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MTA Refuses to Test Simple Bus Design Fix That Could Save Lives

sideguard

A San Francisco Muni bus equipped with a side guard to keep pedestrians or cyclists from being crushed beneath the rear wheel. The MTA has refused to test the equipment on its fleet. Photo: Paul Sullivan/Flickr

Council Member Antonio Reynoso has introduced a resolution calling on the MTA to install rear wheel side guards, which keep pedestrians and cyclists from being crushed beneath the wheels of a bus. The equipment is already used on buses in cities across the country, but the MTA says it’s not interested in installing sideguards on its vehicles.

At least three of the eight pedestrians killed by MTA bus drivers last year were run over by the rear wheel of the bus, according to the City Council resolution. They include two deaths at intersections in Reynoso’s district: Marisol Martinez, 21, killed last March at Union Avenue and Meeker Street in Williamsburg, and Edgar Torres, 40, killed in October at Palmetto Street and Wyckoff Avenue in Bushwick. According to witnesses, both were in the crosswalk with the signal when a turning bus driver struck them. They were knocked down before being run over by the rear wheel.

Rear wheel side guards are hard plastic appendages designed to bridge part of the gap between the bottom of a bus and the ground, deflecting a fallen pedestrian or cyclist to avoid impact with the wheel. Public Transportation Safety International manufactures the S-1 Gard, which has been installed on buses in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, among other cities. The product is also being added to buses in Sweden and Nigeria.

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MTA Tests Bike Racks on Bus Across Verrazano

An anonymously-sourced New York Post story yesterday might leave readers with the impression that new bike racks on the front of Staten Island buses will lead to late trips and a liability nightmare for the MTA. The MTA, however, says it’s still studying the racks — a tried-and-true amenity in every other big American city — on a route crossing the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, which currently has no bike path.

Bus racks on the front of a bus in downtown Vancouver, BC. Photo: Stephen Rees/Flickr

Bus racks on the front of a bus in downtown Vancouver, BC. Photo: Stephen Rees/Flickr

Here’s the Post story, in full:

City buses on Staten Island will soon sport bike racks as part of a New York City Transit program that bus drivers are already slamming as a surefire way to slow down commuters.

Drivers on the S53 bus line, which runs between Port Richmond and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, will be required under the pilot plan to wait for passengers to load their wheels.

“The consensus right now — no one’s crazy about it,” said a transit source who works at Staten Island’s Castleton depot. “If the bike falls off, it’s on us. If it gets damaged, it’s on us.”

Bike racks on buses are common in less congested cities.

New York is the only major city in the country without bike racks on its buses, according to the Alliance for Biking and Walking, with cities as large and congested as Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco outfitting their entire bus fleets with bike racks — all without major liability or on-time performance problems.

So will Staten Island residents get to make multi-modal trips to Brooklyn? Not in the immediate future, according to the MTA. “It was a test, not a pilot program,” said MTA spokesperson Amanda Kwan. The test occurred on March 3, she said, and consisted of “one run, on the S53 route with a non-revenue bus. The rack equipment itself was also being tested.”

The MTA would not reveal further information about the test. “It is simply too early to have or release any more details,” Kwan said.

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Parents of Seth Kahn: Ineffective MTA Protocols Contributed to Son’s Death

After Wednesday’s MTA board meeting transit chief Tom Prendergast said the agency may revise bus routes to reduce the number of turns bus drivers have to make, in order to minimize conflicts between buses and pedestrians, according to the Daily News. Prendergast said another possibility would be to move crosswalks away from intersections where buses make turns, which would necessitate streetscape changes by DOT.

Seth Kahn

Seth Kahn

Whether or not these ideas pan out, it’s good that the MTA is seriously engaging in the Vision Zero discussion. Bus drivers killed eight people in crosswalks last year, and there’s no evidence that admonishing people to stay out of the way of buses will reduce crashes.

