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Council Transpo Committee Passes NYPD Hit-and-Run Transparency Bill

The City Council transportation committee passed a bill today that would require NYPD to issue quarterly reports on hit-and-run crashes and investigations.

Originally, Intro 1055 would have had NYPD report to the council every two years on hit-and-runs resulting in serious injury or death. The language of the bill was tightened after sponsor Leroy Comrie and other committee members heard testimony from transportation experts and family members of victims earlier this month.

In its current iteration, the bill would mandate that the department report in writing every three months on the total number of “critical injury” hit-and-run crashes, the number of crashes that resulted in arrest, and the number of crashes for which no arrest was made. ”Additionally,” the bill reads, “the department shall provide to the speaker of the council in writing a brief description of what steps were taken to investigate each such incident, noting the cross streets of the incident.”

The bill defines critical injury as “any injury determined to be critical by the emergency medical service personnel responding to any such incident.”

The bill passed with an unanimous 11-0 vote, with no abstentions. It is expected to be voted on by the full council tomorrow, at the last stated meeting of the year. The law would not take effect until July of 2015.

NYPD did not show up for the December 4 hearing. Streetsblog has a message in with the public information office asking if the department has a position on the bill.

Said bill co-sponsor Peter Koo: “Today’s piece of legislation will increase transparency and accountability, ensuring NYPD is using all the tools at its disposal to investigate hit-and-run accidents.”

“This is not the first time the council has heard testimony from families of individuals who feel they have not received enough information,” said James Vacca, who was chairing his last transportation committee meeting of the current term.

Of his chairmanship, Vacca said, ”This has been a wonderful experience. Transportation affects everyone.”

It is not known if Vacca will continue to occupy the transportation post or move to a different committee chairmanship. ”I want to continue doing something here,” he said, “and we’ll see what that is.”

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Vaccaro: NYPD Coerces Injured Hit-and-Run Victims to Not Pursue Charges

The City Council transportation committee met today to gather testimony on NYPD hit-and-run crash investigations, but NYPD didn’t send anyone to the hearing. The committee also took up a bill that would codify updates to DOT’s innovative Street Design Manual.

Family members of hit-and-run victim Dante Dominguez, with Council Members Rosie Mendez and Leroy Comrie. Photo: ##http://www.qchron.com/editions/queenswide/flushing-hit-and-run-inspires-council-bill/article_232113e3-a3d4-5ca0-97dd-f26b871953ca.html##Queens Chronicle##

Family members of hit-and-run victim Dante Dominguez, with City Council Members Rosie Mendez and Leroy Comrie. The driver who killed Dominguez was not caught. His brother says NYPD did not start its investigation until a week after the crash. Photo: Queens Chronicle

Intro 1055 would require NYPD to report to the council every two years on hit-and-run crashes that result in serious injury or death, including the number of crashes per precinct, and to provide “a brief description of what steps were taken to investigate each such incident.” Bill sponsor Leroy Comrie said today that hit-and-run fatalities have increased by 31 percent since 2010, with 47 deaths in 2012.

“The families want to know if NYPD has thoroughly pursued all avenues of evidence in actively finding the perpetrators that claimed their loved ones,” said Comrie. “They deserve to know the status of their investigation and what they can realistically expect to happen. And the public needs to know that these crimes are not simply swept under the rug, but actively pursued.”

Comrie also wants NYPD to collect video evidence within a five block radius of hit-and-run crashes, though this would take the form of a resolution, rather than a law, since the council believes it can not force the department to change the way it handles crash investigations.

During testimony, Juan Martinez, general counsel for Transportation Alternatives, said hit-and-run collisions are “perhaps the most callous criminal act that a driver can commit.” Of some 300 investigations by the Collision Investigation Squad in 2012, Martinez said, around 60 involved hit-and-run drivers. Of those, only 15 resulted in an arrest.

Martinez said more oversight would lead to better enforcement. “Government can’t manage what it can’t measure,” he said.

