At Prendergast Confirmation, NYC State Senators Bash Select Bus Service

It’s been a long road for Tom Prendergast to become the chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. After the previous MTA chair, Joe Lhota, split to run for mayor, it took Governor Cuomo more than three months to nominate Prendergast. Then his confirmation hearing was put on hold for more than two months by Senate Transportation Committee chair Charles Fuschillo. But yesterday afternoon, on the final day of the legislative session, Prendergast secured a unanimous vote of approval from Fuschillo’s committee.

MTA Chair Tom Prendergast at his confirmation hearing. Photo: ##http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R6xSufqV7ws##NY Senate/YouTube##

While it’s not big news that Prendergast’s nomination eventually received support, the hearing did offer an opportunity for senators to question Prendergast and opine on a range of transit issues. The spectacle was noteworthy most of all because of what it said more about the people representing NYC in Albany.

One program that came under heavy criticism from some state senators was Select Bus Service, which received endorsements from just about all the mayoral candidates at this week’s transportation forum. Since its debut in 2008, SBS has been rolling out at a rate of less than one route per year. While that’s not exactly a breakneck pace, it’s too much for some state senators.

Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem asked Prendergast about the plan to bring SBS to 125th Street, where Perkins and others said a months-long planning process, including meetings he sponsored, wasn’t “inclusive” enough, after it resulted in a bus lane proposal. In response, DOT cut the length of the proposed bus lane in half this month, leading Perkins’ office to say that they were now “pleased” with how the process was unfolding.

Perkins continues to claim that he isn’t against better bus service, only the process that brings it to the thousands of bus riders in his district. “There’s no opposition to SBS. The opposition is to disrespect for community input,” he told Prendergast. Perkins said he wants a more comprehensive study to include parking and enforcement issues — things the existing plan was already taking into account.

Prendergast was accommodating in his response, although he noted that DOT controls the allocation of street space. “I totally agree with you that if we rush a process, and we make people feel that their needs aren’t being accommodated, we don’t address those needs, that’s wrong,” he said.

Perkins wasn’t the only senator opposing SBS. Republican Andrew Lanza of Staten Island was more direct about why he doesn’t like the program, which has brought limited-stop service and bus lanes to sections of Hylan Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. The S79 SBS route, which initially envisioned a center-running peak-direction bus lane for the length of Hylan Boulevard, was shrunk from earlier proposals to include targeted bus lanes to help bus riders bypass traffic at the most congested points. Most of the route, in fact, is in mixed traffic.

Lanza noted that the program has sped up bus times, but then inflated the impact the short bus lanes have had on drivers. “We don’t talk about the thousands of people in their cars who have now had 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes added,” he said. “It’s just a parking lot now, and it’s because there’s this red lane, that by the way there’s hardly ever a bus there.”

It wasn’t just the bus lanes that bothered Lanza, who has joined with Council Member Vincent Ignizio to eliminate flashing blue lights from SBS buses, which are restricted by law to use by volunteer firefighters. The lights have been shut off, but an Assembly bill would allow the MTA to use flashing purple lights instead. Yesterday, Lanza dismissed the need for flashing lights at all, which Prendergast noted helps users distinguish between SBS and local buses before deciding whether to pre-pay their SBS fare in advance of boarding the bus.

Lanza seemed to miss this point entirely, instead referring to his experience with express buses, which unlike most SBS routes, allow riders to pay on-board. “When I saw a bus that had an ‘X’ on it, I knew it was an express bus,” he said. “You don’t need a flashing light to do it.” Although the bill would enable purple lights only for routes that include pre-board fare payment (which would exclude the S79), Lanza said he was opposed to it.

Not all senators were opposed to better bus service: Senator Daniel Squadron, for one, praised the SBS service in his district. Responding to a question from Squadron, who represents many neighborhoods along the East River in Brooklyn, Prendergast acknowledged that the MTA, in partnership with NYC DOT and the Department of City Planning, could be more effective at expanding transit service to new residential neighborhoods in the city. “I’ll give you an example of where we could have done a better job is Long Island City — take a look at all of that development there,” he said. “We want to be in a position where just as the onset of that demand is occurring, the service is being put on the street.”

Prendergast’s nomination was approved by the Senate last night. At the hearing, noting the high turnover at the top at the MTA in recent years, Senator Lee Zeldin asked Prendergast how long he was planning to stay in the job. “Let’s just say I’m not going to run for mayor of the city of New York,” he replied. “I’m not going to take a job in Hong Kong.”

  • Bolwerk

    The whole point of buses is supposed to be humiliating people, not moving them. What really offends people like Lanza and Perkins is SBS alleviates travel woes for the plebes, who are supposed to stay in their ghettos and not bother the upstanding political class.

    The real problem with SBS is it doesn’t go far enough. Most of those routes should be surface rail or even subsurface rail. The density and ridership is there, but the plebes don’t deserve a dignified commute to work. (Or, as pols probably see it, a commute to social services.)

  • Joe R.

    I think you’re right here. For the same reason areas like the Rockaways have have substandard public transit for decades. The politicians representing those in upper class areas want to make it as difficult for the masses to travel as possible so they can keep the “undesirables” away from where they live. That’s one reason many on Staten Island are still opposed to a direct subway connection to the other boroughs.

    And yeah, a lot of the SBS lines should really be rail of some type.

