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Posts from the "Albany Reform" Category

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Victims’ Families Optimistic About Change After Meeting Albany Lawmakers


During yesterday’s trip to Albany, members of Families for Safe Streets not only won over a key new backer of legislation to set the city’s default speed limit at 20 mph, they met with more than 30 legislators to ask for lower speed limits and more automated enforcement.

“It was absolutely exhausting, emotionally and physically,” said Mary Beth Kelly, whose husband was killed by a tow truck driver in 2006 while the couple was riding their bikes on the Hudson River Greenway. “It’s very hard for us to keep telling our stories over and over again.” But Kelly said that more than ever, she thinks now is a time when victims’ families will make a difference. “I’ve been doing this seven-and-a-half years,” she said, “and the sense of hopefulness that I have right now is probably greater than it’s ever been.”

In their meetings with lawmakers — including Speaker Sheldon Silver and the staff of Assembly Transportation Committee Chair David Gantt — Families for Safe Streets focused mostly on lowering the city’s default speed limit to 20 mph, but also talked about the importance of expanding automated enforcement.

“The speed camera program is only operational during school hours,” said Transportation Alternatives general counsel Juan Martinez on the bus ride to Albany. “That’s a big problem, because 77 percent of people who are killed in speeding crashes are killed after school hours — in the evening and on weekends.”

The State Senate’s budget proposal includes a nine-fold expansion of the existing school-zone speed camera program, but Assembly Member Joe Lentol said it was unlikely to survive to the final budget. “It was a tremendous lift to get just 20 speed cameras last year,” he said.

Despite the challenge of making progress in Albany, the families remain undeterred.

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Victims’ Families Head to Albany, Calling on Legislators to Save Lives

Families of some of those included on this map of traffic fatalities are meeting with legislators today in Albany. Map: Families for Safe Streets

Families of traffic violence victims on this map are meeting with legislators today in Albany. Map: Families for Safe Streets

The State Senate budget released late last week includes a plan to expand New York City’s school zone speed enforcement program from 20 cameras to 180 cameras. As the Senate, Assembly and Governor Cuomo enter budget negotiations, families of traffic violence victims are in Albany today to meet with legislators and push for policies that would do more to reduce traffic violence: lowering the citywide speed limit and giving NYC control of automated enforcement.

Amy Cohen, whose son Sammy was killed on Prospect Park West last October, is one of the organizers of Families for Safe Streets. At the group’s second monthly meeting earlier in March, its members decided to make the trip to Albany. Today, about a dozen people who lost their children to New York City traffic violence, or were injured themselves, got up before dawn and boarded a bus to the capital.

“Many of the families that are going don’t tend to know the different legislative options,” Cohen said. “Most of the people going haven’t been to Albany for this kind of thing.”

Families have set up meetings with more than 30 lawmakers, including their own representatives and legislators from the places where their loved ones were killed. The day includes meetings with Speaker Sheldon Silver, Assembly transportation committee chair David Gantt of Rochester, and members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.

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Assembly Members: We Have to Stop Cuomo’s $40 Million Transit Raid

John Raskin of Riders Alliance speaks with some of the 32 Assembly members who signed a letter urging Speaker Sheldon Silver to take Governor Cuomo's transit raid out of the state budget. Photo: Stephen Miller

John Raskin of Riders Alliance speaks with some of the 32 Assembly members who signed a letter urging Speaker Sheldon Silver to take Governor Cuomo’s transit raid out of the state budget. Photo: Stephen Miller

Yesterday, a group of Assembly members and advocates took Governor Cuomo to task for the $40 million transit raid in his budget proposal. The legislators unveiled a letter [PDF] urging Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver to restore the funds in the legislative budget, due for a vote on March 12.

In the executive budget, Cuomo wants to take $40 million in dedicated transit revenue to pay for MTA bonds the state had promised to pay off. In addition, the governor’s financial plan includes annual raids of at least $20 million for the foreseeable future.

The governor argues the transfer isn’t a raid because the money is going to pay off bonds that support the MTA, but John Raskin of Riders Alliance said that Cuomo is breaking a long-standing promise by the state. “The state agreed to help the MTA by supporting bonds,” he said. “What the governor is doing now is saying that the state will no longer pay for all of those bonds that were supposed to help the MTA and instead, we’ll take money out of the MTA’s budget to pay for it.”

Using MTA money instead of state money to pay the bonds effectively creates new money on the state’s ledger. “The governor is proposing to take taxes that now pay for bonds, and use it to pay for something else, like to help pay for tax cuts,” Assembly Member Richard Gottfried said. “However you slice it, it’s a $40 million cut to the transit system, and that’s wrong.”