Attorney Steve Vaccaro joined Martinez in suggesting changes to the hit-and-run bill. Martinez recommended crash data be shared with the public as well as the council, and Vaccaro said reports should come once or twice a year, instead of every other year. Said Vaccaro: ”I think this data is going to show there’s a big problem here.”

Vaccaro testified that, based on his firm’s experience with clients and other crash victims who seek guidance over the phone, New York City police officers often refuse to take a report on a hit-and-run unless an injured victim agrees to be transported to a hospital by ambulance. This can be a deterrent for victims who have no health insurance, or who are not aware of coverage available to them through the Motor Vehicle Accident Indemnification Corporation, which offers compensation for crashes caused by uninsured drivers. Many times, Vaccaro said, victims are traumatized to the extent that they don’t realize they need medical care until hours after a crash.

Shockingly, in some instances Vaccaro said NYPD officers threaten not to include a perpetrator’s license plate number in a report, if it is known to police, unless an injured victim agrees to not pursue a criminal case. “Hit-and-run is a criminal offense that needs to be treated as one,” said Vaccaro. “Someone should not be forced to choose between insurance and compensation for their injuries and seeing the driver who injured them and then drove off from the scene brought to justice.”

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Vacca Looks to Squeeze $ From Bikes, But Won’t Touch the Price of Parking

The headline from today’s City Council transportation committee oversight hearing was Janette Sadik-Khan’s announcement that the official launch date for Citi Bike is Memorial Day. Meanwhile, for Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca, it was another occasion to flail at bikes and defend cheap parking under the guise of holding a budget hearing.

Council Members Vacca and Recchia want to make sure that cyclists are a revenue source for the city — and that the parking status quo is maintained. Photos: NYC Council

Sadik-Khan kicked off the hearing with prepared testimony on the agency’s $732.9 million 2014 executive budget, including everything from public plazas and Select Bus Service upgrades to bridge repair and street lights.

But the bulk of council members’ questions revolved around bikes. The first came from an incredulous Vacca, who challenged Sadik-Khan’s statement that more than 70 percent of New Yorkers support bike-share. ”How do you know that?” he asked, before she pointed him to polling from Quinnipiac University.

After asking about the $9.4 million budgeted for bicycle network expansion — 80 percent of which is covered by federal funds — and questioning whether a safety plan for the Grand Concourse should include bike lanes (Sadik-Khan noted that the street already has them), Vacca came to the heart of his questioning: How can the city get more revenue from bike riders?

“I didn’t see any projections in your budget based on revenue from the commercial cycling program,” Vacca said, referencing a package of laws the City Council passed last year that create new mandates for delivery cyclists and their employers. But it’s not just food delivery cyclists that Vacca sees as a revenue source. “When will we see revenue into the city’s coffers from bike-share?” he asked.

“[The Office of Management and Budget] does not include funding for new programs,” Sadik-Khan said. “They need to have a year to understand what the budget impact is going to be.” She added that any bike-share profits will be split evenly between the city and system operator Alta.

Finance committee chair Domenic Recchia, meanwhile, said he’s concerned about reduced parking revenue as a result of Citi Bike stations being installed on the street. ”Less than one percent of parking spots were removed,” Sadik-Khan said, adding that not all on-street bike-share stations are in formerly metered spaces. ”The contract provides that the operator has to make up the lost revenue to the city.”

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James Vacca’s Pet Peeve Committee Was in Full Effect Yesterday

When is a budget hearing not really a budget hearing? When the committee chair uses it to air personal grievances instead of exploring major budget issues.

Image: CBS2

Yesterday, City Council Member James Vacca chaired a transportation committee meeting that was billed as three budget hearings — one for the MTA, one for the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and one for the Department of Transportation. But Vacca and some of his committee members were more fixated on parochial issues like the price of municipal parking lots in their districts than the meaty budget issues of the day — for instance, how to deal with the MTA’s skyrocketing debt service ($2.25 billion in 2013, and rising).

