New York City’s 2009 legislative session didn’t end without a parting gift from outgoing Lower Manhattan rep Alan Gerson. A new law that passed City Council unanimously before the end of the term mandates that any significant changes to the streetscape be subject to comment by both the local council representative and the community board. Though the comments are not binding, the law seems primed to slow down the process of re-designing streets at a time when projects to enhance bus service and improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists are top priorities in New York City, and hundreds of New Yorkers are still dying every year on city streets. Mayor Bloomberg signed the bill into law on December 28.
The law tacks on up to 65 days of back-and-forth between the city,
council members and community boards on major street projects, after which DOT is not obligated to make any changes. Ian Dutton, the vice chair of
Manhattan Community Board 2’s Traffic and Transportation Committee and
a resident of Gerson’s district, noted the seeming superfluity of the
law: "When we really needed it was over the last 50 years when they
were pushing highway projects on us that we didn’t want. Now we have a
DOT that is really responsive to the neighborhoods for the first time."
Dutton did add that "it may help going forward if there’s an
administration that wants to rip up all these bike lanes and pedestrian
The law is a variation on an idea that Gerson had floated for over a year. An earlier version of the legislation would have required local input into almost any new transportation project, big or small.
The bill that passed City Council is somewhat more limited. It covers "major realignments of the roadway," particularly the addition or removal of a lane of traffic or parking on more than four blocks or "1,000 consecutive feet of street." That would certainly apply to one of Gerson’s chief targets, the Grand Street bike lane, and probably the Chatham Square reconfiguration as well. Any true bus rapid transit project would fall under the scope of the law.
Even on projects where the law applies, however, it might have little effect.
Although DOT will be required to give council members and community boards notice, make formal presentations to them upon request, and receive comments and recommendations from them, DOT can still implement the original plan if it so chooses. Transportation Alternatives spokesman Wiley Norvell expressed relief that "the bill’s final iteration maintains the city’s authority to change street design when safety, particularly that of vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists, is at stake."
As currently written, the law is essentially codifying what DOT already does. In recent years, few significant projects have been undertaken without providing notice to the local community board. To the extent that it smooths over the sometimes fractious relationships between community boards and City Hall, the law could prove beneficial. "We hope this law helps bridge the knowledge gap that has proved frustrating in the past," said Norvell, "and ensures that community boards understand the compelling rationale for why their streets are changing."
Whether Gerson’s law ultimately ends up improving relations between DOT and neighborhood residents or providing local reactionaries with another stalling tactic (or both) remains to be seen. In either case, it’s more than a little ironic that a bill ostensibly intended to ensure an open process was hurriedly passed by a lame duck City Council right before the holidays, when no one was looking.