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Gianaris: Time for Albany to Stiffen Penalties for Unlicensed Drivers Who Kill

This morning State Senator Michael Gianaris again called on state lawmakers to pass legislation that would stiffen penalties for motorists who hurt and kill people while driving without a valid license.

Joined by State Senator Toby Stavisky, Assembly Member Francisco Moya, and reps from Transportation Alternatives and Make Queens Safer, Gianaris spoke to the press at Woodside Avenue and 76th Street in Elmhurst, where alleged unlicensed driver Valentine Gonzalez killed an unidentified woman last Sunday.

“How many deaths at the hands of unauthorized drivers will it take before we make sure the punishment fits the crime in these cases?” said Gianaris, according to a press release. “It is heartbreaking to see one family after another suffer the loss of a loved one because irresponsible drivers get behind the wheel when they shouldn’t.”

Gianaris introduced a bill last year to make it a class E felony to cause serious injury or death while driving without a valid license, as long as the license was suspended or revoked for traffic offenses. A second Gianaris bill would require drivers with suspended or revoked licenses to surrender their vehicle registrations and license plates. Margaret Markey is the primary sponsor of both bills in the Assembly.

Gianaris brought the bills after an unlicensed truck driver killed 8-year-old Noshat Nahian on Northern Boulevard in Woodside in December 2013. Weeks later an unlicensed driver killed senior Angela Hurtado in Maspeth. Both drivers were charged with aggravated unlicensed operation. The driver who killed Hurtado pled guilty and was fined $500.

NYPD and city district attorneys typically charge aggravated unlicensed operation, a low-level misdemeanor, when an unlicensed driver kills someone. This offense carries a maximum penalty of a $500 fine and 30 days in jail, though jail sentences are all but unheard of.

Aggravated unlicensed operation is the same charge that police and prosecutors apply when an unlicensed driver commits a traffic infraction. In practice this means that an unlicensed driver who kills a senior in a crosswalk faces the same penalty as an unlicensed driver who turns without signaling.

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David Gantt Remains Transportation Chair, But It’s Carl Heastie’s Assembly

Like other committee chairs, David Gantt serves at the pleasure of the Assembly speaker.

Like other committee chairs, David Gantt will let legislation reach the Assembly floor if the speaker wants it to.

Surprising no one, the leadership of Carl Heastie’s Assembly looks just about identical to Sheldon Silver’s. After publicly voting in Heastie to succeed Silver as speaker on Tuesday, Assembly Dems announced top posts and committee chair positions yesterday. There were few changes to speak of, and as expected Rochester rep David Gantt will remain chair of the Assembly transportation committee.

Over the years, lots of good legislation has died in Gantt’s committee, including several bills to enable automated traffic enforcement in New York City. But most of those bills eventually made it through, often without a peep from Gantt. Why? Because while Gantt may have sincerely believed that red-light cameras violate driver privacy, Albany observers will tell you that his opinions, like those of other committee chairs, are incidental to the motivations of the Assembly’s prime mover, who for the last 21 years was Sheldon Silver.

As Laura Seago, then with NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, told Streetsblog in 2009, “The speaker controls everything that comes to the floor.” Bills moved through Gantt’s committee when Silver wanted them to move. And so far, there is no indication that Heastie means to diminish the role of speaker.

We reported earlier this week that Heastie’s voting record is fairly strong on street safety, though he hasn’t shown much interest in improving transit for millions of New Yorkers. More notable may be Mayor de Blasio’s reported backing of Heastie’s speaker campaign, which could mean the speaker — and by extension Gantt — won’t stand in the way of City Hall’s street safety agenda in Albany.

Like last year, opposition to a more effective speed cam program or stronger statutes to prevent dangerous driving is probably going to be a greater obstacle in the GOP-controlled, de Blasio-hostile State Senate.

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Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie: Good on Street Safety, Iffy on Transit

For the first time in two decades, the New York State Assembly has a new speaker. Assembly Democrats elected Carl Heastie of the Bronx to succeed longtime speaker Sheldon Silver, a week after Silver was indicted on federal corruption charges.