After avoiding perhaps the single most important transportation budget issue facing the entire region, Vacca managed to paint the fight for cheap municipal parking as a populist crusade. “Don’t you think an increase of 100 to 120 percent is just devastating to people who count on these parking spaces?” he asked DOT staff at one point. “I have one of these lots in my community and I have people who use these lots and they have no place else to put their car… A 100 to 120 percent increase is going to hit low-income people really where it hurts.”

In Vacca’s district, by the way, car-owning households make, on average, more than twice as much as households without a car, according to the 2000 Census [PDF]. The car-less residents are the ones who will feel the brunt of the MTA’s mounting debt, as it forces fares to rise. But Vacca himself, it turns out, is one of the car-owners. In fact, he belongs to the small percentage of New Yorkers who actually use the municipal parking lots he complained about yesterday. “I park my car in the Belmont municipal lot,” he said at the hearing, before asking DOT to clean up the “aggressive panhandling” that takes place there.

While Vacca didn’t see fit to address the MTA’s debt or the huge funding hole in the MTA capital program that will exacerbate that debt, he did make time for the obligatory swipe at transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. From NY1:

“We have this constant problem,” said Bronx Councilman James Vacca. “I mean, if Ray Kelly can come to an oversight hearing, I think Commissioner Sadik-Khan can come to an oversight hearing. And I’m very discouraged that she’s not here.”

Vacca must have trouble remembering committee hearings. It was Sadik-Khan who came to the infamous, NIMBY-inspired bike hearing in late 2010, while Ray Kelly was a no-show at council hearings about NYPD traffic safety data and NYPD crash investigations.

One useful slice of information did come up during the MTA and TLC hearings, thanks to Council Member Oliver Koppell.

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Paging James Vacca: Curb-Jumper Injures Senior Citizen on 5th Ave Sidewalk

Photo: Liz Patek

Can we get a James Vacca City Council hearing on this?

A man in his eighties was seriously injured today when an SUV driver jumped the curb and slammed into Saks Fifth Avenue in Midtown a little before 11 a.m. Gothamist reports that the victim was walking by the store at the time and was taken to Bellevue in stable condition.

Even though Fifth Avenue has some of the most crowded sidewalks in the Western Hemisphere, the driver who careened off the road was immediately exonerated by NYPD, who told Gothamist there’s “no criminality suspected.”

At least six pedestrians were killed by curb-jumping motorists in NYC last year. Those victims were all 58 years or older. Given the prevalence of traffic violence — more than 10,000 NYC pedestrians are hurt by motorists every year — it’s likely that hundreds of other New Yorkers were injured while on the sidewalk in 2012.

Thanks to reader Liz Patek for sending in the photo from the scene.

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A Year Later, How’s James Vacca Doing on His Pledge to Protect Pedestrians?

Today NYC DOT announced its progress on a series of measures designed to promote safer riding habits among commercial cyclists. The agency has held 17 multi-lingual forums around the city to educate businesses and commercial cyclists about how to ride safely, and distributed kits with reflective vests, bells, and lights to 1,500 commercial cyclists through a partnership with delivery.com.

DOT also announced that enforcement of a package of laws passed by the City Council last October will start in April. The new laws, which include a requirement that commercial cyclists take an online safety course, were touted by City Council Transportation Chair James Vacca as a way to end the “wild, wild west” environment on city streets.

Now that Vacca’s laws are about to take effect, it’s worth looking back at what’s happened since he started his big safety push.

Back at the end of 2011, Vacca told the Post that he wanted to ramp up bike enforcement in the year ahead because, “My priority is protection of the pedestrians, and my mantra is that the pedestrian is always right, even when the pedestrian is wrong. Everything I do is governed by that basic foundation.”

In the year after Vacca proclaimed that everything he does is governed by the imperative to protect pedestrians, more than 130 pedestrians have been killed by drivers in New York City. None have been killed by cyclists.

