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Albany 2012: Lawmakers Strike Out on Safe Streets and Transit

Albany lawmakers had several opportunities during the 2012 session to come through for transit riders, pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. They came up short on every count.

Hayley and Diego's Law, adopted in 2010 to hold New York drivers somewhat accountable for careless driving, will go virtually unenforced by NYPD for at least another year.

A bill targeted at NYPD’s self-imposed ban on citing motorists for careless driving passed the State Senate transportation committee but did not come to a vote in the full Senate, while the Assembly version never made it out of committee.

Introduced by Brooklyn Democrat Dan Squadron, the bill would have amended Hayley and Diego’s Law by explicitly stating that officers may issue tickets to drivers who harm pedestrians, cyclists and other vulnerable street users whether or not they directly observe an infraction. Currently, NYPD protocol prohibits precinct officers from issuing tickets under VTL 1146, the state statute that includes Hayley and Diego’s Law as well as Elle’s Law.

“It’s a top priority for us and we’ll continue to push to get it done as soon as possible,” said Squadron spokesperson Amy Spitalnick.

Legislation that would permit New York City to install cameras to ticket and fine speeding motorists, without attaching points to their licenses, was again kept from the governor’s desk. Though Staten Island Republican Andrew Lanza introduced the bill in the Senate for the first time, Assembly members failed to overcome opposition from upstate obstructionist David Gantt, chair of the Assembly transportation committee.

Brooklyn Republican Marty Golden’s bill to stiffen penalties for leaving the scene of a crash passed the Senate but died in the Assembly transportation committee, according to Golden’s office.

Charlotte’s Law, which would permanently take away the licenses of drivers convicted of three or more serious traffic offenses in 25 years, failed to clear committee in either house. A spokesperson for Schenectady Republican James Tedisco, who introduced the “three strikes” bill in the Assembly, told Streetsblog that efforts remain active to prod Governor Cuomo to take administrative action to implement facets of the bill.

On the transit front, legislation to protect dedicated transit funds from being stolen by state lawmakers stalled in committee.

One measure that passed both houses and appears headed toward becoming law: legislation to regulate increasingly popular curbside bus service provided by companies including BoltBus and Megabus. Cap’n Transit writes that the new requirements are overly burdensome and would strangle one of the region’s few sources of growing transit ridership.

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Albany Update: Will Any Transpo Bills Make It Out Alive?

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver could make a slew of transportation bills move through his chamber or let them languish as in years past. Photo: Daily News

This year’s legislative session is rapidly coming to a close in Albany. With the state legislature wrapping up its regularly scheduled official business on June 20, the Capitol is entering a period of intense activity as legislators and lobbyists make a final push for their priorities.

Albany has some big items on its agenda this month: rent regulations, a property tax cap, ethics reform, and gay marriage. Somewhat below the radar, the push is on for a number of street safety and sustainable transportation priorities as well. Time is of the essence, as advocacy momentum built up over the year dissipates after the session ends. Bills that falter this time around will have to start over again after the legislature reconvenes in January.

If support gels for any of the following bills, the legislature can act extremely quickly to turn them into law. That’s especially true in the Assembly, where Speaker Sheldon Silver controls a large majority and where most of this legislation is currently stalled or has died in past sessions.

Complete Streets

Complete streets legislation would require planners to consider the needs of all road users when designing a road receiving state and federal funding. Last year, it passed the State Senate but stalled out in the Assembly.

After talking with the legislation’s opponents, complete streets supporters made some revisions to the language, and an updated version of the bill is headed to the Senate Transportation Committee today, said Nadine Lemmon, the Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Albany legislative advocate. As now written, the complete streets bill would cover the large set of projects that already need to conduct extensive reviews as part of the federal approval process, which involves filling out thick binders of paperwork. “We’re targeting projects that already have to do a lot of review and we’re just adding two pages to their world,” said Lemmon.

Purely local projects wouldn’t be covered, but Lemmon argued that as towns or counties prepare complete streets plans on some projects, they’d grow more familiar with the concept, leading to what she called a “trickle down effect.”

In the Senate, the complete streets bill is sponsored by both Charles Fuschillo and Martin Dilan, the chair and ranking member of the Transportation Committee, respectively, along with twelve other senators. In the Assembly, however, the companion legislation hasn’t been introduced yet. That said, Lemmon reported that preliminary conversations about the bill with both the governor’s staff and state DOT officials have been encouraging.

