DOT Expects to Miss Targets for New Bus Lanes, Sources Say
12:01 AM EST on December 12, 2022
The Department of Transportation has informed City Hall and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that it will struggle to build the 30 miles of new bus lanes required by law next year, according to three officials, raising questions about the Adams administration’s capacity to meet its transportation goals while slashing city spending.
The Streets Plan law, passed by the City Council in 2019, requires DOT to build at least 20 miles of bus lanes this year and at least 30 miles in each of the next four years. But the agency is already on track to miss this year's target, and it expects to miss next year's goal as well, according to the officials, who requested anonymity to share the internal projections.
DOT has also indicated it expects it will be unable to build the 150 miles of new bus lanes over four years that Eric Adams promised while running for mayor, the sources said. Currently the agency can only build around 15 miles of new bus lanes annually, officials said, although DOT could still meet the Streets Plan benchmarks by upgrading existing bus lanes with cameras that automatically ticket drivers who violate bus lane restrictions.
The blame for these pessimistic forecasts lies primarily on staff shortages — both of planners to design new routes and construction crews to paint them, according to officials. But funding for extra staff appears unlikely. The Adams administration already devoted $904 million over five years to realizing the Streets Plan — which is still short of the "several billion dollars" DOT previously said it would need to hit the plan's targets. And the administration has recently sought to reduce agency headcount amid fears of looming budget shortfalls.
The dim outlook on new lanes is bad news for the city’s more-than-one-million daily bus riders, whose commutes inch along at just eight miles per hour on average across the city.
"The law is the law, and the mayor made a solemn promise to bus riders to speed up the nation’s slowest bus service that millions of low-income people of color have been enduring for several decades," said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for the advocacy group Riders Alliance. "If not this mayor then who?"
Charles Lutvak, a spokesman for the mayor, referred questions to DOT. In a statement, DOT spokesman Vin Barone said: “The claims of these anonymous sources do not reflect the views of Commissioner Rodriguez, DOT, and the Adams administration. DOT intends to meet our 2023 goals under the NYC Streets Plan.”
Barone did not respond to a question about how many miles of new bus lanes DOT expects to build next year or provide a list of planned routes. He also did not respond to a question about why the nearly $1 billion that the administration already devoted to realizing the Streets Plan is insufficient to meet its benchmarks.
The Streets Plan legislation requires DOT to come up with a master plan for the city's streets and pedestrian spaces every five years to improve traffic safety, transit and accessibility. The first plan had to include the construction of 150 miles of "protected bus lanes" over that period. The law defined a protected bus lane as “protected by physical barriers” or “monitored by stationary or mobile” cameras.
But DOT sounded the alarm from the start about its capacity to actually carry out the proposal.
"The bill’s vast new operational requirements would necessitate significant additional funding from the city budget, which we estimate to be several billion dollars, new head count, new facilities, and equipment,” then-DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said in 2019.
The law contains no enforcement provision. A Council spokesperson did not respond to a question about what action it will take, if any, if DOT fails to comply with the Streets Plan law. But the spokesperson conveyed the Council's frustration with the prospect.
“The Council enacted critical legislation requiring the city to build bus lanes to improve commutes for riders," the spokesperson said in a statement. "Staff shortages and unfilled vacancies in key agency positions, including planners and laborers, impact the delivery of municipal services with repercussions for New Yorkers, which is unacceptable. It is critical for the administration to fill vital roles that ensure agencies fulfill their requirements within the law and to communities.”
During his mayoral campaign, Adams promised to exceed the Streets Plan target for new bus lanes, saying he would build 150 miles in just four years instead of five. He has since revised that promise to 150 miles of new or “enhanced” lanes, which includes simply painting existing lanes red.
The Streets Plan target for this year already seems out of reach. Since January, DOT has built just 7.7 miles of new bus lanes and 4.2 miles of “newly camera-enforced” lanes, a DOT spokesman said. Another 7.3 miles are under construction. Even if finished in the three remaining weeks of the year, the total for 2022 would be 19.2 miles.
“We have improved the lives of 400,000 daily bus riders this year with projects that have made their service faster and more reliable,” Barone said.
Staff shortages have hampered DOT and other agencies throughout the year. Streetsblog reported in September that DOT was contending with a high vacancy rate, which employees attributed to low morale, difficulty hiring, frustration with in-office work requirements and dissatisfaction with the leadership of Commissioner Ydanis Rodriguez.
The strain caused by those empty desks could be here to stay. Recently the Office of Management and Budget ordered city agencies to eliminate half of their vacant positions. Depending on which vacancies at DOT are cut, the directive could present another hurdle to meeting the Streets Plan requirements, former DOT official Jon Orcutt said.
"Invariably you’ll do less with less," said Orcutt, now the director of advocacy for Bike New York.
The Adams administration has also ordered city agencies to cut spending by 3 to 4.75 percent in the coming years. The administration anticipates a $13.4-million budget shortfall over the next three fiscal years.
Political meddling has also gotten in the way of the city's efforts to redesign the public realm, as Streetsblog reported last month, with mayoral appointees slowing bus lane projects at the behest of Adams’s political allies.
Asked to comment on the city's bus lane miles projections, Joana Flores, a spokeswoman for the MTA, which operates city buses, said:
“The MTA is appreciative of the city’s commitment to create 150 miles of new bus lanes over four years and is here to help that become a reality in any way possible."
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