DECISION 2021: Meet the Council Candidates for Queens District 31 

Candidates in the special election include (from left): Latoya Benjamin, Selvena Brooks-Powers, Pesach Osina, Manny Silva, Shawn Rux and Nancy Martinez
Candidates in the special election include (from left): Latoya Benjamin, Selvena Brooks-Powers, Pesach Osina, Manny Silva, Shawn Rux and Nancy Martinez

The vast majority of council members are term-limited and cannot run for re-election this year. But there are a number of special elections before the June 22, 2021 main event — and one of those is in District 31, which includes the Queens neighborhoods of Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale, Springfield Gardens (a seat previously represented by Donovan Richards, who left before his second term had ended to run and become Queens Borough President. The special election is on Tuesday, Feb. 23, though early voting is underway. Expanding on our prior coverage of Brooklyn council races, Streetsblog spoke with six of the nine candidates vying to replace Richards — all of whom have raised more than $20,000 in contributions, according to the Campaign Finance Board.

District 31
District 31 includes JFK Airport.

District 31 is a “transportation desert,” but it also filled with road violence: Since January, 2019, there have been 7,668 total crashes, injuring 59 cyclists, 270 pedestrians (killing five), and injuring 2,507 motorists (killing 11), according to Crash Mapper.

In the district, roughly 46 percent of commuters take public transit to get to work, According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Here’s what the six candidates had to say about transportation issues in their district:

Shawn Rux

  • Deputy Superintendent for District 29 in Queens
  • So far raised $24,929, spent $33,845

Rux, an educator, said he sees transportation as an issue that connects to all others — a child being able to get to school, and get there safely, is just as important as the education he or she will receive.

“It’s an intersection issue, it’s connected to all issues. We’re in a transportation desert,” Rux said, adding that he would support banning cars in front of schools during pick-up and -off to ensure kids get into the classroom safely — a safety initiative used elsewhere in the world that Mayor de Blasio has opposed.

“I always see cars speeding past schools,” he said. “If there’s a way to limit cars from driving down certain streets I would be supportive of that.”

On busways — points of contention on Merrick Boulevard and Archer Avenue — Rux said he does not want to inconvenience drivers.

“I would look more closely at while improving public transport, but I don’t want to inconvenience those who are driving as well,” he said. “Community members want more bus routes than the buses that currently exist [and] I hear so often that the buses come late or just not there. … I believe there are aspects of the budget where we can reallocate funds to ensure public transportation transportation in general is also quality and accessible.”

LaToya Benjamin

  • Director of Economic Development for the New York State Senate
  • So far raised $22,909, spent $25,501

Benjamin framed the issue of transportation in the district as part of COVID recovery, saying the ability to get to a job is dependent on the ability to get there.

Benjamin says the focus shouldn’t just be on getting residents into Manhattan, but into other parts of the distrcit as well, like JFK airport, which she says is among the district’s top five employers. (Census figures show that only about 21 percent of district residents commute to Manhattan’s business core.)

“Part of my role in the Senate has been looking at different transportation models we can introduce into our district,” she said. “For example, residents in the Rockaways have a hard time getting to work at JFK — there’s no single point of access to the airport.”

Benjamin said residents of District 31 are concerned about the overall viability of commuter vans, a.k.a. dollar vans, that shuttle passengers to distant train stations for a few bucks. She said the city should support them to help make up some of the last miles in people’s commutes.

“There’s some opportunity to organize them in a way that responds to the transportation desert.”

Benjamin said she’s a supporter of Mayor de Blasio’s ferry system, which has been underutilized in communities of color. She wants to expand it to other parts of the Rockaways, not just near the beach.

“Anything we can do to improve the ferry,” she said. “I think it should be expanded. There’s always issues with the Rockaways being left out of the process.”

Benjamin says she’s weary on expanding Citi Bike into the district — not that there’s any near-term plan for that — since its docks would take up parking spaces.

“It has to be well balanced,” she said. “One of criticisms of Citi Bike is it takes away parking. People drive. “There needs to be a well-rounded response to transportation. How do we create an inclusive plan that also includes drivers?”

Selvena Brooks-Powers

  • MWBE Project Manager with the JFK Redevelopment Program
  • So far raised 42,075, spent $96,257

Brooks-Powers, who was endorsed by Richards (though she lost to him in 2013), said she’s thinking about transportation as it relates to COVID-19 recovery.

“I’d love to see a study on local transportation issues especially since COVID [which] definitely impacted this district on every level from small businesses to transportation,” she said. “In this district, transportation centers around access and affordability and having alternative options. So that’s the lens I look through when discussing transportation.”

Brooks-Powers said her focus is on providing better transportation options for low-income families — though she was still weary about the busway that was created on Merrick Boulevard.

“I definitely would like to think outside the box of how we are able to provide access to transportation to lower-income residents and think outside the box on what that would look like,” she said, touting her support for expanding the mayor’s highly subsidized ferry service elsewhere in the district. “The busway that has been created down Merrick has received a lot of mixed reviews mostly because of the way it was rolled out — not much communication.

