It turns out that Shirley Huntley was the no-show at Wednesday night's State Senate District 10 transportation debate, letting challenger Lynn Nunes turn in a solo performance. Nunes is young -- 25 -- but he's commanding attention in this race after coming within four votes of unseating the recently deceased Thomas White in the City Council's 28th District last year, despite a near total lack of institutional backing.
Before an audience of about 20 at the Q&A session, Nunes came across as eager to support safer streets and better transportation options, but lacking a firm grasp of the most pressing problems facing New York's transit system.
This southeastern Queens district stretches up from Broad Channel, curving through the neighborhoods north of JFK and over to Forest Hills. The subway network doesn't reach very deep here, and neighborhoods are criss-crossed by dangerous traffic sewers like Atlantic Avenue, Merrick Boulevard, and service roads for the Van Wyck. Still, more than a third of households do not own a car.
"It's very isolated," said Nunes in response to a question about whether bike lanes belong in the district. "That's why we have to make investments in bus routes, in safe bikeways -- to give people access." If elected, he said his first priority would be to address the lack of transportation options in southeast Queens, and he sensibly identified the bus network as the area most ripe for improvements. He also promised to direct some of his discretionary funds (a.k.a. member items) to street safety projects.
As for how to pay for transit improvements when the system is starved and shrinking, Nunes refused to rule anything out. He listed his top choices as raising the gas tax and imposing a commuter tax, calling bridge tolls and congestion pricing acceptable as last resorts. (He gave a noticeably more enthusiastic endorsement of congestion pricing in his response to the TA/TSTC transportation survey, which Huntley failed to fill out.)
The most telling moment of the evening came when a woman in the audience described how she reacts to press coverage of the MTA. "Every day I open the paper and there's some story about how the MTA is wasting money," she said. "Long Island Railroad pensions, audits, laying off workers while hiring $200,000 executives -- the gravy train has got to stop. I resent every penny I pay."
That must be the sort of reaction that Shelly Silver, John Sampson, and most of the New York-area politicos in Albany love to hear. The state legislature stole enough cash from the MTA in December to prevent all of the agency's service cuts, but here we are right before primary day, and this voter just wants to know who's going to stop the MTA gravy train.
Nunes could have pivoted from this question to pillory the incumbent legislators who let the MTA's finances reach the sorry state they're in today, but he didn't. "I think it's mismanagement that's built up over the years," he said, referring to the MTA.
He did get in a few digs at Albany after I asked what the legislature could do to prevent the theft of transit funds from happening again. While the message was a little muddled, he implied that transit tax revenue should only go toward transit. "I think that's part of the problem with the culture in Albany," he said. "It's important to treat each entity separately."
Nunes told Streetsblog that there is "absolutely no truth" to the rumor that he's looking to drop his State Senate bid and enter the race for White's City Council seat, which will be filled in a special non-partisan election on November 2. Claire Trapasso at the Daily News, who moderated the Q&A, reports that Nunes may look to enter the council race if he doesn't win the State Senate primary.