DOT Commissioner: Bike Lane Delays Are Not About the Money!

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg testifying at City Hall. Photo: City Council/Emil Cohen
DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg testifying at City Hall. Photo: City Council/Emil Cohen

Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg doesn’t need more cash to install the 50 miles of protected bike lanes a year that Council Speaker Corey Johnson wants — she just needs less bureaucracy.

Sure, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars per mile to build a bike lane, but the real holdup, according to Trottenberg, is having to get support from nearly everyone that would even look at the bike lane: community boards, local pols, and the surrounding neighborhood. That’s the problem, she said, especially when many business owners fear that a reduction in curbside parking would hurt their bottom lines.

“I’ll reiterate the price tag is not an enormous cost,” said Trottenberg after a City Council budget hearing about how the Department of Transportation will spend $1.01 billion in fiscal year 2020. “The challenge of building out the bike network is really the labor intensive side — it’s going to local communities, it’s working through the engineering, it’s working with the businesses and residents that are at the curb. It’s going to community boards, that’s the piece that’s sort of the biggest challenge to building out the bike network.”

Trottenberg’s explanation comes a week after Johnson unveiled a master street-safety plan that would let transportation officials speed up the rate of installing bike lanes without getting “bogged down … by opposition from communities and elected officials.”

“While the City has made some progress to increase rates of cycling and improve cyclist safety, progress to invest in the most effective intervention—protected bike lanes—has moved far too slowly,” Johnson wrote in his 100-page “Let’s Go” report.

Trottenberg has previously brushed off the need for more funding from Council in order to devote more resources to street redesigns that will save lives, and she reiterated that fact again on Thursday on the heels of Johnson’s demands for overhauling the way the city installs bike lanes.

“It’s not a financial challenge,” she said.

Trottenberg was likely referring to battles like the Skillman Avenue bike lane, which was voted down by the local community board only to be implemented anyway by Mayor de Blasio. Meanwhile, the very same mayor removed protected bike lanes on Dyckman Street this past summer after backlash from the community. And in 2016, the Department of Transportation gave up on its plan to install a two-way protected bike lane on Clinton Avenue after longtime residents rallied against it.

If Johnson’s system were already in effect, it’s likely there would be more bike lanes on city streets now. At the very least, it holds out the promise that street-safety improvements would simply be implemented rather than debated — since the debate has long been settled in favor of better design.

During the budget hearing, Trottenberg broke down how the Department of Transportation plans to spend the $1.01 billion: $275 million for traffic operations, like signals, streetlights, and parking; $165 million for roadway maintenance; $110 million for bridge maintenance; $107 million for transportation planning and management, like street sign installation and roadway markings; $105 million for ferry operations; and $250 million for other department operations, like sidewalk management and inspection.

Council Members on the Transportation Committee also grilled Trottenberg about the need for road resurfacing, more protected bike lanes, and how to stop reckless drivers on city streets. Many of those reckless recidivist drivers are cops, as Streetsblog’s ongoing series has shown.

  • Larry Littlefield

    It is certainly true that paint and concrete don’t cost much. It’s a little more for special bike traffic signals.

    Too bad they can’t use the same process they did to expand the Van Wyck.

  • I am thankful to Commissioner Trottenberg for mentioning that the Community Boards represent a significant obstacle standing in the way of the expansion of our bike lane network.

    Community Boards are where self-important local busybodies can run around until they tire themselves out. Let them decide what colour streamers to use for the block party; but these aggregations of half-wits and lunatics should have no power to obstruct important infrastructure projects.

  • AstoriaBlowin

    A jersey barrier is something like $1000 per 10 foot section and could be installed starting tomorrow. These multi-year “capital” projects to build a bike line like with Queens Blvd and the Grand Concourse are super expensive, overly complicated and time consuming to end up with something less than ideal. I think if you strung some concrete barriers along any street you would see an uptick in people cycling there and no one would care whether the paint was green or not.

  • Stop dithering

    “The challenge of building out the bike network is really the labor intensive side — it’s going to local communities, it’s working through the engineering, it’s working with the businesses and residents that are at the curb. It’s going to community boards, that’s the piece that’s sort of the biggest challenge to building out the bike network.”

    So what she’s saying then is that it’s about money.

    As long as community boards are part of the process and DOT has to send people from its bike and pedestrian teams out to present to each one every time they want to be changed, that means that unless they have a massive staff that can fan out all at once then it’s going to take months and months and months just to get to a handful of boards. Hire more people, build out the teams, and you can have more project managers for smaller chunks of the city. Seriously, if they have all these designs on the shelf ready to go, but the only holdup is having to make multiple appearances in front of community boards, then staff up and get going!

    There’s one other solution here: Stop begging community boards for approval.