Until a few days ago, Heastie wasn’t all that well-known outside the Bronx, where he is the Democratic party leader. While we don’t know much about his stance on transportation policy, he does have a voting record on street safety and transit issues.

Here’s a rundown.

As for changing the pay-to-play culture in Albany and reforming the “democracy of one” system that empowers the speaker at the expense of rank-and-file legislators and shrouds the Assembly in secrecy, Heastie is an unlikely candidate to shake things up.

Heastie raised eyebrows in 2013 when he introduced a bill legalizing predatory payday loans after receiving $10,000 in campaign contributions from the check-cashing industry. And not only did Silver vote for Heastie today, he appeared at the Monday closed-door meeting where Heastie’s ascension actually took place, and endorsed him. “He’s a good man and he’ll do a good job,” Silver said.

That means Rochester representative David Gantt, Silver’s gatekeeper for legislation on the transportation committee, probably isn’t going to lose his chairmanship.

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Tomorrow: Advocates Ask Albany to Guarantee Bike/Ped Funds

Nearly four dozen advocates from across the state will travel to Albany tomorrow to make the case for better policies to support walking and biking as budget hearings get underway in the state legislature. The push comes days after the Cuomo administration told legislators that while it is committed to active transportation, dedicated funding that would make up for shrinking federal funds isn’t necessary.

State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald on bike-ped funding: Trust us. Image via YouTube

State DOT Commissioner Joan McDonald on bike/ped funding: Trust us. Image via YouTube

The advocacy day is organized by New Yorkers for Active Transportation, a coalition of the New York Bicycling Coalition, Parks & Trails New York, Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and other groups.

Their main ask: $20 million in dedicated annual funding from the state budget for bicycle and pedestrian projects. While pedestrians and cyclists comprise 29 percent of New York’s traffic fatalities, advocates estimate that only two percent of the state’s transportation spending goes to bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. They are calling for a “fair share for safety.”

It’s hard to know exactly how much the state is spending on walking and biking infrastructure. While it’s easy to account for funding given to a specific project, like a bike path, larger projects and funding streams can include active transportation upgrades, and the amount spent directly on bike-ped improvements is not tracked.

At a hearing last Thursday on the state’s transportation budget, Senator Marc Panepinto of Buffalo asked Transportation Commissioner Joan McDonald if the budget includes dedicated funding for walking and biking.

“It doesn’t contain dedicated,” she said, explaining that the state allocates funding to those projects as needed. McDonald pointed to distributions of $26.5 million in January 2013, $67 million in January 2014, and $70 million last October.

But these allocations don’t mean that the state is actually spending its own money on safer streets. In each case, the state DOT is passing through funds from the federal government. What McDonald didn’t mention is that federal support for bicycle and pedestrian projects has dropped significantly in recent years.

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Life-Saving Truck Design Fix Sidelined By Federal Inaction

This is the second post in a series about safety features for large vehicles. Part one examined the case for truck side guards and New York City’s attempt to require them for its fleet.

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Large trucks operating in NYC are not required to have side guards to protect pedestrians and cyclists. Photo: dos82/Flickr

American cities are beginning to take the lead on requiring side guards on large trucks in municipal fleets. That’s a good first step toward saving lives, but without addressing privately-owned vehicles, city streets will not be safe from trucks that tend to crush people beneath the rear wheels after impact. The federal government continues to drag its feet, however, and without a national mandate, the prospects for meaningful action from Albany look slim.

Last year, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended installing side guards on all large trucks, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which regulates truck design, has yet to pass a rule requiring them. NHTSA says it might begin soliciting input on new trailer guard rules by the middle of next year. Traditionally, the agency has focused on guards for the back end of trucks, which protect car occupants in rear-end collisions. There’s no guarantee that any progress toward new rules next year will include side guards.

In the absence of federal rules requiring side guards for trucks, state and local legislators have taken tentative steps toward addressing the problem. Albany’s previous attempts at similar legislation don’t inspire confidence, however. A recently enacted state law mandates “crossover” mirrors to reduce the size of blind spots in front of trucks weighing at least 26,000 pounds that operate on New York City streets. Enforcement of the mirror law is dismal, in part because of a loophole that exempts trucks registered out-of-state. The ultimate fix would be a national crossover mirror mandate, but the federal government has not shown any inclination to take that up.

