Legislatively, it was a surprisingly good year in Albany for sustainable transportation and smart growth issues. Six good bills successfully navigated the Legislature’s gauntlet, one bad bill was killed, and now, real success for the season lies in the Governor’s pen.
The key to sustainable transportation is a well-funded, interconnected system that provides people with a variety of options so that they can get where they want to go, when they want to get there. This year, four bills passed that will help to foster and develop such a system, by requiring Complete Streets road design, creating a “transit lockbox,” expanding taxi service in NYC, and giving communities the ability to “land bank.”
Complete Streets: New York has spent decades designing roads primarily for the efficient movement of cars, but the Complete Streets bill has the potential to encourage a major shift in thinking. The bill requires that, for all road projects receiving state and federal funds, the agency in charge of the project consider the needs of everyone who uses the roads, using complete streets features such as sidewalks, curb cuts, road diets, and bike lanes.
AARP, Tri-State, and groups across the state support a Complete Streets bill because it will assure that as new roads are built, and old roads are redesigned, they will accommodate the needs of all users, regardless of age and ability, and regardless of whether they choose to walk, bike, drive, or take public transit. The bill will make roads safer for everyone to navigate and help encourage New Yorkers to leave the car at home.
Transit Lockbox and Transit Funding: Many legislators swept into office last fall frantically waving the banner against the MTA, creating a great deal of speculation about the fate of the Payroll Mobility Tax, which nets close to $1.3 billion for the region’s transit system. A bill introduced to phase out this tax (S5596-a) easily passed the Senate, but was thankfully killed in the Assembly. Instead, a Lockbox bill (S4257-c/A6766-c) passed both houses. Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, and other groups support the bill because it will deter the stealing of dedicated transit funds, by requiring that a “diversion impact statement” be filed when funds are swept to the general fund for other purposes. This good government bill can’t stop all theft, but will increase transparency and accountability in Albany’s budget process.
NYC Livery Taxi Plan: Taxis are scarce in New York City’s outer boroughs, and residents don’t have the legal right to hail a livery car, instead relying on prearranged pick-ups, or livery cars that make illegal pick-ups. A city-backed bill (A8496/S5825) will create permits that allow livery cars to accept street hails. This will expand cab service in northern Manhattan and the outer boroughs, providing regulated service with standardized rates and making it easier to live without a car. An added benefit to the bill is a new dedicated source of transit funding. As it does for yellow cabs, the fare for a livery street hail would include a 50-cent customer surcharge that could net tens of millions of dollars (one estimate by Streetsblog is upwards of $80 million).
Land-banking: Due to the recession, some upstate communities—including Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse—have been hard-hit by foreclosures and population flight, resulting in vacant and abandoned properties that can undermine the fabric of the community. This “hollowing out” makes it difficult to create strong downtowns that are well-served by transportation. Until now, governments and non-profits haven’t had the tools needed to reverse this decline. The land-banking bill (A373-a/S5759), which was championed by Empire State Future, will enable communities to take charge and repurpose properties in their center, using smart growth principles.
Two additional bills passed that will help reduce crashes on our roads: the distracted driving bill and a cross-over truck mirrors bill. The first bill will increase penalties for those who text or use portable electronic devices while driving, thus helping to deter behavior that has been deemed more dangerous than drunk driving. Over 10,000 annual crashes in New York are attributed to distracted driving. The cross-over truck bill will require that convex mirrors be installed on large trucks in Manhattan. Large trucks, with high front hoods, have a blind spot in the front of their vehicles, making it difficult to see cyclists or pedestrians—especially small children—who may be crossing in front. This is a low-tech, low-cost, high payback solution to a deadly problem.
Again, the key to success this year is now in the Governor’s hands. This slate of bills offers a good balance between the needs of New York’s upstate and downstate communities, and assures improved, safe transportation options that don’t break the bank.