New York 2012: Looking Back on the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The New York State Thruway Authority chose a builder and a design for the new Tappan Zee Bridge, but the big news from 2012 is that they finally created a transit task force. | Image: New York State Thruway Authority

Last year, transportation news in New York covered everything from state funding and MTA ridership to the new Tappan Zee Bridge and of course, Superstorm Sandy. Like neighboring New Jersey, New York’s transit infrastructure was devastated by Sandy, but it wasn’t all bad news for the Empire State in 2012.

The Good:

Complete Streets & Traffic Calming – New York State’s Complete Streets law went into effect in February, and although it will be some time until there is much visible change on the ground, it is clear that the law has already ushered in a sea change across the state. In conjunction with local advocates, TSTC released “Complete Streets in a Box” toolkits in Westchester and Long Island that provide technical resources to support the adoption and implementation of complete streets policies on a local level. Local governing bodies ranging from villages to counties have proceeded to pass their own policies, including Suffolk and Essex Counties, as well as Dobbs Ferry and Saratoga Springs. On Long Island, NYSDOT made progress on a plan to make Main Street in downtown Smithtown a little safer by implementing a modified road diet and NYSDOT announced new plans to create a safer Hempstead Turnpike. Safe streets advocates also cheered the expansion of the successful red light camera programs in Suffolk and Nassau Counties, and, in a year when pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities went up in New York City and nationwide, a proposed speed camera demonstration program for NYC also gained some traction in Albany.

Cuomo Opts Into MAP-21 Recreational Trails Funding – The new federal transportation law, known as MAP-21, cut approximately 30 percent of the dedicated funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and gave states the option to opt-out of the recreational trails funding. But after a strong push from advocates, Governor Cuomo thankfully opted-in, keeping over $2 million in pedestrian and bicycle funding from being diverted to other uses.

Post-Sandy Cycling Surge – Although flooding from Sandy delayed the launch of the much-anticipated CitiBike by two months (now scheduled to launch in May), the storm did have a silver lining: In Sandy’s aftermath, it became evident that bicycling and walking have become cruical components of New York City’s transportation system. Cycling trips increased by 150 percent over New York City’s East River bridges on the Thursday after the storm, highlighting the importance of the investments made by the City to provide greater transportation options.

NY Works – The NY Works program, which infused NYSDOT’s capital program with an additional $1 billion, primarily funded repaving and bridge projects. Although little money was spent on pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure (with a notable exception in the North Country on Route 86), thankfully NY Works emphasized maintenance and repair and did not use limited resources to expand roads and bridges.

The Bad:

Upstate and Long Island Transit Budgets – Non-MTA systems struggled with tight budgets amidst record ridership levels in 2012. The State’s budget did provide a one-year bump in operating revenues for non-MTA systems by redistributing the ‘long lines tax’, helping suburban bus systems like Long Island’s Nassau Inter-County Express (NICE), which took over bus service from the MTA in 2012. However, because of inadequate funding from the County, and a budget built on one shot bailouts from New York State and the federal government, as well as higher than expected farebox revenues, the systems finances are shaky. If Nassau County does not assume greater responsibility to fund the system in 2013 and beyond, NICE customers may not be able to avoid future service cuts or fare hikesHearings on the latter subject are scheduled for January 10.

Sheridan Plans Change – Community members and organizations represented by the Southern Bronx River Watershed Alliance were upset and disappointed that New York City dropped the removal scenario of the Sheridan Expressway from further analysis in a federally funded TIGER II study. The Alliance has been advocating for the removal of this highway for over a decade as one element of a comprehensive community vision plan to improve community health, environmental quality, pedestrian safety, affordable housing and as a way to reduce truck traffic.

The Ugly:

State Transit Funding – In Albany, transit funding, as always, was an up and down battle. In the spring, legislators finally came through with a budget deal that fully funded the MTA’s 2010-2014 capital plan. While it’s good that a deal was reached, it was heavily reliant upon debt and required the agency to raise its debt ceiling. However, the agency also got a $700 million boost from the State’s general fund. Unfortunately, 2012 also brought continued attacks on a crucial funding source for the MTA—the payroll mobility tax (PMT). The tax was ruled unconstitutional by a State Supreme Court judge, a ruling that if upheld, could put $1.5 billion in dedicated transit funding in jeopardy. While the MTA seems confident the ruling will be overturned, the system continues to be plagued by funding instability, begging for more sustainable transportation funding (such as Sam Schwartz’s proposed tolling plan).

The MTA – While New York City’s transit agency received high praise for it’s response to Superstorm Sandy, the $5 billion in damage to the system will take years to recover from. $1 billion of that has already been saddled onto rider’s shoulders, with new bonds that will cost current and future riders $62 million a year in interest payments. The remaining amount is currently a political football in Washington. December also saw a double-hit to riders: adoption of  fare and toll increases that transit advocates opposed and the resignation of the MTA’s Chairman and CEO Joe Lhota. With the fourth fare hike in five years, and the sixth leader in six years, riders could use some good news in 2013. And attempts to pass “lockbox” legislation—to help curb the State’s habit of stealing dedicated transit funding—failed. Positive notes to the year included a partial reinstatement of bus and subway service that was cut in 2011 ($30 million worth) and the highest ridership in 45 years.

Tappan Zee Bridge – Even after vehement advocacy from the public in support of bus rapid transit on the bridge, the state barely committed to an exclusive bus lane on the 3.1 mile bridge span during rush hour. However, in response to continued community calls for bus transit along the I-287 corridor, including from the Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam County Executives, the NYS Thruway Authority finally created a transit task force in December.  The task force will identify transit solutions, develop transit funding strategies and create a corridor management plan.

What to Expect in 2013:

There’s reason to be optimistic looking forward into 2013, however. Advocacy for sustainable transportation is on the rise. New York State Transportation Equity Alliance (NYSTEA), a relatively new organization, held its first statewide conference on Valentine’s Day, partnering with the New York Public Transit Association on a “Invest in Transit: Keep NY Moving!” lobby day. Additionally, New York City saw the start of a new transit-organizing group, Rider’s Alliance, which will hopefully hold state elected officials more accountable to transit riders.

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