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So Far Suburban Opposition to Safety Cameras Isn’t Playing in NYC

Well, that was quick. Two nascent safety camera programs on Long Island have been shut down, despite demonstrable success in Nassau, after elected officials turned tail in response to complaints from law-breaking motorists. Meanwhile, red light cameras in New Jersey were turned off this week after that state’s five-year demonstration failed to secure renewal in the legislature.

The Long Island backlash against safety cameras shows no sign of spreading to the city. One reason: An administration-wide focus on educating New Yorkers about the dangers posed by speeding. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Unlike on Long Island, NYC’s gradual expansion of speed cameras has been accompanied by Vision Zero framing and a public information campaign about the dangers of speeding. Photo: NYC DOT/Flickr

Suburban representatives, many facing election in less than a year, see these setbacks for street safety as politically advantageous. But in New York City, the politics of automated enforcement appear to be different — the gradual rollout of more speed cams has not triggered such an organized backlash. Still, the reversals on Long Island not only imperil people in Nassau and Suffolk, they also threaten to make it tougher for NYC to strengthen its safety camera programs via Albany legislation.

This summer, Nassau County quickly rolled out a speed camera program that stirred up a hornet’s nest of motorist entitlement. County Executive Ed Mangano unsuccessfully tried to wrangle an insurgency that started with county Democrats and quickly spread to his fellow Republicans. He trimmed the cameras to just four hours a day before caving in completely to demands from county legislators that the program be eliminated. Across the border in Suffolk County, speed cameras hadn’t even been turned on before elected officials caved to pressure from motorists and stopped the program in its tracks.

“It’s not surprising,” Mangano told Newsday. “It’s an election year.”

The situation on Long Island stands in contrast with speed camera deployment in New York City, where the rollout has been gradual. By the end of the year, the city aims to have fewer than a third of the 140 cameras allowed by Albany out on the streets. The additional cameras have been accompanied by major publicity surrounding the city’s new 25 mph speed limit and an increase in the number of speeding tickets issued by precinct officers, up nearly two-thirds compared to last year [PDF]. These changes have all been framed within the context of the city’s larger Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities.

“I haven’t heard much opposition in New York City, mostly because of how it’s been handled,” said Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool, who testified in favor of speed cameras before the Nassau legislature Monday night. ”There’s been an extensive public education campaign, and I think that made all the difference.”

“The Vision Zero context in New York is so strong,” said Transportation Alternatives Executive Director Paul Steely White. “That’s something we have that suburban Long Island and New Jersey don’t yet, which really puts cameras solidly where they should be in the context of traffic safety.”

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Driver With Revoked License Not Charged for Killing East Flatbush Senior

A driver with a revoked license killed a senior in Brooklyn Tuesday. As of Wednesday he was not charged by NYPD or District Attorney Ken Thompson for causing a death.

The crash occurred in the 67th Precinct, where motorists have killed at least three pedestrians this year, and at least seven pedestrians since January 2013.

Will District Attorney Ken Thompson charge an unlicensed driver for killing a Brooklyn senior? Image: ##http://www.ny1.com/content/politics/inside_city_hall/190291/ny1-online--brooklyn-da-candidate-thompson-responds-to-attacks##NY1##

Will District Attorney Ken Thompson charge an unlicensed driver for killing a Brooklyn senior? Image: NY1

At around 5:40 p.m., Joan Hale, 71, was crossing Foster Avenue at New York Avenue north to south when the motorist, eastbound on Foster, hit her with a 2012 Subaru Outback, according to NYPD. Police said the driver, a 75-year-old man, was proceeding with a green light, but had no information on how fast he was driving or how he failed to avoid hitting the victim.

Hale suffered severe head trauma and died at Kings County Hospital. The driver was arrested for driving with a revoked license. His name was withheld by NYPD.

