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Chuck Schumer Proposes Making Bike-Share Memberships Tax Deductible

If you drive to work, the IRS allows you to pay for parking with pre-tax money. Same goes if you take the train or the bus (though transit commuters can’t claim as much tax-free earnings as car commuters). People who ride their own bikes are also eligible to deduct some associated costs. But if you get to work using Citi Bike, Divvy, Nice Ride, or any of the other bike-share systems sprouting up in American cities, you get no such assistance from Uncle Sam.

Those to use bike share to commute to work may soon be eligible for the same tax benefits everyone else receives. Photo: Steven Vance

People who ride bike-share to work may soon be eligible for tax benefits like other commuters. Photo: Steven Vance

New York Senator Chuck Schumer wants to change that by treating bike-share memberships like other commuting costs. Schumer plans to add an amendment to a Senate package of tax benefit extensions that would specifically list bike-share memberships as an eligible expense for transportation fringe benefits.

“Bike share programs are an efficient, healthy, and clean form of mass transportation, and they should be treated the same way under the tax code as we treat car and mass transit commuters,” he said in a statement yesterday.

The amendment would allow commuters to deduct up to $20 per month in bike-share expenses from their taxable income, the same as regular bike commuters. That would make the entire cost of an annual bike-share membership tax-deductible. Chicago’s Divvy, for instance, is prices at $75 per year, NYC’s Citi Bike costs $95, and at the very high end of the spectrum, Deco Bike in Miami Beach costs $150. For commuters, a low-cost transportation option could become an even better bargain.

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Flashback Friday: 2002 Brooklyn Greenway Ride With Schumer and de Blasio

In the final installment of this summer’s “Flashback Friday” series, featuring musty digital footage from the Streetfilms vault, we present these clips from the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative’s 2002 bike tour of the waterfront near downtown Brooklyn. If you’re like me, you might find yourself rewatching this video artifact a few times over the long weekend.

A lot has changed since this ride, Clarence writes:

Almost every shot of this video features streetscapes and waterfronts that have changed dramatically. Pay attention, and you will see Kent Avenue before protected bike lanes. You’ll see garbage-strewn streets in places. And if you look behind the riders, you’ll see the places where IKEA, Fairway, and East River State Park now stand.

What was a vision in 2002 is now a cohesive bike route from Greenpoint to Red Hook, thanks to the efforts of volunteers, advocates, and the city over the last several years. The transformation will continue as the city undertakes a series of capital projects to build a complete greenway.

Even more entrancing than the weed-choked streets is the sight of Chuck Schumer and Bill de Blasio (who back then represented the 39th District in the City Council) talking about making NYC more bikeable. At the time, creating a network of bikeways that most New Yorkers would feel comfortable using was still kind of an abstract idea.

If you made the same video today, who would star in it?

Enjoy the long weekend. Streetsblog will be off Monday and publishing regularly on Tuesday.

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The NBBL Files: Chuck Schumer “Doesn’t Like the Bike Lane”

Editor’s note: With yesterday’s appellate ruling prolonging the Prospect Park West case, Streetsblog is running a refresher on the how the well-connected gang of bike lane opponents waged their assault against a popular and effective street safety project. This is the third installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 5, 2011.

This is the third installment in a series of posts examining the tactics employed by opponents of the Prospect Park West redesign. Read the first post and the second post.

Senator Chuck Schumer, a frequent cyclist, walks his bike by the Prospect Park West bike lane, which he told bike lane opponents he does not like. Image: Brooklyn Spoke.

Throughout the Prospect Park West bike lane saga, intense speculation has surrounded New York’s senior senator, Chuck Schumer. Both his wife, Iris Weinshall, and his daughter, Jessica Schumer, played leading roles in the fight against the redesign, but Schumer’s office remained studiously silent throughout. “I am not commenting,” Schumer repeatedly told the New York Times when asked about the bike lane this March; in later press conferences, his staff barred reporters from asking about it.

Despite his public attempt to remain neutral, Schumer told opponents of the bike lane that he personally opposed it, according to correspondence obtained by Streetsblog via freedom of information request.

Members of the anti-bike lane group “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” also attempted to use the senator’s political power and network of contacts to their advantage. They exploited his connections to get access to top political consultants and hoped to use his clout to pressure local elected officials. David Seifman at the Post has reported that Schumer asked City Council members what they would do about the bike lane. Schumer may also have discussed the project with Mayor Bloomberg himself, according to a message from one leading bike lane opponent.

