DOT Is Relatively Unscathed in City’s Massive Budget Cut
Despite a massive financial crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Transportation is poised to get the same amount of money in this year’s budget as it did last year — a vote of confidence in the mayor’s struggling Vision Zero initiative after two consecutive years of high traffic fatalities.
Mayor de Blasio’s proposed $92.28-billion budget for fiscal year 2022 (July 2021 through June 2022) that was announced earlier this month includes $1.3 billion in cuts to city agencies — on top of the $2-plus billion that was axed over the summer from the tail end of FY2021. But this time, DOT is not one of the agencies on the chopping block: Its proposed budget for FY2022 is $1.145 billion, or $14.2 million more than it got in fiscal year 2021.
But what DOT and Acting Commissioner Margaret Forgione do with the money is what counts, according to advocates.
“City spending on protected bike lanes and bike parking should be increased in response to both booming bike use and high bike rider fatalities in 2020. It should include resources for stronger barriers in lanes the city calls ‘protected’ but are not,” said Bike New York’s Jon Orcutt.
A spokesman for DOT and the city’s Office of Management and Budget had few more details to provide, but said that DOT’s 10-year capital plan includes more than $2 billion for Vision Zero projects: $1.5 billion for street reconstruction projects; about $500 million for traffic items such as the installation of speed cameras, traffic signals, pedestrian signals, and street lights; and $219 million to improve drainage in Southeast Queens.
The Vision Zero street reconstruction projects include finishing Phase II of Atlantic Avenue — a long-delayed project to fix one of the city’s deadliest corridors between Logan Street in East New York and Rockaway Boulevard in Woodhaven — and the reconstruction of Delancey Street with street-safety improvements between Bowery Street and Clinton Street, and on Ridge Street between Delancey Street and Rivington Street, a spokesman said.
Budget documents purport to be the most transparent form of government — every line in the 4,320-page document is right there for any member of the public to peruse. Yet understanding the budget requires advanced training that few have. As such, there remain some confusing outstanding issues.
For example, on page 3,448 of the mayoral proposal, all 15 staffers in “Bicycle Network Devel” are eliminated, saving $451,000. And on page 3,552, another $4.1 million is cut from the program. The group manages planning and creating new bike lanes.
So what does that mean? A spokesman for DOT says it’s merely a technical budget issue, and neither the program nor any of its positions have been cut, and will all be added back into the budget in the upcoming financial plan.
“The positions themselves are not impacted,” the spokesman said.
And it does appear that the spokesman is correct, as the 2021 fiscal year budget similarly shows that funding for the bicycle network development program was nixed.
The budget also appears to include 33 new staff positions on the Staten Island Ferry, but this, too, is just some budget juggling. During the second half of fiscal year 2021, the city reduced overnight Staten Island ferry service because of decreased demand, which saved $6 million. So this year’s proposed budget looks like the city is pouring millions into the ferry, when really all it is doing is bring it back to normal, the spokesman said.
Other positions and units also appear to be eliminated in the DOT budget, but an agency spokesman explained that most of the cuts are just due to budget technicalities, and do not actually impact the unit or position in question. If true, it makes it impossible to accurately analyze a budget because the agency can claim that a cut will be restored later or that a budget efficiency is not actually an efficiency:
- The budget appears to eliminate DOT’s SmartChoice staff, saving about $100,000. But a spokesman says the federally funded pilot program to “use targeted marketing and outreach to encourage individuals to use more efficient travel modes or routes” has just not been funded yet. “The position is funded by grant funds that will be added to next year’s budget in an upcoming financial plan based on the anticipated program needs in FY22,” the spokesman said.
- A unit called “Intersection Control” appears to be taking a $12-million cut. But a spokesman for DOT said that funding for the unit, which helps determine if traffic signals or multi-way stop signs are appropriate for a location, is not changing and the budget line-item only represents a variance between the amount in the current year compared to the amount in FY22 in this particular budget code.
- A unit called “bike and ped program (CHIPs)” appears to lose $534,000. But a DOT spokesman said that, like the Bicycle Network Development program, funding for the unit has just not been added yet.
- The agency is budgeting $1.5 million less from the famous settlement with Volkswagen. But a DOT spokesman says that the settlement funds are advanced to NYCDOT in tranches, not all at once, so funds will be added to the FY 22 budget. The spokesman also said that the funding is being used for the New York City Clean Truck Program.
- The agency is adding three positions, at a cost of nearly $300,000 total, to its “vehicle maintenance” unit. It is unclear why those positions are needed.
- The budget appears to eliminate the OneNYC staff, saving about $226,000. OneNYC is the city’s Green New Deal initiative. It is unclear what that’s about.
- The budget claims a $13.2-million savings from “telephone and other services.” An agency spokesman said “there were no telephone-related savings for DOT” in the preliminary budget.
- The budget appears to cut $1.5-million for “connected vehicles” in the “traffic intelligence division.” It is unclear what that means.
The slimmed financial plan comes after Hizzoner initially cut $3.6 billion in June from the remainder of this year’s budget, including $8.4 million from the “Better Bus Initiative,” $3 million in savings for the Vision Zero public awareness campaign, $4 million in savings for Vision Zero street improvement programs, and $3 million in savings from the “Green Wave” initiative that was only introduced in July, 2019.