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The District 33 Transpo Debate: Can They Top Yassky on Livable Streets?

3:26 PM EDT on September 2, 2009

33_candidates.jpgL-r: City Council candidates Ken Baer, Doug Biviano, Ken Diamondstone, Jo Anne Simon, Evan Thies.

The most telling answers at Transportation Alternatives' District 33 City Council candidates forum came after an audience member asked point blank for the debaters' stance on congestion pricing. "I can’t support a candidate who’ll support congestion pricing," said the questioner, Dave Reina. "I think it's punitive, and there are more creative solutions out there. Who’ll stand up against it?"

It was an opportunity for the candidates to show how well they understand the most critical transportation problems facing New York City by rebutting Reina with a well-reasoned argument. Traffic generated by the free price on Brooklyn's three East River bridges overruns the 33rd District, which includes parts of Greenpoint, Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Park Slope. Congestion pricing, supported by outgoing rep David Yassky, should be as much a no-brainer here as it is in Lower Manhattan.

Only one candidate, Doug Biviano, a former campaign staffer for Kucinich 2008, came close to giving Reina what he asked for. "I'm not against congestion pricing," he said, "but I think we have to be careful about unintended consequences. Do we want to hit people with that toll? In this climate, I don’t think we want to. That would kill contractors."

Biviano was followed by Evan Thies, who played an active role in last year's campaign to pass congestion pricing as a consultant for Environment Defense and the Pratt Center. "I do absolutely support congestion pricing," he said to some applause. "Neighborhoods like this are disproportionately
affected by the traffic that’s created by the lack of congestion pricing. Contractors in the outer boroughs supported congestion pricing, because instead of spending time in traffic, they’d be spending more time working for clients." Thies later named congestion pricing his top transportation priority and noted that the next City Council will need to take it up again in 2010 to fund the MTA Capital Plan.

Jo Anne Simon, an attorney who serves as Democratic district leader in the 52nd Assembly District, gave another strong statement in support of pricing. "The gratuitous traffic that comes over the bridges is just that, gratuitous," she said. "We’re a doormat. It’s costing us in infrastructure; it’s costing us in health. The challenge for us as policy makers is to convince people in the outer boroughs that congestion pricing benefits them too. It’s not just for Manhattan."

Ken Diamondstone and Ken Baer, the other two candidates at the forum, also endorsed congestion pricing. Baer took the more enthusiastic stance, noting that pricing revenues can help plug the MTA Capital Plan's $10 billion hole. Diamondstone said he "believes strongly" in the policy but thinks exceptions must be made for people with disabilities and, in a novel carve-out suggestion, musicians.

By this point in the debate, candidate Isaac Abraham was long gone.

Abraham, whose base is in Williamsburg's Satmar Hasidic community, left soon after taking a swipe at the Kent Avenue bike lane, about 30 minutes into the event. (He told the crowd of about 50 that he had a wedding to attend.) At least Abraham made an appearance, which is more than we can say for no-show Steve Levin, a protege of Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez. The day before the debate, Levin backed out of his commitment to attend.

On the question of truck traffic, the need to fund the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel was widely invoked by the candidates, but council members can't do much to advance a project that needs billions in federal cash to get built. The more intriguing responses came from Simon and Thies. Simon raised the prospect of truck tolls on the East River bridges (you can do it with E-ZPass transponders, she said), which would put a halt to the free counterclockwise route that sends trucks through downtown Brooklyn streets, while Thies proposed giving Traffic Enforcement Agents the authority to "bust trucks for traveling on non-truck routes."

It wasn't the only question on which Simon and Thies distinguished themselves. While the two Kens showed a solid commitment to street safety measures like automated enforcement and traffic-calming infrastructure, Simon and Thies consistently displayed a broader and more current grasp of transportation issues.

Responding to a question about improving streets for walking, biking and transit, Thies was the only candidate to broach the politically difficult subject of off-street parking reform. "I'd like to prevent garages from being built in developments near subway stops," he said. "It’s bad urban planning, it brings traffic." Simon, meanwhile, made the evening's sole statement on bike-share, a project that she said "needs to be pursued."

Aside from Abraham's early turn at the mic, fireworks over bike lanes failed to transpire. One audience member did mention that she fears cyclists while driving at night, and asked the candidates if they would push legislation requiring cyclist registration and helmet use. To read what they had to say, check out "Audience Question #1" over at TA's candidate survey blog.

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