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THE ALBANY REPORT: A Historic, Yet Deeply Disappointing, Glass-Half-Empty Legislative Session

Half good, half bad. Half full. It’s a metaphor.

Well, the session went into overtime, but the legislature still couldn't "get stuff done" for New York.

How Streetsblog covered the 2021 legislative session.
How Streetsblog covered the 2021 legislative session. Click to read.
How Streetsblog covered the 2021 legislative session.

To be clear, after a disastrous session last year, our lawmakers in Albany did make history this year in one crucial way: They extended New York City's school-zone speed camera program for another three years and are allowing those cameras to operate 24-7-365 instead of just 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays.

The passage of Sen. Andrew Gounardes and Assembly Member Deborah Glick's bill is a major victory for street safety advocates, despite the fact that the bill was a deeply watered-down version of original legislation that included provisions to rein in reckless drivers in ways that elected officials found unpalatable (because they would likely be ensnared by them themselves, Assembly Member Dick Gottfried told Streetsblog).

Despite the gutting of the bill, everyone put a positive spin on the victory.

"We never get everything we fight for — that's the nature of the process, but the speed camera win is monumental," Gounardes told Streetblog on Friday. "There's obviously more work to do next year."

State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who watched powerless as some of his worthiest bills failed to pass the Assembly or earn even a home rule message from City Council lawmakers, also led with the good news.

"We made significant progress," he said. "Of course, not as much as any of us would have wanted to see, but for the first time, speed cameras are normalized. The knee-jerk opposition to them has dissipated and now we can build on the success of the 24-hour camera bill to introduce and pass more legislation. If I wasn’t an optimist, I wouldn’t be in politics."

There were several bills that the New York State Safe Streets Coalition (a Transportation Alternatives-led coalition) championed under the banner of the "Crash Victims Rights and Safety Act," which wasn't one act at all, but eight bills. Three of them passed, but a critical measure that would have allowed New York City to set its own speed limits — also known as "Sammy's Law" — never made it out of committee, in part because of wavering from the City Council. As such, the group was disappointed.

“There have been some real wins for street safety this session, [but] we are disappointed that Sammy’s Law for lower speed limits in New York City has not yet advanced," said Elizabeth Adams, the group's senior director of advocacy and organizing for TA. "This measure would undoubtedly save lives and remains a top priority for Families for Safe Streets members across the five boroughs.”

Indeed, the few successes and compromises only revealed the vast numbers of bills — some of them critical in keeping our roads and children safe from drivers — that were ignored by legislative leaders. To compile this list, we sifted through roughly 2,000 bills that were assigned to the transportation committees of the Assembly and the Senate, and pared that list down to a few hundred that were eagerly watched by street safety advocates.

Obviously, many of these bills (like "Authorizes the department of transportation to conduct a study pertaining to proposed improvements of State Route 9A in the towns of Ossining and Mount Pleasant" or "Designates a portion of the state highway system as the Assemblyman William 'Bill' Magee Highway") are unimportant to our readers, so we ignored them.

And, of course, not all the news from Albany was bad: unhelpful bills that would, for example, make it easier for scofflaws to keep driving, to replace parking removed to create dedicated bus lanes, to normalize non-commercial use of a pickup truck, to prevent departments of Transportation from taking over crash investigations from police departments, to criminalize cycling while drunk, to give some drivers (or even cops) exemptions to congestion pricing, to require "commuter" cyclists to take special safety courses, reduce the effectiveness of the city's school zone speed cameras, to require e-bike riders to wear a helmet (even Citi Bike e-bike riders), to require license plates on e-bikes, or to reduce the size of the no-parking zone around hydrants never got out of committee.

The big bills

First, let's look at those bills collected under Transportation Alternatives' banner, "The Crash Victims Rights and Safety Act":