Schumer apparently revealed his opposition to the bike lane to NBBL leader Louise Hainline, who lives in the penthouse of the same Prospect Park West apartment building the senator calls home. “Schumer can’t help much with this issue, but I have seen him and he doesn’t like the lane,” wrote Hainline to two bike lane opponents on June 29, 2010. Though Hainline said Schumer “can’t help much,” NBBL repeatedly attempted to use his connections and clout to aid their efforts.

Bike lane opponents sought to wield the senator’s political influence to pressure local elected officials. Specifically, Hainline believed that she could leverage her Schumer connection to win the backing of City Council Member Steve Levin.

In an e-mail to a personal friend on December 24, 2010, Hainline reported on her recent meetings with members of the City Council. She came away believing Council Member Brad Lander wouldn’t turn against the lane, but that Levin might. Wrote Hainline: “Stephen Levin is a protégée of Vito Lopez, who if you are reading the papers is in some hot water, so Levin’s looking for some god father, and may want Vacca or Schumer to protect him, maybe both.”

It’s not clear whether Hainline’s plan for Levin was based on her recent conversation with him or was simply wishful thinking. Levin has not taken a public position on the bike lane, even when asked about it directly.

No written evidence of Schumer’s direct lobbying on the bike lane has surfaced, but one email is quite suggestive. On December 3, 2010, bike lane opponent and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel wrote to Weinshall: “Also heard abt a purported conversation betwn the mayor and our sr. senator you might find of interest.” In all the documents obtained by Streetsblog, the extent of Steisel and Weinshall’s communications was limited to the Prospect Park West bike lane, suggesting that the conversation “of interest” between Schumer and Bloomberg was likely about the same topic.

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Will New Infrastructure Funding Survive the Demise of Obama’s Jobs Bill?

Tuesday night, the Senate blocked a vote on the president’s jobs plan. As had been forecast, Republicans voted unanimously against the plan, and they weren’t alone: Two Democrats joined them – Sens. Jon Tester of Montana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska. Now it’s on to Plan B, which involves breaking up the bill into pieces to be voted on separately.

Sen. Schumer's plan to salvage the jobs bill wouldn't resuscitate plans for $50 billion in transportation spending. Photo: AP

New York Sen. Chuck Schumer has proposed narrowing the bill down to two parts – one favored by Democrats, the other by Republicans. Under the plan, an infrastructure bank would be created in the model endorsed by the president and the Kerry-Hutchison BUILD Act. In exchange, there would be a tax holiday for corporations to bring back to the U.S. profits they made overseas.

Obama’s bill had also called for a $50 billion investment in transportation infrastructure, and that appears to be dead as the Senate pursues Schumer’s plan. The House had dismissed the transportation component long ago, with Republican leadership saying they might hold a vote on the pieces of the bill that appeal to them (surprise — stimulus spending isn’t one of them). Meanwhile, some insiders say that Republicans in the House are getting serious about passing a transportation reauthorization before March 31 so that they can show that they, too, are serious about job creation.

Of course, the path they seem to be setting out on involves paying for a higher level of transportation spending with oil drilling, a proposal that’s sure to run up against massive Democratic opposition and possibly even a presidential veto.

And many think that not much is going to happen on any of this until the super committee comes back with its proposals for deficit reduction before Thanksgiving.

Back to the Schumer jobs plan: We’ve written a lot, and will be writing more, about the pros and cons of an infrastructure bank. But what about this idea of repatriating overseas profits?

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Mica Transportation Bill Would Devastate New York Transit

The Senate Democrats predict enormous cuts to transit funding in the New York region if the Republican transportation bill becomes law. Image: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Rep. John Mica’s proposed transportation bill would take a machete to federal transportation spending, cutting overall transportation funding by a third and entirely eliminating dedicated funds for pedestrian and bike infrastructure.

In New York, the effects would be especially dire. Statewide, the total cuts would inch up to 37 percent, according to calculations by the Democrat-controlled Senate Banking Committee (thanks to Ya-Ting Liu at the Tri-State Transportation Campaign for compiling these numbers).

While nationwide, Mica would maintain the 80/20 split between highway and transit spending, New York and its neighbors flex some of their highway dollars to support transit. In the tri-state region, cuts to federal “highway” spending translate into cuts to transit spending as well. Under the Mica proposal, federal highway spending in New York would fall by $568 million a year from current levels, while transit spending would be cut by $646 million. Those austerity levels would be locked in for six years.

At a time when the MTA is already facing a $10 billion deficit in its capital plan through 2014, those cuts could be devastating.

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Ten Things NBBL Doesn’t Want You to Know

#3: Before NBBL was lobbying City Hall to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane, Marty Markowitz and Iris Weinshall were lobbying DOT to not even build the PPW bike lane (PDF). #4: NBBL has a U.S. Senator on their side.