But it was the commercial cyclist legislation that sailed through Vacca’s committee in the fall, while bills urging reforms to NYPD’s broken crash investigation procedures, which let deadly drivers get back behind the wheel without so much as a slap on the wrist, continue to languish.

So you’ve got to question whether protecting pedestrians is really a priority for the chair of the transportation committee, since improving pedestrian safety seems to fall somewhere below “making it legal to park in front of your own curb cut” on Vacca’s to-do list.

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The NBBL Files: Norman Steisel’s Ideas Became Jimmy Vacca’s Bills

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 fourth installment from the six-part NBBL Files.

This piece originally ran on October 11, 2011.

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

The primary objective of most members of “Neighbors for Better Bike Lanes” was clearly to remove the bike lane from Prospect Park West. They didn’t particularly care about bike lanes elsewhere, though they privately cheered every defeat of a sustainable transportation project as a sign that they might wipe out the bike lane in front of their homes. But because the NBBL strategy relied so heavily on impeding NYC DOT bike planning and tarnishing the reputation of transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, their parochial crusade ended up empowering opponents of street safety across the city.

Former deputy mayor Norman Steisel and City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca.

Nowhere is NBBL’s citywide influence more apparent than in the receptive audience they found with City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca. As we reported earlier this year, NBBL leaders including former transportation commissioner Iris Weinshall met with Vacca in the run-up to his December, 2010 hearing on bike policy — a harbinger of the bikelash that peaked later that winter. Communications obtained by Streetsblog indicate that NBBL not only influenced Vacca’s oversight hearings, they also managed to insert their ideas into his legislation.

Messages from bike lane opponent Norman Steisel reveal a close link between his crusade to thwart bike projects with red tape and two bills introduced in the City Council this June by Vacca.

In mid-February, Steisel, a former sanitation commissioner and first deputy mayor under David Dinkins, wrote a lengthy letter to Vacca and City Council Member James Oddo on the topic of bike planning. The letter was triggered by Oddo’s proposal to subject all bike lanes to environmental review, a suggestion that environmental law experts called a waste of taxpayer money. Some of Steisel’s suggestions ended up in two bills Vacca introduced this summer, which are still under consideration in his committee.

“Iris and Norman have been meeting with City Council people privately, particularly Jimmy Vacca who doesn’t like the lanes.”

- PPW bike lane opponent Louise Hainline, December 2010

In the February letter, Steisel put forward a number of recommendations to impede the city’s bike planning process, many of which were gleaned from his personal campaign to remove the Prospect Park West bike lane. For instance, Steisel wrote that bike lanes should be planned with the “historic character” of the surrounding neighborhood in mind (the appearance of the bike lane on PPW chafed at NBBL members’ aesthetic sensibilities). At the same time, he argued that the traffic-calming effect of bike lanes should not be taken into consideration (it irked bike lane opponents to hear that the PPW redesign was implemented to reduce speeding).

Steisel’s knowledge of New York City government runs deep, and his letter reads like the wish list of someone who wants to see bike projects mired in bureaucracy for years.

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James Vacca’s Pet Peeve Committee Is Back in Session

Hate to break it to Jimmy Vacca, but the City Council's parking bills aren't making New York City any safer. Image: @TransportNation

The City Council transportation committee met today, and if you thought the council was due for a break from dreaming up motorist entitlements, think again: this afternoon’s agenda was all about parking.

On the docket were three bills: one to require DOT to provide notice before changing street signs that affect parking; one to allow residents with vehicles to block their own driveways; and a third to relax rules against double parking near schools and day care centers.

Judging by the Transportation Nation Twitter feed, today’s discussion was full of gems like this one from committee chair James Vacca.

It has been nearly 10 months since the City Council held its last hearing on traffic safety. In the four months since council members introduced the Crash Investigation Reform Act, some 5,000 pedestrians and cyclists have been injured in crashes that were not investigated by police, and at least 48 people have died after being struck by drivers.