    • A1007 (Paulin)/S2021 (May): Would allow upstate towns and cities to set their speed limits at 25 miles per hour. Status: Passed both houses. Almost certain to become law.
    • A4655 (Gottfried)/S524 (Hoylman): This bill, also known as Sammy's Law after Sammy Eckstein Cohen, would have allowed New York City to set its own speed limits below 25 miles per hour. The bill, which passed the Senate only last year, required a message of support from the City Council, which it received last year. But the new Council, under Speaker Adrienne Adams, did not issue the required "home rule" message (Streetsblog will have more on that later on Monday). Status: Did not move out of committee.
    • A8936 (Fahy)/S3897 (Kennedy): Would increase state funding for construction and improvements when a city agrees to fund a complete street design feature as a component of the project. Status: Passed both houses. Almost certain to become law.
    • A8624 (Barrett)/S8394 (Ryan): Would have expanded the state's "Complete Street" design principles to all state, county and local transportation projects that receive federal, state or both federal and state funding. Status: Never made it out of committee.
    • A7782 (Rivera)/S5130 (Kennedy): Would require include, when possible, "Complete Street" design features in resurfacing, maintenance and pavement recycling projects. Status: Passed the Senate, but never made it out of the Assembly committee.
    • A547 (Steck)/S4529 (Harckham): Would have mandated a three-foot "safe passing" distance between drivers and cyclists. Status: Passed the Senate, but never made it out of the Assembly committee.
    • A5084 (Gallagher)/S1078 (Gounardes): Would have required drivers to be given specific education in how to drive properly around cyclists and pedestrians. Status: Passed both houses.
    • A9152 (Glick)/S8152 (Hoylman): The so-called "Crash Victims Bill of Rights," this legislation would ensures that crash victims and next of kin get "free and timely copies of all crash reports," that the DMV allow victim impact statements at hearings, require employers to provide a leave of absence for such hearings, and require the state to study the "unmet resource needs of crash victims and their families." Status: Did not make it out of committee.

There was another key bill that passed:

A8473 (Gottfried)/S7493 (Hoylman): The so-called "Stop the Chop" act, this bill will allow New Yorkers to seek damages from non-essential helicopter operators if they have "suffered interference with the use and enjoyment of private property or public parkland" because of the "unreasonable level of sustained noise" by helicopters. The damages range from $1,000 to $10,000. Gottfried said in a statement that he hopes “that the threat of a lawsuit will stem the plague of sightseeing flights coming from New Jersey that hover over Central Park and ruin the park for thousands of residents and tourists for the enjoyment of a select few."  Status: Passed both houses. Future unclear.

End-of-session spin zone

With so many worthy pieces of legislation ending up frozen, it was hard for even optimists to put a good face on the end of session.

"There were a lot of important bills that didn’t get prioritized by the city for whatever reason," said Hoylman, whose "Sammy's Law" bill never got the required home rule message from the City Council, the vast majority of whose members only took office in January and have been inconsistent on speeding and speed cameras. It was the Council, after all, that helped water down Gounardes and Glick's speed-camera expansion bill.

Hoylman was especially shocked about the lack of home rule support for Sammy's Law: "It’s inexplicable to me why Council members don’t want New York City to have more control. But it's also a difficult political environment in Albany for the mayor. Several bills were viewed as ceding control to a mayor who does not enjoy widespread popularity among my colleagues."

For Gounardes, getting the speed camera bill over the finish line — however exhausted and depleted — was a learning experience.

"It's just natural in the course of negotiations that things fall off the table," he said. "Now that cameras are nearly fully deployed across the city, I was hearing some more grumbling in certain communities. So as we were trying to address the concerns that some had about 24-7 speed cameras, we also had to dealing with people who had some opposition to the provisions about recidivist reckless drivers. Carrying on both those fights at the same time was really difficult, so I made a tactical decision that the overnight and weekend expansion of the cameras was a bigger win than the efforts against recidivist drivers, even though they're both important."

Gounardes promised to "come back with the other pieces" of the bill and pass them as separate items next year.

"This is four-dimensional chess," he said. "We're negotiating with the Council, with both houses of the legislator and with the executive. To play four-dimensional chess with new and novel pieces was difficult."

It wasn't difficult only for his bill. Check out our roundup below of all the bills we were watching:

Bills that got halfway

There were many bills that passed one house, but did not get over the other hurdle:

A516 (Carroll)/S3080 (Salazar): Would have expanded the existing electric car rebate program to include e-bikes, too (coverage here). Status: Passed in the Senate, but never made it out of its Assembly committee.

A6748 (Jackson)/S2757 (Ramos): This bill would legalize electric cargo bikes, which is seen as a necessity before many truck delivery trips can be replaced with a sustainable, smaller mode. Status: Passed in the Senate, but never made it out of its Assembly committee.

