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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.
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City Council Creates Fines for Hit-and-Run Drivers, Calls on Albany to Act

Minutes ago, the City Council unanimously passed a bill that would levy civil penalties against hit-and-run drivers. Fines start at $500, increasing to $2,000 for drivers who leave injured victims and $10,000 for drivers who cause serious injury or death. The bill now goes to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is expected to sign it.

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer speaks while honoring the work of Make Queens Safer before the City Council passed a bill creating civil penalties for hit-and-run crashes. Photo: JimmyVanBramer/Twitter

Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer honors the work of Make Queens Safer before the City Council passed a bill creating civil penalties for hit-and-run crashes. Photo: JimmyVanBramer/Twitter

The bill does not include criminal penalties. Currently, the state classifies most hit-and-run crashes as misdemeanors, not felonies. This creates a perverse incentive for drunk drivers, who can avoid a felony conviction if they flee the scene and get tagged with a lesser hit-and-run charge instead.

Today’s City Council bill aims to reduce the incentive to flee the scene, but it’s up to Albany to reform state law. For years, a bill to upgrade hit-and-run to an automatic class E felony has passed the Senate but failed in the Assembly.

“The state has to act,” City Council Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez said at a press conference before today’s vote. “We need to pass tougher legislation at the state level that provides the tools that the NYPD and the DAs are missing right now to prosecute drivers that commit those crimes.”

The bill could be hamstrung by language requiring that a driver must know or have cause to know that he caused property damage, injury, or death before penalties can be assessed. In these situations, a driver’s word that he or she didn’t see the victim could let them off the hook.

The bill also hinges on NYPD’s ability to catch hit-and-run drivers in the first place. Of 60 fatal hit-and-run crashes investigated in 2012, NYPD arrested just 15 drivers, according to Transportation Alternatives. Last month, cyclist Dulcie Canton was struck by a hit-and-run driver in Bushwick. Although she collected evidence leading to a suspect, the detective assigned to the case refused to act on it.

Despite these limitations, council members said today that high civil fines will act as a disincentive to drivers considering leaving the scene of a crash. “We had to do something. There were too many vigils, too many rallies,” said Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer, the bill’s sponsor. “Establishing a $10,000 penalty will, I believe, serve as a deterrent where right now there is none.”

Today, Rodriguez and Van Bramer cited hit-and-run fatalities where these penalties would have applied. Martha Puruncajas, whose son Luis Bravo was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Van Bramer’s district last year, joined the council member and other advocates from Make Queens Safer on the floor of the City Council this afternoon to receive a proclamation honoring their work.

“This bill that we are passing today is a result of your efforts,” Van Bramer said. “These activists remind us every single day that there’s more to be done.”

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With Albany AWOL, Council Bill Proposes Fines Against Hit-and-Run Drivers

With perpetrators having little to fear from police and prosecutors, a new City Council bill aims to deter drivers from fleeing crash scenes by attaching civil penalties to hit-and-run.

Proposed by Council Member Jimmy Van Bramer and transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez, Intro 371 would levy fines of $250 to $5,000 against drivers who leave the scene of a crash, with fines ranging from $500 to $5,000 in cases where a driver “knows or has cause to know” an injury has occurred. Fines at the higher end of the scale would be applied to drivers who inflict serious injuries and deaths.

At a transportation committee hearing today, Van Bramer and Rodriguez stressed that the proposed fines are not intended to place a value on lives, but to deter drivers from leaving crash victims to die. Van Bramer noted that hit-and-run drivers have killed three pedestrians in his district alone in the last 18 months.

Motorists have “a moral responsibility to stop and not flee, to see if those people who were just struck can be saved,” Van Bramer said.

Under New York State law, drivers who may be impaired by alcohol or drugs have an incentive to leave the scene, since the penalty for hit-and-run is less severe than causing death or injury while intoxicated. State legislators have repeatedly failed to fix the law. ”We must act where Albany has not,” said Van Bramer.

Transportation Alternatives offered recommendations for bill amendments. TA’s Noah Budnick testified that higher fines would be a stronger deterrent, and said fines should be increased for drivers who hit pedestrians or cyclists, who account for the majority of hit-and-run victims. Repeat offenders and drunk and unlicensed drivers should also be subject to more severe penalties, Budnick said.