The MTA didn’t really come to the table until several bus drivers were charged under the Right of Way Law for maiming and killing pedestrians. But some City Council members want to rescind the protection to pedestrians and cyclists the law provides. Council Member Daneek Miller’s bill to exempt MTA bus drivers from the Right of Way Law has picked up 14 co-sponsors.

Miller and TWU Local 100 say the MTA’s internal protocols adequately ensure bus driver safety. That doesn’t jibe with the story of Seth Kahn, killed in 2009 by a speeding bus driver who was just back on the job after a suspension for texting behind the wheel.

Driving a bus in New York City is a tough and stressful job, and most drivers do it well. That doesn’t mean crashes are an inevitable cost of doing business, or that bus drivers can’t be reckless or negligent. The Daily News and the union have taken to using the phrase “criminalizing bus drivers,” but in fact the law does not single out bus drivers and only criminalizes negligence that leads to serious injury and death. Even Daily News reporter Pete Donohue, whose column has become a platform for TWU opposition to the law, slammed the MTA for failing to keep Seth Kahn’s killer out of the driver’s seat.

Debbie and Harold Kahn shared with Streetsblog their account of what happened to their son and the driver who took his life.

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Will DA Ken Thompson Drop Case Against Bus Driver Who Killed Senior?

On the evening of December 23, 2014, 78-year-old Jean Bonne-Annee was crossing New York Avenue at Farragut Road in Brooklyn when an MTA bus driver ran him over while making a left turn.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson

Bonne-Annee died at the scene. He was the eighth pedestrian killed by a turning MTA bus driver in 2014.

Police arrested driver Reginald Prescott and charged him with violating the Right of Way Law, which is intended to hold drivers accountable for killing or injuring pedestrians and cyclists who are following traffic rules.

Because Prescott was driving a bus and was charged for killing someone, TWU Local 100 and some members of the press have devoted much attention to a crash that otherwise would have received little or no notice. On Tuesday Pete Donohue of the Daily News reported that District Attorney Ken Thompson may bow to pressure from the TWU and dismiss the case.

Arraignment proceedings for Prescott were canceled, Donohue reported, “as prosecutors and his union defense lawyer agreed neither to go forward with a formal reading of the charges nor require Prescott to enter a plea, as is customary.”

“We pressed a pause button to say ‘stop’ with the view towards the district attorney ultimately dismissing the charges completely against Mr. Prescott,” TWU Local 100 legal director Kenneth Page said.

A spokeswoman for Brooklyn prosecutors would only say that the case remains under investigation. No new court date for Prescott was set during his appearance in court Tuesday morning.

“[T]he case is still being investigated and the charges have not been dropped,” a Thompson spokesperson told Streetsblog via email.

As Ben Fried wrote this week, before the Right of Way Law NYPD and prosecutors didn’t investigate the vast majority of serious traffic crashes, and declined to pursue charges in fatal collisions that did not involve extenuating circumstances like DWI or leaving the scene. The strength of the Right of Way Law is that it removes driver intent from the equation: If you harm someone who is walking or biking with the right of way, you committed a misdemeanor.

The court process may reveal that Prescott was not at fault. What shouldn’t be in doubt is a full and fair disposition of the case. Otherwise, people who are following all the rules will continue to be denied the protection of the law, as they were before.

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De Blasio Defends Right-of-Way Law to Dimwits in Albany [Updated]

Update [February 26]: The quote from the mayor has been updated to include his full response.

At a hearing in Albany this morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio defended the new city law that enables police to file misdemeanor charges against drivers who injure or kill people with the right of way. He also shed some light on how officers determine whether to file charges.

Mayor Bill de Blasio testifies in Albany this morning. Image: NY Assembly

Mayor de Blasio in Albany this morning. Image: NY Assembly

State Senator Marty Golden, who represents Bay Ridge, focused on the high-profile arrests of bus drivers who have killed or injured pedestrians in crosswalks. Golden asked if the Right-of-Way Law is even necessary. “If it’s an accident, it’s an accident. Do we need to arrest these people, and is that necessary?” Golden asked. “Should we be locking up bus drivers?”

