .

Republican candidate Joe Lhota, a former MTA president, has argued that expansive city control of the MTA is unrealistic. Nevertheless, the Daily News reported that Lhota has said he would advocate for increasing city funds to the MTA. Lhota reportedly said the amount would be significant enough to have an impact on overall MTA finances. He has also called for a mayor’s board of transportation that would be a policy coordinating body for the city among transit agencies.

BILLIONS FOR MASS TRANSIT

It’s tough for New Yorkers to wrap their heads around a public agency that runs up such an incredibly high bill for expansion and upgrade projects.  A 2012 Citizens Budget Commission report said that five big high-profile MTA capital projects — the Second Avenue subway line, East Side Access (linking the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal), and the Fulton Street Transit Center — are years behind schedule and $3.6 billion dollars over budget.

The growing bills contribute to distrust in the gargantuan agency — and trust in its ability to micromanage and budget big projects. Public faith in the MTA's ability to manage its budget as well as its day to day operations gets tested further each time fares increase, but service at least appears not to.

Around 38 percent of the MTA budget comes from fares. Another 38 percent comes from dedicated taxes — mostly commercial real estate which is subject to market swings. Another 12 percent comes from tolls on the bridges; eight percent comes from state and local subsidies.

Billions in debt, the MTA does not have sufficient funding to pay for its construction projects. So, the agency borrows money for the capital budget, then it takes more money from the operating budget to pay down interest on the debt.  

A 2012 report by the Permanent Citizens Action Committee to the MTA, titled “The Road Back: A History of the MTA's Capital Program,” said the agency had $32 billion in long-term debt (bonds) on its balance  sheet.

Annual debt service totals around $2.3 billion — and that $2.3 billion impacts daily service on the system.

According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, debt continues to consume a growing share of the operating budget, which means, if different financing source isn't identified,  more and more fare increases are likely.

That's not to say the capital investments haven't borne fruit.

Recent history shows capital investments can fundamentally improve the New York subway commuter experience.

Take, for instance, the implementation of automated signaling technology called “Communications-Based Train Control,” which makes use of telecommunications between a train and track equipment for signaling.  

With the exception of the L-train, almost all the city’s subways operate on a 1930s-era system that limits the number of trains that can run at a given time on a particular subway line. Replacement parts for much of the old system aren't even manufactured any longer today.   

In 2000, MTA began installing CBTC on the Carnarsie (L) line.  That project was finally completed  in 2006.  Once CBTC was up and running,  MTA had the ability to increase the number of trains that operate on the line each hour.  By 2010, MTA had increased the number of hourly trains from 15 to 26.

The improved subway service coupled with rezoning along Brooklyn's East River contributed to a huge spurt of growth in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as well as surrounding areas.

By 2011, a study conducted at the urging of State Sen. Daniel Squadron found that ridership on the L train had grown at three times the rate of the subway system as a whole.

NEW REVENUE STREAMS

Transportation advocates say new development along the city’s transportation arteries could be a source of future revenue — and that just as development attracts more people it will also demand more infrastructure.

Shannon, a transportation planner at PCAC, pointed to the East Midtown rezoning as a missed opportunity to identify a new potential source of dedicated MTA revenue. "Currently the East Midtown rezoning effort has the MTA getting a one-time payment for transit investments within the zone," Shannon said.

But, Shannon pointed out, as these buildings are up-scaled, they will be providing the city with more tax money. Therefore, she said the city could propose that new tax revenue from any resulting development, be earmarked for the MTA. But Shannon says the city hasn't pursued that idea — yet.

"One thing that has surprised us has been the city's reluctance to push for impact fees with the commercial real estate developers like those who would benefit from newly relaxed air rights in a rezoned East Midtown," Shannon said.

Impact fees are imposed by local governments on new or proposed development projects to help pay for the costs of providing public services such as public transit. In East Midtown, the city and MTA settled for one time-existing subway station improvements and a few other items, but not a new funding stream.

"The city has not embraced that idea at all," Shannon said.

Yet another potential source of new MTA income comes from what supporters of the scheme are calling "fair pricing."

Created by New York City transportation expert “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, supporters say the proposal would provide a continuous source of city produced MTA funding, while providing relief for drivers in the far outer boroughs as well.