Rodriguez said the proposed fines may be increased.

Another issue, not discussed during the hearing, is the ”knows or has cause to know” provision. Many New York City hit-and-run drivers are not charged criminally because prosecutors must prove the driver “knew or had reason to know” a collision occurred. This is a surprisingly high burden, and many times DAs don’t pursue cases if a driver claims he or she “didn’t see” the victim.

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De Blasio and DOT Ring In the New School Year With More Speed Cameras

Mayor de Blasio and Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg today officially announced the expansion of the city’s speed camera program, which will eventually bring automated enforcement to 140 school zones across the boroughs. Today’s event also underscored the fact that streets around schools won’t be as safe as they could be, thanks to restrictions imposed by Albany.

All 140 speed cameras allowed by Albany will be operational next year. Will state lawmakers lift constraints that prevent cameras from saving lives? Photo: ##https://twitter.com/NYCMayorsOffice/status/506813044467728384##@NYCMayorsOffice##

All 140 speed cameras allowed by Albany will be operational next year. Will state lawmakers lift constraints that prevent cameras from saving lives? Photo: @NYCMayorsOffice

At a press conference this morning at PS 95, on Hillman Avenue in the Bronx, de Blasio and Trottenberg were joined by NYPD Chief of Transportation Thomas Chan and State Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein, a key supporter of legislation that brought the first 20 speed cams to NYC streets last year.

“Our kids are going to be safer walking to school and coming home because of this new enforcement,” said de Blasio via a press release. “We are sending a powerful message that we take safety near our schools seriously, and we will enforce the law to keep children safe.”

With the new school year set to start Thursday, DOT is on its way to deploying the 120 additional cameras authorized by state lawmakers earlier this year. Twenty-three cameras will be up and running this week, according to a de Blasio spokesperson, with 40 to 50 cameras operational by the end of 2014. All 140 cameras are expected to be online by the end of 2015.

Speeding was the leading cause of traffic deaths in NYC in 2012, contributing to 81 fatal crashes. Automated enforcement is vital to reducing traffic casualties, but NYC’s cameras come with a bevy of conditions that limit their effectiveness. Per today’s press release:

DOT is permitted to place cameras within a quarter mile of a corridor passing a school building, entrance or exit of a school on the corridor. The cameras are only active on school days during school hours, one hour before and one hour after the school day, as well as during student activities at the school, and 30 minutes before and 30 minutes after school activities.

In addition, cameras can only ticket drivers who speed by 11 or more miles per hour, and the penalty for speed cam tickets is a nominal $50 fine, with no license points. According to a Transportation Alternatives analysis of DMV data, the majority of fatal speeding-related crashes statewide occur on weekends or between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. on weeknights — hours when speed cameras aren’t normally allowed to operate. To prevent as many injuries and deaths as possible, state lawmakers should remove these restrictions.

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20 Speed Cams Issued Almost as Many Tickets in June as NYPD Has All Year

Traffic enforcement cameras are far outpacing NYPD in ticketing drivers who speed, run red lights, and encroach on bus lanes — pointing to the need for more automated enforcement to make streets safer.

A report from the city’s Independent Budget Office finds that FY 14 revenue from camera-generated tickets in those three categories was $41 million, compared to $14 million from summonses issued by NYPD, based on preliminary data. “The proportion of revenue generated by cameras rose from 38 percent in 1999 to 75 percent in 2014,” the report says.

While tabloid coverage focused on the revenue angle, the takeaway should be that we can now see how much NYC needs automated enforcement to reduce dangerous driving.

According to the Post, speed cameras issued 48,517 tickets in June, the first month when 20 cameras were operational. In one month those 20 cameras nearly eclipsed the 54,854 speeding tickets issued by NYPD through the first six months of the year.

From mid-January to mid-May, when just five speed cams were working, they issued more than 41,000 tickets, according to the city’s open data portal. Through the end of June, NYPD issued a combined 83,066 summonses for speeding, red light-running (26,749), and driving in a bus lane (1,463).