“That is money the MTA could otherwise use to restore service that was cut in 2010, to keep fares more affordable, because there are fare hikes expected in 2015 and 2017,” Raskin said. Other speakers want to improve service affected by a major round of cuts in 2010. Assembly members Michael DenDekker and Nily Rozic of Queens said the $40 million could be used to improve outer-borough buses.

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Who, Me? Cuomo Vetoes Lockbox Bill, Denies Raiding Transit

Hours after the MTA announced that it would be scaling back planned fare hikes in part because of better-than-expected tax receipts, Governor Cuomo vetoed two transparency bills designed to discourage Albany from siphoning away those very same dedicated transit funds. The governor capped his veto with a brazen denial: Despite getting caught raiding the MTA’s budget earlier this year, Cuomo insisted that he’s done no such thing.

With the news that upcoming fare hikes won’t hurt so much, straphangers might wonder why Cuomo’s vetoes matter. After all, if things are looking better than expected, what’s the big deal?

To answer that question, let’s look at the recent history of transit raids. With New York state’s budget facing chronic shortfalls, Albany has diverted more than $260 million since 2009 from taxes that are supposed to be dedicated to funding transit, including multiple raids under Cuomo’s watch.

The result? The MTA had to cover the shortfall with fare hikes and service cuts.

One of the bills Cuomo vetoed yesterday would have required the MTA to produce a report detailing the impacts of those post-2008 service cuts, measuring whether the projected cost savings actually materialized, and coming up with a plan to restore the lost service.

That bill overwhelmingly passed both the Assembly and Senate, but in his veto message Cuomo said the MTA has already performed an internal analysis of service cuts in line with federal guidelines and has announced $18 million in service enhancements this year. (By comparison, the systemwide cuts enacted in 2010 saved the authority $93 million.)

Though Cuomo criticized the first bill as re-litigating the past, the second, known as the transit lockbox bill, is focused squarely on preventing similar robberies in the future.

Only a constitutional amendment can force the governor’s hand in budget decisions, so the lockbox bill was designed as a transparency measure instead. If transit funds are raided, it would have required a statement from the governor’s budget office laying out how much is being diverted from transit and how it will hurt transit riders. By requiring the disclosure of impacts, advocates hoped that it would make the governor and state legislators less likely to propose budget raids in the first place.

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As Deadline Approaches, Will Cuomo Sign or Veto Transit Lockbox Bill?

This afternoon, a coalition of more than 200 groups sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo [PDF] asking him to sign the transit lockbox bill, which would help safeguard dedicated transit funds by requiring the state to disclose the impact of any raids on transit agency budgets. The pressure is on: The governor has until the middle of next week to sign or veto the legislation.

Time is running out for Andrew Cuomo to stand for transparency and against transit raids. Photo: saebaryo/Flickr

The clock is ticking because although the bill unanimously passed both the Senate and Assembly in June, it was only officially called up to Cuomo’s desk on Friday, starting a review period that gives the governor until next Wednesday to make a decision.

In 2011, a similar bill that covered only the MTA passed the legislature but was gutted at the governor’s request during a special session late in the year. Advocates are hopeful that the new bill, which covers all transit agencies statewide, will benefit from a renewed public focus on transit investment after Hurricane Sandy — as well as broad support in both the legislature and among transit, business, labor, environmental, social justice, and good government organizations.

“We expect either a veto or a signature,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign’s Nadine Lemmon said. ”As far as I know, he only has those two options.”

While only a constitutional amendment can expressly prohibit budget raids, the lockbox bill would add a measure of transparency so that the governor and legislature would have to say exactly what will happen to transit service as a result of their budget maneuvers. With the full costs known up front, advocates hope transit raids would become less common.

“I’ve had legislators say to me, ‘If I knew this bus line was going to be cut, I would’ve never voted for it,’” Lemmon said. “It’s like voting for stuff with a blindfold on.”

Lemmon credited labor groups for building strong support for the lockbox bill in the legislature and the New York City Council, and hoped that the business effects would get the governor’s attention. The coalition today specifically cited Kawasaki, Bombardier, Alstom, and Nova Bus manufacturing operations in New York state, which depend in large part on orders from transit agencies across the state.

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Pressure Builds Upstate for Cuomo to Sign Transit Lockbox Bill

The transit lockbox bill, which would help safeguard dedicated transportation funds by requiring the state to disclose the impact of transit raids, still awaits a signature from Governor Cuomo following unanimous Senate and Assembly votes earlier this year. Now, two upstate newspapers are calling on the governor to sign the bill.

Upstate editorial boards are turning up the heat on Governor Cuomo, asking him to sign the transit lockbox bill. Photo: Gov. Cuomo/Flickr

A previous version of the bill applied only to the MTA, and not the state’s other transit agencies. It passed in 2011 only to be gutted by Cuomo, who removed the requirement that the state disclose when it diverts dedicated transit funds. The governor went on to raid $20 million from the MTA’s budget this year, adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars Albany has already stolen from straphangers.

