12:12 pm Nov. 27, 20121
For transit advocates, Michael Bloomberg's mayoralty has been a relative golden age.
Bloomberg, like all mayors, has been limited in what he could actually accomplish from City Hall, in terms of a transportation system that is mostly controlled by the state.
But his expressed values, as far as how best to move humans around a big city, have to a large extent been those of the mass-transit idealist: he thinks subways should be free, that streets belong to cyclists and pedestrians rather than drivers, and that congestion pricing and East River tolls would be a good thing. And of course he has empowered and effusively praised a transportation commissioner, Janette Sadik-Khan, who believes in these things at least as fervently as he does.
In March, when the race to succeed Michael Bloomberg was just beginning to take shape, the presumptive contenders seemed, collectively, positive about transit in general, but lukewarm toward the idea of unreconstructed Sadik-Khanism in the next administration.
“They all have decent records,” Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives, told me at the time.
In the ensuing months, three things happened.
One: Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer decided to distinguish himself as the transit champion among the contenders, endorsing a commuter tax and an infrastructure bank during a prominent speech on infrastructure at an Association for a Better New York breakfast. He also supported the Bloomberg administration's plan to bring taxi service to the five boroughs, which was staunchly opposed by some sectors of the industry.
Two: Hurricane Sandy wrought havoc on the city's infrastructure, eliciting an unusually energetic discussion among the governing class about sea walls, soft and hard infrastructure, and a long-term sea-proofing of the subway system. The system's needs are massive, and not the same as they were before the storm.
Three: After having established himself a bit of a darling in transit-advocate circles, Stringer dropped out of the race.
So what's left, from a transit perspective?
There's the early frontfrunner, Council speaker Christine Quinn, who in a recent, post-hurricane speech about infrastructure at an Association for a Better New York breakfast, talked about storm-surge barriers, the energy grid, post-catastrophe cell phone service, gasoline distribution and the sewer system, after which she devoted a couple of paragraphs to mass transit.
In those paragraphs, Quinn said that, to prevent subway flooding, there should be raised buffers around subway grates, higher subway station entrances and industrial balloons to seal off tunnels, and she called for greater investment in resilient alternatives, like ferries and buses.
Quinn, who once supported congestion pricing, made no mention in the speech of the precarious state of the M.T.A.'s finances, or of the authority's ongoing negotiations with the Transport Workers Union, or bike lanes or pedestrian plazas, on which she has had mixed feelings.
Another contender, former comptroller and 2009 Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Thompson, has in the past called for for the M.T.A. to nix the payroll mobility tax, which the suburbs abhor, and to replace it with a commuter tax and a weight-based commercial and private vehicle fee, which they are also likely to abhor.
One might expect Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to be the obvious Bloomberg-style transportation candidate. He's a union-friendly progressive from Park Slope, and his spokesman used to flack for Transportation Alternatives, the city's main cycling advocacy group and a close administration ally.
But de Blasio has been wishy-washy on bike lanes, and has been critical of their most powerful proponent, Sadik-Khan. He also opposed congestion pricing, while supporting Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver's proposal for a $2 East River bridge toll.
Comptroller John Liu, who says he's still running for mayor, has lots of doubts about the advisability of the city's bike share program, supported East River bridge tolls before opposing them, and has taken issue with the department of transportation's pedestrian plaza program.
Manhattan Media C.E.O. Tom Allon, who is now hoping to run on the Republican line, believes there should be elevated light-rail in midtown, more bike lanes and bus rapid transit, and recently argued that the M.T.A. should auction off the naming rights for every single one of its subway stations.
Budnick's observation from months ago seems to apply, still—all "decent" enough on transit. But none of the current contenders is distinguished by taking pro-transit positions that risk angering drivers and industry groups, the way many of the Bloomberg administration's positions have.
A fun wildcard to consider—and for now it should be regarded strictly as fun—is the trial-ballooned mayoral candidacy of M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota, whose public standing received a boost from the authority's performance after Hurricane Sandy.
Lhota, a Republican who was a deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, hasn't given any public indication that he intends to run for mayor next year. But it's a good bet that if he did, he'd stake a claim to being The Transit Candidate. It's a role that, for now, remains up for grabs.
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