Here is the heart of the mayor’s response:

Senator, the law that was passed by the City Council, which I signed, makes clear that when an individual fails to yield to pedestrians where they should — the pedestrian has the walk sign and they’re crossing the street and there’s still a crash… what the law dictates is that if there is serious injury or fatality, and if the officers on the scene determine that it was an avoidable injury or fatality, they are obligated to pursue an arrest. If the officers determine that it was unavoidable, meaning something happened that no driver could have possibly foreseen or responded to in time, they have the option of giving a summons. So this is a new law with a clear standard. It is a stricter standard than that which existed previously, and that’s for a reason, because people were being killed and grievously hurt in all sorts of instances and there wasn’t a clear enough legal consequence. So the law, I think, has been a step forward. It should be applied respectfully and sensitively, especially — I agree with you — our public service workers always deserve respect in every situation, and I appreciate the work they do. But again, the officer on the scene has to make a determination… If the officer believes it was 100 percent avoidable, that is an arrest situation.

At an MTA press conference minutes later, Daily News reporter Pete Donohue asked MTA Chair Tom Prendergast whether he thought bus drivers who injure or kill pedestrians in crosswalks should be subject to the Right-of-Way Law. Prendergast’s response avoided answering questions about the law itself.

“For whatever reason, the legislation was written the way it was. I’m not going to get into details of it,” Prendergast said, stressing that bus driver unions, the city, and the MTA alike are working to reduce crashes. “I drove a bus for 30 days,” Prendergast said. “The two hazards that you’re most faced with are right turns and left turns, and so I can totally appreciate the difficulties bus drivers have.”

While Prendergast did not address how the law is enforced or whether bus drivers should receive the special exemption that the TWU is seeking, he did say the MTA may adjust bus routes to limit turns through crowded crosswalks and may ask DOT to offset pedestrian crossings to minimize conflicts. (In the 1990s, the Giuliani administration moved some Midtown crosswalks to mid-block locations and installed pedestrian barriers at corners, which remain in place today.)

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MTA Bus Driver Runs Over 15-Year-Old Girl in Brooklyn Crosswalk [Updated]

Turning MTA bus drivers have killed at least 12 people in the last two years. Image: News 12

Turning MTA bus drivers have killed at least 12 people in the last two years. Image: News 12

Update: NYPD told Streetsblog the bus driver involved in this crash was arrested and charges are pending. Transportation Alternatives tweeted that, according to police, he was charged under the Right of Way law.

An MTA bus driver ran over a teenage girl in a Brooklyn crosswalk this morning.

The 15-year-old victim was walking north across Grand Street at around 8:45 when the Q59 driver, southbound on Union Avenue, struck her while turning left onto Grand, according to NYPD and DNAinfo.

Video from a nearby bodega’s camera shows the bus swinging around the corner just as the girl steps into the crosswalk, hitting her and then dragging her out of the frame.

“Oh my God, the lady was crossing the street. He did not see the lady. The people in the street were screaming,” said Jose Aguilar, 48, who owns nearby Grand Gourmet Deli.

“I saw the girl crossing the street. The bus came in fast,” said Aguilar’s worker, El Mehdi Ouafiq.

He said a woman stayed with the girl when she couldn’t pull her from under the tire.

A video Ouafiq shot shows the girl’s bright green shoes poking out from beneath the bus’ large wheel while a group of people huddle around her trying to help.

The Daily News reported that the victim “was pinned under the left front wheel.”

A spokesperson with the NYPD public information office said the victim suffered a severe leg injury. Reports on social media that the victim died were not true, the spokesperson said, but she had no further information. A tweet for confirmation on the victim’s condition to the Highway Department, which investigates traffic crashes, got no response.

