In Race to Succeed Schneiderman, Support for Transit, Skepticism on Tolls

31_array.jpgSenate District 31 contenders Miosotis Muñoz, Mark Levine, Anna Lewis, and Adriano Espaillat
One would be hard pressed to find a more broadly drawn constituency in the city than that of state Senate District 31, which spans from the Upper West Side to Harlem, Washington Heights and Inwood before hopping the Harlem River into Riverdale. But in spite of vast differences in culture and income, most district residents have at least two things in common: they don't own a car, and they rely heavily on trains and buses to conduct their day-to-day lives.

Eric Schneiderman has represented District 31 since 1998. Though he has distinguished himself as a progressive who lauded PlaNYC and publicly blamed Albany for abandoning transit riders, Senator Schneiderman has basically been a no-show when it comes to the current MTA budget crisis. Now that Schneiderman's bid for state attorney general has opened up the seat, transit-dependent voters in the district's Democratic primary will have to choose from a field of candidates with varying views on providing the MTA with adequate, long-term funding -- though none are calling for road pricing to shift part of the burden to drivers entering their neighborhoods.

Among District 31 aspirants, Adriano Espaillat is probably the most widely known. That is, the Assembly member is known to be inconsistent when it comes to supporting stable revenue streams for the city's transit system. Espaillat was a vocal supporter of congestion pricing. But a year later he came out strongly against tolling the "free" bridges of Upper Manhattan, and never mind that some 80 percent of households in his Assembly district do not own a car. Espaillat also lambasted the MTA for its plan to cut student MetroCards, insisting that Albany had done its part to shore up transit finances. (Full disclosure: Espaillat, like Schneiderman, represents part of Inwood, where I live. In addition to covering Espaillat's maneuvering for Streetsblog, I posted the occasional related rant on my now-defunct neighborhood blog. Espaillat once accused me of making false statements about his record, but did not respond when pressed for specifics.)

Miosotis Muñoz is a former aide to Congressman Charlie Rangel who served as a Latino organizer for Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential primary. She worked for former Manhattan borough presidents Ruth Messinger and C. Virginia Fields and did a short stint as district manager for Community Board 11. Muñoz told Streetsblog that maintaining and expanding transit service is essential to providing access to jobs while keeping cars off the roads, and cited the Second Avenue subway as a "critical" project.

However, though she supports a return of the commuter tax, Muñoz said she would have to be convinced of the merits of bridge tolls. "To begin with, people are financially strained," said Muñoz, "and they have to go to places where they're going to be able to get the best buck for their money sometimes. To continue to tax people that are already financially strained is going to cause a much more difficult situation for families in terms of how they're going to be able to pay the rent and take care of the essentials." Muñoz said she favors carpool lanes as an incentive to reduce traffic. 

In order to concentrate on his Senate campaign, Mark Levine left his spot on Community Board 12, where he served as chair of the transportation committee. A former teacher and founder of a credit union for low-income Upper Manhattanites, Levine is also a Democratic district leader.

"We need new revenue so [the MTA is] not perpetually on the brink of fiscal insolvency," Levine said. "Albany's been underfunding them for 15 years or more, and we're totally paying the price now."

Levine supports reinstating the commuter tax "in a way that's dedicated to transit," and is in favor of the recently imposed payroll tax on suburban counties. Not surprisingly, Levine is against fare increases. He also believes there is merit to the charge that the MTA suffers from bloat and waste, citing the recent "$100,000 club" storyline as an example. "My sense is that there's probably some room to cut in the central bureaucracy. I know that's generally a cliche that people put forward to avoid tough decisions, but I actually sincerely believe that that needs to be looked at seriously, with so many people making $100,000 or more."

Levine backs tolling the East River bridges, but like Espaillat, he stops short of endorsing a charge for Harlem River crossings. Levine recognizes the cognitive dissonance there, and when I pointed out that bus and subway riders already pay to cross the Broadway and University Heights Bridges, he conceded the point. "I consider myself a very strong advocate for the livable streets agenda," Levine said. However, he concluded, "The sentiment is that those bridges are essentially local streets."

With a slew of big-time endorsements, including that of Schneiderman, Espaillat is the Democratic establishment candidate of choice in this primary. Also in the running is attorney Anna Lewis, who at deadline had not responded to our request for comment on transit funding.

Whomever the voters choose, it looks as if toll-shopping suburban motorists will have nothing to fear from District 31's next representative.