If opponents of an effective street safety project repeat dishonest distortions about it often enough, does that make their position true? Apparently, the Daily News editorial board thinks so. An opinion piece they published over the weekend on the Prospect Park West bike lane might as well have come straight from the desk of Gibson Dunn lawyer Jim Walden, the corporate litigator, Chuck Schumer campaign donor, and rumored Brooklyn DA hopeful who’s now representing bike lane opponents “pro bono.”

A decade ago Daily News reporters were crusading for safety improvements on Queens Boulevard, leading to measures that prevented injuries and saved lives. Now, without any hint of skepticism, truthseeking, or other basic journalistic impulses, the Daily News editorial writers seem content to lift talking points straight from street safety opponents, aligning themselves with the goal of making New York more dangerous. They apparently believe the narrative spun by the anti-bike lane group known as “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” and their spin-off, “Seniors for Safety” — a story in which DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is the only person in New York who wants safer streets for biking and walking, and the local community could, at any moment, “erupt into open revolt.”

It can be time-consuming to visit the neighborhood you’re opining about, do nuts-and-bolts research, or fact-check the faulty assertions in a lawsuit before you reprint them for hundreds of thousands of readers, so Streetsblog has compiled this handy list for the future reference of the Daily News editorial staff, or anyone who’s actually curious about how this project came to be and what the opponents are really after (hint: it’s not safety or “better bike lanes”).

The NBBL narrative obscures the following:

  1. Community groups asked for the project

    One of NBBL’s basic tenets, unchallenged by the tabloid dailies, is that the city foisted the Prospect Park West redesign on the neighborhood. But the fact is that public pressure to tame traffic on Prospect Park West had been mounting since 2006, when the Park Slope Civic Council’s traffic and transportation forum highlighted rampant speeding on PPW as a major quality of life concern.

    Later that year, after holding a series of public workshops, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition produced a report including recommendations for better bike access to GAP, and in 2007, Brooklyn Community Board 6 asked the city to study the implementation of a two-way, protected bike lane on PPW. Park Slope Neighbors later gathered 1,300 signatures asking for a two-way bike lane and traffic calming measures on the street — all before DOT proposed the PPW redesign in 2009. No one had to convince people that their neighborhood streets could function a lot better.

  2. DOT’s safety data is rigorous and honest

    Data collected from the six-month study period after implementation of the re-design clearly shows that the incidence of speeding on PPW has gone down significantly, and the early results indicate that crash and injury rates have declined. You can’t be “for safety” and oppose a project that produces these benefits, so NBBL has attacked the data and cherrypicked numbers to undermine confidence in DOT’s methodology.

    To do this, NBBL claimed that DOT typically doesn’t use multi-year averages of crash data to ascertain the effect of street redesigns, when the truth is that this is exactly how DOT and other transportation agencies measure safety effects, because that’s the statistically rigorous way to do it. As Gary Toth, a 34-year veteran of the New Jersey Department of Transportation, told Streetsblog: “It is the opponents’ lawyers who are grasping at aberrations and doing the very thing they accuse the DOT of — selectively picking data to stack the deck in their favor.”

  3. Before NBBL was lobbying City Hall to remove the PPW bike lane, Iris Weinshall and Marty Markowitz were lobbying DOT to not even build the PPW bike lane

    From the beginning, the campaign against the bike lane has been spearheaded by opponents with political clout. In October 2009, after the PPW redesign had been approved by CB 6, Borough President Marty Markowitz wrote to Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, asking her not to install the redesign. “I am joined in this request by former DOT Commissioner, Iris Weinshall — who absolutely agrees that the installation of a two-way, barricaded bike lane would cause incredible congestion,” Markowitz wrote in a letter [PDF] obtained by Streetsblog through freedom of information requests. The attempt to perform an end-run around a multi-year community-led planning process had begun. Weinshall would later join Louise Hainline and Norman Steisel in penning a letter to the New York Times on behalf of NBBL, speciously claiming that the redesign increased danger on PPW.

  4. They have a U.S. Senator on their side

    NBBL leaders have taken to saying that only “a small number” of their members are politically connected. But it only takes one former deputy mayor to go over the heads of the local community board and get direct access to City Hall. It only takes one former transportation commissioner to lend an air of legitimacy to spurious claims about a traffic-calming project increasing risk. And if that former DOT chief is married to a U.S. Senator, that’s all you need to enlist City Council members to start agitating against the current DOT and its projects to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists.

