Transit Advocates Lay Out Hopes For New York's Next Mayor

02/22/2013 05:57 pm ET

New York transit advocates have a pretty simple wish list for the city's next mayor: More money, more buses. Whether they will see their dreams fulfilled, and hold onto the gains they have made under Michael Bloomberg, is another matter.

In the 11 years of Bloomberg has been mayor, transportation, once mostly under the purview of anonymous state bureaucrats in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, has turned into one of the hottest items on Gracie Mansion's agenda. The city has installed nearly 300 miles of new bike lanes, transformed Times Square with pedestrian plazas to make walking easier, and smoothed the way for quicker select buses on major thoroughfares like Second Avenue.

The mayoral candidates' transit plans will become clearer after Friday night, when many of them -- but not, oddly enough, former MTA Chairman Joe Lhota -- meet for a forum on transportation. Here's what advocates want to hear.

Transportation isn't just a Bloomberg thing. Bike lanes, pedestrian plazas and those new select buses "should be advanced by our public officials more broadly -- they shouldn't necessarily be the legacy of one mayor," said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign.

Many of the candidates seem down on keeping all of the lanes, which are strongly supported by city voters but a source of annoyance for some drivers, who argue they slow down traffic, and killjoys like New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser.

But Vanterpool says candidates should recognize an opportunity to carry on and improve Bloomberg's strong legacy. So far, none of the candidates have stuck out to her as particularly exciting.

Said Gene Russianoff, the longtime head of the bus and subway advocacy group the Straphangers Campaign, "My hope for mayor is someone who doesn't put transit on the backburner."

The next mayor can also help fix up the subway system. New York State has managed the subways, the city's transportation lifeblood, since 1953. Most of the money for the MTA's budget comes from dedicated taxes and farebox revenue.

But that doesn't mean mayors are totally powerless: when the subways were decrepit and declining in the 1970s, Mayor Ed Koch stepped up the city's small contribution to the MTA budget to buy new subway cars and make other capital improvements.

"There's a whole generation of people who have no idea how bad the mid-70s into the late '80s were," said Mark Feinman, who has written a history of the system in the bad old days. "Things as simple as light in subway cars. Maybe three out of 10 cars in a 10-car train didn't have light. Graffiti was all over the place."

Koch's money, which amounted to $164 million per year under the 1982-1991 capital plan, helped fix up the system. New stainless steel subway cars were more graffiti-resistant, and he used the mayor's bully pulpit to push for improvements.

"Ed Koch was sort of famous for this," said Russianoff. "He would call transit officials for news conferences in the blue room, and he would get them to commit to things that they wouldn't commit to in a private meeting."

Bloomberg did make a massive $2.4 billion city contribution to extend the 7 Line in the last capital budget. But under the most recent 2010-2014 capital plan, the city is spending only $160 million a year, less than it did under Koch. That's before adjusting for inflation, or taking out the somewhat speculative "value capture" real estate contributions the city is supposed to make to the MTA budget.

Continuing budget constraints will make it tough for any mayor to free up money for ambitious new initiatives. But Russianoff thinks that the new mayor should make giving the MTA more cold, hard cash a priority.

"The next mayor could do what Ed Koch did and make a larger capital contribution to fixing the system," he said.

From Second Avenue to Staten Island, New York now has four fast "select" buses, the city's version of the bus rapid-transit systems made famous by Bogotá, Colombia and Curitiba, Brazil. With offboard fare payment and long bi-articulated vehicles, bus rapid transit is supposed to act more like a subway system than the unbeloved city bus.

Even though some have criticized the MTA's Select Bus program for leaving out some features of "true" BRT, like dedicated lanes, Russianoff said they've been "a big hit. The speeds have increased by up to 20 percent, and so has ridership. People are voting with their feet."

"My hope is the next mayor is going to commit themselves to establishing 10 or 15 more of these things while they're in office," he added.

That number may be ambitious. Drivers, who seem to carry more political weight than the average transit-riding New Yorker, complain about select buses for the same reasons they do about bike lanes: they take away parking spots and make for narrower lanes. And the MTA and city have spent an agonizingly long time, over three years at this point, just working on the proposed Nostrand Avenue service.

But the next mayor, who through the city Department of Transportation has a great deal of sway over the fast buses, would also be in a better position to reap their political benefit. Instead of the decades that subways can take to build (eight so far for the Second Avenue Subway), buses can be rolled out in one term.

"There are scores of communities around the boroughs that are essentially transit deserts, where they don't have good transportation options," said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives.

"Adding bus service is like turning on a light switch to improve commutes. You don't have to wait decades to build a subway -- you can just run more buses tomorrow."

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