Read more…


Gantt Reversal Revives Strong Complete Streets Bill in Assembly

S._Geddes_and_Seymour.pngThe corner of Syracuse's S. Geddes St. and Seymour St. is the most dangerous intersection in Albany, Broome, Erie, Monroe, or Onondaga County. Image: Google Street View.
A strong complete streets bill is back on track in Albany. Two weeks ago, Assembly Transportation Committee chair David Gantt amended the bill so that it only covered a tiny subset of roads, effectively eviscerating it. Yesterday, however, Gantt revised the bill again, this time to match the stronger Senate version. That creates the opportunity for this important bill to pass the legislature before the end of the session.

If passed, the legislation would require most new and reconstructed roads to accommodate pedestrians, cyclists, and people with limited mobility. The Senate's version includes all roads built with state or federal funding; Gantt tried to limit that to only those streets directly run by the state DOT. If Gantt had gotten his way, only three of the 49 most dangerous roads in five large upstate counties would have been covered by the bill.

"The good news is that Gantt amended his bill," said Bill Ferris, the legislative director for AARP, a lead advocate for the legislation, "but now we need the Assembly to pass it." The bill is currently in front of the Ways and Means Committee; it has already passed the full State Senate.

What changed Gantt's mind? "We don't know," said Ferris. "We're just happy that he did."

Eyes in the Capitol: Four Seconds of Glory for Bus Cam Bill

This clip from yesterday's Assembly Transportation Committee meeting doesn't quite live up to the hype.

If you're puzzled as to why we're even showing this, allow me to set the scene: Two years ago, a bill enabling camera enforcement of New York City bus lanes died in this same committee under cloudy circumstances. In a hastily called vote, several sponsors ended up siding against the bill, and no one could really explain why. At least, no one would tell the press anything other than some variation on "the committee chair made me do it." When the Times asked the chair, David Gantt, why the bill failed, he said, "What do you think, I go around breaking people's arms?" Throughout, Speaker Sheldon Silver got to remain above the fray.

Since then, the State Senate has started recording its committee meetings and posting them online, but not the Assembly. If there was going to be a reprise of 2008, Streetsblog needed to capture it for posterity. So when a bus lane bill reached the Transportation Committee yesterday, our intrepid freelancer Alan Wechsler went to the meeting, camera in hand. This is what he saw: In four seconds, the bus camera bill was introduced, "debated," and reported to the next committee. Wristwatch checking ensues.

You can hear Gantt, seated at the far end of the table, ask for negative votes, then proclaim that the bill is reported. That's it. No grumbling about motorists' privacy. The bus cam bill advances to the Codes Committee. A very promising development for New York City bus riders, a win for transit advocates and local legislators, and a head-scratching installment in this Albany storyline.

Video footage shot by Alan Wechsler


Double-Take Time: Bus Cam Bill Clears Assembly Transpo Committee

You read that right.

Don't celebrate just yet, but legislation authorizing the use of camera enforcement to keep New York City bus lanes clear of traffic -- a.k.a. the bus cam bill -- just cleared the Assembly Transportation Committee.

silver_gantt.jpgSheldon Silver and David Gantt.
While it might seem sort of pathetic to tout a committee vote in Albany that gets New York City one step closer to effective enforcement of the laws on its own streets, it's also worth recalling that very similar legislation died in the same committee two years ago. The bill still has to clear the Codes Committee, the Rules Committee, the full Assembly, and the full State Senate, but the fact that it has cleared Rochester Democrat David Gantt's Transportation Committee strongly indicates that Speaker Sheldon Silver intends to let the bill pass in his house.

With NYCDOT and the MTA relying on enforcement, not separated lanes, to keep traffic from interfering with transit service on their rapid bus corridors, cameras will be critical to success. After camera enforcement was enacted in London, average travel speeds in bus lanes improved 12.6 percent, according to NYCDOT. For now, the prospects for better bus service on the city's dedicated lanes are looking pretty good. (Successful passage of the bus cam bill could also free up NYPD resources to enforce other traffic violations, like failure-to-yield to pedestrians or bike lane blocking.)

We'll have more information on the committee vote later today.

Update: Our man in Albany, Alan Wechsler, files this bit of color from what appears to have been an utterly bland and uneventful committee hearing:

The bill received no discussion during the short meeting. After the meeting, Chairman David Gantt (D-Rochester) declined to comment about why the bill had been held up before.