“These busways require working collaboratively to create plans that make sense,” Brooks-Powers added. “What I’ve seen on Merrick is some bottlenecks since the busway was created.”

But Brooks-Powers supports expanding protected bike lanes in the district, especially, she said, as more people are riding now.

“I know we have quite a few now [point of fact: District 31 has almost no protected bike lanes] and there’s definitely been an increase in people riding bikes, especially Lime bikes in the community. I definitely see a need for it,” she said.

And like her competitors, Brooks-Powers mentioned the need to support the commuter van industry, which is suffering even as people are relying on it to get around.

“They’ve been largely impacted more recently in terms of increases to certain criteria that’s now being required on them,” she said. “That’s an industry that needs to be supported and protected.”

Nancy Martinez

  • Founder of New York Career Training School and Rockaway Adult Social Center, both in Far Rockaway
  • So far raised $50,288, spent $41,120

Martinez, who told Streetsblog she’s had her fair share of commuting hours from the Rockaways into Manhattan, said the city and state need to better coordinate the shuttle buses that run in place of the A train when it snows, and in bad weather.

“Public transportation out here, especially, in the Rockaways, it’s horrible. It hasn’t improved at all,” said Martinez. “I don’t see that they have done any sort of improvements for a train line coming into the Rockaways — the elevated train when it snows, if they know this is an issue every winter, you would think they would have another system in place. The shuttle bus is not coordinated properly either.”

But when it comes to improving bus service for constituents, like on the controversial Archer Avenue, Martinez wasn’t as supportive, unlike the last holder of the District 31 seat, who advocated for the busway.

“Archer Avenue busway, to be honest, I have to see about the busway when it comes to transportation — if it’s what the constituents want or need I will support it,” she said.

Martinez said she supports bike lanes.

“I’m for bike lanes in the district, it’s good exercise, less fuel going around,” she said.

Pesach Osina

  • Former Queens Borough Director for the NYC Comptroller
  • So far raised $22,794, spent $53,932

Osina, who also lost to Richards in 2013, said one of the most important steps for improving transit in the district is restarting the Queens Bus Network Redesign that was put on hold last year because of the pandemic — and getting “community input.”

“We have to make our bus rides easier and better. There’s been a lot of inequities shown by the pandemic. We need to revisit with more community input,” he said.

But Osina wouldn’t go so far as to endorse busways to make those bus rides “easier and better,” repeating the age-old trope that taking away parking spots would hurt businesses’ bottom lines.

“We have to see what are negative adverse effects on community business if you’re taking away parking spots. We need to look at the whole bus redesign plan, need to make sure there’s real community input moving forward,” he said.

Osina also said that more outreach is needed to get more people on the ferry system, and figure out why it’s been shown to cater more to the wealthy.

“Why are we not getting a more diverse population on the ferry? What needs to be done to create that outreach?” he said.

And on bike lanes and bike share, Osina said the pandemic also showed him how critical it is as a mode of transportation, and an enjoyable activity, and the need for better bike infrastructure in the district.

“The amount of people utilizing bikes was tremendous — a tremendous uptick. How do we get more people to utilize it?” he said. “We need a bike share program out here.”

Manny Silva

  • Former chief of staff for then-Council Member Donovan Richards
  • So far raised $26,656, spent $86,024

Unlike his competitors, Silva was more critical of the ferry system that serves just one section of the Rockaways, saying it is not effective or equitable and that he’d rather see the money go towards improving train and bus service.

“Unless the city is going to build a ferry stop in Far Rockaway, it really is not benefiting us on our side of the peninsula,” he said. “With the amount of money subsidizing the ferry, you’d think it would benefit a wide range of people. But the city refuses to build a ferry stop on our side of the peninsula,” he said. “I’d like to see the money used for more creative options.”

Silva also said he’d like to see bus options improved and expanded, but also wouldn’t support busways due to what he says is a need for parking and driving.

“The problem is that our communities rely heavily on cars. Every district in NYC should be looked at individually when determining where we create bus-only lanes. In our district it doesn’t work everywhere,” he said.

Growing up, Silva said he was so broke that he relied only on his feet or bike to get around, and because of that, wholeheartedly endorses expanding protected bike lanes.

“I would walk or I’d have to bike around the district, literally would bike from one end of the district to the other — it was very dangerous. Bike lanes, we need to do much better,” he said. “I see them happening all over Manhattan, and we barely have any bike lanes here and the ones we do have are very inconvenient. I would support an entire bike infrastructure that goes throughout the entire district.”

And with an expanded bike lane network should come more micro mobility options like bike-share and scooter-share programs to help people get around, said Silva.

“We saw Lime bikes do extremely well out here [in a pilot program in Rockaway],” said Silva. “It created an opportunity for people to bike around and people with not a lot of money to bike around, especially young people I believe we need a comprehensive transportation plan for our district and all our districts in Southeast Queens, which have been highly neglected by the MTA and DOT and if we were to all come together with a comprehensive plan that included bike lanes, included electric charging stations, included new bus routes, we could change that narrative and have just as many options as the rest of the city.”

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