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.
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 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.