    Since community boards are supposed to be advisory only and since the commissioner is convinced she doesn’t need more money, then logically that’s the only solution. Let’s go.

  • Jeff

    I think DOT has said they’re going to start paring back their use of green paint on protected bike lanes anyway.

  • Larry Littlefield

    A libertarian is a liberal who was mugged by a community board, co-op board, or homeowners’ association.

    https://www.citylab.com/equity/2013/02/tyranny-homeowners-associations/4731/

  • A libertarian is a foolish child who insists that government is by its nature illegitimate.

    Yet please note that neither co-op boards, nor homeowners’ associations, nor Community Boards are part of government.

    In the case of Community Boards, they too often act to thwart the decisions of the elected government that possesses the legal mandate to carry out policy.

  • Larry Littlefield

    They are similar to what government has become in the U.S.
    With relatively few people paying attention to legislative offices (state legislature, Congress), in the absence of term limits it is really only the executive positions (President, Governor, Mayor) that propose “the decisions of the elected government that…to carry out policy.
    In order to avoid elections, the legislators basically become the representatives of those interests seeking to get paid in exchange for allowing anything in their world that we are just living in. Community Boards are conditioned to do the same.
    I suspect that’s what’s going on in Albany with regard to congestion pricing as well. More placards? Pension increases? Upzoning or tax breaks for one developer or another? We’ll be lucky if in the end it produces any net revenues.

  • Zach Katz

    I’m curious: Who has the authority to get rid of the need for community board approval?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Thanks to initiative and referendum, I suppose anyone who can collect enough signatures.

    Or the City Council, with approval by the Mayor.

    Then again, they don’t have the legal authority to stop anything, just review and comment. It is only politicians who give them a political veto.

  • Zach Katz

    Thanks for the response Larry.

    Hypothetically, how many signatures would be needed?

  • r

    Community board approval is a norm, not a law. The mayor or DOT could decide right now not to seek it. Only notification is required for certain projects.

  • AMH

    It’s the unprotected ones that need green paint the most. I’ve never understood painting protected sections, but not intersections and areas where visibility is most needed.

  • Daphna

    There is no need for community board approval. Community Boards are advisory only. The DOT chooses to seek approval from community boards and the DOT chooses to not to proceed without community board approval. The only thing the DOT has to do by law, is with certain street re-designs, to notify the community board a certain amount of time in advance.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m not sure. It’s somewhere in the Charter.
    It’s a lot, I assume, because it’s only been used once — for term limits.

  • Daphna

    Polly Trottenberg is complaining about the need to get some many different interests on board before installation, but there is no such need. The DOT can plan and install re-designs without approval, and can even do with in spite of disapproval from various interested parties. The DOT chooses to seek approval and acceptance from all those who consider themselves to be stakeholders. If Polly Trottenberg deems that getting approval causes delays and causes cancellations, she can just skip getting approvals and proceed.

  • Daphna

    Yes! Stop begging community boards (aka local political appointee boards who represent themselves more than their community) for their advisory-only approval which is unnecessary.

  • r

    Because she and mayor de Blasio can choose to move forward with projects without community board approval, what she’s revealing is that she and Mayor de Blasio are the source of the delays.

  • Joe R.

    Speaking of bike traffic signals, if they’re going to bother to install them, then DOT should have them flashing yellow when cars get a red light. Since the City Council doesn’t want to pass an Idaho stop law, DOT can implement one unilaterally by changing the signaling as I suggest. If asked about it, they can simply say they deemed it safe for bikes to treat reds as yields.

  • Joe R.

    Keep in mind if they go with this idiotic idea of bonding congestion pricing revenues, a significant amount of the congestion pricing revenue will end up in the pockets of bondholders. That’s probably why they’re adamant on this. The rich have to get something out of this deal.

    And yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if in the end most of the money goes for another round of retroactive pension increases.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Tax free, you might add, like the public employee pensions, except tax free at the federal level too.

  • HamTech87

    What was that process?

  • Larry Littlefield

    I missed it. It happened so fast it was a blur.

  • qrt145

    Putting aside the question of whether it makes sense to ask community boards for approval, if she is saying that “the challenge of building out the bike network is really the labor intensive side”, then it _is_ about money, because you could hire more labor: more engineers to design more bike lanes concurrently, more people to go to the community boards concurrently, etc. Granted, there may be challenges to filling all the new positions as well as a learning curve for the new hires and some administrative overhead, but if you have the money you can at least try.

  • ItsEasyBeingGreen

    Why turn down money when they’re still painting islands instead of pouring them in concrete? There’s a lot more ways to improve the existing facilities which require more spending even within the current political constraints.

  • Reggie

    Sections 222 and 223 of the City Charter require city agencies to present the scope of work and design of capital projects to community boards for review but the Charter doesn’t require approval.

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