  5. They have media access that would make Snooki jealous

    In the annals of NYC NIMBYism, NBBL may be the only neighborhood-level opposition group that has hired a PR firm to get its message out to the press. They’ve also received a helping hand from Marty Markowitz’s office, which offered to put members of NBBL in touch with CBS2 reporter Marcia Kramer last October, according to email correspondence obtained by Streetsblog. CBS2 aired a Kramer segment in February featuring Markowitz, NBBL member Steve Spirn, and video footage provided by NBBL. The coordination between all these parties is never revealed to the viewer, who sees a series of bike lane opponents that seem unrelated to each other. Kramer never mentioned NBBL herself during the segment; only after she kicked it back to the anchor did he say that a group called “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” planned on suing the city.

  6. Read more…

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Chuck Schumer: America Needs More Streets Like Prospect Park West

Senators Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer on the return leg of their journey this morning.

Senators Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer on the return leg of their journey this morning. Photo: Carly Clark

Senator Chuck Schumer broke his long public silence on the redesigned Prospect Park West in dramatic fashion this morning, leading members of Congress on a two-wheeled tour of the physically separated bike lane that runs past his Brooklyn home. Schumer used the occasion to announce that he’ll be introducing new legislation to promote investment in bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

“I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this bike lane, and I just wanted to wait until this moment to say, ‘What’s not to like?’” Schumer told a press gaggle at Grand Army Plaza. “There’s much less speeding and more people feel safer riding their bikes to get around the neighborhood thanks to this new design. America needs more streets like this.”

Schumer’s bill, the Livable Streets Act of 2011, would make $3 billion available to states and cities each year for investment in walkable street networks and improvements to bicycle and pedestrian safety. The bill is intended to be part of the upcoming long-term reauthorization of the nation’s transportation law.

At the presser, Schumer was joined by California Democrat Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee and will shepherd much of the transportation bill through the Senate. Schumer said he’s been waiting since the redesign was installed last summer to show it to Boxer as an example of what bicycle and pedestrian investment can accomplish.

“Nothing beats a nice, long Brooklyn bike ride with my friends from Congress, but it used to scare them to death getting passed on this street by traffic going 40 miles an hour,” he said after leading a leisurely round-trip ride, in a light drizzle, to the opposite end of the bike lane and back. “Now you can start off comfortable and relaxed, and you see so many other people out biking. They’re going to work, they’re taking their kids to school.”

“You know, the President talked about ‘winning the future’ in his state of the union speech this year,” he added. “Well, we’re winning the future right outside my front door. This is what progress looks like.”

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Help Streetsblog Tell the Political Story Behind the Prospect Park West Fight

There are many things we still don't know about the involvement of former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall, U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer, and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel in efforts to erase the Prospect Park West bike lane and undermine the city's street safety policies.

Thanks to some rescheduling, we’ve got nearly two months until the first court hearing on the Prospect Park West lawsuit. Flimsy as the plaintiffs’ case may be, they now have a long time to run their smear campaign against DOT and the neighborhood advocates who put in years of organizing to make this street safer.

So we’re probably going to be seeing more of Gibson Dunn lawyer Jim Walden in the media — he’s quite skilled at getting the papers to reprint his arguments, no matter how scurrilous. And the more we hear from Jim, the less we seem to read about the political maneuvering his clients have engaged in to erase a project that enjoys broad support and has slowed speeders while opening up a neighborhood street for all-ages cycling.

Which is too bad, because there are an awful lot of public figures connected to this campaign to erase a single bike lane. Think of the political story that will eventually be written. It involves City Council members, a borough president, former deputy mayors, a former federal prosecutor and top candidate for U.S. Attorney, a former transportation commissioner, a sitting U.S. Senator, and maybe a certain political correspondent at CBS2.

We’d like to find out more about the connections between all these players, and we’re not going to find out by calling them up and asking politely. Here’s what we’ve been up to…

At the beginning of February, Streetsblog sent a freedom of information request to Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s office, asking for his staff’s communications about the Prospect Park West project. The request was delivered on February 8, according to the U.S. Postal Service, but when we later checked in with Markowitz’s office, they told us they never received it. Markowitz’s staff counsel asked us to email the request to him, which we did. He then said he’d let us know by March 16 if the request would be granted. We’re still waiting to hear back on that one.

Streetsblog needs some muscle behind this FOIL request if we’re going to get any information out of it. So we’ve hired attorney Steve Vaccaro of Rankin & Taylor to manage the process. We’re not getting pro bono assistance on this one, and our budget doesn’t usually include a line for FOIL-related legal expenses, so if you can contribute to Streetsblog this spring, it will help us see this important reporting project through to completion.

