$256 Million Raid of Clean Water Funds Could Save Drivers as Little as 8 Cents a Toll…but at What Cost?

tzb-construction

Bridge construction on the Tappan Zee. | Photo: Nyack News & Views

A couple of weeks ago, New York State Thruway Authority Chairman Howard Milstein was asked how high the tolls will go on the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The Chairman replied, “Do the math, and you’ll find out that it’s not going to be a high number.”

But doing the math is pretty much impossible when basic numbers about how the bridge will be funded are kept from the public and when requests for information are met with a sea of black ink that blocks out all relevant information.

Also, what is perceived to be a “high number” varies from person to person. Comments made by New York State officials have hinted that future tolls will be in the range of $10 to $14; other estimates have been higher. Conspicuously absent from this discussion is an estimated toll savings from the controversial Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan to the Thruway Authority.

Governor Cuomo’s June 16 press release rationalized the raid on clean water funds as a way to “help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.” When the public and officials questioned the loan, the administration fired back that those who oppose the loans “must be in favor of higher tolls on the new bridge,” though no mention was made of how much these loans will reduce the tolls. But a rough analysis by TSTC of documents released after the New York State Public Authorities Control Board approved the loan on July 16, shows that the toll reduction could be as little as 8 cents per toll. Put another way, an eight cents reduction would represent a 0.057 percent reduction on a hypothetical $14 toll. Even when calculated over a period of five years—the life of the CWSRF loan—is this reduction worth the potential health risks and reduced water quality resulting from a raid of funds used to protect and maintain water quality throughout the state?

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Controversial Clean Water Loan Proceeds, in the Dark

“Is this any way to execute a major infrastructure project?”

So concludes today’s editorial from the Syracuse Post, hometown paper to State Senator John DeFrancisco, one of three sitting members on the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) who, yesterday, rubber-stamped a raid of clean water funds to pay for the New New York Bridge construction projects.

Only a few weeks ago, DeFrancisco offered fighting words that provided hope to the advocacy community that has been shut out of the decision-making process on this controversial loan. In an interview with Capital Tonight’s Liz Benjamin, the Senator stated: “I have no compunction at all about voting ‘no’ if it’s not the proper use of money or there’s not a full financing plan, because the people should know how they’re paying for this thing.” And yet, the PACB—including Senator DeFrancisco—unanimously approved the first installment of $511 million in low-interest loans from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, despite the fact that a full financing plan was not provided either to the PACB or the public.

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New York EFC Charges Ahead with Unprecedented, Unconventional Loan for Tappan Zee Project

The New York Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) board voted 5-0 on Thursday to provide the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA) with $511.45 million in low- and no-interest loans  from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) — a fund traditionally used to upgrade sewers across the state.

The vote was fast-tracked and fraught with controversy, as advocacy groups scrambled to get more information on a slew of unanswered questions, and the public was completely shut out of the process. Although EFC general counsel Jim Levine stated at the meeting that there has been a tremendous amount of work and due diligence done on this loan proposal, the public was only notified less than two weeks earlier, on June 11. The statutory requirement for public comment was completely avoided by labeling these loans “a minor modification” to the CWSRF’s Intended Use Plan.

Yesterday’s action, coupled with a still unreleased financial plan for the new Tappan Zee Bridge and continued refusal to provide documents under FOIL and FOIA, is another example of the lack of transparency surrounding the New NY Bridge funding process, most prominently highlighted by the unwillingness of Governor Andrew Cuomo to form the toll and financial panel charged with identifying funding mechanisms to pay for the bridge.

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2014 New York Legislative Session Wraps Up with Traffic Safety, PANYNJ Reform and Sneaky TZB Financing

 | Photo: AP via legislativegazette.com

State legislators voted in favor of allowing New York City to lower its default speed limit to 25 miles per hour in the 2014 legislative session. | Photo: AP via legislativegazette.com

It was an action-packed end-of-session for transportation advocates in Albany, with some squeaker wins as well as some disappointing losses which will no doubt be on next year’s sustainable transportation wish list.

Lowering Speeds

A key victory this year came when the State Senate laid politics aside and granted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio a key component of his Vision Zero plan: the authority to lower the default speed limit to 25 mph throughout the five boroughs.

Assemblymember Danny O’Donnell was an early and effective champion in the Assembly, but in the Senate, passage was less certain when election year politics entered into the negotiations.