It is not easy to lose a driver’s license in New York State, even temporarily. Offenses that make a license subject to revocation include DWI, homicide, leaving the scene of a crash resulting in injury or death, and three speeding or misdemeanor traffic violations committed within 18 months. For all of these offenses, except one, the minimum penalty imposed by the New York State Department of Motor Vehicles is a six-month revocation. Driving with a BAC of .18 percent or higher carries a revocation of at least one year. There is no automatic DMV penalty for killing someone with a motor vehicle.

State lawmakers have failed to hold unlicensed motorists accountable. Legislation to make it a class E felony to cause injury or death while driving without a license was rejected by the State Senate this year, and did not come to a vote in the Assembly. Another bill to require drivers with suspended licenses to surrender vehicle registrations and license plates did not get a vote in either chamber last session. As it stands, a $500 fine is the standard penalty for killing a New York City pedestrian while driving without a valid license.

Motorists have killed at least five New York City pedestrians in December, including a child and three seniors. In four cases, NYPD blamed the victim in the press. Last Friday a driver hit 64-year-old Gloria Ramiro as she crossed Third Avenue at 81st Street. She died from her injuries Monday. Police said Ramiro was “crossing mid-block,” according to DNAinfo. The driver was not charged.

To voice your concerns about neighborhood traffic safety directly to Deputy Inspector Joseph M. Gulotta, the commanding officer of the 67th Precinct, go to the next precinct community council meeting. The 67th Precinct council meetings happen at 8 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at the precinct, 2820 Snyder Avenue. Call 718-287-2530 for information.

The City Council district where Joan Hale was killed is represented by Jumaane Williams. Motorists have killed at least three pedestrians in Williams’s district in 2014. To encourage Williams to take action to improve street safety in his district and citywide, contact him at 212-788-6859, JWilliams@council.nyc.gov or @JumaaneWilliams.

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Livable Streets Progress in Albany Will Have to Go Through a GOP Senate

Andrew Cuomo may have won re-election, but New York was no exception to the national Republican wave in yesterday’s elections. The GOP regained control of the State Senate, weakening its bond with the Independent Democratic Conference and keeping mainline Democrats in the minority. With last night’s results, the landscape for transit and livable streets legislation in Albany has shifted.

Dean Skelos, right, is back as the sole leader of the State Senate. What will it mean for the MTA? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Dean Skelos, right, could come back as the sole leader of the State Senate. What will it mean for transit in NYC? Photo: MTA/Flickr

Republicans now have 32 of 63 seats in the State Senate. They gained control by ousting three upstate Democrats and losing only one seat, in a tight three-way Buffalo-area race. The balance of power no longer rests with the breakaway IDC, which formed a power-sharing agreement with Republicans. Leadership of the Senate could be consolidated next session in Dean Skelos of Long Island, who currently splits control with IDC leader Jeff Klein.

With Republicans in the majority, NYC’s two GOP senators — Martin Golden of Brooklyn and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island, who both won re-election last night – will be key for any street safety legislation affecting the city. Golden initially resisted speed camera legislation earlier this year, though he ultimately voted for the bill. Lanza is best known to Streetsblog readers for refusing to allow flashing lights on Select Bus Service vehicles.

The rest of the statewide political landscape did not change much. The Assembly will remain in the hands of Democrats, led by Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver and Skelos will return to Albany next year with Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and Governor Cuomo, who all secured expected victories over Republican challengers.

The most pressing transportation issue facing Cuomo, Silver, and Skelos — the proverbial “three men in a room” — will be closing the $15.2 billion gap in the MTA capital program.

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Nassau Democrat Campaigns Against Speed Cams in Bid for Senate Seat

Adam Haber, a Democrat challenging incumbent Republican State Senator Jack Martins in Nassau County, is out with a new attack ad blasting his opponent for supporting speed cameras.

In April, the Senate voted 49-11 for a bill that expanded New York City’s speed cam program and brought automated speeding enforcement to Long Island for the first time. As in NYC, the law restricts Nassau County’s cameras to streets with school entrances nearby, during specific daytime hours. Drivers can get tickets only if they are going more than 10 mph over the limit.