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Caption Contest: Not Commenting About the [Expletive] Bike Lane

Photo: Clarence Eckerson

This was the scene in Jackson Heights yesterday, where Mayor Bloomberg, Anthony Weiner, and the top dog on Prospect Park West, Senator Chuck Schumer, joined a bevy of other pols to contest the surprisingly low Census counts in Brooklyn and Queens. (That’s Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez between Bloomberg and Schumer.)

During the presser, the Senator was extremely chatty about a recent bike ride through the neighborhood, humorously pointing out how his impressions just didn’t jibe with the Census numbers showing scant 0.1 percent population growth in Queens over the last decade: “Incredibly, I was just riding my bike yesterday through Middle Village, Woodside, Maspeth, Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, and as I biked all I noticed was rows and rows of abandoned homes everywhere and there is nobody on the streets.”

Afterward, as the Times reported today, Schumer clammed up when questions turned to the bike lane in front of his house on Prospect Park West, which he has reportedly lobbied against. His wife, Iris Weinshall, is closely affiliated with the groups currently suing the city to remove the lane. “I am not commenting,” was his refrain. According to the Times, Schumer’s office had expressly forbidden questions about the bike lane at the presser.

In case you’re wondering, Schumer does comment about bike projects, just not ones in front of his house. Here’s an excerpt from a letter his office sent just last week, urging the freight rail company CSX to sell some land for a rail trail link in Dutchess County:

“The Walkway has transformed the City of Poughkeepsie into a destination, allowing local businesses to flourish during an economic downturn, and I am confident the extension of the Walkway to the Greater Rail Trail will only increase economic activity in the region,” Schumer said in his letter.

Okay, back to the caption contest: What is Chuck Schumer saying in this picture? Leave your entries in the comments.

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Politically Connected PPW Bike Lane Foes Are Fighting Their Own Neighbors

Weinshall, Schumer, Steisel

Former DOT commissioner Iris Weinshall, Senator Chuck Schumer, and former deputy mayor Norman Steisel are waging a campaign to overturn a street safety project initiated by their neighbors and supported by most of the local community.

If the goal of the Prospect Park West bike lane lawsuit is to smear the Department of Transportation and sow doubt about the city’s street safety initiatives, it’s already doing a bang-up job. The Post and the Daily News both ran pieces yesterday basically lifting arguments straight out of the plaintiffs’ complaint [PDF] without a shred of analysis. Both papers repeat the same basic distortion: Bike lane opponents are fighting DOT’s agenda. But that’s not really what’s going on here.

The plaintiffs — the group of politically-connected residents who go by “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” and have the backing of former DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall, who happens to be married to Senator Chuck Schumer — are mainly fighting their own neighbors. If the DOT’s efforts to make streets safer citywide become a casualty in this fight, that’s collateral damage.

Last October's rally for the PPW redesign: These are the people whom bike lane opponents are looking to circumvent via litigation.

Let’s be clear: Residents of Park Slope asked for the Prospect Park West project. The idea for a two-way, protected bike path did not debut with DOT’s April 2009 presentation, as the Daily News suggests. It was not imposed, in the words of the Post’s Rich Calder, “to push an anti-automobile agenda.” The initiative to slow down speeding traffic on Prospect Park West and give people safer space to walk and bike predates Janette Sadik-Khan’s tenure at DOT. It came from people who live in the neighborhood — people who organized and attended public meetings and put together ideas for how to improve local streets.

These are the people whom the “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” and their corporate litigator-turned-pro bono counsel, Gibson Dunn’s Jim Walden, are fighting.

They are fighting the results of a community organizing effort that goes back to the days when Iris Weinshall was in charge of DOT. In 2006, well before Sadik-Khan became transportation commissioner, rampant speeding on Prospect Park West and Eighth Avenue emerged as a top concern at the Park Slope Civic Council’s annual traffic and transportation forum. Shortly thereafter, another neighborhood group, the Grand Army Plaza Coalition, made it a core goal to create safe bike access to and through Grand Army Plaza.

A physically protected bikeway on Prospect Park West would address both those concerns, and in June 2007, Community Board 6 requested that DOT study a two-way separated bike lane on Prospect Park West [PDF] when it approved plans for a bike lane on Ninth Street (a project initiated on Iris Weinshall’s watch and completed under Sadik-Khan). Sadik-Khan’s DOT then received 1,300 signatures requesting the bike lane, gathered by the group Park Slope Neighbors, before coming back to CB 6 with a proposal, which was approved by the full board in June 2009.

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