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Bridge Tolls

Without Espada or Challenger Rivera, District 33 Debates Transportation

1:41 PM EDT on September 3, 2010

Pedro Espada didn't show up for last night's transportation debate. Neither did his leading challenger, Gustavo Rivera. Photo: Noah Kazis.

Last night's 33rd Senate District transportation debate pitted two candidates against each other who are unlikely to ever appear on the same ballot: Democrat Daniel Padernacht and Green John Reynolds. Padernacht is running a distant third place in polling for the September 14 primary, after incumbent Pedro Espada Jr. and challenger Gustavo Rivera. Neither Espada nor Rivera showed up at last night's debate: Espada refuses to debate his opponents and Rivera chose to attend an NAACP forum instead.

Unseating Espada this cycle is perhaps the top target of public transit supporters (and good government organizations, and tenants' advocates, and labor unions, and… let's just say he's made some enemies in the last few years). The district, which covers the area west of Bronx Park and south of Van Cortlandt Park, has extensive transit coverage, including the B, D, 4, and 1 subway lines, two MetroNorth lines, and the Fordham Road Select Bus Service. Among all households in the district, 71.5 percent don't own a car [PDF]. But even so, Espada led the opposition to tolling the free bridges onto Manhattan, all but dooming his constituents to fare hikes and service cuts.

Since Espada's cardinal transportation sin was over transit funding, it's worth asking if his challengers are any better. Though Padernacht said he'd fight for state funding for transit at last night's debate, he told the crowd that he doesn't want either road pricing or increased taxation to raise revenues. "The Bronx will become a parking lot for Manhattan," he said of congestion pricing, and argued that higher taxes would only drive residents and businesses from New York.

I approached Padernacht after the debate to ask him how he would find the billions that the MTA needs, if those two revenue sources are off the table. "The first thing I would do is look to cut costs," he said, suggesting that limited buses could be eliminated during midday hours and that smaller vehicles might be cheaper to operate on low-ridership routes. After that, he said, he'd have to "brainstorm the issue."

In Rivera's response to the TA/TSTC transportation survey, he rightly pointed the finger at Albany for cutting off transit funding over the past few decades and forcing the MTA to drop ever deeper into debt. On what to do, however, Rivera showed himself to be an expert hedger.

"I take the subway in NYC to work every day," he wrote. "If elected to the State Senate, I will put a new priority on public transportation and seek to stop the MTA from borrowing its way into a hole too deep to dig out of." No specifics, but dodging the controversial issues of road pricing and tax increases, of course, hardly compares to the obstructionism and stunts pulled by Espada last year.

Green Party candidate John Reynolds suggested making the state income tax more progressive to pay for transit and creating a state-owned bank to help build infrastructure. "The austerity measures that are being imposed on this community are unacceptable," he said.

All the challengers were supportive of efforts to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety. Two intersections in the district, both along the Grand Concourse, are among the ten most dangerous for pedestrians in the city, according to CrashStat.

Padernacht boosted greenways as particularly effective in both attracting more pedestrians and cyclists and keeping them safe. He also suggested keeping unlicensed drivers off the streets by actively seeking them out and helping them find alternative modes of transport.

In his survey, Rivera suggested reducing the speed limit on narrow streets to 25 miles per hour and said stepping up enforcement of speeding, possibly through automated cameras. He also would consider impounding the vehicles of those whose licenses are suspended.

Reynolds suggested that the state devote more funding to bike lanes and pedestrian infrastructure.

The most recent poll for the primary has Espada at 30 percent, Rivera at 20 and Padernacht at 8, with 42 percent of likely voters still undecided.

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