Albany Running Out of Time to Give NYC Bus Riders Faster Service

Urgency is mounting in Albany to pass a bus lane enforcement bill, as the end of the legislative session draws near and the launch date of rapid bus service on the East Side of Manhattan approaches.

bus_lane.jpgCamera enforcement will help bus lanes work as advertised for hundreds of thousands of riders. Image: NYCDOT
To give bus riders faster trips, the MTA and NYCDOT are counting on enforcement cameras to keep dedicated lanes clear of car traffic. Before they can implement a bus cam program, Albany needs to give the go-ahead. Streetsblog has been following the ups and downs of that legislation for more than two years now. The last time we checked in, the Assembly had rejected a budget amendment to establish a bus cam program, citing cost concerns that didn't add up.

With only a few weeks left before the legislature goes home for the year, time is running out to get something done. There are two options: convince Sheldon Silver and the Assembly leadership to adopt bus cameras in their budget, or pursue a separate bill that will have to go through Rochester Democrat David Gantt, the chair of the Assembly transportation committee who shot down bus cams in 2008.

Bus cam supporters have recently made some progress on both fronts. The State Senate has agreed in principle to include the governor's version of the bus camera program in their budget, according to a source in the capitol following the negotiations. (At first, the Senate had proposed a watered-down version of the program.) That still leaves the Assembly, where leadership has yet to indicate any change in their position.

If bus cams don't make it into the Assembly budget, there appears to be extensive support for a standalone bill among rank-and-file Assembly members.

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Complete Streets Bill Clears Senate Committee; Attention Turns to Gantt

Legislation to require transportation projects in New York state to include pedestrian and bicycle access was reported out of the Senate transportation committee Tuesday.

S5711, a.k.a. the Complete Streets Bill, would mandate that new and reconstructed public roads "accommodate all users," specifically pedestrians, cyclists and "individuals of all ages and mobility capabilities." Sponsored by Brooklyn Senator Martin Malave Dilan, the bill has broad support from a coalition of interests, including transportation advocates, public health groups, and AARP.

A 2008 report from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign found that pedestrians aged 65 years and older in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are at much greater risk of being killed than their younger counterparts, and that the senior pedestrian fatality rate is higher in the tri-state region than in other parts of the country.

Bill Ferris, legislative representative for AARP, said getting complete streets legislation adopted this session is a priority for his organization. "We firmly believe our roads need to be designed for all users," Ferris told Streetsblog, "not just automobiles." Ferris is "very hopeful" that S5711 will be passed by the full Senate.

At the behest of bill supporters, the version that cleared the transportation committee included the addition of "sidewalks" to the definition of complete streets, and tightened previous exemptions. For example, the bill now specifies the grounds on which a town could deem the cost of a complete streets project "excessively disproportionate," explained Lindsey Lusher Shute of Transportation Alternatives. Senator Catharine Young, a Republican from Olean, voted against the bill, saying it would impose undue costs on rural localities.

As complete streets legislation moves to the floor of the Senate, there has been no action on its companion in the Assembly, where it sits in the committee of transportation chair David Gantt, who is also the sponsor. Said Ferris: "Our hope is that the Assembly will take notice of the movement in the Senate and start pushing their version of the bill shortly."

"We anxiously await Assembly Member Gantt's introduction of the updated language in the Assembly and the coalition is ready to help bring his colleagues along," Shute said. "It would be an incredible victory to pass this legislation in a tough budget year, and a testament to the value of complete streets for the environment, public health and the economy."


Better Bus Service in Jeopardy Thanks to Shelly Silver and Assembly Dems

Chances to improve service on New York City's dedicated bus lanes appeared to narrow yesterday, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his Democratic conference rejected bus lane enforcement cameras in the chamber's draft budget. Camera enforcement is one of the linchpins in the city's strategy to put the "rapid" in Bus Rapid Transit. Without it, bus riders will remain stymied by traffic, even on Select Bus Service routes.

sheldon_lg.jpgShelly Silver let better bus service fall by the wayside in the Assembly's budget proposal.
New York has the nation's slowest bus service and its biggest bus fleet, serving more than two and a half million daily riders. The city's police force doesn't have the manpower to keep bus lanes clear, and it's only getting smaller. Camera enforcement, which has made service faster and more reliable in London by cutting violations 60 percent, has proven capable of solving some of the problems that plague New York's bus system.

"Right now, bus lanes are routinely violated by many vehicles, resulting in chronic delays for hundreds of thousands of bus riders," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign. "Using enforcement cameras in city bus lanes could turn that around, making bus service more reliable and helping to reduce congestion."

