News & Politics

Here’s What NYC Politicians Can Do to Help Fix the Subways

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In the midst of a catastrophic summer for subways and buses, a coalition of transit advocacy groups released a transit-oriented agenda that they’re encouraging candidates for city offices to embrace in the run-up to this fall’s municipal elections.

Speaking outside of the City Hall R stop, the advocates acknowledged that while City Hall doesn’t control the MTA (that responsibility falls to Governor Andrew Cuomo), there are a series of steps the city can take to improve the reliability, safety, and service within the city.

“We know that Andrew Cuomo controls the MTA, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing the city can do,” said John Raskin, the executive director of the Riders Alliance.

The agenda includes following through on the city’s $2.5 billion commitment to the MTA’s capital plan (which represents a large increase of funding from previous capital plans), getting more money from developers to fund transit infrastructure in exchange for rezonings, and subsidizing fares for low-income riders in the city. It’s that last issue that City Hall has long resisted — the idea that it should be helping its lowest-income riders afford to get to work, or school, or home.

“There’s no clearer way for the mayor to address the income divide among New Yorkers than by providing subsidized fares for low-income New Yorkers,” said Jaqi Cohen of the Straphangers Campaign.

The mayor’s public transportation priorities during his first term in office have focused mostly on the launch of a citywide ferry service, as well as the planning of a controversial streetcar — the Brooklyn-Queens Connector, or “BQX” — that would run through gentrifying areas of the Brooklyn and Queens waterfront. Neither the ferries nor the streetcar were included in the advocates’ agenda for the candidates, and the coalition declined repeatedly to take a position on the streetcar. It can be assumed that transit advocates would rather see the money needed for that project heading elsewhere, toward fixing the deteriorating subways, more dedicated bus lanes, or creating safer streets, as part of the mayor’s Vision Zero initiative, which transit advocates have roundly applauded. Still, they believe there’s more work to be done to create a safer city at street level, including prioritizing dangerous intersections that have already been identified by the Department of Transportation, and getting the NYPD to crack down on dangerous drivers (and not just go after the low-hanging fruit of cyclists). 

“There’s never been a better time for our city to make progress on streets and transportation than right now. All of our policy planks that we’re advancing are all proven. We’re not here to promote flying cars, or monorails, or new tunnels for autonomous vehicles,” said Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, stopping short of explicitly calling out the controversial streetcar [Update: on Friday, Steely White clarified to the Voice that he was in no way referencing the streetcar, and was instead discussing “pie in the sky” transit ideas. Steely White is a member of the streetcar’s steering committee]. “These are all proven solutions that simply need to be expanded.”

Veronica Vanterpool, the executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and one of four people nominated by Mayor Bill de Blasio to sit on the MTA’s seventeen-member board, stressed the ongoing failures of the city’s bus system, which have increased the pressure on the city’s failing and crowded subway system.

“Many of the bus lines are based on the old streetcar network. They have to be updated,” said Vanterpool, who also called on the city to keep its commitment to establishing twenty Select Bus Service routes by the end of the year, and to create physical barriers between regular traffic and bus lanes, to keep those lanes clear.

City Hall has long cited a lack of funds for projects like system expansion and renewal, as well as subsidized fares. The advocates argued that by tying infrastructure improvements to rezonings, the city can use its bureaucratic leverage to make developers pay to increase capacity. In midtown, for example, the city is already looking into amendments to rezoning proposals that would withhold occupancy permits for residential and office towers until transit improvements are created. Previous alternative funding schemes, like paying for the 7 train extension through increased property taxes, left the city holding the check for a project it thought it could essentially do for free. De Blasio’s beloved streetcar relies on a similarly flawed funding strategy.

With no viable challenger from the left in the mayoral election this year, however, de Blasio will need to be pushed by other politicians toward a more robust and equitable transit agenda. The city’s Public Advocate, Tish James, likely cruising to re-election herself, has already embraced “fair fares,” the movement to subsidize MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers.

“The mayor has said that it’s a noble idea that he’s not going to put forth out of principle, and I think that principle is that he thinks the governor should be supporting this,” the Straphangers Campaign’s Jaqi Cohen told the Voice. “At the end of the day, that bickering between them creates a vacuum for real progressive change in the city. Eight hundred thousand New Yorkers can be helped by this program right now, and they’re the ones being actively hurt by this rift between them.”

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