After a concerted campaign from Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets, the first positive sign of forward progress for the bill came with three days left in the legislative session when Senator Jeffrey Klein introduced an amended bill (S.7892) that included input from community boards. Passage was certainly not assured especially as it became clear that Senator Dean Skelos was prepared to block the bill for personal reasons, and when Senator Andrew Lanza also indicated he was not inclined to support the legislation. Ultimately, consensus was reached and the bill is expected to be signed by Governor Cuomo. The City has already begun to discuss how to implement its new local control.

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Federal Safety Dollars Flowing to Pedestrian, Bicyclist Safety in New York State

A 10-month-old was killed at this location when she and her pregnant mother, who was pushing her stroller, were struck by a vehicle while crossing Route 110. | Photo: Steve Pfost/Newsday

A 10-month-old was killed at this location when she and her pregnant mother, who was pushing her stroller, were struck by a vehicle while crossing Route 110. | Photo: Steve Pfost/Newsday

Governor Cuomo announced $75.6 million for 33 transportation projects across the state this week. The funding comes from the federal Highways Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), and projects were selected on a competitive basis. Over 60 percent of the projects announced will include some bicycle and pedestrian safety components, and all 13 projects selected in Long Island and New York City are focused on pedestrian and bicycling safety. Some projects that stand out:

  • $2 million to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety along 4.3 miles of Ocean Parkway, one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous roads, by installing new traffic signals and pedestrian countdown signals, installing pedestrian refuge islands, prohibiting left turns at some intersections, upgrading curb ramps, signage and pavement markings.
  • $3.2 million to make operational and pedestrian safety improvements on one of the region’s most dangerous roads, Route 110 in the Village of Amityville and the towns of Babylon and Huntington in Suffolk County. It includes widening existing crosswalks and adding 25 ADA-compliant new crosswalks, along with pedestrian countdown timers, new traffic signals and pedestrian refuges.
  • $2 million to improve pedestrian crossings at 235 locations in the Hudson Valley, installing pedestrian countdown timers at traffic signals that have crosswalks and/or pedestrian crossing phases.

This announcement represents a big win for New Yorkers for Active Transportation, a statewide coalition that has advocated for a “fair share for safety” over the last couple of years. While the Federal Transportation Law, MAP-21, slashed dedicated funding for bicycle and pedestrian projects by 30 percent (a $12 million reduction for New York), it did almost double the apportionment of HSIP funding—a potentially key source of funding for pedestrian and cycling safety infrastructure.

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Time for New York’s Driver’s Education to Enter the 21st Century

A recent screen shot from a drivers education course shows the tendency to blame vulnerable users.

Do you drive a motor vehicle in New York State?  Have you ever wondered:

  • How to safely negotiate bike lanes while driving?
  • How to pass a bike on a rural road with a double-yellow line and oncoming traffic?
  • What the “Due Care” law actually means?

Well, if you’re curious, you won’t find the answers in New York State’s Driver’s Education Manual. In fact, the 100+ page document only devotes two pages to “Sharing the Road” with bicyclists — a whopping 544 words, and 66 percent of those words are devoted to how bicyclists are supposed to act on the road, not drivers.

Contrast that with the fact that in 2012, over 60 percent of vehicle crashes with bicyclists in New York State were attributed to unsafe motorist behavior, and that pedestrians were involved in 25 percent of fatal motor vehicle crashes in the same year, more than twice the national average (11 percent). And while New York State does require a five-hour pre-licensing course and test before a new driver gets a license, the course curriculum and test are not required to address how vehicles can better navigate roads that are increasingly populated by vulnerable road users.

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Communities Across New York Want Local Control Over Speed Limits

Lawmakers in Albany have the opportunity to correct a law that prevents community-wide speed limits below 30 miles per hour. | Photo: Burlington Free Press

Lawmakers in Albany have the opportunity to change a law that prevents community-wide speed limits below 30 miles per hour. | Photo: Burlington Free Press

Leaders across New York united in an appeal to Governor Cuomo this week to correct a loophole in the Vehicle and Traffic Law that circumvents New York’s home rule principles, and prohibits municipal leaders from making their streets safer. Over 50 mayors and supervisors representing communities in over half of New York’s counties, along with the Association of Towns and the New York Conference of Mayors, have spoken with one voice to the Governor: give municipal leaders the ability to lower the speed limit in their communities.

The home rule concept allows local leaders to make local decisions about the health, safety and welfare of their communities. It is a bottom-up philosophy, embedded in the belief that local leaders know their communities best and that self-governance leads to better solutions. Unfortunately, when it comes to local roads, communities have to open their pocketbooks to pay for them, yet they do not have the authority to govern basic rules of them—like the speed limit.

