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NYC Primaries: A Handful of Votes Will Shape Transpo Policy for Millions

2:07 PM EDT on September 13, 2010

Image: Inhabitat.

Primary day is tomorrow, which means one thing for livable streets advocates: You need to get out there and vote. Remember, whether it's MTA financing or complete streets, bus lane cameras or smart growth, some of the biggest decisions about how New Yorkers get around will rest with the Albany-bound pols who win tomorrow.

The open secret of NYC politics is that important elections for seats in the state legislature are decided by a small number of primary voters. While the average State Senate district is home to more than 210,000 eligible voters, and the average Assembly district about 87,000, candidates need only muster a small fraction of that potential pool to gain office. Seldom does one's vote carry so much weight.

Take the 33rd Senate District, where Gustavo Rivera is running against bridge toll foe Pedro Espada, Jr. Espada won that seat in 2008, himself taking on a scandal-scarred incumbent, Efrain Gonzalez, Jr. Espada won with only 4,998 votes, out of a total of 8,352 votes cast, according to the NYC Board of Elections. And this being New York City, where Democrats outnumber Republicans five-to-one, that tiny-turnout primary essentially decided the election.

The 33rd is especially remarkable for its low turnout, but other districts aren't much different. In the 10th Senate District, Lynn Nunes is challenging incumbent Shirley Huntley. Huntley won her 2008 primary with 7,603 out of 10,626 votes, and in 2006, eked out a nailbiter against incumbent Ada Smith with 6,495 out of 12,711 votes.

Assembly districts are even smaller -- less than half the size of Senate districts, on average -- making each vote count that much more. So getting out to the polls tomorrow can make a big difference, especially if you bring along a few friends, neighbors, or family members.

Incumbents, for the most part, don't have much of a record to run on when it comes to transportation policy. During the last session, the state legislature failed to enact the bridge toll portion of Richard Ravitch's MTA funding plan, then turned around and swiped dedicated tax revenue from the MTA. Afterward, when funding gaps precipitated the most severe transit cuts in a generation, several representatives tried to pose as defenders of the transit-riding public while shifting blame to the MTA. To see if your representative was one of them, read this Daily News editorial. (You can look up your local legislators here.)

Streetsblog has covered some of the hopefuls running in the 10th and 33rd Senate districts, along with races to replace attorney general candidates Eric Schneiderman and Richard Brodsky in the legislature. For more information on where the candidates in your district stand on transportation, be sure to check out the New York Transportation Survey, where you can see how pols responded (or failed to respond) to questions from Transportation Alternatives and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. A few snippets:

    • Powerful Bronx Senator Jeffrey Klein thinks that "not raiding funds dedicated to transportation for other budgetary needs" is important, though that didn't stop him from supporting such a raid when the time came to vote on it.
    • Brooklyn Senator Kevin Parker, in a tight primary against Wellington Sharpe, offered a Band-aid for the MTA's bleeding finances: shifting stimulus funds from the capital budget to operating expenses.
    • Incumbent Brooklyn Assembly member Joan Millman pledged to advocate for "solutions such as congestion pricing," but she'll have to speak up louder than she did when congestion pricing had its make-or-break moment in 2008. Her challenger in the transit-dependent, congestion-plagued 52nd District, Doug Biviano, blames Millman for "killing congestion pricing" but offered only to "lean on Washington" to re-finance MTA debt as his main transit funding solution.
    • Bronx Senator José M. Serrano brought back a Spitzer-era proposal to issue driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants. "This will ensure that all drivers on the roads, regardless of immigration status, will be trained in all the safety rules mandated by the state. It will make all of us safer."
    • Steve Behar, a Democrat running for an open seat in northeast Queens, called for a bus rapid transit line running from Little Neck into Manhattan and identifies as "an avid bicycler."
    • Westchester's Suzi Oppenheimer touted her sponsorship of this year's smart growth bill. But despite calling herself a supporter of transit, she cited the state's budget problems to suggest that more funding for the MTA may be out of reach. New "funding and borrowing" for transit, she said, would have to be "connected to a plan to operate our mass transit systems more efficiently."

Those are just a few of the interesting answers you can find leafing through the surveys. TA and Tri-State have put New York politicians on the record when it comes to transportation. Tomorrow, it's up to a few thousand voters to decide which of those pols should go to Albany.

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