Is Ydanis Rodriguez the Right Transpo Chair for Vision Zero?

Politicker is reporting that Upper Manhattan Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez has the inside track on securing the transportation committee chairmanship, which multiple sources have corroborated with Streetsblog. While the final decision won’t be announced until next week, sources say that council leadership will finalize the choice sooner than that, perhaps as early as today. The immediate question, then, is whether Rodriguez is the right person for the job at a time when the mayor is committed to comprehensively addressing traffic violence and reallocating street space to transit.

Ydanis Rodriguez protesting NYPD traffic enforcement in 2010. Photo: Manhattan Times

As James Vacca showed, the transportation committee can be used as a bully pulpit to slow down mayoral priorities like bike infrastructure, or to generate tons of press about parking tickets, distracting from matters of broad public concern. The transportation chair can also, if so inclined, press the administration to address its shortcomings, like the NYPD’s failure to release traffic crash data.

Rodriguez has a thin record on transportation and street safety, and it’s decidedly mixed. The main strike against him is that he’s beholden to campaign contributors from the livery car industry. In 2010, he stood with livery cab drivers at a rally in his district to protest NYPD enforcement of blocking-the-box violations, which Rodriguez called “harassment.”

On other occasions Rodriguez has struck a tone that does align with de Blasio’s transit and street safety goals. When DOT raised the possibility of implementing a separated busway on 181st Street, he said at a public meeting, “We have to make a certain level of radical change in how traffic is organized in that area.” But he didn’t publicly fight for the bolder options, and eventually the city went with a watered-down project. Rodriguez attended last night’s memorial for Cooper Stock and Alex Shear on the Upper West Side, and he also spoke against NYPD’s Central Park bike ticket blitz in 2011.

The council’s top leadership, Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Rules Committee Chair Brad Lander, happen to have the strongest records on transportation issues among all the current council members. They could shape the transportation committee’s agenda, but Lander has also outlined a governance platform that would give committee chairs greater independence from the speaker.

In that scenario, a transportation committee chair with ties to the livery cab industry would be a risky choice when City Hall is trying to bring together several city agencies — including the Taxi and Limousine Commission — to achieve the very ambitious goal of eliminating traffic deaths in 10 years. How will the next transportation chair respond if, for instance, the administration proposes installing speed governors in all for-hire vehicles? And will the chair hold the administration’s feet to the fire if its actions don’t match up with the rhetoric?

Other second-term council members would not carry the same campaign contributor baggage as Rodriguez. In Queens, Danny Dromm, Julissa Ferreras, and Jimmy Van Bramer have all distinguished themselves on street safety. Ferreras and Van Bramer are reportedly the final contenders for the powerful finance committee chairmanship — meaning one of them could get transportation instead. Another name that has come up for the transportation spot is Lower Manhattan representative Margaret Chin, who has stood up for pedestrian safety in her district on more than one occasion.

Rodriguez has said some good things about safe streets too (his office released a statement in support of Vision Zero soon after we initially published this story), but the pull of the livery industry could end up being a drag on the rapid progress that Vision Zero calls for.