This year’s bill, which applies to each of the state’s more than 130 transit agencies, passed both chambers unanimously during the final weeks of the legislative session in June,. “We were thrilled that this bill went forward,” said Nadine Lemmon of Tri-State Transportation Campaign. “Senator [Marty] Golden and Assembly Member [James] Brennan pulled it out at the end.”

The governor has three choices: He can veto the bill, sign it, or do nothing and allow it to become law at the end of the year. Lemmon urged Cuomo to sign the bill. “He might as well take credit for this,” she said. “There’s certainly huge support for it.”

That support isn’t limited to New York City. “Usually you see a divide between downstate and upstate,” Lemmon said. “But I think legislators’ attitudes are changing a little bit. Clearly it’s a bill that benefits everyone.”

The Buffalo News agrees. “While we’re normally not in favor of adding to the red tape imposed by the state, in this case a dose of transparency will be a good thing,” its editorial board wrote, adding that while only a constitutional amendment could prohibit the governor from diverting funds, the lockbox bill “will help ensure that the money reaches its intended beneficiaries.”

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Cuomo’s Office Opens Up Transpo Data, But Not Crash Locations

On Wednesday, Governor Cuomo announced a new raft of publicly-accessible data on the state’s data transparency website, data.NY.gov. Some of the data sets include information that was already accessible in different forms, while other sets are newly available to the public. The release also includes detailed information about individual crashes from the Department of Motor Vehicles, but it falls short by failing to say where crashes occur.

Good news: Detailed DMV crash data is more easily accessible. Bad news: The data doesn't show where crashes occur. Image: Open NY

In addition to the DMV, the data comes from the MTA, Port Authority, state DOT, and Thruway Authority. Among other things, the data sets include: PATH and ferry ridership; MTA and Thruway Authority capital projects and bids; freight and passenger counts at Port Authority facilities; vehicle registrations; estimates of vehicle miles traveled; subway entrance and exit locations; incident, construction, and event information reported to 511 by agencies; and traffic counts on state roads, MTA and Port Authority crossings.

The new data release was welcomed by good government advocates, who noted that there’s still much more to be done to make information accessible not only to the public, but also to lawmakers and even other agencies. “For years, the public has had to pry basic data out of transportation agencies,” said John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany and the NYC Transparency Working Group. “Liberating this data is part of improving transportation decision-making by giving everyone better access to basic information.”

One data set of interest provides monthly eastbound auto, bus, and truck volumes at Port Authority crossings since 2011. The website also includes the number of motor vehicle crashes at Port Authority facilities each year since 2000, but does not provide information about those crashes other than whether they caused fatalities.

Motor vehicle crash information from 2011 reported by the DMV provides much more detail, including information about victims — age, gender, type and severity of injury, and whether they were transported to a hospital. It also features information on the day of the week, type of vehicle, contributing factors, weather, lighting, and road surface conditions. Pedestrian or cyclist involvement is also noted.

But when it comes to locating these crashes, the DMV data only provides the municipality and does not allow users to locate crashes at specific coordinates, or even an address or cross-street. Streetsblog has asked the Cuomo administration why the location information is so limited, and if data from years other than 2011 will be uploaded. We’ll let you know if we get a response.

There was also a step forward for open data this week on the city level: after inquiries and pressure from advocates, the Department of City Planning is no longer charging licensing fees for access to MapPLUTO, its extensive set of tax parcel data. While not explicitly transportation-related, PLUTO is an enormous resource for information about zoning and land use.

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Will Cuomo Sign the Transit Lockbox Bill?

The transit lockbox bill, which would require Albany to disclose the impacts of any raid of dedicated transit funds, passed both the Senate and Assembly unanimously in the final days of the legislative session, reports the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. It now heads to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s desk. A nearly identical bill reached Cuomo in 2011, but the governor gutted the disclosure provision and signed a toothless bill. This time around, will Cuomo put pen to paper and protect transit riders?

“I don’t think the governor can water the bill down this time,” Gene Russianoff of Straphangers Campaign told Streetsblog in an e-mail last week. “For Cuomo, the option is only yes or no.”

Albany has siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars in dedicated transit funding into the state’s general fund in since 2009. The raids have gotten smaller recently, but they haven’t stopped. Earlier this year TSTC flagged a $20 million MTA raid in Cuomo’s budget.

Two years ago, the legislature passed a lockbox bill for MTA funds, but Cuomo inserted an “emergency” provision — a loophole around the requirement to disclose each raid and issue a report on the impact to transit riders. An effort to close the loophole and include all New York transit agencies in the law failed last year in the legislature, but has now cleared both chambers.

