State Pols: Go Ahead, Drive In Bus Lanes and Don’t Pay Tolls — See If We’re Going to Do Anything About It

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins won't fight blocked bus lanes. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins won't fight blocked bus lanes. File photo: Gersh Kuntzman

State legislators used their budget proposals stick it to mass transit by prioritizing drivers blocking bus lanes and messing up their license plates to evade tolls.

The one-house budget from the Assembly and the state Senate, which represent the legislature’s counterproposal to the executive budget, failed to include both Gov. Hochul’s proposals to raise the fines for blocking bus lanes and to increase penalties for evading tolls and defacing your license plate to avoid paying a toll.

The policy snub, combined with neither body adding any additional transit spending (such as flipping the way the gas tax gets distributed between transit and highways) left advocates fuming.

“The one-house budgets leave a lot to be desired: no increase in subway or bus service for millions of riders, no enhanced enforcement in the city with the slowest buses in the country, and no assurance of tolling fairness for drivers,” said Riders Alliance Director of Policy and Communication Danny Pearlstein. “Leaving policy out of the budget is one thing, but all three measures affect our economic recovery and state revenue and expenditures.”

As Pearlstein noted, stripping the proposals could be seen as part of the legislature’s attempt to assert some long-lost dominance over how the budget process works. Under former governor and now-disgraced sex pest Andrew Cuomo, legislators complained that non-revenue items were added to the budget as a power move to get the governor’s priorities into law, something that leadership in both houses are reportedly trying to push back on this year.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters in Albany that a number of issues, like mayoral control of schools, didn’t make it in the Assembly budget because the lower house took every policy piece out of its budget, though Politico’s Marie French pointed out a number of policy proposals that made it into the Assembly offer.

Hochul’s budget included the fairly routine policy item of raising the minimum fine for driving in or otherwise blocking a bus lane from $50 to $125 and created a new fine schedule that raised the ceiling for recidivist bus lane blockers to a $350 fine for a fifth bus lane violation in a one-year period. The governor’s budget also sought to turn toll evasion into a criminal offense on par with fare evasion on the subway, and make it specifically illegal to go through a toll with a defaced license plate, which state law somehow does not explicitly prohibit.

The state pols’ decision to omit Hochul’s initiative looks even worse, as the MTA section of the budget includes non-revenue policy ideas like raising the penalty for assaulting MTA employees and creating a new transparency reporting requirements for the agency.

“The Senate put the worker assault language in there, and actually added some language that we support about capital dashboard transparency,” said Reinvent Albany Senior Researcher Rachael Fauss. “That’s not technically a budget item either. It’s a transparency piece that relates to how money is being spent and reporting on it, but it’s not like it has a fiscal impact attached.”

The state Senate’s budget also included mewling concessions promising to take care of bus lane enforcement outside of the budget process, and an empty statement claiming the state “recognizes the significant lost revenues resulting from implementation of cashless tolling.” The latter statement can scarcely be believed, since legislators came to the rescue of toll cheats during the budget process in 2020 and 2021 as well, making this year is the third straight budget in which a governor proposed doing something about the issue, only to have state legislators tank the proposal.

If history is any guide, the legislature will fail to act on the issue during the remainder of the legislative session again, even as this is a particularly bad time to do nothing about toll cheats, what with the MTA expecting to raise $1 billion in toll revenues next year when congestion pricing is scheduled to begin. If the state Senate at least is going to be true to its word, Fauss said that it should just give New York City control of its own traffic laws, something that activists are asking for this year in a large package of bills.

“If the Senate wants to do this outside the budget, they should do it,” said Fauss. “They should expand the city’s home rule over its own streets, just straight up, that’s the way they should be handled, not in a one-off to give the city the ability to enforce these bus cameras or giving the MTA and the city the toll enforcement proposals. Do it broadly do it for all these things so the city doesn’t have to keep coming back to Albany every time it wants to prioritize safety and improving transit.”

Spokespeople for Heastie and for Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesperson for the governor didn’t comment on the toll or camera snubs specifically, but said she would continue to negotiate with the legislative leaders.

“Gov. Hochul’s executive budget includes bold initiatives to embrace this once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in our future, and we look forward to continuing to work with the legislature to finalize a budget that serves all New Yorkers,” the spokesperson said.

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