  • vnm

    Senator Lanza may ride express buses, and that’s fine, but he clearly doesn’t get the dynamics of what’s going on with Select Bus Service. Flashing lights are VERY important for bus riders when the SBS buses are in mixed traffic with local buses and cars.

    Imagine you are standing on First Avenue or Second Avenue and peering six or seven blocks into the distance. There’s a bus approaching, and there is a line at the sidewalk fare reader. If the bus that’s approaching is an SBS bus, you need to wait on that line or risk a huge fine. If the bus that’s approaching is a local, you should avoid the sidewalk fare reader or you will be double-charged when you board the local bus. You can take either bus to your particular destination, but you don’t know how to pay until you’ve determined which kind of bus is coming down the avenue. Without the lights, you can’t make the distinction until the bus is so close that you don’t have time to get a receipt! The blue lights completely solved that problem.

    Purple lights would solve the problem, and wouldn’t be confused for volunteer firefighters or police cars. I don’t understand the opposition to purple lights.

    If Senator Lanza experienced the frustration of having to let a bus pass by while he got a fare receipt too late, he’d allow the lights.

    I’m glad Staten Island got some Select Bus Service, but if I’d have known putting it there would ruin it for everyone else, I would have said don’t bother!!!

  • Anonymous

    Good explanatory post. Perkins opposition to SBS disrespects bus riders, and his saying that he is not against SBS is just plain disingenuous. Reducing the length of the bus lane defeats SBS completely. A bus is not “select” without its own lane. Period.

  • anon

    I don’t think these politicians are that evil, as much as self-interested. It is just that they drive everywhere, and so do most of their associates. They don’t want to be inconvenienced to help someone else. They probably also have an unstated belief that drivers have the right to go faster than those who rely on transit, because drivers have paid more for their transportation.

  • Bolwerk

    They pretty much have to be. It’s more expensive in the long-run to depend on buses than it is to use the right mode for the job. And SBS probably saves money over conventional local buses because it is more efficient fuel-wise and attracts more users.

    Got that? They are literally endorsing spending money to make people’s lives crappier. Really. And this isn’t even that evil, as politicians go. It is merely libservative noblesse oblige. The really evil, batshit ones don’t even want transit at all, and think the ghettos should be emptied into ever-expanded prisons (paid for with tax cuts!).

    Anyway, it’s a flat out lie that pols would ever be inconvenienced by better public transport. Improving public transport would take reducing traffic congestion, and for the one group that has unlimited means to drive for free, that is not an inconvenience at all.

  • Daphna

    It is upsetting to learn that Staten Island did not get the 8 miles of a center-running dedicated bus lane that they were supposed to get. That would have been amazing!! As I understand it, Hylan Boulevard only got 2 miles of bus lanes instead. It would be great is someone could challenge Andrew Lanza and win. He should not be a senator.

    Senator Bill Perkins is as harmful to Harlem as Lanza is to Staten Island. Very few people in Perkins’ district are against the 125th Street Select Bus Service. I wonder what kind of show of support would convince Perkins that his constituents want SBS? Or if he cares?

    The tiny number of people siding with Perkins against SBS include BID officers who did not even know what the plan was (had not gone to any of the many meetings that took place in the course of a year) but said they were against it. Those against also include the Transportation Committee chair of CB10 who is consistently against any street improvement or traffic calming. She left the room for the entirety of the DOT presentation so it is doubtful that she even knows what the plan is. Her attitude is that 125th Street is a shopping district so it is supposed to be slow; people are supposed to be stuck in traffic when going crosstown on 125th Street; that is normal and does not need to be changed according to her. Another person in the tiny contingent of people against a 125th Street dedicated bus lane is the chair of the Transportation Committee of CB9. Unlike her counterpart at CB10, she at least stayed in the room to hear the DOT presentation but she came away completely unable to understand it and said she would defer to Perkins entirely for any decision making.

    These are the people who sunk the SBS plan for 125th Street – people who went in with a closed mind and who were against the plan before they even knew what it was, and who did not even bother to truly educate themselves about what this plan entailed! It is rather horrifying that these are the decision makers for Harlem.

  • Daphna

    New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat was one of the four senators with his name on the Speed Camera bill. So he is trying to do something to make NYC streets better. This contrasts with Senator Bill Perkins who is fighting off an improved re-design of 125th Street and is thus working to keep this NYC street sub-standard. I just mention the contrast in values and priorities because their districts are right next to one another.

  • Guest

    Can’t we just reattach Staten Island to the rest of New Jersey already?

  • Shojib Ashrafi Na Ashrafi

    Limos are Custom Made.. who built this one and is it the same Company.. if it is they are at Fault. recall all that where made to inspect.

  • Michael Klatsky

    Wow, you have been becoming more and more cynical lately

  • Morris Zapp

    Again goes to show how little there is to gain by kowtowing to selfish ignoramuses who will never be pacified.

  • Aunt Bike

    Andrew Lanza and Vincent Ignizio’s opposition is not to blue or purple lights, but to better public transit in general.

    Their constituents are drivers. Even the ones that take public transit into Manhattan drive to the bus stops. The notion of a ‘bus only’ lane is against everything they believe in. It takes space away that could be filled with cars. They don’t want it.

    It’s also the reason why Staten Island politicians go nuts over bike lanes. Road space is for cars, period.

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