At Transit Forum, Albanese, Allon, and Carrión Support Rational Tolls

Mayoral candidates Bill Thompson, Christine Quinn, John Liu, Bill de Blasio, Adolfo Carrión, Tom Allon, and Sal Albanese gathered to talk transit at a Friday evening forum. Photo: Stephen Miller

Friday’s transit forum hosted by Transit Workers Union Local 100 and a coalition of rider advocacy groups offered an opportunity for a more more detailed discussion of transit policy than this year’s mayoral race has seen so far. While the candidates offered few specifics about how they would improve transit for the millions of New Yorkers who depend on trains and buses, clear differences emerged, especially on the question of how to increase funding for the debt-ridden MTA.

Five Democrats — former City Council City member Sal Albanese, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and former comptroller Bill Thompson — were on hand, as were former Bronx borough president Adolfo Carrión, running on the Independence Party line, and Manhattan Media publisher Tom Allon, running as a Republican. Conspicuously absent was Republican Joe Lhota, whose resume includes a recent one-year stint as MTA chair.

The transit issue that the mayor can control most directly is the allocation of street space. How much real estate should be dedicated exclusively to transit, so riders don’t get bogged down in traffic? More than anyone else, the mayor has the power to decide.

Albanese had the most specific proposal, calling for 20 new Select Bus Service routes by 2018. De Blasio said he wants more Bus Rapid Transit outside of Manhattan, citing a JFK-to-Flushing route as an example. When Streetsblog asked after the forum if the Bloomberg administration has been implementing the SBS program quickly enough, de Blasio said he didn’t know enough to say if implementation was going slowly, but that the implicit answer is “yes” because his vision calls more more BRT in the outer boroughs.

Carrión, who called for a new goal of providing 30-minute commutes from the city limits to the CBD, cited the Select Bus Service route on Fordham Road as a successful transit enhancement, noting that it has won over merchants who were initially skeptical. Quinn and Thompson, meanwhile, spoke about improving bus service, but not specifically about SBS or BRT. And Liu said that Bus Rapid Transit should be part of the city’s transit mix, but didn’t get more specific than that.

On the issue of funding the MTA, the mayor has far less direct control than the governor and the state legislature but still commands a powerful bully pulpit that can set the agenda.

Despite the unlikelihood of its passage in Albany, Quinn, Thompson, and Carrión called for reinstating the commuter tax and dedicating the revenues to subways and buses. Thompson also reiterated his call to fund transit by levying vehicle registration fees in the 12-county MTA service area by vehicle weight. Tom Allon championed his proposal to raise money by selling naming rights to subway stations.

In a more encouraging sign, Carrión and Allon joined Sal Albanese in calling for funding transit with a “fair toll plan” in line with Sam Schwartz’s proposal to lower tolls on some MTA crossings while charging drivers to enter the congested, transit-rich Manhattan CBD.

“Where you have mass transit options, you add tolls. Where you have fewer mass transit options, you reduce tolls,” Albanese said. “I would like to see all of the candidates support fair tolling,” he told Streetsblog after the event. “It’s a much better plan than congestion pricing.”

Thompson, the first candidate to mention congestion pricing at the forum, took a shot at the proposal that reached Albany in 2008. “It was putting the cart before the horse,” he said, because it did not provide transit benefits to the outer boroughs first. In fact, by rejecting congestion pricing, New York also ceded any claim to $354.5 million in funding from U.S. DOT that included support for bus improvements in transit-starved areas of the city.

Quinn, who shepherded congestion pricing through the City Council, still supports the concept, but didn’t mention it at the forum and left the event before reporters could ask her questions.

Until Friday, Albanese was the only candidate aggressively calling for city control of subways and buses; at the forum, he was joined by Allon and a more cautious Quinn. “We need to find a way to have the city of New York actually have control over its mass transit,” she said, adding that city residents too heavily subsidize rail in suburban areas.

Meanwhile, both Quinn and Bill de Blasio said that the Payroll Mobility Tax, which is constantly being threatened by suburban state legislators, must be defended.

But when it came to increasing the city’s contribution to the MTA, which, like the state’s contribution, has fallen over two decades, Quinn and most other candidates were reluctant to divert resources from other city needs. Only Albanese and John Liu called for taking more from the city budget to fund transit.

Liu’s plan to eliminate the NYC Economic Development Corporation’s corporate subsidies and reallocate those resources to expanded transit service scored well with the audience.

“Some of the EDC requirements could be that the subsidies are used for additional bus lines,” he told Streetsblog after the event, adding that growing job centers at Hunts Point in the Bronx, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and Maspeth in Queens stand to benefit from better transit access for workers.

The candidates also had a bevy of projects they favored: Quinn spoke repeatedly about expanded ferry service and the 7 train extension, while de Blasio endorsed the cross-harbor freight tunnel.

The forum was also notable for what it did not discuss, especially the spiraling debt, health care, and pension costs that are consuming a growing share of the MTA’s budget.

  • There are some encouraging signs here. But it’s going to be impossible to get financing for New York City transport right as long as charges on motorists cover as low a proportion of the costs of providing roads as they do at present. Unrealistically low motoring costs mean MTA fares also have to stay way too low to make a decent contribution to the MTA’s costs. As a cyclist, the current disastrous funding regime means I’m pretty much at a cost disadvantage to people who use the subway. That just isn’t a rational situation: 
    http://invisiblevisibleman.blogspot.com/2013/02/subway-fares-gas-tax-and-why-its-too.html 

  • Eric McClure

    Sal Albanese is quickly becoming the seeming frontrunner for the complete-streets vote.  Hope better-polling mayoral candidates are paying attention.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A “progressive” view (what it used to mean, not what it de facto means now) would have linked the fares with the minimum wage.

    In effect, the MTA is subsidizing the ability of employers in high cost areas such as Manhattan to attract workers to low wage jobs through fares that have fallen relative to inflation — offset by part of the rising debts.  Fare increases would not hurt as much of the minmum wage had kept up with inflation.

    My view is that whatever the federal minimum wage is, it ought to be one-third higher in Manhattan, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam — areas where low wage workers have to travel more than bicycle distances to jobs.  After all, the average private sector worker in Downstate New York consistently (year after year) earns about one-third more than the U.S. average.

     In the rest of the Metropolitan Transportation District the minimum wage could be perhaps 16 percent higher than the U.S. average.  Keeping it at the U.S. average in lower wage, lower cost Upstate New York would limit opposition.

  • MD

    Sal’s great. Always has been. If he weren’t so honest, he’d raise a lot more money and have a better shot at winning. I’ll still be sending him a check, though.

  • MD

    Sal’s great. Always has been. If he weren’t so honest, he’d raise a lot more money and have a better shot at winning. I’ll still be sending him a check, though.

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