The “transportation reinvention commission” convened at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo kicked off its public hearings yesterday with a panel of experts at MTA headquarters. Appointees, still trying to figure out the commission’s exact role, chewed over some of the region’s big transportation issues in a discussion that mostly lacked specifics. Still, there were a few notable comments, including new information about Bus Rapid Transit on Woodhaven Boulevard from NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg.
BRT featured prominently yesterday, as panelists highlighted the need for closer collaboration between the MTA, NYC DOT, and other government agencies to bring robust transit improvements to low-income workers with long commutes in the outer boroughs.
“It seems that the less that you make, the further you have to travel,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, told the commission. “My union agrees with the BRT for NYC coalition that we can improve the situation.”
“We are going to look at going to a more full-blown BRT model, let’s say for Woodhaven Boulevard,” said Trottenberg, who also serves as an MTA board member. After the meeting, she said the budget for the project is close to $200 million, higher than the $100 million she put forward at the end of May and suggesting a more ambitious allocation of space for surface transit. Previous Select Bus Service projects, with painted bus lanes, signal improvements, and sidewalk extensions at bus stops, have cost between $7 million and $27 million to build [PDF]. (The full Woodhaven project corridor is about 14 miles — longer than other SBS routes but not dramatically so.)
It’s too early to say what the Woodhaven BRT project will look like — DOT Director of Transit Development Eric Beaton said the agency does not yet have a design for Woodhaven and is continuing to meet with local communities. But in another indication that the city is serious about pursuing a robust configuration for transit lanes on Woodhaven, Beaton said costs for Woodhaven should be compared with projects like Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, or Geary Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue in San Francisco. Those projects feature center-running lanes (the SF busways have yet to be built).
Assembly Member Phil Goldfeder, who represents the southern portion of the project area, gave the commission a feel for where opposition to Woodhaven BRT is likely to come from. “A lot of people are very skeptical. It’s just a bus line. As quickly as you put in a new bus line, it can be taken out,” he said. He was unconvinced that a $200 million investment would be worthwhile on Woodhaven, preferring instead to focus on reactivation of the dormant Rockaway Beach Branch rail line. “I would like to see how that money could be used for a rail line,” he said. “We can’t afford to remove any current, existing lanes from that roadway.”
These arguments were familiar to commission member Enrique Peñalosa, the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, who created his city’s BRT system. “We had some opposition from car drivers,” many of whom preferred investment in rail, he said. “If all citizens are equal, then a bus with 80 passengers has a right to 80 times more road space than a car with one. People who own cars are powerful, even if they are a minority.”
If the project runs into opposition from people who want to keep extra-wide Woodhaven devoted primarily to cars, Appelbaum said his 100,000-member union would support BRT, like it did for 125th Street SBS after that plan was tabled in the face of opposition. “The organizing we’ve really done is a nascent form,” he said, adding that RWDSU plans to join the BRT for NYC coalition. “We expect to expand that, we expect to survey our members, give them the opportunity to be involved.”
One potential, if somewhat unlikely, mechanism for funding BRT projects is using expected future gains in land value to finance construction, a method used for the 7 train extension to the Hudson Yards development area. Trottenberg acknowledged the costly missteps of that project, but stuck by value capture as “a valuable tool” in some types of capital projects. She also mentioned the high cost of these projects a couple of times, saying there is a need to “save money and wring more value out of the existing funds that we have.”
Trottenberg cited SBS as an example of close collaboration between the city and the MTA, and First Deputy Mayor Anthony Shorris said there is a need for more coordination going forward. For example, Shorris said the city’s affordable housing and economic development initiatives need closer coordination with the MTA’s capital and service plans. He also challenged the commission to examine the decades-old governance structure of the MTA.
Another big question: Raising the funds to pay for the capital plan. On Monday, Trottenberg said the city is open to considering toll reform. She was joined yesterday, somewhat more cautiously, by state Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald. “We have to take a look at it. I don’t know if it’s congestion pricing per se,” she said, expressing enthusiasm for high-occupancy/toll lanes and adding fees for driving to the airports. I asked if she thought this should involve new highway lanes or pricing existing roadways. “I think we have to look at both,” she said.
About a third of the commission’s 24 members were absent yesterday, including co-chairs Ray LaHood and Jane Garvey, so the meeting was chaired by John Porcari of consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is providing staff on the project to assist the MTA. Porcari said the commission, which first met late last month, would issue its report in the first week of September. That’s a few weeks before October 1, the deadline for the MTA to submit its five-year capital plan. The November gubernatorial election isn’t far behind.