The Nassau County program got off to a rocky start soon after its August launch, incorrectly issuing tickets near six schools during hours when the cameras should have been shut off. County Executive Ed Mangano later voided all of the county’s speed cam tickets, valid or not, and the program restarted in September near 77 schools [PDF].

State Senate candidate Adam Haber is going for the road rage vote. Image: Haber for NY/Facebook

State Senate candidate Adam Haber is going for the road rage vote. Image: Haber for NY/Facebook

With its latest ad and press release, the Haber campaign is betting that Nassau residents think drivers speeding through school zones shouldn’t get tickets. The campaign has purchased what it calls a “significant” amount of air time for the anti-speed cam advertisement, which will run until election day.

Haber has sent out mailers and lawn signs against the speed cameras. The Senate district, covering Great Neck, Port Washington, Floral Park, Mineola, and Hicksville, borders much of eastern Queens. Clarence Eckerson Jr. of Streetfilms reported seeing the signs on streets just over the city line in Little Neck yesterday.

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MTA: We’re Not Counting on Albany to Help Pay for Capital Program

The City Council transportation committee today passed bills to lower the city’s speed limit and give hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers a transit-related tax benefit. But most of this afternoon’s hearing was dedicated to the next MTA capital plan.

Here are the highlights.

  • In a joint vote, the committee unanimously approved a bill to set the city’s default speed limit at 25 miles per hour, and another bill to require companies with a full-time staff of 20 or more to make the federal transit tax benefit available to employees. The latter measure would extend the tax break to 450,000 people whose employers currently don’t participate in the program, according to Council Member Dan Garodnick, the bill’s primary sponsor. Companies would also save because the benefit would reduce payroll taxes, Garodnick said. If passed by the full council, the law would take effect in 2016, to give businesses time to prepare. A Riders Alliance report issued earlier this year said the tax losses to the city and state would be offset by injecting the money into the economy elsewhere.
  • Council Member Mark Weprin reiterated some of what he said last week about lowering the city speed limit, arguing again that sections of Northern Boulevard and Union Turnpike should not be set at 25 mph because there are no businesses or homes around and higher speeds would be safe. Weprin said today that Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was amenable to his suggestions.
  • MTA representatives rattled off a long list of projects slated for funding in the 2015-2019 Capital Program, with big ticket items including East Side Access (to be completed), phase two of the Second Avenue Subway (no completion date), and Penn Station Access (beginning work). Also in the program is the implementation of a new fare box system, which reps said would allow for payments online and via phone, as well as hundreds of new subway cars, over 1,000 buses, and track and signal upgrades.
  • There is currently a $15 billion gap between the capital program price tag and available revenues. Biennial fare increases figure into the capital plan’s revenue projections, and MTA expects to receive $125 million a year from the city — a princely sum compared to the anticipated contribution from the state, which at this point, reps said, is zero.
  • Council members had lists of their own, with asks including rail service to LaGuardia, Select Bus Service on Staten Island, subway countdown clocks on lettered lines, and improved access for the disabled. On the revenue side, congestion pricing foe Weprin asked if the MTA had considered the Sam Schwartz Move New York bridge toll reform plan. MTA reps said they’ve seen the proposal but have not spoken to Schwartz about it. Committee chair Ydanis Rodriguez said the council wants to help MTA raise money, and asked that council members be included in early discussions on “creative” revenue sources. ”We’ll take ideas from just about anyone,” was the reply.
  • There is some question as to whether — or how — old Second Avenue Subway tunnels, bored during the project’s previous false starts, will be used. MTA reps said they could be used for something, but maybe not running trains.
  • Rodriguez said omitting rail to LaGuardia from the capital plan was “not a good move,” and asked that MTA reconsider. New express bus service to the airport is an improvement, Rodriguez said, but no substitute for rail links like those found in other world cities, namely London.
  • Passing on a question from Twitter, Rodriguez asked about wheel guards for buses. Repeating what she said last March, MTA spokesperson Lois Tendler said wheel guards like the ones used in other cities were considered, but the agency decided against them because, Tendler said, “We didn’t think it was effective.” MTA bus drivers have killed at least four pedestrians and one cyclist this year, with an average of at least one fatality every six weeks since January 2013.