Help Streetsblog Tell the Political Story Behind the Prospect Park West Fight

There are many things we still don't know about the involvement of former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel in efforts to erase the Prospect Park West bike lane and undermine the city's street safety policies.

Thanks to some rescheduling, we’ve got nearly two months until the first court hearing on the Prospect Park West lawsuit. Flimsy as the plaintiffs’ case may be, they now have a long time to run their smear campaign against DOT and the neighborhood advocates who put in years of organizing to make this street safer.

So we’re probably going to be seeing more of Gibson Dunn lawyer Jim Walden in the media — he’s quite skilled at getting the papers to reprint his arguments, no matter how scurrilous. And the more we hear from Jim, the less we seem to read about the political maneuvering his clients have engaged in to erase a project that enjoys broad support and has slowed speeders while opening up a neighborhood street for all-ages cycling.

Which is too bad, because there are an awful lot of public figures connected to this campaign to erase a single bike lane. Think of the political story that will eventually be written. It involves City Council members, a borough president, former deputy mayors, a former federal prosecutor and top candidate for U.S. Attorney, a former transportation commissioner, a sitting U.S. Senator, and maybe a certain political correspondent at CBS2.

We’d like to find out more about the connections between all these players, and we’re not going to find out by calling them up and asking politely. Here’s what we’ve been up to…

At the beginning of February, Streetsblog sent a freedom of information request to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office, asking for his staff’s communications about the Prospect Park West project. The request was delivered on February 8, according to the U.S. Postal Service, but when we later checked in with Markowitz’s office, they told us they never received it. Markowitz’s staff counsel asked us to email the request to him, which we did. He then said he’d let us know by March 16 if the request would be granted. We’re still waiting to hear back on that one.

Streetsblog needs some muscle behind this FOIL request if we’re going to get any information out of it. So we’ve hired attorney Steve Vaccaro of Rankin & Taylor to manage the process. We’re not getting pro bono assistance on this one, and our budget doesn’t usually include a line for FOIL-related legal expenses, so if you can contribute to Streetsblog this spring, it will help us see this important reporting project through to completion.

In addition to Markowitz, Streetsblog is seeking information about PPW-related political activity from Iris Weinshall and Louise Hainline, both prominent members of the bike lane opposition and high-level employees at the City University of New York who are subject to the state’s freedom of information law. We are also FOILing Hainline’s husband, CUNY professor Micha Tomkiewicz, who has been closely involved in the opposition, and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, to learn more about lobbying that preceded last year’s bike policy hearing, where PPW opponents received an inordinate amount of attention.

Streetsblog is interested in gleaning information from these FOIL requests to help fill in some of the big gaps in the political backstory surrounding the Prospect Park West project, the attempt to eradicate it, and the smear campaign aimed at the people who requested, planned and supported it.

There’s a lot of information out there still to be uncovered. We know Senator Chuck Schumer has had words with City Council members, asking what they’re going to do about the Prospect Park West bike lane (and other bike lanes), but we don’t have any details about whom Schumer tried to influence or how.

We know that Iris Weinshall and Norman Steisel — a guy who used to run City Hall — had sit-downs with City Council members before last December’s committee hearing on bike policy, but we don’t know how they managed to get so much camera time for Steisel before anyone else got to testify.

We know that bike lane opponents have managed to get free services from a very expensive litigator at a politically-connected white shoe law firm, but it’s never really been explained why Jim Walden took this case pro bono, unless you believe that suing the city to undo a popular and effective street safety project is really an exercise in “good government litigation.”

These are some of the questions we hope to answer when people disclose the information we’ve requested. If you’re fed up with watching the city’s program to promote cycling and prevent traffic deaths and injuries get bogged down in the fight over a single project on a single street, I hope you’ll support this work and contribute to Streetsblog. We believe that telling the political story behind the Prospect Park West fight will have implications not just for this project, but for street safety improvements all over the city.