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At Prendergast Confirmation, NYC State Senators Bash Select Bus Service

3:50 PM EDT on June 21, 2013

It's been a long road for Tom Prendergast to become the chairman and CEO of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. After the previous MTA chair, Joe Lhota, split to run for mayor, it took Governor Cuomo more than three months to nominate Prendergast. Then his confirmation hearing was put on hold for more than two months by Senate Transportation Committee chair Charles Fuschillo. But yesterday afternoon, on the final day of the legislative session, Prendergast secured a unanimous vote of approval from Fuschillo's committee.

While it's not big news that Prendergast's nomination eventually received support, the hearing did offer an opportunity for senators to question Prendergast and opine on a range of transit issues. The spectacle was noteworthy most of all because of what it said more about the people representing NYC in Albany.

One program that came under heavy criticism from some state senators was Select Bus Service, which received endorsements from just about all the mayoral candidates at this week's transportation forum. Since its debut in 2008, SBS has been rolling out at a rate of less than one route per year. While that's not exactly a breakneck pace, it's too much for some state senators.

Senator Bill Perkins of Harlem asked Prendergast about the plan to bring SBS to 125th Street, where Perkins and others said a months-long planning process, including meetings he sponsored, wasn't "inclusive" enough, after it resulted in a bus lane proposal. In response, DOT cut the length of the proposed bus lane in half this month, leading Perkins' office to say that they were now "pleased" with how the process was unfolding.

Perkins continues to claim that he isn't against better bus service, only the process that brings it to the thousands of bus riders in his district. "There's no opposition to SBS. The opposition is to disrespect for community input," he told Prendergast. Perkins said he wants a more comprehensive study to include parking and enforcement issues -- things the existing plan was already taking into account.

Prendergast was accommodating in his response, although he noted that DOT controls the allocation of street space. "I totally agree with you that if we rush a process, and we make people feel that their needs aren't being accommodated, we don't address those needs, that's wrong," he said.

Perkins wasn't the only senator opposing SBS. Republican Andrew Lanza of Staten Island was more direct about why he doesn't like the program, which has brought limited-stop service and bus lanes to sections of Hylan Boulevard and Richmond Avenue. The S79 SBS route, which initially envisioned a center-running peak-direction bus lane for the length of Hylan Boulevard, was shrunk from earlier proposals to include targeted bus lanes to help bus riders bypass traffic at the most congested points. Most of the route, in fact, is in mixed traffic.

Lanza noted that the program has sped up bus times, but then inflated the impact the short bus lanes have had on drivers. "We don't talk about the thousands of people in their cars who have now had 10, 15, 20, 30 minutes added," he said. "It's just a parking lot now, and it's because there's this red lane, that by the way there's hardly ever a bus there."

It wasn't just the bus lanes that bothered Lanza, who has joined with Council Member Vincent Ignizio to eliminate flashing blue lights from SBS buses, which are restricted by law to use by volunteer firefighters. The lights have been shut off, but an Assembly bill would allow the MTA to use flashing purple lights instead. Yesterday, Lanza dismissed the need for flashing lights at all, which Prendergast noted helps users distinguish between SBS and local buses before deciding whether to pre-pay their SBS fare in advance of boarding the bus.

Lanza seemed to miss this point entirely, instead referring to his experience with express buses, which unlike most SBS routes, allow riders to pay on-board. "When I saw a bus that had an 'X' on it, I knew it was an express bus," he said. "You don't need a flashing light to do it." Although the bill would enable purple lights only for routes that include pre-board fare payment (which would exclude the S79), Lanza said he was opposed to it.

Not all senators were opposed to better bus service: Senator Daniel Squadron, for one, praised the SBS service in his district. Responding to a question from Squadron, who represents many neighborhoods along the East River in Brooklyn, Prendergast acknowledged that the MTA, in partnership with NYC DOT and the Department of City Planning, could be more effective at expanding transit service to new residential neighborhoods in the city. "I'll give you an example of where we could have done a better job is Long Island City -- take a look at all of that development there," he said. "We want to be in a position where just as the onset of that demand is occurring, the service is being put on the street."

Prendergast's nomination was approved by the Senate last night. At the hearing, noting the high turnover at the top at the MTA in recent years, Senator Lee Zeldin asked Prendergast how long he was planning to stay in the job. "Let's just say I'm not going to run for mayor of the city of New York," he replied. "I'm not going to take a job in Hong Kong."

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