Vacca Staffer, Running for Council, Bucks His Boss on Complete Streets

Candidates for the District 15 City Council seat, from left to right: Kenny Agosto, Albert Alvarez, Raquel Batista, Joel Rivera (not the incumbent Joel Rivera -- he's term-limited), Cynthia Thompkins, and Ritchie Torres. Photo: Stephen Miller

In a City Council district in the heart of the Bronx, where the overwhelming majority of households are car-free, an aide to Council Member James Vacca distinguished himself last night by vocally supporting congestion pricing, on-street parking reform, and protected bike lanes.

The District 15 seat, representing Bathgate, Belmont, Crotona, Fordham, East Tremont, Van Nest, and West Farms, is currently held by Joel Rivera, who is term-limited. Candidates Kenny Agosto, Albert Alvarez, Raquel Batista, Joel Rivera (no relation to the incumbent), Cynthia Thompkins, and Ritchie Torres attended the forum, which was sponsored by the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, Bronx Health REACH, and the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund.

The forum invitation listed “public transit” as one of the issues up for discussion, but the moderators did not ask any questions related to transportation. In the current district, which was slightly redrawn in the latest round of redistricting, three-quarters of households are car-free, according to the 2000 Census. During the forum, the candidates only mentioned transportation issues tangentially: Alvarez and Torres spoke about the impacts of heavy traffic and idling on asthma, while Agosto said playgrounds at schools should not be used as parking lots.

Streetsblog was able to speak with four of the candidates — Agosto, Alvarez, Thompkins, and Torres — after the event to ask for their positions on bus service and MTA funding.

The district has two Select Bus Service routes, on Fordham Road and Webster Avenue, and all four candidates supported further expansion. “I generally support Select service, but I also don’t want to limit other services,” Agosto said. “We want to make sure that we have adequate service across the board.” Alvarez said he supports further expansion of SBS, as long as the city maintains constant communication with business owners about the potential impact on deliveries. Thompkins said she supports expansion of SBS to Southern Boulevard, which is outside the district, and the Grand Concourse, adding that better bus service can help improve east-west travel within the borough.

When it comes to funding the MTA, however, the candidates weren’t as unanimous.

When Streetsblog asked about congestion pricing or bridge tolls, Agosto was skeptical. “I think if anyone should pay the toll, it should be people from outer communities, from the suburbs. We should bring the commuter tax back,” he said. ”We also have to look at their books to see where the money is going.”

“Unless I see a concrete plan for reduction of waste within the MTA, I don’t think we should be taxing our community further,” Alvarez said, adding that any funds generated by the city should not support transit service outside the five boroughs. “Congestion pricing, I know the mayor was big on that before. There’s an argument for it and I think, certain aspects, I would be supportive of.” But when Streetsblog asked which aspects of Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan had his support, Alvarez, who serves as chief of staff to congestion pricing supporter Joel Rivera, could not name any.

“We’ve got enough tolls, we really do,” Thompkins said, adding that she supports MetroCard vending machines at bus stops and park-and-ride locations to make transit more accessible. ”I need my car,” she said. “If I need to go into Manhattan, I don’t have a way that’s easy for me to park and ride.”

But it was Torres who came out the strongest for road pricing. “There should be a market for road space; nobody should be using it for free,” he said. ”I would’ve voted for the plan as proposed in 2007. I’d have to review it, but I heard Sam Schwartz has a new iteration.” Vacca, who has fundraised for Torres, voted for congestion pricing but also pressured DOT to keep parking prices low. Torres told Streetsblog that he supports market-based pricing for on-street parking. ”I support every initiative that discourages driving,” he said. ”I support the complete streets movement.”

“My concern is that too many of the bike lanes amount to paint on the road and there’s no protection for those bike lanes. I mean, I’m too terrified to ride a bike myself,” Torres said, noting that Bronx Park East, Allerton Avenue, and Grand Concourse could be improved for bicycling and walking.

Thompkins, pointing out that hilly topography in the Bronx often leads cyclists to major thoroughfares, also supported protected bike lanes. In addition, she called for more off-peak deliveries and truck route enforcement to keep tractor-trailers off side streets.

“We’ve seen a downward trend in the number of driver’s licenses, in the number of people who are driving, the number of hours and miles being driven. It seems like there’s a cultural shift toward more sustainable modes of transportation,” Torres said, adding that he does not have a driver’s license. ”Just at a personal level, I’m not very sensitive to the needs of drivers,” he said with a laugh. “I’m much more sensitive to the needs of pedestrians and bike riders, and transit riders, than I am to motorists.”

Update: In a phone conversation with Streetsblog this afternoon, Raquel Batista said that she supported expanding SBS to the Grand Concourse and Southern Boulevard, as well as improvements to the district’s Metro-North stations, but opposed congestion pricing or tolls to fund the MTA — unless suburbanites were the ones picking up the tab. Batista also singled out the Grand Concourse as a street in need of improved bicyclist and pedestrian safety but did not endorse protected bike lanes when Streetsblog asked about them.