Talking Transit With City Council Transportation Chair Jimmy Vacca

Vaccaat120Hearing.jpgJimmy Vacca at last week's City Council hearing on Intro 120. Photo: Noah Kazis

The last two years have been full of dismal news for transit riders in New York City. Revenue streams for transit have nosedived during the recession, with Albany plundering dedicated MTA taxes for good measure. The payroll tax state legislators passed last year hasn't lived up to expectations, making their failure to enact congestion pricing or bridge tolls even more burdensome for New Yorkers. Sweeping service cuts are going to take effect in less than two months, and discount MetroCards for more than half a million students are on the chopping block.

In the second part of our interview with transportation chair Jimmy Vacca, we discuss these issues and what the City Council can do about them. Read the first installment -- all about street safety -- here.

Ben Fried: In a couple of months the MTA Board is going to vote on student MetroCards. How can the City Council keep this program adequately funded?

Jimmy Vacca: Well, we are willing to help, and we’ve indicated we want to help, and we want to have a discussion with the MTA about how we can help. We also think, though, that Albany has a major responsibility in this, and we’ve lobbied hard in Albany to get the MetroCard issue put on the front burner. We still have hope in Albany, I think, but we do realize that the council may have to do something. It’s hard for us to discuss exact budget numbers in light of the fact that we don’t know what we’re talking about from Albany. But I’m committed to saving the student MetroCards, very, very committed to it, and we’ve been doing everything we can.

I think with the economy we’re in, that this may be a year-to-year situation until things improve. The MTA has stated that in September 2010, the student MetroCards will go to half-fare, and then the year after there will be none at all. So I want to avoid the half-fare of course, but then the year after we have an even greater obligation.

BF: What sort of signal are you looking for from Albany? What would let you know that they’re serious and that you could come to the table with them?

JV: I’m looking to see that they adopt a budget and that both houses agree on something. We hope that they can reconcile their differences, give us a reasonable number, and then I know that my colleagues in the council are willing to do something. We realize we have an obligation too.

You have to understand one thing that happened here in Albany is that we had about $149 million in what was called a ‘lock-box’ for mass transit. People paid more taxes, license registration fees, a mortgage recording tax. They paid these taxes thinking that this money went to a lock-box for the MTA, and then in December when the state had a financial crunch and they did all these one shots, to have that money taken out and put into the general fund only worsened the crisis the MTA was in. It’s also a question of faith. They’re not transparent. It only came out when we started to find that the money wasn’t there.

BF: You voted for congestion pricing two years ago. Do you see road pricing, either congestion pricing or bridge tolls, playing a role in putting the MTA on more solid financial footing?

JV: Again, possibly. I’m a little concerned about the lock-box. The congestion pricing plan was supposed to be another lock-box, and I certainly would not be for it if Albany said that this was going to go to the general fund as well. I think that this lock-box now has to be more carefully defined. I also think that we have to be cognizant of the fact that certain parts of the MTA bailout from last year have not been fully realized. The payroll tax, for example, they’ve not gotten the revenue from that because that tax was a very difficult tax to collect initially, and that may be a better revenue stream for them.

I also have hope we can convince the federal government to get involved, to get us into the federal transportation act. There’s not significant money in the federal transportation act for New York City when it comes to operating expenses, and that is the ideal way to go.

When I say ideal, we had some pushback when it came to our proposal regarding the stimulus money because we were going to take $50 million from capital and use that money in operating. Many of the construction trades pushed back and they said, "You know, whenever you remove capital money from any type of agency, it means jobs. Our people are hurting." And I know that that’s the reality.

In my own district this weekend I ran into electricians from Local 3, and they’re all telling me, “Jimmy, we’re on unemployment 39 weeks, 49 weeks, it’s unbearable, we have no idea when we’re going back.” So the federal government assisting us through the federal transportation act is something my staff is very much involved in. We’re in touch with Schumer, Gillibrand, our local congresspeople; we’re working with the speaker's office on this to get them interested in investing in mass transit long term. There are only so many Band-aids you can put on the MTA, and we’ve been Band-aiding it for years.

I’m concerned about fares going up. I don’t want to out-price the system. I want to encourage people to use it, but if the fare goes up much higher? This is the worst economic time we’ve had, people are being hit all over the place.

BF: Hypothetically, say Albany does show signs of putting together some sort of package for student MetroCards. The city is going to have to scrounge around for some money too and we have our own budget crunch. One thing that we reported on earlier this year is that yellow school bus costs are really skyrocketing in New York. Is that something the transportation committee could look into and hold a hearing on?

JV: Certainly. And I would want to work with the education committee, Bob Jackson on that. I have to tell you that Chancellor Klein did announce a couple of months ago that he was going to be implementing a phasing in of reducing special education transportation costs. But I caution you about that, because I’ve heard this so many times before.

Right now if you’re in special education you get transportation to schools that are often distant from you, because special education children are not home zoned. Many times their local elementary schools do not have the exact program that their Individual Education Program requires them to have. Chancellor Klein is now saying that he is going to home zone disabled children and make sure that the program they need is there. If that happens, it will mean a significant reduction in school bus transportation cost, but I’ve heard that before. This was supposed to be implemented back in 2001, even before Chancellor Klein came. But I think that it would help.

I also think we have to look into the whole issue of contracting, The DOE has so many consultant contracts, and outside contracts, school buses being some of them, that we have to start looking at those, and I would be willing to have a hearing on that.

BF: The city’s first Select Bus Service route goes through your district. What’s your evaluation of it so far?

JV: I like it. I like it, I support it. I know that there were some issues outside my district on Fordham Road. In that community many of the merchants felt that they were not adequately consulted and that parking was taken away and not replaced. But I think those issues are being worked on. Where my district is concerned, the quickness of the bus has shaved off an incredible amount of time, and people have commented that they’ve liked it very much. I have to tell you that initially the community was opposed to it, but I felt it was good, so we stuck with it.

BF: That’s really the major way that the city is planning to expand and improve transit services in the next few years, through surface transit improvements. Is that something you would recommend to other districts?

JV: Yes. I mean, the quicker the bus goes the more people will be inclined to leave their cars home, and I want to encourage that. So yes.

BF: How did you get to work today?

JV: Today I took the car, last week I took the train. Today I took the car because I’m going to be down here very late. We have the Greek Heritage Celebration at City Hall. I have to return to my district for a meeting after the function. The car is preferable to me if I’m hopping around, especially within the Bronx, but there are other days when the train is fantastic, I took the train three days last week.

BF: What bridge did you take today?

JV: Third Avenue.

Bret Collazi (Vacca spokesman): The un-tolled one.

BF: Is the district office by the 6 Train?

JV: Two blocks.

BC: It’s not far, yeah. We’ve gotten a lot better at taking the train since getting involved in transportation issues more. And it’s more than just because we should be doing it, it’s more convenient for us.

JV: It’s more convenient.