Three candidates vying for the 72nd State Assembly District seat, representing parts of Washington Heights and Inwood, discussed transit issues and the state of MTA service last night at a forum sponsored by WE ACT for Environmental Justice and Transport Workers Union Local 100.
As the forum progressed, key differences emerged on congestion pricing and other issues, even as the candidates often dodged the questions asked of them.
There are four candidates running in this Democratic primary, which will be held on Thursday, September 13. Mayra S. Linares, Gabriela Rosa and Ruben Vargas came to last night’s forum. Melanie Hidalgo declined due to scheduling conflicts.
Asked how they would improve bus service, only Linares had a response that addressed the topic. She said that she supports more Select Bus Service and that gains in bus speed are worth the possible inconvenience of having to move parked cars out of rush hour bus lanes.
Dedicating new revenue for the MTA by enacting congestion pricing got a mixed reaction from the candidates.
Linares opposes pricing. “There’s too many of us who drive back and forth,” she said. “If we add another toll, you can imagine it would go up — and go up again.”
After asking the moderators for a definition of congestion pricing, Rosa voiced support for the concept. Vargas took a more cautious approach. “If you are driving downtown, it’s chaos. What the congestion price would do is motivate people to use mass transit,” he said. Noting that he opposes tolls on Upper Manhattan bridges, Vargas said, “I would support a reasonable congestion price.”
When asked how they would fund MTA capital projects and operations while reducing reliance on debt, none of the candidates mentioned road pricing. Rosa said that “the first step to balancing the budget is to cut out the contractors” and replace them with trained TWU employees. Linares said that the MTA should negotiate down its debt, while Vargas said that renting out space within subway stations for commercial uses, including restaurants, could be a potential funding source.
Vargas also suggested eliminating overnight subway service to reduce costs and improve maintenance. The other two candidates rejected the idea of not having a 24/7 subway system, though Linares said that expanding FASTRACK overnight closures to Upper Manhattan “could help speed up some projects.”
One thing that united the candidates was the state of elevators in Upper Manhattan’s deep stations. “Elevators in the train stations have long been a concern of mine,” Vargas said. Linares said that elevator repairs take too long. “There’s something going on that we’re not getting enough attention uptown,” she said.
For a good portion of the evening, the candidates took shots at the MTA board and management. “We need people with the right motivations to be working for the MTA,” Vargas said, worrying about a slide into corruption at the top. Vargas also wanted a city residency requirement for high-level MTA employees. Rosa called MTA executive salaries “humongous” and said, “It’s not just on Wall Street. We have the 1 percent in the MTA. We just have to focus on that and target them.”
Candidates also opposed reductions in staffing levels. “If there are jobs eliminated, I cannot agree with that,” said Vargas. “When they started removing the elevator operators ,” said Linares, “I knew it was downhill from there.” All three candidates opposed proposals for one-person train operation and part-time bus operators . Rosa specifically called out the new Tier 6 pension plan  and called for it to be rolled back.
The forum was moderated by journalist José Manuel Simián and WE ACT staff member Jake Carlson. Ronnie Cabrera, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary, did not respond to an invitation to participate.
The assembly seat is currently occupied by Guillermo Linares, the father of candidate Mayra S. Linares. Guillermo Linares is vacating the position and vying for the 31st Senatorial District seat against Martin Chicon and incumbent Adriano Espaillat.
The senatorial candidates were also invited to participate in the forum, but because only Chicon confirmed his attendance, WE ACT cancelled the senatorial forum to comply with election law restrictions on non-profit organizations.