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Albany Has Already Saddled the MTA With More Debt Than 30 Nations

As Albany contemplates paying for the MTA capital program by borrowing as much as $15 billion, it’s worth pausing to examine the debt load straphangers are already shouldering. To put it in perspective, the MTA carries more debt than Bolivia, Tanzania, and Luxembourg combined, according to numbers compiled by the Straphangers Campaign. The MTA owes more than at least 30 nations, including several with populations much larger than New York City.

"If I inflate the MTA's debt load, straphangers are the ones who will be left underwater." Photo: MTA/Flickr

With no action from Governor Cuomo, MTA debt will balloon even more. Photo: MTA/Flickr

Some level of borrowing makes sense, but shrinking state and city support for the MTA capital program has led to a ballooning debt load that pushes fares higher and impedes service.

The MTA currently owes $34.1 billion to pay off bonds issued for capital investments, according to Straphangers, and the agency is spending $2.2 billion on debt service this year. That’s 17 percent of its operating budget, a hair shy of the amount it spends to run Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road.

Unless Governor Cuomo and the legislature decide to stop treating your MetroCard as a credit card, things will only get worse.

Even with no new borrowing, MTA debt is on track to exceed $39 billion by 2018, according to Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

The $32 billion capital program, which fixes track, replaces trains and buses, and expands the system, is facing a $15.2 billion shortfall. Without a new revenue stream (this is where toll reform would come in handy), straphangers will soon be paying off the difference in the form of higher fares.

With several fare hikes since 2007, a four percent hike approved for this year, and another on deck in 2017, fares are already increasing faster than inflation. DiNapoli estimates that every billion dollars in new debt will translate to an additional 1 percent fare hike.

Does Governor Cuomo care enough about New York City transit riders to prevent super-sized fare hikes? Albany budget season is heating up, so it’s now or never. So far, though, Cuomo has given no indication that he’s serious about fixing the MTA’s debt problem.

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Trottenberg: DOT Staffing Up to Add More Select Bus Service Routes

The City Council transportation committee held a hearing today on the de Blasio administration’s Bus Rapid Transit plans, giving council members an opportunity to prod DOT about its BRT progress and show their support (or lack thereof) for bus lanes and more robust surface transit improvements than the Select Bus Service program has yielded so far.

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg testifies, flanked by Peter Cafiero of the MTA, left, and Eric Beaton of DOT, right. Photo: Brad Lander/Twitter

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg testifying this afternoon, flanked by Peter Cafiero of the MTA, left, and Eric Beaton of DOT, right. Photo: Brad Lander/Twitter

DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said the mayor’s preliminary budget, released yesterday, features $295 million for SBS expansion, including $84 million in new funding. Of that, $55 million will go to operational expenses through fiscal year 2018 and $240 million will go to capital projects through 2025.

The funding boost should help enlarge the agency’s SBS project pipeline, paying for staff to both work with community boards and assist with engineering for new SBS routes. The new money replaces some federal funds that were expiring and roughly doubles the size of the SBS unit to 18 staffers, according to DOT Director of Transit Development Eric Beaton.

Here are some more highlights from the hearing:

  • Mark your calendars: The de Blasio administration has committed to adding 13 Select Bus Service routes by the end of 2017, an effort Trottenberg said would require “all hands on deck.” This year, DOT and MTA are aiming to bring SBS improvements to three additional routes. Upgrades to the M86 crosstown, which will feature off-board fare payment and other improvements but not bus lanes, is expected to launch this spring, followed by the B46 on Utica Avenue by the end of the summer and the Q44 between Jamaica and Flushing in the fall. A typical SBS route costs $10 million to launch, Trottenberg said, with more capital-intensive upgrades like bus bulbs continuing to be rolled out after the initial improvements.

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De Blasio: Albany Failing to Meet Its Obligation to NYC Transit Riders

Mayor de Blasio at today’s budget press conference. Photo: @NYCMayorsOffice

Mayor de Blasio at today’s budget press conference. Photo: @NYCMayorsOffice

Mayor de Blasio unveiled his preliminary budget proposal this afternoon. In an address outlining the broad strokes of the budget, de Blasio called out Albany for neglecting the MTA and warned that inaction on federal transportation funding could undercut the Vision Zero program.