Though NYPD has stepped up enforcement somewhat this year, these numbers really give a sense of how rampant law-breaking is on city streets — particularly when you consider Albany restrictions that limit speed camera operation to school zones during school hours, and only allow tickets when a driver exceeds the speed limit by 11 miles per hour or more. That means in one month 20 cameras covering just a fraction of the city for part of the day caught nearly 50,000 motorists traveling well in excess of the posted speed.

As speed cameras become more prevalent, it might make sense for cops to focus on other dangerous violations, like failure to yield, which don’t involve stopping drivers traveling at high speeds.

NYC is a long way from complete speed cam coverage, of course, and even Albany’s recent authorization of 140 cameras won’t cover most of the city’s 6,000 miles of streets. But it’s clear that a handful of cameras are already doing a lot more enforcement than NYPD. Those 140 speed cameras are going to make a difference, even if we need a lot more to get to zero traffic deaths.

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Two Men Can Stop Cuomo From Building a Highway With Clean Water Funds

Two men — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator John DeFrancisco – stand between Governor Andrew Cuomo and his plan to use the state’s clean water fund to finance construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

It's up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo's clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

It’s up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo’s clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

The $511 million low-interest loan for the Tappan Zee (stated goal: “keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible”) uses money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund reserved for New York City. Although the fund is meant to finance things like wastewater treatment plants, not highway construction, the loan was approved late last month by the Cuomo-controlled Environmental Facilities Corporation.

It still needs final sign-off from the Public Authorities Control Board, where three members each wield veto power over new debt issued by state authorities. The loan is on the agenda for the board’s meeting on Wednesday, and either Silver or DeFrancisco could stop, or at least delay, its approval. (The other member, state budget director Robert Menga, is a Cuomo appointee and supports the loan, according to Bloomberg.)

A coalition of environmental, transportation, and good-government groups — including the Regional Plan Association, which has generally supported the TZB project — are calling on control board members to use their veto power. “This loan could set a dangerous precedent and lead other states into using these funds for projects with little or no connection to the protection of water quality and water resources,” the advocates wrote in a letter to the board [PDF]. “At a minimum, we request that the Board delay a vote on the loan.”

“We don’t think this is a good idea,” RPA spokeswoman Wendy Pollack said. “Or a good precedent.”

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking supporters to contact board members and urge them to vote against the loan.

Silver remains noncommittal, even though the Tappan Zee loan would use funds intended for New York City clean water projects. ”We are reviewing the matter,” spokesperson Mike Whyland said in an email.

DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, is giving a similar line. “He’s still examining the issue. He hasn’t made a decision yet,” said spokesperson Tiffany Latino.

Last week, DeFrancisco said that he wouldn’t hesitate to stop the loan without more answers from the Cuomo administration. “I have no compunction at all about voting ‘no’ if it’s not the proper use of money or there’s not a full financing plan, because the people should know how they’re paying for this thing,” he told Capital Tonight. “If I got a vote, I’m gonna use it.”

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The Livable Streets Legislation That Albany Didn’t Act on This Session

With the passage of bills to lower NYC’s speed limit and significantly expand the city’s speed camera program, this year’s legislative session was unusually productive for street safety measures, at least by Albany standards.

Still, there were a wide range of street safety and transit issues the legislature failed to address. Some of these bills have been introduced for years in the Assembly or Senate, but legislative leaders have not made them a priority. Here’s an overview of the unfinished business:

Unaddressed loopholes in a state law adopted in 2011 allow large trucks registered out of state to operate in NYC without crossover mirrors, which give drivers a view of pedestrians directly in front of them. Photo: Brad Aaron

Loopholes in a state law adopted in 2011 allow large trucks registered out of state to operate in NYC without crossover mirrors, which give drivers a view of pedestrians directly in front of them. Photo: Brad Aaron