A7157 (Weprin)/S639 (Liu): A long-sought bill that would require the state to study extending the Long Island Motor Parkway (a greenway). Status: Passed the Senate, but was never taken up in the Assembly.

A3817 (Vanel)/S3259 (Comrie): Would increase fines for overnight parking of tractor-trailers and semi-trailers on residential streets in the city. Status: Passed the Senate, but never made it out of its Assembly committee.

A7032 (Rosenthal)/S6202 (Kennedy): Aimed to heighten awareness, through the driver's licensing process, of what dangerous driving really is, given the high percentages of people who admit they speed. Status: Passed the Senate, but never made it out of its Assembly committee.

A3991 (Colton)/S9188 (Comrie): Requires the MTA to inform customers of any bed bug infestation within 24 hours. Status: Passed the Assembly, but never made it out of the Senate committee.

Bills not taken up at all

A107 (Quart): Requires the department of motor vehicles to enter information regarding a suspension or revocation of a driver's license on his or her driving record; requires the department to work with local law enforcement agencies to facilitate a uniform means for such agencies to gain immediate electronic access to a licensee's driving record; requires the commissioner to submit a report regarding existing means utilized for such access. Status: Never taken up.

S8328 (Gounardes): This bill would have expanded the city's red-light camera program from just 150 cameras to 1,325 cameras — and extended the program to the end of 2029 (it currently expires at the end of 2024, so there is still hope for this extension). Status: Never taken up in the Senate committee.

A379 (Cahill)/S4320 (Hoylman): require all insurance companies to provide the New York city department of transportation with insurance statistic and other information relating to all motor vehicle accidents occurring on streets and highways within the city of New York. Status: Never taken up (and not moved since 2015).

A575 (Rozic)/S4307 (Gounardes): Would creates a pedestrian safety rating system for motor vehicles. Status: Never taken up in committee.

A676 (Carroll)/S288 (Myrie): This bill (along with S1190 by Sen. Michael Gianaris) would have suspended the registration of any vehicle that was issued at least six speed-camera violations in a 12-month period. Measures like this (and the ones below) were part of the original speed camera legislation, but were amended out before that bill passed. Status: Never were taken up in committee.

A5712 (Glick)/S3241 (Sanders): Would have suspended the driver's license, for 60 days, for anyone getting two camera-issued speeding tickets in 18 months. Status: Never taken up in committee.

A933 (Carroll)/S8915 (Hoylman): Would have created escalating fines for multiple speed-camera offenses (currently, the fines remain $50 no matter how many tickets a driver receives). Under this bill, the fines would be $150 for the third ticket, $250 for the fourth, $300 for the fifth and $350 for the sixth. Status: Never taken up in committee.

A1147 (Quart)/S717 (Gounardes): Would replace the term "reckless driving" with the term "aggressive driving" in the vehicle and traffic law, which many advocates believe will make it easier to charge dangerous drivers. Status: Never taken up by committee.

A1292 (Zebrowski) and A1306 (Rosenthal): Both bills would increase fines and penalties for passing a stopped school bus. Status: Neither bill was taken up by committee.

A1506 (Carroll): Would have required the DMV to suspend, for 60 days, the license of any driver involved in a fatal crash, and require a re-education course. Status: Never taken up by committee.

A2249 (Rosenthal): Would have raised the fine for illegal idling. Status: Never taken up by committee.

A2302 (Simon): Would create a specific penalty of $150 for parking in a bicycle lane. Status: Never taken up by committee.

A2515 (Cymbrowitz): Also known as "Seth's Law," this bill would strengthens the penalties on motorists who leave the scene of an injury-causing crash. Status: Never taken up by committee.

A31404 (Fahy)/S920 (May): Would have allowed the so-called "Idaho stop" for cyclists at intersections. Status: Never got out of committee.

A3333 (Fahy): Would have increased the penalty for striking a pedestrian to five points on one's driving record, up from two. Status: Never made it out of committee.

A3473 (Fahy)/S3302 (Hoylman): Long a dream of advocates and lawyers for injured cyclists, this bill would have replaced each instance of the word "accident" with the word "crash" in the vehicle and traffic law. Status: Never taken up by committee.

A6949 (Rosenthal)/S1985 (Jackson): An interesting, if vague bill, this would have barred cities from permitting "certain land use actions" that would make traffic worse. "This is an opportunity to create new ways to think about cars and to avoid the harmful effects of gridlock," the bill stated. Status: Never got out of committee.

