NEW YORK—Candidates seeking the city mayor’s office gathered on Feb. 22 to discuss transportation in a public forum held by multiple groups, including New Yorkers for Safe Transit and the Transportation Workers Union Local 100.
In a hot, crowded room, the forum was introduced jokingly as being similar to the conditions on the Lexington Avenue subway line, highlighting how the city’s aging subway system is also overcrowded. In a city where more than 1.6 billion people ride the subway every year, public transportation is a prevalent topic.
Three Republican candidates were not at the forum: Joseph Lhota, George McDonald, and John Catsimatidis.
We have arranged what was discussed in the approximately two-hour forum in a clean format. Enjoy.
Question: Would you increase city funding for mass transit from 0.2 percent to 1 percent of the budget? (The proposed budget for next year is about $70 billion, making 1 percent around $700 million)
Sal Albanese (Democrat): Yes. “Mass transit is not a frivolous service; it’s essential to the lifeblood of the city. I don’t see how we cannot make this a priority—increase it by $560 million.”
Tom Allon (Republican): No. The budget has gone up $25 billion since Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office. “We’re going to have to make some tough choices.”
Adolfo Carrion (Independent): Unsure. “It would be nice to say yes, but the question is always if you take it from one place, you have to take it from somewhere.”
Bill de Blasio: No, citing unresolved labor contracts. They’re “going to hit us like a ton of bricks.”
John Liu (Democrat): Yes. “One percent is already a pittance.”
Christine Quinn (Democrat): Unsure. Unsure. “When you’re in my position—somebody who comes this spring and early summer of this year is going to have to negotiate the budget for next year—I can’t make commitments like that in a vacuum.”
William Thompson (Democrat): No. “Given the ticking time bomb that is being left for us with every union contract that will expire by the end of this year … there is absolutely no money being put on the side reserved against any settlement.”
Concrete proposals outlined during forum:
-Institute a fare-toll plan, explaining that it would raise $1 billion that would go to the transit system. This includes starting tolls on the East River bridges that are currently free while lowering the tolls on the other bridges.
-Start 20 new Select Bus Service routes by 2018.
-Expand bike lane system.
-Said that selling naming rights for subway and bus stations could glean $350 million a year and should have been done instead of recent fare and toll hike.
-Supports a fare and toll plan.
-The next mayor needs to set a goal of “creating a 30-minute commute from the edges of the city to the Central Business District,” referring to the success of the Fordham Road Select Bus Service. “We had the local businesses in the beginning squawking about it, but now Fordham Road is buzzing with business activity—it’s the third-largest generator of retail sales in the city.”
Bill de Blasio:
-“Protect and defend payroll [mobility] tax at all costs. No one likes a tax, but the payroll tax gets to the heart of the matter, which is that employers that run their businesses for good reason—which is to make a profit—rely upon the MTA to make everything work: for their workforce, for the whole fabric of our society, where their customers come from, etc.”
-Better invest pension funds, including investing in the MTA to “help revive” it.
-Proposed, as an example of combating “boroughism” (bias based on borough), a new rapid bus route from Flushing, Queens, to the JFK Airport.
-Called for funding of the Cross Harbor Freight Improvement Project, proposed by Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y), which would connect freight rail lines between New Jersey and Brooklyn and east of the Hudson River region.
-Called for expansion of transit system, principally through more bus routes, and supports more ferry service.
-Look for similar financing mechanisms as the one that spurred the extension of the number 7 Line into the new Hudson Yards development.
-Said that an example of transportation meeting the growing need in the outer-boroughs—taking people from Queens and Brooklyn to Manhattan but also between Queens and Brooklyn—is the East River Ferry, a pilot project which was recently announced as being made permanent. Calls for more investment in ferries.