During his address, de Blasio alluded to the failure of state lawmakers to address the MTA’s $15 billion capital plan shortfall. Responding to a reporter’s question about the city’s transit funding commitment, de Blasio said, “Really, that’s an April discussion,” referring to when City Hall will deliver a more detailed executive budget. “The bigger issue, of course, is Albany’s commitment, and in what we’ve seen initially, we don’t see as substantial a commitment to the MTA as we think is necessary.”

The mayor may have been dodging the question, but it makes sense to bounce it to Governor Cuomo, who controls the agency. Only the governor can advance a major proposal like funding the capital program with toll reform. But so far Cuomo hasn’t shown any leadership on closing the gap, instead sticking to his usual menu of raids and opaque budget transfers.

As for street safety, the mayor said the federal transportation funding impasse could threaten implementation of Vision Zero projects. Pots of federal money like the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality program have played a crucial role in funding safer street designs in NYC for several years.

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Cuomo’s Transit Budget Is a Confusing Jumble of Raids and Transfers

It’s state budget season! Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget is chock-a-block with raids of dedicated transit funds, questionable transfers, and toll cuts doled out as election-year favors. It’s a mess that doesn’t answer how the state will close the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr

“So how can we make this MTA budget as confusing as possible?” Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Cuomo’s attempts to satisfy MTA haters in the suburbs, shuffle bits and pieces to the capital program, and squeeze money out of the agency as surreptitiously as possible — without a noticeable effect on service — create a confusing blur in his transit budget. The overall effect is a lack of transparency, because it’s difficult to tell whether funds are being used for their intended purpose.

Here’s our guide to the tangle of transit funding proposals in the governor’s budget, starting with MTA operations.

Stealing from operations to pay for capital. In what the Tri-State Transportation Campaign calls “an unprecedented and troubling move,” Cuomo’s budget would shift $121.5 million from transit operations to pay for capital programs. More than 85 percent of those funds would go to the MTA capital plan; the rest would go to other metro area transit operators. This makes the capital plan’s balance sheet look better while harming day-to-day operations.

MTA raids continue. Remember how the governor raided the MTA’s operating budget to take care of debt the state had agreed to pay? In 2013, he took out $20 million, followed by $30 million last year. Now, the governor is proposing another $20 million raid, and more to come in the future.

Extra cash for operations? Even as he’s raiding MTA operations with one hand, the governor is proposing an additional $37 million in operating assistance from the state’s general fund with the other. But is this really coming from general taxes? The State Senate claims that the increase is attributable not to Cuomo’s largesse, but an increase in revenue from the Payroll Mobility Tax.

Falling short on making the PMT whole. In 2011, Cuomo trimmed the payroll tax while promising to fill the hole with a transfer from the state’s general fund. This year, the general fund transfer will total $309 million, in line with previous budgets. But while the MTA expects payroll tax revenues to increase 23 percent by 2018, it projects replacement revenues from the state will remain flat [PDF]. The bottom line: The 2011 deal is on track to hurt straphangers in the long run. It enabled Cuomo to appease suburban politicos immediately while delaying the loss of tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for transit operations.

Meanwhile, suburban Republicans continue to strongly oppose the payroll tax. The Senate recommends phasing it out entirely and replacing it with one-time cash from the state’s windfall $5.4 billion bank settlement [PDF]. Agreeing to this reckless plan would quickly starve the transit system of funds needed to keep trains and buses running.

Funding Cuomo’s Verrazano toll cut: Last year, the governor announced an election year toll cut for Staten Islanders and commercial drivers on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, with the state budget and the MTA splitting the tab. Cuomo’s budget does not come up with the state’s half, leaving it to the legislature to find funding for the program or let it expire.

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