Meet the Council’s Transportation Committee Chair: Selvena Brooks-Powers

Selvena Brooks-Powers is the chair of the Council's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — and has a lot on her plate already.
Selvena Brooks-Powers is the chair of the Council's Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — and has a lot on her plate already.

Queens Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers was tapped on Thursday to lead the all-important Transportation Committee and succeed ex-Council Member (and now DOT Commissioner) Ydanis Rodriguez, who used the position to advocate for breaking the car culture, expanding bike and bus lanes, and improving pedestrian safety — and advocates hope the newcomer can fill those big shoes.

Brooks-Powers, who was sworn in over the summer after succeeding Donovan Richards, represents District 31, which includes communities considered to be transit-deserts: Arverne, Brookville, Edgemere, Far Rockaway, Laurelton, Rosedale, and Springfield Gardens. But now, she will also oversee transportation projects across all five boroughs, working with advocates to continue where Rodriguez left off: protecting vulnerable road users, getting people out of private cars and onto bikes and transit, and creating public space in a way that broadens equity and right historic wrongs.

District 31 is in the furthest southeast corner of Queens.
District 31 is in the furthest southeast corner of Queens.

The relatively new council member represents a district that is very different from the city as a whole — a city whose broad interests she will now have to embrace. For example, Brooks-Powers’s district has virtually no bike infrastructure nor even a single Citi Bike dock. Her neighborhood’s previous power elite was less supportive of dedicated busways and bus lanes than leaders in other neighborhoods — and as a possible result, buses in the 31st District are ranked among the slowest and least reliable in the city.

Before she was a member of the Council, Brooks-Powers told Streetsblog that she was concerned about a dedicated bus lane on Merrick Boulevard.

“What I’ve seen on Merrick is some bottlenecks since the busway was created,” she said at the time.

Similarly, 48 percent of workers in her district commute to their jobs alone in a car, according to census data — which is more than double the citywide rate. And in her district, 69 percent of the households own at least one car, far more than the citywide household car ownership rate of about 45 percent.

The district is also among the most dangerous in the city for pedestrians and motorists alike — in the last year, it ranked third worst out of the 51 council districts in the dubious honor of motorist injuries. Since 2019, seven pedestrians have been killed there, according to city statistics, and there have been 10,421 reported crashes, causing 4,076 total injuries, including to 360 pedestrians and 82 cyclists.

Brooks-Powers told Streetsblog at City Hall on Thursday that she commutes to the People’s House by both train and car. She said her first 100 days in the new role will include talking to her colleagues, as well as transportation advocates and experts, to hear their priorities for their own communities, and the best way forward to continuing working to curb traffic violence and easing congestion.

“I obviously know the shortchanges in terms of transportation and infrastructure in southeast Queens but now I need to know the full city,” she said. “We’ve come a long way in terms of pedestrian safety, but there’s so much more to be done. I will talk to stakeholders about some of the innovative ways, what’s in the toolbox, to be able to address these things and push those forward.”

Brooks-Powers’s said her love of the subway started early: her mom went into labor while riding it 38 years ago.

“I actually love the train,” she said. “I was almost born on the train, that’s probably why.”

Brooks-Powers added that she wants to increase access to the city-wide ferry system, and expand the bus and protected bike lane network in her district to help connect people to jobs. She also said at the time she was looking to expand the open streets program.

“Historically in New York City in particular, the transportation system has had many barriers for communities that live in transportation deserts from reaching economic opportunity,” she told Streetsblog. “Going from parts of southeast Queens to northern, at times you need to come out of the borough to get to those places and it takes so long to get there and it shouldn’t be — and that limits opportunity in terms of employment.” 

Brooks-Powers previously told Streetsblog that her focus is on providing better transportation options for low-income families.

“I definitely would like to think outside the box of how we are able to provide access to transportation to lower-income residents,” she said at the time.

Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers during Thursday's pre-stated meeting with new Council Speaker Adrienne Adams. Photo: Julianne Cuba
Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers during Thursday’s pre-stated meeting with new Council Speaker Adrienne Adams (right). Photo: Julianne Cuba

For now, activists are optimistic about the newcomer, who previously was the MWBE project manager with the JFK Redevelopment Program.

“[She] has a strong record of fighting for communities and workers throughout her service in government and labor and she will provide the strong leadership needed to advance policies that deliver a more equitable, healthier, and sustainable city,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Danny Harris. “The status quo on our streets has failed New Yorkers for far too long – especially Black and brown communities and those who live in transit deserts like many in Southeast Queens.”

The committee has also been renamed the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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Politicker is reporting that Upper Manhattan Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez has the inside track on securing the transportation committee chairmanship, which multiple sources have corroborated with Streetsblog. While the final decision won’t be announced until next week, sources say that council leadership will finalize the choice sooner than that, perhaps as early as today. The […]