  • Increasing penalties for hit-and-run drivers: Because driving while intoxicated is a felony but hit-and-runs are only a misdemeanor, New York has a perverse incentive for drunk drivers to leave the scene of a crash. A bill from State Senator Marty Golden and Assembly Member Steven Cymbrowitz would have upgraded leaving the scene to a class E felony. For years, legislation has passed the Senate but remained stuck in committee in the Assembly, a pattern that continued this session.
  • Adding a cyclist and pedestrian component to driver’s ed: This bill, sponsored by Golden and Assembly Member Walter Moseley, adds new sections to the DMV’s required driver’s education courses about safely passing cyclists, rules for bike lanes, navigating intersections with pedestrians and cyclists, and exiting a vehicle without endangering a cyclist. The bill passed the Senate, 58-1, but got stuck in committee in the Assembly.
  • Classifying electric-assist bikes as bicycles: Though federal law defines low-power electric bikes as bicycles, New York law does not. Without a federally-required vehicle identification number, the state DMV won’t register e-bikes, leaving them in a legal limbo. A bill from State Senator Martin Malave Dilan and Assembly Transportation Committee Chair David Gantt would bring New York in line with other states that have adjusted to federal recognition of e-bikes, plus it would restrict their use to people age 16 or over and require helmets. While it made some progress this session, as in previous years, the legislation didn’t get a vote in either chamber.

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NYC Set for 25 MPH Limit After Overwhelming Votes in Assembly, Senate

The New York state legislature voted last night to lower New York City’s default speed limit from 30 to 25 mph. The bill now heads to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is expected to sign it.

NYC’s default speed limit will be 25 mph once Governor Cuomo signs a bill that passed the legislature last night. Photo: DOT

While the votes last night were overwhelming and bipartisan — 106-13 in the Assembly, followed nearly two hours later by a 58-2 vote in the Senate — the legislation almost didn’t make it through the tumult of Albany politics. After last-minute action by Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein on Monday, the bill was almost derailed by Republican Dean Skelos, Klein’s fellow co-leader. Mayor Bill de Blasio had made the bill one of his major requests of Albany this session while also simultaneously vowing to engineer a Democratic takeover of Senate leadership. Skelos, not inclined to do the mayor any favors, threatened to keep the bill from a floor vote. While Skelos ultimately relented, an eleventh-hour disagreement over when to vote on an unrelated piece of legislation almost delayed Senate action on 25 mph before the vote finally happened shortly after midnight. The bill takes effect 90 days after the governor signs it.

In the end, its success was possible because of the tireless work of families of traffic violence victims, livable streets advocates, and officials in both Albany and City Hall.

There are four big things to know about the bill that passed last night:

  • It lowers the citywide default speed limit to from 30 to 25 mph. This is a change de Blasio asked for in the city’s Vision Zero report, issued in February. Advocates and traffic violence victims’ families had been pushing bills for a 20 mph default but, backed by the City Council, decided to get behind 25 mph last month in an effort to create a united front with the administration and pass a bill during this session. Expressways and parkways are unaffected by the bill, and the relatively small number of state-managed surface roads in NYC, such as Ocean Parkway, would also be exempt from the new 25 mph limit.
  • Speed cameras will now issue tickets at 35 mph, not 40. In April, the legislature passed bills to expand the number of school speed cameras from 20 to 140, but they can only issue a ticket if a driver is going at least 10 mph over the posted limit. By dropping this threshold from 40 to 35 mph, the bill will make it much easier for the city to crack down on deadly driving speeds.
  • It does not make it any easier for the city to designate 20 mph zones. Under current law, in most cases the city must install traffic calming like speed humps if it wants to sign a street for 20 mph. As a result, 20 mph streets are restricted to areas selected for neighborhood Slow Zones, which cost up to $200,000 each. Bills from Senator Martin Malave Dilan and Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, which picked up key support in the Assembly from Speaker Sheldon Silver, would have allowed 20 mph streets without expensive traffic calming. But Klein’s plan, which passed both chambers last night, keeps the status quo for 20 mph zones.
  • It requires notification of community boards for speed limit changes of more than 5 mph. Last week, Klein suggested community boards should have veto power over changes to the current 30 mph speed limit on arterial roads, the city’s most dangerous streets. The community board language Klein ended up putting into his bill is much less onerous, and would apply only when the city lowers the limit by more than 5 mph. Sections of Northern Boulevard, for example, are currently signed at 35 mph; if the city wanted to bring that street in line with the new 25 mph default, it would need to notify the local community board at least 60 days in advance.

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