A7197 (Simon)/S131 (Liu): Would lower the blood alcohol level to be considered driving while intoxicated from .08 to .05. Status: Never made it out of committee.

A10290: Would have required drunk drivers to pay child support if their drunk driving caused the death of a parent or guardian of a minor. Status: Did not make it out of committee.

A10446 (Mamdani)/S1398 (Hoylman): Would have allowed the city to create a bike lane camera program to "protect cyclists and hold encroaching motorists accountable." Status: Did not make it out of committee.

S9253 (Parker): Would have required the state DOT to prepare a plan for every public transit system to be eligible to receive assistance in the purchase of zero-emission buses or vehicles. Status: Never got out of committee.

S8880 (Brooks): Would have increased the penalties for obstructing a license plate and allowed for the suspension of a vehicle's registration if the vehicle owner does not remove the obstruction. Status: Never got out of committee.

S846 (Gounardes): Would require drivers to take a written exam to get a renewal. Status: Never made it out of committee.

S1107 (Liu): Long a safety obsession of the Queens senator, this bill would have classified cars as "in motion" even if stopped at a traffic light for the purposes of the ban on using handheld cellphones while driving. It's not an insignificant bill; many people have been killed because drivers stop watching the road when stopped at a light. Status: Once again, never made it out of committee.

S1136 (Liu): This bil prohibits the use of "head-mounted portable electronic devices while driving." Status: Never made it out of committee.

A4434 (O'Donnell)/S1194 (Gianaris): Would have created a "millionaire's tax" to fund transit. Status: Never made it out of committee.

S1250 (Gianaris): This bill, which dates back almost a decade, would require people to turn in their license plates if their driver's license is suspended. This is no small matter, given how many crashes are caused by people driving with suspended licenses. Status: As always, it never made it out of committee.

A6812 (Cusick)/S2264 (Gallivan): Would increase the penalty for leaving the scene of a crash. Status: Never made it out of committee.

A1283 (Dinowitz)/S2745 (Comrie): Long a dream of the Queens senator and his Bronx counterpart, this bill would give MetroCard users two, instead of one, free transfer — a major issue in areas of the city where people ride two buses to get to or from a subway. Status: As always, never made it out of committee.

A6169 (Hyndman)/S3226 (Ramos): Would have barred the MTA from restricting users of shopping carts in the subway. The goal of the bill was to "address discriminatory MTA rulings against the homeless, which did not follow proper public hearing law." Status: Never got out of committee.

S3534 (Kennedy): Would create a new crime: "death by vehicle." Status: Never made it out of committee.

S4911 (Lanza): Would have prohibited the parking of any vehicle higher than 60 inches from corner spots. Status: Never made it out of committee.

S5618 (Lanza): Though he opposes speed cameras, the Staten Island senator is a booster of school safety zones (though adding traffic lights might result in more, rather than less, speeding). This bill, which would double traffic fines in school zones, has been on Lanza's docket for years. It's necessary because "harsher punishments are [needed] for individuals who violate the vehicle and traffic laws, especially in school traffic zones. Guaranteeing the safety of children should be taken with the utmost concern and importance. The majority of motor vehicles in school zones exceed the speed limit, endangering the welfare of children." Status: Never made it out of committee.

A632 (Carroll)/S5788 (Comrie): Remember all the talk earlier this year about protective doors on subway platforms? Well, Leroy Comrie and Bobby Carroll do. But their bill requiring the MTA to conduct a study never made it out of committee (perhaps because the MTA is moving ahead with a pilot).

S6129 (Boyle): Would have required the state DOT to do a better job of keeping commercial trucks off of parkways. Status: Never made it out of committee.

A2624 (Hyndman)/S1941 (Akshar): Would require drivers to carry more insurance so that if they hit people, the victims are better covered, an issue explored by Streetsblog last year. Status: Never made it out of committee.

S232 (Tedisco): Would revoke all driving privileges to anyone who has three or more DWIs that lead to a fatality or injury in 25 years. Status: For the fifth time, it never made it out of committee.

A624 (Carroll)/S80 (Hoylman): In a rebuke to former Gov. Cuomo, this bill would require the MTA to run the subway and bus system all day, every day unless there is a "declared state of emergency." Status: Never made it out of committee.

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