-Called for an increase in vehicle registration fees for the 12 counties serviced by the MTA. “You have a heavy, gas guzzling SUV? It costs you more to register your car, as opposed to a lighter, more fuel-efficient vehicle. It generates another $1 billion for mass transit.” Would include a so-called lockbox mechanism, where funds would have to be used for public transit.
-Also called for more ferry services, as well as more express buses.
-Highlighted the importance of getting the subway system in a state of good repair, or an on-time maintenance schedule.
Crime and Safety:
Question: “In 2010, we experienced the most cuts in the history of the MTA, also in 2010, TWU saw the most dramatic assaults on bus operators in the history of the TWU. My question is, what do you think the correlation is between service cuts and assaults on transit workers?”
Sal Albanese: Said that there is a correlation. Referenced a recent audit by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli of the MTA’s investment portfolio, which found more than $90 million that was not being used. “[Those funds] could have been used to restore services.” (Although there was, later, a partial service restoration)
Tom Allon: “Clearly there’s a correlation.” Said that bus drivers should be able to use phones to report assaults on themselves or passengers.
Adolfo Carrion: Said that there is more of a correlation between the 6,000 fewer police officers and increased crimes.
Bill de Blasio: Thinks that there is a correlation between decreases in service and a bad economy at the same time. The MTA “has taken a cavalier attitude about it, in my opinion.”
John Liu: “I do believe there’s a very direct correlation.”
Said, when you have services cut at the same time as other services going up then passengers get very upset.
Christine Quinn: “It’s hard to know if there was a correlation, and you’d like to think that New Yorkers aren’t going to take their frustration out on the system, out on hardworking public servants.”
William Thompson: “I think that there’s got to be some correlation,” stemming from the public being frustrated with service reductions.
The candidates were also asked how they would help make data on subway crimes unified and available to the public and policymakers as well as how they would help riders report crime easier:
-Hire 3,800 police officers, 500 of which would be assigned to the transit bureau.
-Proposed using “female decoys” in stations, areas where crime is especially high.
-Start something similar to CompStat, which records crime statistics, called GropeStat, which would record gropings and harassment in subways, buses, and other mass transit.
-Proposed that someone who gets convicted of harassment on public transportation be banned forever from the system by the district attorney.
-Called for installation of security cameras on some subways.
-There should be better crime data reporting from the transit bureau to the NYPD.
-Called for hiring more police officers to replace the 6,000 that have been lost due to gradual downsizing.
Bill de Blasio:
-Supports passing anti-grinding law in Albany.
-Called for more cops on buses to protect riders and drivers.
-Called for more token booth clerks.
-Said that data needs to be put together better.
-Need to make crime data available to the public and inter-agency. Lauded app from Hollaback, which helps report harassment, and which the City Council helped fund.
-Said that the MTA should provide easily available information for the public on what to do when witnessing a crime or when being a victim of one. “There is no ‘here’s what you should do’ that the general public knows.”
Noticeable blunders of the evening:
Tom Allon: Blamed Joseph Lhota, former CEO and chairman of the MTA, for the recently passed fare hike. The fare hike was planned before Lhota came into office about one year ago, and the way the MTA is set up—with most of the control by the state legislature—makes it improbable that anyone at the MTA would have been able to stop it, barring action by the state.
Christine Quinn: Said that the extension of the 7 Line was “on time, on budget.” The line has been doing much better than the other mega-projects, such as the Second Avenue Subway, but was still pushed back from December 2013 to June 2014, for now. It has also increased in cost from $2.1 billion to $2.4 billion.
Note: Some of the candidates said that they would, if elected, try very hard to have the power over the city’s subway system and buses handed over to the mayor. Currently, the state authority (the MTA) controls the sprawling rail lines (Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road), as well as the buses and subways. This would require the state legislature to vote to divest themselves from overseeing the MTA, a prospect considered unlikely. In the same vein, some candidates discussed reviving the commuter tax, which makes people who live outside the city but travel into it for work pay a tax. The tax was ended in the late ’90s and is also considered unlikely to be revived.