Support for Congestion Pricing, Not Harlem River Tolls, at SD 31 Debate

The four Democrats running to replace Eric Schneiderman in the State Senate - - met last night to debate transportation policy. They were joined by Green Ann Roos, not pictured.
The four Democrats running to replace Eric Schneiderman in the State Senate - Miosotis Muñoz, Mark Levine, Anna Lewis, and Adriano Espaillat - met last night to debate transportation policy. They were joined by Green Ann Roos, not pictured.

Five candidates vying to become Upper Manhattan’s next state senator met in the 168th Street Armory last night to make their case to the car-free voters of Riverdale, Inwood, Washington Heights, West Harlem, and the Upper West Side. At a debate sponsored by Transportation Alternatives and WE ACT for Environmental Justice, important differences emerged over how best to solve the MTA’s budget crisis and make streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists.

Democrats Adriano Espaillat, Miosotis Muñoz, Mark Levine, and Anna Lewis were joined last night by Green Party candidate Ann Roos. Whoever wins, the victor’s first term will be dominated by the ongoing budget crisis afflicting the state of New York, which affects transit quite directly. State legislators made the MTA’s funding crisis even worse last December by stealing more than $100 million in dedicated transit taxes to plug gaps in the general fund. The debate began with a revealing discussion of how each candidate would secure adequate funding for transit given the current fiscal climate.

Assembly Member Espaillat, considered the front-runner due to an advantage in name recognition, strong fund-raising and prominent endorsements, began with a warning: “It would be irresponsible of me to say there’s not a deficit that’s going to hit across the board,” he said. Without new revenue, the legislature will be forced to make impossible choices between priorities like education, health care, and transportation.

Though he didn’t make a specific revenue proposal during the debate, afterwards Espaillat told me that “congestion pricing is certainly something that we must bring back to the table.” He argued against cobbling together a piecemeal funding scheme for transit, saying that “the main engine of economic development in our community” needs a “solid revenue stream.” Even so, he maintained his opposition to any tolls over the Harlem River bridges, which carry torrents of toll-shopping drivers through the district.

Mark Levine, considered to be a close second to Espaillat, also argued that congestion pricing would be the best solution. “I also support, short of that, a plan to toll the East River bridges,” he explained. Harlem River bridge tolls were conspicuously absent, however, a stance that he earlier explained to Streetsblog by characterizing those bridges as essentially local streets.

The other two Democrats, Muñoz and Lewis, each suggested reinstating the commuter tax to raise revenue.

While each candidate disregarded moderator instructions to offer transit solutions aside from the standard calls to better manage the MTA, Lewis was particularly vociferous in her denouncements of the authority. “I don’t believe it’s because they’re underfunded,” she argued in response to Espaillat and Levine. “What they’ve done is, for the most part, cooked their books. It’s all a lie.”

Roos rejected any attempt to balance the budget that would affect working- or middle-class New Yorkers — which, in her view, even encompassed road-pricing solutions that would benefit lower-income residents. “I am opposed to fare hikes,” she said. “I am opposed to service cuts. I am opposed to borrowing. I am opposed to congestion pricing. I am opposed to tolls on the East River Bridges. I am opposed to a commuter tax.” What isn’t Roos opposed to? A more progressive income tax and a stock transfer tax, she said, could fund transit and more.

In contrast to some other districts, none of the candidates here dwelled on the most recent round of service cuts. Instead, they emphasized the need for more capital improvements. With tiles falling from station ceilings and broken elevators making it difficult to reach the deeply-buried stations uptown, poor maintenance seemed to be a higher priority than lost bus lines.

After station repairs, though, each had a different priority for improving local transit. Levine would restore lost bus services, while Lewis would work on accessibility for the disabled. Espaillat suggested adding two new Select Bus Service routes to the district — which includes the Fordham Road SBS — one along 181st Street into the Bronx and one connecting to downtown.

When it came to improving street safety, each candidate promised to support the construction of more protected bike lanes, to the extent that they could as a state representative. Levine, who began his remarks by noting that he is a T.A. member and that his whole family bikes, praised the bike lanes on Ninth Avenue and Broadway, saying they’ve “proved the fears of local businesspeople to be unfounded. I think this is ultimately economic development.”

Other suggestions varied widely, however. Lewis put the burden of safety on the victims, pushing helmet laws for cyclists and suggesting that when walking down poorly lit streets, “perhaps we need to ask ourselves to wear protective outerwear to make it easier to see people.” The latter suggestion drew some muffled laughter from the audience.

Levine laid out a laundry list of improvements, including narrowing lanes, expanding medians, and installing countdown clocks at every pedestrian crossing. “Enforcement of the current laws is unacceptably weak,” he said, arguing that police in Upper Manhattan were even less attentive to traffic safety than in the rest of the borough. Overall, he suggested, “I don’t think that motor vehicles should have a monopoly on our streets.”

Muñoz suggested increasing penalties on unsafe drivers. “You’re in a vehicle, you’re in a weapon,” she said.

Espaillat began by calling for lower speed limits, “because it is often speed that leads to these very tragic accidents.” He spent the bulk of his time, though, proposing a comprehensive traffic study of the area. The study would focus on the prevalence of two-way north-south avenues, he suggested, saying that the pedestrian crashes he heard about usually involved cars turning off of those avenues. The DOT’s recently-released pedestrian safety study backs up Espaillat’s intuition, finding that almost half of all pedestrian fatalities in the borough occur on major two-way streets.

In a lightning round of questions at the end of the debate, each candidate promised to support a residential parking permit program and bike/ped access on the state-run Henry Hudson Bridge.

Voters will choose between the four Democrats soon: Election Day is less than a week away, on Tuesday, September 14.