Experts say no easy fix for transit woes

State Senator Brad Hoylman (Photos by Maria Rocha-Buschel)

By Maria Rocha-Buschel

State Senators Brad Hoylman and Liz Krueger attempted to tackle the city’s current transportation crisis with a panel of experts at CUNY’s Graduate Center last Thursday, discussing the need for improvements to bus service in the city, proposals for congestion pricing and holding the MTA accountable.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director for Tri-State Transportation Campaign and a member of the Bus Turnaround Coalition, advocated for improvements to bus service as a means of improving transit in the city.

“Bus improvements are faster and cheaper to implement than subway improvements,” he said, pointing to a plan known as Transit Signal Priority, which would signal traffic lights to stay green longer so buses can get through intersections and speed up their routes.

In response, Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg jumped in to say that there are additional complications to the proposal that would make it hard to implement.

“We can’t just flip a switch,” she said. “There’s some amount of traffic engineering that has to be done and a certain amount of tailoring. If we let the light stay green for one bus, we have to consider the impact if there’s another bus at the intersection. It’s going to be a longer effort than two years.”

Sifuentes also noted that adding Select Bus Service can speed up dwell times for buses and make sure that buses aren’t as bunched and while Trottenberg said that SBS lanes have helped with congestion, adding more of those can be problematic as well.

“They are incredibly difficult battles,” she said. “You don’t just paint a lane red. They can be very challenging to implement on busy streets. It sounds great in the abstract but we want to be careful in the engineering.”

Krueger noted that she sees some of the challenges from her own constituents.

MTA Board Member Veronica Vanterpool

“My office gets calls that people want a bus lane,” she said, “but then I get the calls about the loss of parking and trucks double parking because of the new bus lane.”

MoveNY executive director Alex Matthiessen spoke about the proposal to implement congestion pricing, which would charge vehicles to drive into busy areas in Manhattan, and while the plan would primarily affect drivers, he noted that the resulting traffic has had far-reaching negative impacts.

“We have these twin crises going on in the city right now with transit and traffic and we can’t underestimate the problem,” he said. “Only four percent of drivers would face a new charge and the remaining 96 percent would hugely benefit. The existing system isn’t fair and it’s impossible to defend it.”

The plan proposes reducing tolls on bridges going into Manhattan and between other boroughs, and equalizing tolls for bridges that enter Manhattan below 60th Street, many of which are currently free, including the bridges that cross the East River. Hoylman noted at the panel that he is a strong supporter of the congestion pricing plan, while Krueger seemed open to the idea but said that she’s still on the fence.

Experts on the panel also advocated for the holding the MTA accountable on how the agency spends money. Matthiessen noted in his discussion on congestion pricing that the revenue raised from the plan should be “lockboxed” so it can be dedicated to solving the city’s transportation crisis, especially in light of private transit funds being used to help ski resorts upstate last year, as one meeting attendee pointed out.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg

“We got a lawyer to look into that and it was legal under state law,” Trottenberg said, referring to a $4.9 million check the MTA wrote to bail out ski areas that were struggling because of warm weather. “The governor is allowed basically to move money around from different authorities in a pretty unfettered way and there isn’t much the board can do about it. Reform on this has to happen at the state legislator level. There are 14 votes on the MTA board. The city has four of them and we lose every time.”

MTA board member Veronica Vanterpool, one of the members appointed by the mayor who represents the city along with Trottenberg, who is also on the board, added that cost-related problems persist because there isn’t enough oversight to prevent funds from being used on other projects.

“We need our state elected officials to hold oversight hearings on these sorts of things and continued MTA advocacy from advocates, users and folks on the board,” she said. “We need to continue to draw attention to money being siphoned away. That was $5 million that should not have gone to ski resorts.”

Nicole Gelinas, an expert on state and local fiscal policy in public transit for the Manhattan Institute, also noted that the MTA doesn’t have a good track record for keeping track of costs for projects.

“Even smaller projects get drawn out and then the reason for it taking so long will be something like, ‘vendor was slow to send invoices,’ so that’s not a good sign if you’re thinking about far more complicated projects,” she said. “The board has to be much more aggressive. The mayor’s appointees have actually been very good about being independent and asking very good questions at the meetings but the board shouldn’t be signing off on these explanations without much more detailed reasons and documents from the people managing these projects at the MTA. These things have to be delved into to figure out the root of the problem.”

The mayor’s office is also getting involved in the attempts to put a dent in solving the city’s transit crisis, with workshops being offered as part of Open Data Week this week. Forum of the Future, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable development, is hosting an all-day workshop this Saturday to solve problems that result from the upcoming L train shutdown.

Designers, programmers, engineers, data scientists, transportation experts and transit enthusiasts will be able to participate in the workshop that will present social, economic and environmental challenges in facing the shutdown and will be able to review data sets provided by the MTA, Taxi and Limousine Commission and other agencies to develop solutions, which will be presented and judged at the end of the day for a panel to pick the best idea. The event will be held in the Grand Central Tech Hub at 335 Madison Avenue on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

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