Two years ago, bus cams died in the Assembly transportation committee, chaired by Rochester representative David Gantt. This time around, they were stripped out in the Assembly's opaque budget process. One advocate in Albany told Streetsblog that rank-and-file Assembly members were unaware that the bus cam provisions had been slashed from the budget resolution as late as yesterday afternoon, hours before the resolution was unveiled and voted on.

Gantt has no veto power in the Assembly budget process, which the Speaker himself exerts enormous influence over. The budget resolution only had to clear a vote in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Upper Manhattan representative Denny Farrell, before the Speaker brought it to the full floor last night. "It's our view that Silver maintains pretty tight control over the budget process," said Laura Seago, a research associate at the Brennan Center for Justice and co-author of the 2009 report on Albany dysfunction, "Still Broken" [PDF].

Neither Silver nor Gantt's office has returned Streetsblog's requests for comment at this time.

Restoring the bus cam program in the final budget now hinges on negotiations between the Assembly, the State Senate, and the governor's office. Those talks, which happen behind closed doors, are expected to heat up sometime after the official budget deadline of April 1.


Bus Cams on the Table in Gov’s Budget

34thst2.jpgIf New York were allowed to install bus lane enforcement cams, bus riders wouldn't be slowed so much by illegally parked delivery trucks.
Tucked into an otherwise bleak state budget, there's one piece of good news for transit riders. One of Governor Paterson's amendments to the state budget would authorize New York City to keep its bus lanes clear of traffic with camera enforcement. 

New York can't install bus lane cameras without authorization from Albany. So far, the legislature hasn't bestowed it, despite wide-ranging support. Two years ago, Assembly transportation commmittee chair David Gantt killed an earlier version of bus camera legislation, leaving New York City bus riders stuck in traffic. 

The new budget amendment would actually be an improvement over that bill. The old legislation limited bus-mounted cameras to the city's five Select Bus Service routes, while the current version allows camera enforcement on up to 50 miles of bus routes -- exactly the length of the city's current bus lane network. "It's saying that all bus lanes are important, in every borough," said Lindsey Lusher Shute, Transportation Alternatives' director of environmental campaigns.

The cameras would either be stationary or mounted on buses, recording the license plates of motorists parked or driving in bus lanes. Fines would be set at a maximum of $125.

Camera enforcement would be a real game-changer for bus riders. Dedicated lanes can mean much faster trips, but in New York, all sorts of other vehicles constantly violate bus lanes. Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer's office conducted a study last summer which found more than 350 vehicles parked in Midtown bus lanes over a 40 hour period. The police, meanwhile, are at best too thinly stretched to spend sufficient manpower on keeping bus lanes clear, and at worst they're the source of the problem.

Because NYCDOT and the MTA appear loath to install physically separated lanes for their big-ticket bus improvements on First and Second Avenues, camera enforcement will be critical to achieving better performance. 


Assembly Passes One-House Safe Driving Bill

While the New York State Senate scrambles to salvage some dignity from the current legislative session, the Assembly has busied itself with a flurry of one-house lawmaking. Last week, for instance, the chamber passed a safe driving bill aimed primarily at teen drivers, sponsored by transportation committee chair David Gantt. It includes some good stuff, like extending the number of practice hours that must be completed before taking the driver's license exam. And it would create a new traffic infraction to penalize driving while texting or using any handheld electronic device, no matter how old you are. The bill cleared the Assembly in a 146-0 vote.

On the merits, the texting "ban" is weaker than another bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, which the transportation committee never brought up for a vote. Under the Gantt bill, a driver could be fined, but not pulled over, for texting behind the wheel.

"While we certainly support the intent of the bill, we have questions about specific language which would seem to greatly restrict its actual application," said TA's Peter Goldwasser in an email. "In short, unless an individual is committing another, different violation in the first place, then he or she is not subject to receiving a summons for violating this new offense."

In 2007, there were nearly 10,500 crashes in New York where the contributing factor was driver inattention or distraction, Goldwasser noted. Shouldn't that be enough reason to make distracted driving a standalone violation?

On balance, this bill would be a step forward for street safety in New York, but with the State Senate in the midst of its epic breakdown, the odds of it becoming law -- during this session, at least -- are vanishingly small. (So far, there's not even a version of this bill in the Senate.) This will be something to keep an eye on in the next legislative session. The speaker, the transportation committee chair, and the whole Assembly are on record supporting this bill, so there's no reason it shouldn't pass again when the opportunity arises.