Highlights From TA’s District 25 Candidate Debate

helen_sears.jpgHelen Sears, Stanley Kalathara, and Daniel Dromm.

At the Transportation Alternatives City Council candidate debate last night, the three Democrats competing in District 25 sat down to tackle concerns about traffic, public space, and street safety. An overflow crowd of about 50 people packed the second floor office of the Queens Diversity Center to see them.

The starkest differences between the candidates centered around how to allocate street space and improve safety. Challenger Daniel Dromm, a school teacher, was the only one to speak unreservedly in favor of design and engineering improvements. "We need to have more bike lanes installed," he said. "We may need to have lighting systems that give pedestrians more time to cross the street."

Incumbent Helen Sears took a different view of cyclist safety. While Dromm had called for better education of both drivers and cyclists, Sears got more specific. "I think every company that makes bikes should have to produce a video that will absolutely show the cyclist exactly what the rules of the road are," she suggested.

Businessman Stanley Kalathara at first insisted that "providing a special route in the street" for bike lanes is "impossible," but later modified the claim, saying that 34th Avenue and 35th Avenue might have the necessary space. (Note: 34th Avenue already has a bike lane.)

Dromm was also the only candidate to express much support for congestion pricing. "I do support some form of road pricing that would help to alleviate the burden on the MTA," he said, adding that he would also support higher gas taxes or bridge tolls to fund transit. "The majority of people in this neighborhood probably do not have cars, and that’s why I make that such a high priority."

According to the most recent census numbers [PDF], Dromm’s intuition is correct: 52 percent of District 25 residents don’t own cars. Still, Kalathara pledged to oppose pricing in no uncertain terms, and Sears made her support conditional on the construction of additional municipal garages. Apparently the council member subscribes to the belief that car commuters will use her district as a park-and-ride if they can’t drive across the 59th Street Bridge for free. Logic dictates otherwise, but if there’s any way to fulfill that prophecy, thousands of additional parking spots would do it.

Off-street parking policy was something of an Achilles heel for all three candidates. Their prevailing view: More garages and more parking would reduce the terrible congestion problem in Jackson Heights, one of the most transit-rich neighborhoods in Queens. Someone should send around a copy of Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking to these folks:

  • Kalathara: "People are going to buy cars anyway, it has nothing to do with the garage."
  • Dromm: "I agree that any development that comes into the community should have
    parking attached to it. Some people here come from Jersey
    and don’t use transit. So they need space."
  • Sears: "We have very viable commercial areas. It’s a tri-state shopping center; people don’t take public transportation to get here."

After they’re done with Shoup, the candidates might want to peruse TA’s 2008 report, Guaranteed Parking, Guaranteed Driving, which spelled out that many car trips originate in Jackson Heights precisely because city zoning laws require parking attached to new development.

Each candidate also had one or two ideas that stood out as especially unique or insightful. I’ll end on a bright note with some of these: 

  • Dromm: "Reducing the speed limit is something we have to look at. These cars come barreling down the streets, especially the side streets, not the avenues. It rattles my windows." 
  • Kalathara proposed car-free summer weekends on the major shopping streets in Jackson Heights: "37th Avenue, 73rd Street, and 74th Street — make it like a shopping mall, car-free so people can shop and have a lot of fun."
  • Sears used the disjointedness of Queens Boulevard to justify her stance that it can’t accommodate a bike lane: "When [DOT] did studies for traffic, they did not do Queens Boulevard in its entirety, they did sections of it. As a result, they went by Community Boards; none of it connected." Okay, that’s a terrible excuse for inaction. But it’s also a pretty trenchant observation about DOT, when you consider that nearly all of the Class 1, on-street bike lane miles installed in the past two years have been confined to two community board districts in Manhattan, with two more in Brooklyn slated to receive some soon.