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The Real Menace on Our Sidewalks

As irritating as it might be sometimes to encounter sidewalk cyclists, pedestrians are at much greater risk from curb-jumping motorists, like the SUV driver who killed UPS worker Mike Rogalle in Lower Manhattan last month.

So it looks like the City Council is pondering legislation that would raise the fine for biking on the sidewalk (currently $100) and possibly establish a new squad of enforcement agents dedicated entirely to ticketing commercial cyclists.

At a hearing earlier this week, transportation committee chair James Vacca framed the riding habits of commercial cyclists as a safety “crisis,” reported the Daily News:

“But when it comes to the crisis, and it is a crisis, of people’s safety, pedestrians’ safety, that many of the commercial bicyclists do not have regard for, then this city has a legal obligatioan to protect the law-abiding citizens, who only want to cross a street.

“Commercial bicyclists treat it as the Wild Wild West,” added Vacca, chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee. “That has to stop.”

He demanded “civil and criminal penalties” — though how harsh remains unclear.

The less sidewalk riding and wrong-way cycling, the better, but the only promising policy proposal that surfaced at the hearing seems to be a measure that would hold restaurant ownership liable for the traffic infractions of their delivery cyclists. As Times reporter David Goodman conveyed exceptionally well with his profile of delivery cyclist Lin Dakang this March, these guys are risking their necks in traffic every day and dealing with intense financial pressures to get food to people while it’s hot. Having restaurant owners absorb the cost of the traffic tickets would create the same incentive structure that exists in other workplaces.

“If you run a hair salon and your employee isn’t wearing a mask, you get the ticket,” said Juan Martinez, general counsel at Transportation Alternatives, pointing out that contractors get fined when workers don’t wear hard hats at construction sites and businesses like FedEx pick up the tab for parking tickets incurred by their on-the-job drivers.

As for the rest of the package, does anyone serious about street safety actually believe that a separate force of bikes-only ticketing agents is going to improve matters? The NYPD already racks up a fair amount of bike citations in hotspots like the Upper East Side. Nearly half of the 19th Precinct’s summonses for failure to obey traffic signals in 2011 went to cyclists, a stunning percentage when you consider the high rates of injury and death caused by motor vehicle drivers in the neighborhood.

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Vacca Calls for Thorough NYPD Inquiry Into Death of Cyclist David Oliveras

A young Bronx man was killed by the driver of a BMW SUV just after 7 p.m. last Wednesday evening. The driver was traveling northbound on Williamsbridge Road when he struck cyclist David Oliveras, who was pronounced dead at Jacobi Hospital.

Press accounts of the crash have been wildly inconsistent, and now City Council Member James Vacca is calling on NYPD to thoroughly investigate.

According to the first published account of the crash, reported by NBC, witnesses said Oliveras was mounting his bicycle, close to curb, when he was struck near the intersection of Mace Avenue.

Later accounts said that Oliveras “rode suddenly from the sidewalk onto Williamsbridge Road” (the Post), and that the crash happened closer to Waring Avenue (DNAinfo).

The unifying element in the different stories is that the driver was traveling fast and hit Oliveras with tremendous force. A witness told the Post that the impact sent the victim “flying out of his sneakers,” and witness Marilyn Portis told NBC that the driver “was going too fast, to hit him that hard.”

Police and the Bronx DA have not filed charges, and an officer in NYPD’s public information office told Streetsblog today that because “no criminality is suspected,” it suggests “driver speed was not a factor.”

The methods NYPD used to deduce that speeding didn’t contribute to the crash are unknown, and they will remain shielded from public scrutiny until the crash report can be unearthed. Pursuing the release of crash reports can be an agonizingly lengthy experience for victims’ families. For the general public, police won’t divulge the report absent a freedom of information request, followed by several months of bureaucratic delay. Once retrieved, investigative files have revealed that police blamed victims and exonerated drivers based on little more than the word of the driver or the driver’s passengers.

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