The Race for District 26: Who Will Stem the Traffic Tide?

district_26.jpgTop to bottom: Deirdre Feerick, James Van Bramer, Brent O’Leary.

Of all the City Council districts in New York, the one crying out the loudest for transportation reform might just be the seat vacated by Eric Gioia — District 26 in the southwestern corner of Queens.

Gioia, after some wobbling, voted yes on congestion pricing last year. For good reason. Like District 33 in Brooklyn, the 26th is a doormat for traffic crossing the East River. All those car commuters enticed by the free pass are a curse for bus riders heading to the transit hub at Queens Plaza or crossing the Queensboro Bridge itself, which handles more bus routes than any other East River bridge. Combined with crammed subways and a boom in car-oriented development along the western Queens waterfront, the picture isn’t pretty for transit.  

"The 7 train seems to be at capacity while large residential buildings are sprouting throughout Hunter’s Point," said Emilia Crotty, a Woodside resident. "We want to encourage these new residents to use mass transit, of course, but there’s very little room for them. Simultaneously, these buildings are being built with ample parking facilities for their new occupants. Our buses are not a viable alternative to the 7 when they sit in backed-up Queensboro Bridge traffic nearly all day long." 

Biking over the bridge instead? As in the neighboring 25th District, both Queens Boulevard and Northern Boulevard cut through here, traffic sewers that discourage cycling and strangle street life near and far. Local community boards have reacted to recent bike safety enhancements, like the buffered lane on Vernon Boulevard, with hostility.

Putting a stop to the free ride over the Queensboro is pretty much the sine qua non for fixing this district’s traffic troubles and requires some degree of courage, so the answers to the road pricing question on the TA candidate survey are especially instructive. Candidate Deirdre Feerick, a lawyer who works for the City Council, ruled out bridge tolls and dodged the topic of congestion pricing. Feerick has the backing of Queens Democratic boss Joseph Crowley and former council member Walter McCaffrey of "Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free" fame.

James Van Bramer, a former reporter who now works for the Queens Public Library, acknowledged the effectiveness of congestion pricing but hedged by calling for "careful planning and mitigation" as a pre-condition, citing the belief that commuters from points east might drive to the district, park, then hop on a train or bus to complete their trips. Van Bramer has been endorsed by the New York League of Conservation Voters and has secured the Working Families Party ballot line in November.

The other candidate on the Democratic primary ballot next Tuesday, business lawyer Brent O’Leary, eschewed going on the record about congestion pricing, voicing support for a higher gas tax or VMT fees instead.

With two potential BRT routes identified by DOT running through the 26th, the question of how to prioritize surface transit is a big one here. While all three candidates said they support BRT, only Van Bramer mentioned the idea of giving buses exclusive space. "Creating bus lanes or giving buses the right of way makes a lot of sense," he observed in his survey response, though again he hedged, saying he’d like to see "a study of the impact it would have on traffic conditions."

Two other candidates, David Rosasco and Kwame Smalls, were kicked off the ballot after Feerick challenged the signatures on their petitions. Of the two, Rosasco is mounting a full-fledged write-in campaign. He didn’t fill out a candidate survey, but a source who lives in the district tells us that the self-described conservative Democrat is an earnest worker who has admirably refrained from pandering to the anti-bike crowd during his campaign.

For more transportation stances from Feerick, Van Bramer, and O’Leary — including one call for bike-only streets and one incorrect citation of the New York City speed limit — check their responses at the TA candidate survey.