The fundamental difference between this plan and plans touted in the past is that toll money from freight, car drivers and others, would be redistributed back throughout the city. In basic terms, it is a"toll swap" where tolls on "outer borough" bridges such as the Whitestone, Throggs Neck, Triboro and Verrazano are reduced, while crossings into Manhattan's Central Business District are tolled at the same rate ($5.33 E-ZPass) as the East River tunnels.

Schwartz says the plan would generate a billion-and-a-half dollars each year; the first $500 million would go to maintaining the mass transit system in a "state of good repair"; the remaining $1 billion would go to invest in improving area roads and bridges and the transit system.

Last year, Schwartz teamed up with environmental advocate, Alex Matthiessen, and his Move NY campaign to build support for fixing the region's transportation system. The plan has earned the support of the Regional Planning Association.

But, at this point, Schwartz and Matthiesen say they don't need or even want elected officials to take a position on the plan although they say at some point, politicians will need to be honest about the problems the city's transportation network faces.

"If it is agreed that these are serious problems in need of a serious solution, then we can have a public discussion about what those solutions might be," Matthiessen said.

Schwartz and Matthiesen said they are on a years-long journey, where they hope to engage as many stakeholders as possible. The two say they believe by taking a more holistic approach to New York City's often antagonistic transportation conundrum, and by engaging all affected stakeholders, their plan might someday become a reality.

NYPIRG’S Russianoff said there have been periods in the New York's past when the city tied its transit funding to particular projects, such as  the subway car overhaul program in the early 1980s.

“So let's do something similar now," said Russianoff, who has an idea for the city to up its contribution and spread the popular “Select Bus Service” to the outer boroughs.

He said the city should give at least $100 million more in capital to make it possible to jumpstart the popular "Select Bus Service" route program. He said the SBS programs makes it possible to increase the speed and reliability of transit service in many neighborhoods underserved by the current MTA system.

"Transportation groups are very enthusiastic about the ability of SBS to bring reliable and faster service. The Second Avenue Subway cost a billion dollars a mile but SBS cost about a million (a mile)," Russianoff said.

Most transit advocates agree with Russianoff that it's the outer boroughs that are underserved by transit. He said SBS may be the only cost-effective solution.

"We are unlikely to bring train service to these underserved areas for decades or maybe, even, never," he said.

Taming The Intercity Bus Industry


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NEW YORK — On any given day, hundreds of passengers toting bags and suitcases crowd sidewalks near Penn Station waiting to board buses destined for cities along the East Coast.

That has been the status quo for years as the cheap buses — fares can go for a few bucks —have grown in popularity among budget-conscious travelers. With the congested sidewalks, though, have come complaints from property owners about makeshift outdoor bus stops and safety and pollution concerns about idling buses.

Now the city is taking on a new role aimed at taming the intercity bus industry: curbside regulator.

Last year, the state gave the city the right to impose a new permitting system on intercity buses with the goal of increasing oversight and cutting down on overcrowded sidewalks and streets. Under plans currently being evaluated, the owner or operator of an intercity bus would have to obtain a special permit from the city’s Department of Transportation to obtain an assigned on-street bus pick-up and drop-off location.

“These rules are an important step toward closing the door on the chaos that has reigned at the curbside and will help us better manage our streets,” the city’s Department of Transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, said recently in an emailed statement.

At a June 10 hearing on the new rules, around a dozen or so residents and local business groups mostly from the west side of Manhattan weighed in. Chief among their concerns were that bus companies using curbs and sidewalks around Penn Station would be allowed to keep their current spots for up to three years.

As written, the so-called grandfathering provision allows operators to keep their existing stops, as long as they apply for a permit within 30 days of when the law goes into effect and the DOT approves their request.

Ernest Modarelli, a resident of Hell's Kitchen and a member of the Hell's Kitchen Coalition for Public Safety, said it was “imperative” that intercity bus curbside operations “should not be grandfathered in for a period of three years.”

"Intercity bus stops should not be permitted on streets with residential buildings, schools, or any street which experiences periods of high pedestrian traffic,” he said. “The overwhelming amount of intercity bus parking, idling and operating on the streets of our community is a clear indication that what we really need is a new bus terminal.”

