Support for Congestion Pricing, Not Harlem River Tolls, at SD 31 Debate

The four Democrats running to replace Eric Schneiderman in the State Senate - - met last night to debate transportation policy. They were joined by Green Ann Roos, not pictured.
The four Democrats running to replace Eric Schneiderman in the State Senate - Miosotis Muñoz, Mark Levine, Anna Lewis, and Adriano Espaillat - met last night to debate transportation policy. They were joined by Green Ann Roos, not pictured.

Five candidates vying to become Upper Manhattan’s next state senator met in the 168th Street Armory last night to make their case to the car-free voters of Riverdale, Inwood, Washington Heights, West Harlem, and the Upper West Side. At a debate sponsored by Transportation Alternatives and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, important differences emerged over how best to solve the MTA’s budget crisis and make streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

Democrats Adriano Espaillat, Miosotis Muñoz, Mark Levine, and Anna Lewis were joined last night by Green Party candidate Ann Roos. Whoever wins, the victor’s first term will be dominated by the ongoing budget crisis afflicting the state of New York, which affects transit quite directly. State legislators made the MTA’s funding crisis even worse last December by stealing more than $100 million in dedicated transit taxes to plug gaps in the general fund. The debate began with a revealing discussion of how each candidate would secure adequate funding for transit given the current fiscal climate.

Assembly Member Espaillat, considered the front-runner due to an advantage in name recognition, strong fund-raising and prominent endorsements, began with a warning: “It would be irresponsible of me to say there’s not a deficit that’s going to hit across the board,” he said. Without new revenue, the legislature will be forced to make impossible choices between priorities like education, health care, and transportation.

Though he didn’t make a specific revenue proposal during the debate, afterwards Espaillat told me that “congestion pricing is certainly something that we must bring back to the table.” He argued against cobbling together a piecemeal funding scheme for transit, saying that “the main engine of economic development in our community” needs a “solid revenue stream.” Even so, he maintained his opposition to any tolls over the Harlem River bridges, which carry torrents of toll-shopping drivers through the district.

Mark Levine, considered to be a close second to Espaillat, also argued that congestion pricing would be the best solution. “I also support, short of that, a plan to toll the East River bridges,” he explained. Harlem River bridge tolls were conspicuously absent, however, a stance that he earlier explained to Streetsblog by characterizing those bridges as essentially local streets.

The other two Democrats, Muñoz and Lewis, each suggested reinstating the commuter tax to raise revenue.

While each candidate disregarded moderator instructions to offer transit solutions aside from the standard calls to better manage the MTA, Lewis was particularly vociferous in her denouncements of the authority. “I don’t believe it’s because they’re underfunded,” she argued in response to Espaillat and Levine. “What they’ve done is, for the most part, cooked their books. It’s all a lie.”

Roos rejected any attempt to balance the budget that would affect working- or middle-class New Yorkers — which, in her view, even encompassed road-pricing solutions that would benefit lower-income residents. “I am opposed to fare hikes,” she said. “I am opposed to service cuts. I am opposed to borrowing. I am opposed to congestion pricing. I am opposed to tolls on the East River Bridges. I am opposed to a commuter tax.” What isn’t Roos opposed to? A more progressive income tax and a stock transfer tax, she said, could fund transit and more.

In contrast to some other districts, none of the candidates here dwelled on the most recent round of service cuts. Instead, they emphasized the need for more capital improvements. With tiles falling from station ceilings and broken elevators making it difficult to reach the deeply-buried stations uptown, poor maintenance seemed to be a higher priority than lost bus lines.

After station repairs, though, each had a different priority for improving local transit. Levine would restore lost bus services, while Lewis would work on accessibility for the disabled. Espaillat suggested adding two new Select Bus Service routes to the district — which includes the Fordham Road SBS — one along 181st Street into the Bronx and one connecting to downtown.

When it came to improving street safety, each candidate promised to support the construction of more protected bike lanes, to the extent that they could as a state representative. Levine, who began his remarks by noting that he is a T.A. member and that his whole family bikes, praised the bike lanes on Ninth Avenue and Broadway, saying they’ve “proved the fears of local businesspeople to be unfounded. I think this is ultimately economic development.”

