On Transportation, Cuomo Giveth and He Taketh Away

The governor's initiatives come with a lot of 'buts.'

Governor Cuomo's budget: The devil is in the details. Photo: NY Governor's Office
Governor Cuomo's budget: The devil is in the details. Photo: NY Governor's Office

Governor Cuomo made major commitments to transportation in his budget proposal for the next fiscal year — but advocates are quickly learning that where this budget document is concerned [PDF], Cuomo giveth and he also taketh away.

The budget makes good on a number of long-held goals of New York State transportation advocacy groups: State-approved expansion of the city’s speed camera program. Unlimited bus lane cameras. Legalized e-bikes and e-scooters. A monetary goal and path forward for congestion pricing.

Nearly every single one of those new initiatives — save the bus lane cameras — comes with a catch.

“Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget is a combination of the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Eric McClure, executive director of StreetsPAC, the political group.

The speed camera shuffle

The good news: The governor’s speed camera legislation would widen the definition of school speed zone to mean anywhere within a radius of 1,300 feet around a school, as opposed to the narrower definition of 1,300 feet on a street directly abutting its front entrance. It would also more than double — from 140 to 290 — the number of school zones in which cameras can operate.

The good news stops there. The city council passed a speed camera authorization law last year that did not cap their numbers. Further complicating matters, the governor’s proposal would require that any money collected from the additional 150 school zone systems be given directly to the MTA to cover “capital initiatives for improvements to system safety.” The city’s speed camera revenue currently goes to its general fund.

“We’re happy to see that the governor’s including [cameras],” said Transportation Alternatives Interim Co-Director Marco Conner. “At the same time, we don’t think it should be limited to 290.”

Council Speaker Corey Johnson was apparently blindsided by the cap on such important safety tool.

“The Council was proud to enact speed cameras in time for the school year, a crucial measure that undoubtedly saved lives,” Johnson told Streetsblog earlier this week. “I haven’t seen the proposal yet, but it does not seem like an expansion of the current law, which allows for an unlimited number of speed cameras.”

Congestion pricing contingencies

On congestion pricing, Cuomo set a reasonable revenue target of $1 billion per year — a wise move, according to transportation analyst Charles Komanoff, because congestion pricing will likely raise more. Setting a revenue target will also discourage the legislature from diluting the effectiveness of tolls with too many exemptions. He even promised to enact the policy by 2021.

But: the governor wants the city and state to split the costs of any capital needs beyond what congestion pricing can raise, even though New York City residents already foot most of the MTA’s revenue via fares and taxes. The proposed budget also stipulates that the state will not hand over the $7.3 billion remaining of its delayed $8-billion commitment to the MTA’s current capital plan until the Assembly passes congestion pricing and MTA governance reform. A plan for the latter has yet to be revealed, but Cuomo, who controls the MTA through the appointment of its chair and senior staff, has indicated that he wants even more power over its board.

With those contingencies, the governor aims to incentivize the passage of those two initiatives by the state legislature, observers say. But the gambit could easily backfire.

“Linking unrelated issues is the kind of horsetrading that Albany was notorious for in the past and something we should look to avoid,” Senate Democratic Conference spokesperson Michael Murphy told Politico, which reported the news on Wednesday.

E-bike and e-scooter shenanigans

The budget’s e-bike language portends to give localities full control over the presence of currently illegal e-bikes and e-scooters on their streets. Unsurprisingly, reality is murkier: Cuomo also wants Draconian statewide regulations for their operation. The bill requires operators of both type of vehicle wear helmets and reflective gear after dark. It prohibits parents from installing child seats on e-bikes. And it would require e-bike riders to yield to motorists, essentially nullifying the city’s Right of Way Law.

“Drivers have killed immigrant delivery e-bike workers in each of the past two months,” said Do Lee of the Biking Public Project. “Governor Cuomo’s plan would directly contribute to more immigrant delivery worker deaths.”

The helmet requirement, meanwhile, would discourage people from riding e-scooters and e-bikes, making roads less safe for those who do. And reflective gear would lead to “overly subjective” enforcement, Conner warned, especially given the NYPD’s unnecessary and burdensome practice of showering tickets and fines on working delivery cyclists.

Still, it’s not clear if the proposed law gives municipalities the ability to override any of those regulations. As written, e-bikes and e-scooters would only be legal in municipalities that pass their own legislation permitting their use. Those jurisdictions could then “further regulate the maximum speed, time, space and manner of … operation.”

The only bit unequivocal good news in the budget: an unlimited expansion of bus lane cameras, to be mounted on buses or at fixed locations. Currently, state law limits camera enforcement of bus lanes to 10 routes citywide.

All of that is subject to negotiation with the state senate and assembly, which will each put out their own budgets in the coming weeks. The mayor and city council will also likely weigh in, as will advocates. For his part, StreetsPAC’s McClure said the city should stick with its speed camera program and called the e-bike right of way rule a “non-starter.”

The city’s elected officials are still reviewing the massive budget, which tops 1,000 pages.