Transit advocates and good government groups say that the bill will help prevent future raids. “It increases fiscal transparency, and makes it harder for Albany to break the promise to taxpayers that transit dedicated taxes will be spent solely on transit,” said John Kaehny, executive director of transparency watchdog Reinvent Albany.

Now the pressure is on Cuomo to enact the bill. “It behooves Governor Cuomo to sign this legislation into law,” advocates said in a joint statement.

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After Unanimous Senate Vote, Transit Lockbox Bill Heads to Assembly

Albany has long used the MTA as a piggy bank, raiding dedicated transit funds on a regular basis to cover gaps in the state budget. As a result, straphangers are squeezed as transit agencies resort to fare hikes and service cuts to make up the difference.

If the Assembly passes the transit lockbox bill, Cuomo won't be able to pass a watered-down version this time around. It's either yes or no.

Legislative attempts to crack down on transit raids have had limited success in Albany. In 2011, the legislature passed a lockbox bill that would require a statement detailing the size of each MTA budget raid and how it would affect transit riders. But Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office had the law changed, neutering the impact statement provision and essentially gutting the bill’s effectiveness.

The governor has since raided the MTA’s budget without issuing impact statements that the original law would have required.

In 2012, bills that would have eliminated this loophole and broadened the law to include transit agencies statewide, not just the MTA, attracted support from upstate lawmakers but failed to get out of committee in either chamber.

This year, the lockbox bills were again introduced by State Senator Marty Golden and Assembly Member James Brennan, but languished in committee for most of the session — until the Senate bill was brought to the floor yesterday, where it passed 61-0. Action now shifts to the Assembly, with the legislative session scheduled to end on June 20.

“I’m hopeful,” Brennan legislative director Lorrie Smith told Streetsblog, adding that the assembly member has been in discussions with the Ways and Means Committee to get the lockbox bill on the Assembly’s agenda. “It would be at the beginning of the week,” she said.

“I don’t think the Governor can water the bill down this time,” Gene Russianoff of Straphangers Campaign told Streetsblog in an e-mail praising the Senate’s vote. “For Cuomo, the option is only yes or no.”

While the lockbox bill would not bar the governor and legislature from robbing transit funds — only a constitutional amendment could do that — it would make Albany’s tampering with transit budgets more transparent, and hopefully less frequent, by requiring public reports on the scope and impact of each raid.

Additionally, another MTA-related bill sponsored by Golden, requiring the authority to file a report with the governor and the legislature on the impact of service cuts since 2008, passed the Senate 62-0 on Monday.

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State DOT “Multi-Modal Funds” Have Starring Role in Malcolm Smith Scandal

In the wake of a scandal-soaked week in Albany, Governor Cuomo held a press conference this afternoon with district attorneys from across the state to announce a new anti-corruption law. As he seeks to tighten the rules in Albany, Cuomo could take immediate steps to make sure a transportation funding mechanism that featured prominently in last week’s scandals is fortified against abuse by lawmakers.

State Sen. Malcolm Smith. Photo: NY Post

“Money is what greases the wheels — good, bad, or indifferent,” City Council Member Dan Halloran said while accepting $7,500 in cash from Rockland County-based developer Moses “Mark” Stern, according to the U.S. Attorney’s complaint filed last week. Halloran promised to use council discretionary funds to advance State Senator Malcolm Smith’s mayoral ambitions. But with Albany discretionary funds — called “member items” – under scrutiny, Smith suggested a different source of funds to grease the wheels for Stern: the New York State Department of Transportation’s Multi-Modal Program.

If corruption festers where there is little sunlight, that explains why Smith suggested this transportation fund to dole out favors. Stern, who unbeknownst to Smith was collecting evidence for federal prosecutors, said he wanted state funds for road work near a project in Spring Valley. “Multi-modal money is outside the budget and it’s always around,” Smith told him on March 21, suggesting that Stern ask Senator David Carlucci, who was not involved in the scandal, to secure the $500,000 item.

“The Multi-Modal Program, with $288 million in reappopriated funding, is the largest potential source of discretionary funds that legislators can directly steer to projects in their districts,” according to government watchdog Reinvent Albany.

The money in the program, funded by Thruway Authority bonds, is controlled by legislators and the governor, and can be used for almost any transportation project: state or municipal roads, bicycle or pedestrian projects, freight or passenger rail projects, aviation, ports, or ferries. The funds are often used for small projects, or to bridge funding gaps in larger projects where other sources have already been secured, and are particularly popular with smaller cities and towns. The funds may go to projects for entirely legitimate, worthwhile purposes, but it is very difficult to verify whether that’s the case, because there is no full, public accounting of how the money is spent, or which legislator requested the funds.

Attempts to discover which projects are supported by the Multi-Modal Program and the lawmakers that requested each item have been unsuccessful so far.

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