Other suggestions varied widely, however. Lewis put the burden of safety on the victims, pushing helmet laws for cyclists and suggesting that when walking down poorly lit streets, “perhaps we need to ask ourselves to wear protective outerwear to make it easier to see people.” The latter suggestion drew some muffled laughter from the audience.

Levine laid out a laundry list of improvements, including narrowing lanes, expanding medians, and installing countdown clocks at every pedestrian crossing. “Enforcement of the current laws is unacceptably weak,” he said, arguing that police in Upper Manhattan were even less attentive to traffic safety than in the rest of the borough. Overall, he suggested, “I don’t think that motor vehicles should have a monopoly on our streets.”

Muñoz suggested increasing penalties on unsafe drivers. “You’re in a vehicle, you’re in a weapon,” she said.

Espaillat began by calling for lower speed limits, “because it is often speed that leads to these very tragic accidents.” He spent the bulk of his time, though, proposing a comprehensive traffic study of the area. The study would focus on the prevalence of two-way north-south avenues, he suggested, saying that the pedestrian crashes he heard about usually involved cars turning off of those avenues. The DOT’s recently-released pedestrian safety study backs up Espaillat’s intuition, finding that almost half of all pedestrian fatalities in the borough occur on major two-way streets.

In a lightning round of questions at the end of the debate, each candidate promised to support a residential parking permit program and bike/ped access on the state-run Henry Hudson Bridge.

Voters will choose between the four Democrats soon: Election Day is less than a week away, on Tuesday, September 14.

  • JK

    Here’s a question for Espaillat, “Will you vote against any attempts to divert MTA dedicated funds?” The “impossible choices” he mentions are really not impossible when it comes to transit funding. The MTA is not dependent on the state budget. It is getting zero state aid other than dedicated taxes and fees which which were passed with the understanding they were not going to be diverted. It is simply wrong to suggest that the MTA is available as a slush fund to bail out the rest of the state budget. Anyone who votes to take money from the MTA is voting to put the burden of the state budget deficit on city transit riders, among them some of the poorest people in the state. They are essentially taxing the poor. So, Espaillat, “Are you in favor of a poor tax on the MTA to subsidize the state government?” Sounds like it from the weak response.

  • Larry Littlefield

    As for congestion pricing, I sort of agree with the candidates, but I don’t think those coming from the north should get a free ride to the CBD. The congestion pricing cordon from the north should be across 110th Street.

    Moreover, I’d put a lower charge on motor vehicles that stay on the FDR and West Street/the Henry Hudson to pass around (but not into) Manhattan in the middle of a work day. We don’t need those roads empty with everyone packing on the BQE and backing up the trucks.

    On the other hand, would it be unreasonable to ask motor vehicles to pay for the cost of the non-federal cost of the bridges themselves? The Third Avenue and Willis Avenue Bridges are certainly NOT like local streets.

  • I wonder if they are advocating congestion pricing over tolls simply because CP is less likely to come to a vote? Especially after Silver smothered it in its crib last time.

  • Andrew

    I was at the debate. It was very poorly run. It was called for 7 (and I left work early to get there on time), but nothing happened until 7:15, when we were informed that food was served. The actual proceedings didn’t begin until about 8, and even then a lot of time was wasted with introduction after introduction after introduction. By the time the audience questions were pulled out, there was only time for three. The first was a very long question in Spanish, recited by one of the translators. A member of the audience interrupted and asked that it be translated rather than read in Spanish; the moderators insisted that the Spanish reading continue, so she left in protest. The translator then handed the question to Espaillat(!) and tried to summarize it in English, but he didn’t actually translate the whole thing, in part because he wasn’t looking at it anymore. After that, there was only time for two brief yes/no questions (residential parking permits and ped/bikes on the HHB), even though dozens of questions had obviously been collected.

    Espaillat obviously understands the cause of the transit cuts but can’t admit it. Levine understood as well, but I think he felt obligated to take a few swings at the MTA just because. The others seemed genuinely clueless.

    After the debate, I overheard a conversation between one of the audience members and Lewis. He seemed to be trying to explain that the MTA’s service cuts were a direct result of reduced state funding, but she wouldn’t have any of it.

    Levine wasn’t perfect, but he was so much better than any of the others that I’m rooting for him.

  • Larry Littlefield

    ‘By the time the audience questions were pulled out, there was only time for three.”

