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Mugging for TV, James Vacca Turns Transpo Committee Into Kangaroo Court

12:40 PM EDT on May 5, 2011

When James Vacca called a hearing of the City Council transportation committee to discuss the DOT plaza program yesterday, what was he trying to get out of it?

For many neighborhoods, the plaza program offers the best and only chance of expanding their limited supply of public space, and most of the council members who showed up used the opportunity to clarify a few points about how to get a plaza for their neighborhoods. (We'll have more on that in a follow-up post.)

Vacca struck a much more theatrical tone than his colleagues. He tiptoed around attacking DOT directly, preferring insinuations and gotcha questions instead. It was the performance of someone looking to score points in the tabloid media -- knowing full well his inquisition had no merit.

In one line of questioning, for instance, Vacca grilled DOT over the cost of making the Times Square plazas permanent. DOT Assistant Commissioner Andy Wiley-Schwartz explained that Times Square had been set for a full-scale reconstruction for years, well before any plans to pedestrianize Broadway had been introduced. The funding for the plan was the same, he said, only the design of the reconstruction changed.

Vacca put on his best prosecutorial demeanor. "So what will it cost?"

Wiley-Schwartz again explained that the price tag was for a much larger project than the plazas, reconstructing the street from sidewalk to sidewalk on both Broadway and Seventh Avenue, but that the total will be $20 million. The pedestrian plazas barely added to the cost. "Basically, instead of putting asphalt there, you're putting concrete there," he explained.

Vacca seized on the $20 million and feigned ignorance, pretending that the plaza would cost $20 million itself. "It's going to be a very expensive pedestrian plaza at the end of the day."

But Vacca isn't dumb. After one more back-and-forth, Vacca made clear that he understood that the plaza wasn't a significant cost item and moved on. He "got tough" with DOT for the benefit of the tabloids and the TV cameras, but then corrected course, presumably to avoid embarrassing himself further in front of the people in the room.

Vacca's loaded questions presented DOT with several "damned if you do, damned if you don't" moments. After asking whether the Midtown plazas were an attempt to keep people from driving into Manhattan, Vacca followed up by asking whether traffic volumes in the area had gone down. If the answer had been yes, it would no doubt have been taken as proof positive that the plaza program is really a plot to make life more difficult for car owners.

According to DOT, though, total traffic was the same. At Times Square, it just flowed more smoothly down Seventh Avenue instead of Broadway. That set Vacca off on a string of accusatory questions implying that the increased traffic on Seventh was destroying that street. "That concerns me from an access point of view, from a traffic movement point of view, and certainly from a pedestrian safety point of view as well."

Just to be clear, neither safety risks, congestion, nor air pollution shifted from Broadway to other avenues. Pedestrian injuries fell by 35 percent in the entire study area for the Green Light for Midtown project, which included not just Broadway but also Seventh near Times Square and Sixth near Herald Square. And while air pollution plummeted in Times Square after the creation of the plazas, according to recent environmental data, it didn't rise in the rest of Midtown.

Vacca played the same game when asking whether DOT planned to bring plazas to every community district. It was a no-win: Either DOT would be favoring certain parts of the city or foisting plazas on potentially unwilling communities. (For the record, the plaza program is entirely opt-in -- a paragon of community engagement -- and Wiley-Schwartz nailed the answer, saying that the goal is for every community to eventually request one.)

While the mainstream press coverage today is mainly about a "contentious hearing," the only council member who really blasted the plazas was Eric Ulrich. Unlike Vacca, Ulrich hewed to his conviction: that making any more room for pedestrians and public life is a waste of money. That's a foolish position, but at least a coherent one. Vacca never took such a stand -- he never had to. By using his committee chairmanship to lob innuendo and false assumptions at DOT, he did far more to impede the continued improvement of NYC streets than Ulrich.

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