“I was glad to see a number of transportation items in the Governor’s proposal as we are facing a transportation crisis,” City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said in a statement to Streetsblog. “The devil is in the details and I am reviewing the proposal in full.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The governor wants the city and state to split the costs of any capital needs beyond what congestion pricing can raise, even though New York City residents already foot most of the MTA’s revenue via fares and taxes.

    Question — does the Governor demand that the city and state spilt the cost of MTA capital expenditures on New York City Transit?

    Or does the Governor demand that the city in effect fund 100 percent of the capital expenditures of New York City transit, with the state paying for the half that has been going to the suburban railroads, with half the state revenues used also coming from New York City?

    Burying the lede — what about all those EXISTING revenues. Why is no one saying all those have already been taken, over and over again? Why does that need to be covered up and hidden, and on whose behalf?

  • crazytrainmatt

    No ebikes with kid seats? That’s about the only use I might have for one. Already NYS has a blanket restriction on carrying infants <1yr on a bike.

    It's also strange that such a prescriptive bill parrots the 20 MPH limit in most US-based discussions. Having assist cut off above 15 MPH would do far more for their integration into NYC than these petty restrictions. Higher speeds are fine for a long suburban commute in car traffic or on an empty multiuse trail, but urban bike infrastructure is in no way ready for a stream of bikes effortlessly accelerating to 20 MPH.

    The key question is whether broadened ridership from ebikes will compensate for the deterioration in bike facilities due to increased traffic at higher speeds. We'll see. Citibike was a major boost to the status of cycling in NYC and I find the newbies relatively harmless, but things didn't work out so well the last time a new motorized vehicle was introduced to city streets.

  • Total pipe dream, but how awesome would it be if I somehow ran into Mr. Cuomo on my bike. He looks a bit sturdier than say, a Dorothy Rabinowitz, but I think I could still knock him on his ass pretty good.

  • Joe R.

    Before you jump into something like this consider the implications:

    1) There will need to be a special 15 mph “NYC version” to comply with the law, whereas 20 mph is standardized everywhere else. Manufacturers most likely will not want to make a special product just for one city, so the bike shops will still sell the (now illegal) 20 mph versions.

    2) What happens when you cross borders? Do you really expect people from outside the city to buy a 15 mph version if they do some riding in NYC? And what about the reverse? Those who might buy 15 mph version because they do most of their riding in NYC will have their capabilities artificially crippled if they ride outside the city.

    3) The justification for 15 mph is tenuous at best because some regular pedal bike riders already go 20 mph and more. If the bike lanes are not usable for 20 mph e-bikes then they’re not usable for these riders, either. That tells me they’re substandard facilities which need to be fixed. Bike facilities should be usable at least up to the legal speed limit. I can’t think of a better way to get support for this than having a lot of 20 mph e-bike riders who complain the bike lanes force them to go too slow.

    4) Those bike lanes which aren’t safe over 15 mph are a small subset of all bike lanes, and an even smaller subset of where cyclists will ride. No matter how successful we are at getting more bike lanes, many useful trips will require going on roads without bike lanes. Here the closer you can match motor traffic speed the safer you are. Whatever little safety might be gained by a 15 mph cutoff in substandard bike lanes will be lost the rest of the time.

    5) 15 mph will result in longer trips, even if part or all of the trip is on roads where 20 mph or more is perfectly safe.

    I personally lean in the opposite direction of not having any type of speed governor on e-bikes. There’s already an inherent cap on the speed of e-bikes in the form of the 750 watt motor limit. Even without any type of governor, at best 750 watts will get you to around 30 mph. In many(most?) cases you won’t get anywhere near 30 mph because the motor is less the 750 watts, or the gearing means the motor power starts dropping precipitously over 20 mph. Nevertheless, for real world use 20 mph is better than 15 mph, and 25 to 30 mph is better yet. If there are places where going over 15 mph is unsafe, e-bike riders can certainly modulate their speeds just like pedal bike riders do.

  • John Smith

    Yellow cabs have been handing the MTA .50 per trip for years (Billions). Now he wants to crush them with a 100% jump in their base price ($2.50) and hand it to the MTA. Uber flooded the city with 130,000 cars while yellows lost 2000 due to bankruptcies. ALL of the congestion is down to Uber. Uber is also responsible for siphoning away Billions in lost revenue fromn mass transit with their artificially cheap rides which are subsidized by unsustainable venture capital. Cuomo is the one who interfered with the City Council vote to limit Uber three years ago, now he wants someone else to pay?

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Uber is also responsible for siphoning away Billions in revenue from mass transit with their artificially cheap rides which are subsidized by unsustainable venture capital.”

    Pretty much describes the whole economy eh? Take away the temporary price appreciation of sectors flooded with venture capital (or government bailouts), and what is our stock price appreciation since 2000? (And tax base).

  • George Joseph Lane

    “1) There will need to be a special 15 mph “NYC version” to comply with the law, whereas 20 mph is standardized everywhere else [*in the US*]. A whole lot of Europe has a 15mph cut out assist.