    Sounds like every public hearing I’ve ever been at.

  • Jen

    You’re right Andrew. Levine gets it. Unfortunately when running for office in the New York metro region it seems you’re obligated to officially hate the MTA.

    During a debate on WNYC this morning, Richard Brodsky invoked “MTA reform” and his role in the defeat of congestion pricing as reasons he should be the next state attorney general. Presumably he kept a straight face.

  • Mark Levine has my vote, but like everyone else I’m depressed that even our most “progressive” candidate is not willing to put his neck on the line to advocate for transit riders.

    Espaillat just pisses me off. During the CP debacle, he held rallies against tolling the upper Manhattan bridges. I contacted his spokesperson at the time to inquire what Espaillat proposed as an alternative for funding transit, since the revenues from the bridge tolls were to do just that, and, naturally, I received no response.

  • Bradley Brookshire

    The Espaillat years in Inwood were bad ones with respect to noise and other quality of life violations. Under Espaillat’s watch, we saw the growth of racing on the Dyckman Drag Strip, the unprecedented and ethically questionable expansion of noisy nightclubs posing as restaurants, the lending out of public property for noisy rallies on behalf of political candidates in foreign elections, and the charade of officials holding meetings with the public in which they repeatedly claimed that few, if any, noise or traffic violations were documented and that managing the problem was a question of “inadequate manpower.” Local residents recognize this as having been a fast-talking runaround with the public. The surreal nature of this two-step has led many of us to feel that back-room deals under Espaillat’s watch have motivated the rapid up-tick in noise during his time in office.

    Instead of balancing the needs of business against the legitimate right of local residents to sleep at night (as Denny Farrell has successfully done), Mr. Espaillat has sided unilaterally with the Vida/Mamajuana cartel, the Miami-based group behind the transformation of West Dyckman Street into our very own Alcohol Alley. Other than publish one publicity piece claiming to have taken action – action that locals have found difficult to identify as real – Espaillat appears to have done nothing to quell the flood of noisy establishments over Inwood. In fact, he seems to have promoted it. I will never forget his participation in that transparent piece of political theater that many derisively call the “Postcard Terrorist Press Conference.” He stood shoulder to shoulder with leaders of the Vida/Mamajuana cartel, throwing the weight of his office behind a ridiculous contention: that local businesses are in real danger from some apparently-elderly, deranged person who can barely put pen to paper. The FBI apparently has declined to investigate, and no findings of a real threat have surfaced since then. The real intent of this press conference, as many Inwoodites recognized from the start, was to garner public sympathy for expansion by the allegedly downtrodden Vida/Mamajuana cartel. It was a shameful, politically motivated slur on the motives of local residents who want only to achieve balance in an area super-saturated with liquor licenses and the noise- and traffic-violations that have come with them.

    We may not know what Mark Levine will do to help residents who want to return the area to some semblance of balance, but he has already done more than Espaillat merely by acknowledging the problem, by attending town halls and other meetings devoted to the quality of life problems that have ballooned under Espaillat, and by personally pledging to local residents that he will take positive action. His election would initiate a radical departure from the political charades of the Espaillat era, and I would welcome it.

    I encourage you strongly to get out the vote for Mr. Levine in the NY State Senate primary election this coming Tuesday.

    Bradley Brookshire
    20-Year Inwood Resident

  • Thank you, Bradley, for speaking truth to power.

  • What Bradley is speaking is unsupported half-truths to an uninformed and largely apathetic electorate.

    Any “quality of life problems that have ballooned under Espaillat” – I presume Bradley is referring largely to late-night noise in the western Dyckman corridor, which is his pet peeve – have little, if anything, to do with the Assemblymember and more to do with local residents putting up with lackadaisical police response to the drag racing, vehicular noise, congestion and parking problems in that area. Since when are Assemblymembers responsible for police response? CALL 311. That is the ONLY thing that will help change the situation; the police are responsible for responding to those complaints, and if enough rack up without having been addressed by the 34th Street Precinct, the commander will hear about it from the Commissioner.

    Adriano Espaillat deserves better than insinuations, half-truths, shading and spin.

  • One more thing: the Assemblymember is also hugely responsible for securing the funding for the rehabilitation of the “1” line stations that is now taking place… and long overdue… as well as for the new schools in our district.

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