When is a budget hearing not really a budget hearing? When the committee chair uses it to air personal grievances instead of exploring major budget issues.
Yesterday, City Council Member James Vacca chaired a transportation committee meeting that was billed as three budget hearings — one for the MTA, one for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and one for the Department of Transportation. But Vacca and some of his committee members were more fixated on parochial issues like the price of municipal parking lots in their districts than the meaty budget issues of the day — for instance, how to deal with the MTA’s skyrocketing debt service ($2.25 billion in 2013, and rising).
After avoiding perhaps the single most important transportation budget issue facing the entire region, Vacca managed to paint the fight for cheap municipal parking as a populist crusade. “Don’t you think an increase of 100 to 120 percent is just devastating to people who count on these parking spaces?” he asked DOT staff at one point. “I have one of these lots in my community and I have people who use these lots and they have no place else to put their car… A 100 to 120 percent increase is going to hit low-income people really where it hurts.”
In Vacca’s district, by the way, car-owning households make, on average, more than twice as much as households without a car, according to the 2000 Census [PDF]. The car-less residents are the ones who will feel the brunt of the MTA’s mounting debt, as it forces fares to rise. But Vacca himself, it turns out, is one of the car-owners. In fact, he belongs to the small percentage of New Yorkers who actually use the municipal parking lots he complained about yesterday. “I park my car in the Belmont municipal lot,” he said at the hearing, before asking DOT to clean up the “aggressive panhandling” that takes place there.
While Vacca didn’t see fit to address the MTA’s debt or the huge funding hole in the MTA capital program that will exacerbate that debt, he did make time for the obligatory swipe at transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. From NY1:
“We have this constant problem,” said Bronx Councilman James Vacca. “I mean, if Ray Kelly can come to an oversight hearing, I think Commissioner Sadik-Khan can come to an oversight hearing. And I’m very discouraged that she’s not here.”
Vacca must have trouble remembering committee hearings. It was Sadik-Khan who came to the infamous, NIMBY-inspired bike hearing in late 2010, while Ray Kelly was a no-show at council hearings about NYPD traffic safety data and NYPD crash investigations.
One useful slice of information did come up during the MTA and TLC hearings, thanks to Council Member Oliver Koppell.
It turns out that the paucity of accessible taxi cabs in NYC could be exacerbating the MTA’s budget problems. The reason is that Access-a-Ride, the MTA’s federally-mandated paratransit service, stands to reap savings if more trips can be handled by taxis and livery cars instead of the MTA’s own vehicles.
The MTA has been giving out taxi and livery vouchers to some of its customers in an effort to curb rapidly escalating service costs. Koppell asked MTA staff if an increase in the number of accessible taxis (right now there are only 233) would allow the agency to offer more vouchers, and save more money. “It would be better if we had more,” said the MTA’s Aaron Stern. Koppell noted that the city picks up one-third of the tab for Access-a-Ride. Later on, TLC chief David Yassky admitted that the city could probably do more to make the next generation of cabs — the “Taxi of Tomorrow” — handicap-accessible.
After the TLC, it was back to the gripe session, aptly tweeted by the Wall Street Journal’s Ted Mann: “Potholes. Burnt out lights. Missing parking meter tape. Raging Vacca. If I was commissioner, I’d delegate this meeting to staff too!”