The Port Authority Bus Terminal, which opened in 1950 on West 42nd Street north of where many of the intercity buses park in Midtown Manhattan, is notoriously overcrowded. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has sent out a request for proposals seeking a vendor to create a long-term planning study that would take into account the need for more space at the terminal and neighborhood needs.

Evan Cooper, a representative of the owner of property on 155-159 at 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue where Greyhound's Bolt Bus does its brisk business on the curbside, said the grandfathering clause was a bad idea.

He said the tenants complain on a daily basis about fumes, charging that buses don't follow idling laws.

"We ask you to reconsider the grandfathering of this law and the re-location to a more suitable spot possibly further west of our location," he said.

Later, Greyhound spokeswoman Carolyn Daly said the company understood the concerns about congestion and that discussions were underway about the 33rd Street and Seventh Avenue bus stop.

"Our whole mission is to strike a balance between our riders’ needs and the community's needs," Daly said, noting the company had worked closely with the community board in Chinatown when it had a bus stop there.

Chinatown Partnership, the local development corporation, has testified at Community Board 3 meetings that businesses in the area benefit from the foot traffic generated by the curbside buses.

What started as an inexpensive, under-the-radar transit service for Chinatown residents to get to jobs in area casinos as well as other Chinatowns along the East Coast became all the buzz among budget-conscious city travelers in recent years. They were drawn to Chinatown by fares as cheap as $10 to Boston or Washington, D.C.

They were so cheap that the national bus carriers couldn't ignore the sector any longer. When the bus lines started drawing passenger traffic from more conventional companies, the conventional bus carriers developed their own brands meant to compete directly with Chinatown bus carriers.

For example, Coach USA, the Canadian bus giant, directly invested in Eastern Travel's Chinatown bus. The same company had also introduced MegaBus, which did its curbside trade further uptown near Penn Station. Outside New York, DC Trails unveiled The Washington Deluxe line as well as the Vamoose bus.

And, in 2008, Port Authority bus anchors Greyhound and Peter Pan formed the joint venture Bolt Bus, which turned a few Hell’s Kitchen streets into outdoor bus terminals.

The industry attracted unwanted attention and calls for greater regulation after a series of high-profile accidents, including a 2011 crash of a bus operated by World Wide Travel of Greater New York that killed 15 people. In that incident, a bus carrying 32 passengers to New York’s Chinatown from The Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut struck a guardrail, overturned and collided with a vertical highway signpost. Investigators concluded that the driver was severely fatigued and had lost control. They also found that his license had been suspended 18 times before the accident.

Despite questionable safety practices, the bus lines have continued to grow.

An annual study on intercity bus lines from the Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development at DePaul University found that service by conventional discount operators surged over 30 percent nationwide between 2011 and 2012. That study — which did not include the smaller Chinatown bus operators in its statistics — said the conventional discount sector accounts for more than 1,000 daily operations in cities across the country.

To operate an intercity carrier all you need is a driver, a fully equipped bus, gas and a functioning computer system or online access, according to the principal author of the study,

"We estimate it costs around $4 a mile to operate the buses. If you think about a bus from New York to D.C., that may cost $800 total. But that bus needs to be full. In other words, they'd need 40 people at $20 each to break even," Joseph Schwieterman, director at the Chaddick Institute and who is also professor at the School of Public Service at DePaul University in Chicago, said in a recent interview.

Schwieterman said he supports common sense regulations of the booming sector — up to a point. "I'm not sure government agencies are disciplined enough to limit themselves to the core issues," he said.

Besides the DOT’s new curbside rules, the City Council has also been looking for ways to increase oversight of intercity buses. It recently passed Intro 591-A, which calls on the DOT to create links on its website to safety ratings of buses maintained by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

The Council has also held hearings over legislation that would require buses to display their designated location, the operator’s name, address and telephone number. All would be permanently affixed in characters at least five inches high on both sides of the vehicle, with the display being in a color contrasting with that of the vehicle and placed approximately midway vertically on doors or side panels.

City lawmakers have defended their push for greater regulations.

"With the new rules, I think we can start to hold these bus companies more accountable," Councilman James Vacca, the chair of the transportation committee, said.

– Gotham Gazette intern Daniel Stein-Sayles contributed to this report.



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