Who will be the transit candidate in 2013?

who-will-be-transit-candidate-2013
Rendering of a concourse for the No. 7 subway extension. (via Dattner Architects.)
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Since the premature demise of would-be 2013 mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, who famously told Mayor Michael Bloomberg that upon becoming mayor he would “have a bunch of ribbon-cuttings tearing out your [expletive] bike lanes,” transportation advocates have been able to breathe a measured sigh of relief.

For all of the faults of the remaining presumptive mayoral candidates, from a transit perspective, none inspire total abjection.

“They all have decent records,” said Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. 

Take Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who appears to be angling for the outer-borough vote and, like all of his anticipated 2013 competitors, can be described broadly as friendly toward mass transit, with exceptions. (Streetsblog did a nice round-up of his transit-policy positions in July.)

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De Blasio has supported more car-free hours in Prospect Park, supported the controversial Ninth Street Park Slope bike lane, but opposed another, in Bay Ridge, on the grounds that the city was not paying enough heed to community concerns. De Blasio also joined Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s call for a two-dollar toll on East River Bridges and said his office is investigating the NYPD’s crash-scene investigations, whose shortcomings have been getting a lot of attention lately.

On the flip-side, de Blasio voted against congestion pricing, and has called for full and independent environmental impact assessments prior to the installation of new bike lanes, pedestrian plazas, and, specifically, select bus service on 34th street. (Proponents of such things regard the environmental-impact requirement as a stall tactic.)

Related, de Blasio has also been critical of Bloomberg transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who is admired by transit advocates for making New York's streetscape so much friendlier to cyclists and pedestrians, but is bitterly resented in some quarters for a perceived lack of engagement with community groups and other interested parties, particularly drivers.

“Even if one appreciates some of Janette’s goals, it’s clear the approach has been very alienating all over the city,” de Blasio told the Times last year.

For her part, Council Speaker Christine Quinn was a strong advocate for congestion pricing and has been generally supportive of bike lanes, but as her spokesman Josh Isay noted, she "voiced strong concerns" that the city's first protected bike lane, on Ninth Avenue, "was installed with a lack of public notice." In other words, like de Blasio, she's concerned about a lack of community input into D.O.T. decisions. In keeping with those concerns, she has sought to slow down the proliferation of bike lanes and pedestrian plazas, and, in keeping with a time-tested means of appealing to outer-borough voters, recently introduced a series of bills meant to make it easier to be a car owner in New York City.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, meanwhile, was been a strong proponent of congestion pricing, and has also shown support for bike lanes and bus rapid transit. He also hammered out a compromise on a controversial Columbus Avenue bike lane last year.

Former comptroller Bill Thompson, who has been running something of a stealth campaign for mayor, has been outspoken in favor bus rapid transit, congestion pricing, and street-infrastructure improvements that will slow down traffic. He has also gone beyond congestion pricing, or maybe around it, to suggest a new revenue source for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which he described in 2009 as "my weight-based automobile registration fee increase." (A good summary of his views can be found here.)

Tom Allon, a publisher of local newspapers at Manhattan Media who is running for office for the first time, has also been outspoken in favor of innovative transit reforms, though he surely has the least to lose. He has called for "elevated light rail for crosstown transportation in Manhattan's midtown districts, rapid bus transit and more bike lanes," and, notably, believes the M.T.A. should be a city, rather than a state, authority. He's proposed selling subway-station naming rights. And, he noted in an email to Capital, he wants to require all bicyclists over 12 years old to take a one-hour safety class and be licensed. Those under 12 would be registered by their parents.

David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, doesn't foresee any of the candidates making explicit promises about improving the financial state of the M.T.A., in large part the problem is so intractable.

Also, he said, "Unless the clouds part and the sun shines from the heavens, what you've done is make sure you’ll be revealed as publicly impotent on this issue a year down the road."

Nor does he foresee politicians being too vocal one way or the other on bike lanes, which remain a touchy subject in some neighborhoods.

Sadik-Khan's other innovations—namely, pedestrian plazas and seating areas—are an easier political lift.

"These were in large respect a reaction against a wildly unpopular and poorly conceived notion on the part of the Giuliani administration to make New York less friendly to pedestrians," said Birdsell. "I don’t see people going back there."

"For people who are campaigning for what is fundamentally a liberal Democratic primary, do you really want to be on the side of more cars, more congestion, more pollution in Manhattan?"

“The question is how are they going to make things better,” said Budnick.

Possible litmus tests include a willingness to make a renewed push for congestion pricing, support for an expansion of funding tools like tax-increment financing and, generally, a desire to continue the overarching program of Sadik-Khan.

Given the budgetary challenges facing the M.T.A., and the state’s aversion to increasing the amount of resources it dedicates to public transportation, any improvements to mass transit in New York City may well come from City Hall, if only because they'll have to.

“I think that the next mayor could really be the transit mayor,” Budnick said.