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Sunshine at Port Authority: Time to Let the Public In

PA-panel-letterOn Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced the formation of a bi-state “Special Panel on the Future of the Port Authority” with the mission of studying the “governance, legal and operational issues” that could lead to reform of the beleaguered agency. The panel will include two commissioners from each state, as well as the legal counsel of both Governors. (The announcement included no information about whether any good government groups will be included.) The panel is to report back in 60 days, well after Albany’s legislative session has ended.

While structural reform is undoubtedly needed at the Port Authority, and an initial comprehensive analysis of the options is a good place to start, there are two key concerns about the panel’s formation:

First, to what degree will this process be uninhibited by the interests of both Governors? Panel independence is key to any reform success. If Governor Cuomo’s recent comments about the Moreland Commission –“It’s my commission. I can’t ‘interfere’ with it, because it’s mine. It is controlled by me.” — are an indication of the level of independence that a special panel on the Port Authority panel would see, reform could be hard to come by.

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Safer Streets Bills Dominate the New York State Legislature’s Transportation Agenda

Two items legislators in Albany may consider this session: Local control over speed limits and new measures to ensure complete streets are being implemented. | Photos: FHWA and Reconnect Rochester

Among the transportation-related bills legislators in Albany may consider this session are local control over speed limits, speed cameras on Long Island and measures to guide complete streets implementation. | Photos: FHWA and Reconnect Rochester

UPDATE: The New York State Assembly and Senate have passed speed camera legislation; it’s awaiting Governor Cuomo’s signature.

New York’s State legislators returned to work in Albany yesterday with a host of “shovel ready” transportation bills awaiting their attention — bills with matching language in both the Senate and Assembly that need just a shot of political will to cross the finish line.

Speed Cameras for Nassau, Suffolk and NYC

Suffolk CountyNassau County, and New York City have all approved the required home rule messages asking Albany to pass bills (A9206/S6918) that authorize the installation of new speed cameras. Yesterday, their first day back from break, the NYS Assembly passed the bill. Now, all eyes are on the Senate. Last year’s efforts to authorize 20 cameras in New York City were often contentious, but this year’s legislative effort has been smoother, thanks in part to support from Governor Cuomo and the executives in all three jurisdictions.

Concerns remain, however, and a bill’s passage is never certain until it’s signed into law. One concern is that camera enforcement is about revenue, not safety. But the fines included in this legislation are low — $50 (whereas Governor Cuomo has announced speeding fines up to $975) — and only apply to drivers going 10 mph or more above the speed limit.  Plus, speed camera revenue has been shown to drop off precipitously once drivers understand they may get caught. Camera programs across the country have shown impressive gains in safety. After speed cameras were implemented in Washington D.C., for example, traffic deaths fell by 72 percent from 2003 to 2012. If New York City were to achieve a similar reduction, 200 lives would be spared each year.

Local Control for Speed Limits

New York is a home rule state, but unfortunately, local officials don’t have control of speed limits. No level of government—village, town or city—can enact a municipal speed limit lower than 30 mph. Villages and cities can enact 25 mph limits on specific roads, but towns under 50,000 in population have to petition the New York State Department of Transportation in order to do so. If a municipality wants to set speed limits lower, they must pass a law in Albany, a time-consuming prospect that is rarely successful.

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NYSDOT’s Complete Streets Report: Positive Steps but Some Sidesteps, Too

nysdot cs reportThe New York State Department of Transportation released a report last week detailing how the Department has gone about implementing New York’s 2011 Complete Streets Act. The report, which NYSDOT is required by law to produce, elaborates on best practices and demonstrates the degree to which complete streets have been institutionalized and incorporated into all phases of transportation projects across the state.

Perhaps the best news coming out of the report is the forthcoming Complete Streets Checklist, a potentially useful tool for institutionalizing complete streets design into the decision-making process. Its success will depend, however, on how pervasively it is used. At a minimum, to be compliant with the state complete streets law, all projects receiving state and federal funding would need to use the checklist, a fact not mentioned in the report.

The report does state, however, that “many Complete Streets improvements, such as lane striping, are relatively inexpensive but effective” techniques to improve accessibility for all users of the roadways. If NYSDOT mandates these basic improvements, which would reflect NYSDOT going above and beyond what the law requires, the checklist would then be required for all projects, including resurfacing, restoring and rehabilitation projects —which could easily incorporate complete streets elements with almost no additional costs. If NYSDOT opts out of this strategy, a bill on the table in Albany would require them to do so by amending the complete streets law to require inclusion of “complete street design features in resurfacing, maintenance and pavement recycling projects and further enable safe access to public roads for all users.”

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