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Council Budget Response: $3M for Battery Swaps and $61M for Fair Fares (Among Other Things)

12:01 AM EDT on April 4, 2023

It’s money that matters — and Council Speaker and Transportation Committee Chair Selvena Brooks-Powers want it.

The Adams administration needs to spend tens of millions more to fund the Fair Fares program, make roads safer and make a "down payment" on a battery swap program to thwart fires from substandard lithium-ion power packs, the City Council said on Monday.

Offering its annual response to the mayor's preliminary $103-billion budget [PDF], Council members demanded:

    • a near-doubling of funding for the Fair Fares program so that the city can raise the eligibility threshold from the current 100 percent of the federal poverty level to 200 percent. Such an expansion would cost $61.5 million, raising the Fair Fares budget to $136.5 million and expanding its membership to far more than the current 280,000 people.
    • that the administration "increase investments for street safety infrastructure for the communities most impacted by traffic and pedestrian fatalities" through such means as "daylighting and other traffic calming measures ... with a focus on equity for communities of color that disproportionately lack these street safety infrastructure investments." No dollar figure was associated with this demand.
    • that the Adams administration relents and this time accepts the Council demand for $45.1 million more for road paving. Last year, the Council demanded the same amount, but City Hall balked. As a result, the current goal for road resurfacing is 1,100 lane miles per year; the Council wants the Department of Transportation to repave 1,300 lane miles annually.
    • begin a low-level battery swap and fire outreach program aimed at delivery workers. This would cost $3 million.

"Preventing fires before they begin is the best strategy," states the budget response from the Council and its leader, Speaker Adrienne Adams. "The city must prioritize this while also supporting the workers who rely on these batteries for their livelihood."

Most of the $3 million would be spent on additional outreach to inform workers of the dangers of the lithium-ion batteries they carry. But Council Member Keith Powers (D-Manhattan) said there would be some money to initiate a battery swap program.

"It's a down payment to make sure there is some funding started in the next fiscal year for outreach extension and put us on a path to fund battery swaps," said Powers, whose bill for a much broader battery program is poised to pass this year. "If we pass my legislation, we will have to put additional money in." (The Powers bill will get a hearing on April 17.)

It's unclear how much a fully funded battery-swap program would cost, Powers said, because it's unclear how the program would work; the goal is not to encourage delivery workers to buy bad batteries so that they can then swap them for a new, certified one, for instance. Plus, there are other measures in the works to limit importation of substandard batteries and also forbid the sale of second-hand power plants.

The Council's $2.7-billion package would allocate $1.3 billion to restore some of Mayor Adams's budget cuts and the remaining $1.4 billion for costs of such things as migrant aid. The Council said it is banking on $5.2 billion more in projected tax revenue than the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget believes is incoming.

A big chunk of the money would go towards Fair Fares, and advocates were cheering.

"Expanding Fair Fares is a critical investment in the success of New York's working families and communities," Riders Alliance Executive Director Betsy Plum and Community Service Society President David Jones said in a joint statement. "By expanding both funding and eligibility, the Council's budget response takes a major step forward toward a fairer New York. ... We urge Mayor Adams to ... incorporate these recommendations into his executive budget proposal and the final adopted budget due in June."

Lisa Daglian, the executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, added that the 200-percent threshold is "much more reasonable" because of the "high cost of living in New York City."

"We applaud the City Council for including an additional baselined $61.5 million for Fair Fares ... and urge the mayor to follow suit. Next step: expanding Fair Fares to the LIRR and Metro-North within New York City, so that low-income New Yorkers can afford lower commuter rail fares!”

Council Member Selvena Brooks-Powers, who chairs the Transportation Committee, has recently upped her demands for the Adams administration to ensure that safety infrastructure is not reserved solely for well-to-do neighborhoods. She doubled-down on that in a statement on Monday:

“New Yorkers deserve access to high-quality services and investments in infrastructure citywide,” said Brooks-Powers (D-Queens). “I note the crucial investments this response calls for in essential programs and projects, from Fair Fares to public pools.”

City Hall pushed back on that narrative.

“In Mayor Adams’s Preliminary Budget, the administration made critical investments in public safety, affordable housing, clean streets, and so many other areas New Yorkers care deeply about — while simultaneously continuing the mayor’s strong record of fiscal responsibility and investing in our city’s future," said mayoral spokesman Jonah Allon. "The city faces significant fiscal and economic headwinds, including more than $4 billion in migrant costs by next year, funding labor settlements, and potential cuts and cost shifts from the state, which require prudent fiscal planning to ensure that we are spending within our means. ... We appreciate the Council’s partnership and look forward to working with them in the coming months to negotiate a budget that delivers for New Yorkers.”

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