Introducing “Vacca Watch”

When Streetsblog interviewed City Council Transportation Committee Chair James Vacca a year ago, he was fresh off a press appearance with AARP calling for complete streets legislation in Albany. The Ninth Avenue protected bike lane was the backdrop. During our conversation a few weeks later he came across as someone who took street safety seriously and kept an open mind about redesigning streets for the 21st century. It’s been mostly downhill for Vacca since then.

Image: CBS 2

New York City is in the midst of re-envisioning the way street space is allocated, and the results are impressive: fewer traffic deaths and injuries, better bus service, and more people choosing to ride bikes for transportation. A transportation chair committed to safe streets and better transit could do a great deal to help extend these benefits throughout the city.

But Vacca has used his position primarily to inflate the perception of resistance to change. While he’s helped move forward some good bills and he talks a good game about slowing down speeders, overall Vacca hasn’t walked the walk as transportation chair. His performance at yesterday’s hearing on the city’s public plaza program was the latest in a series of public statements and political theatrics that only serve to obstruct progress.

Vacca’s stock in trade is to try and have it both ways. He’ll repeat the windshield perspective argument against street redesigns without claiming it as his own. “There is a view among many that with the failure of congestion pricing, that there are other things being done to drive car owners crazy,” he said at yesterday’s hearing. “I don’t want people to feel that, but they do.”

Presumably, as chair of the transportation committee, Vacca pays a modicum of attention to PlaNYC 2030 and did a little research before his hearing on the plaza program. So he should know that the city’s goal of creating new public spaces in park-starved neighborhoods has been a part of the plan for four years now and has nothing to do with the demise of congestion pricing. He should know that the taxi GPS data collected before and after the midtown plaza projects took effect — an incredibly robust dataset generated by millions of trips — shows that Midtown traffic is flowing better today than it was under the old configuration.

If you “don’t want people to feel that” improvements for pedestrians are “being done to drive car owners crazy,” then why repeat it at your City Council hearing with the cameras rolling? Any media-savvy NYC pol knows the only part that gets picked up by knuckleheads like Marcia Kramer and broadcast to millions is the part about driving car owners crazy.

This has been Vacca’s M.O. for a while now.

At last December’s bike policy hearing, he opened the proceedings by declaring: “Too many people are starting to get the impression that bike policy is about getting them to give up their cars.” The problem, for Vacca, is always the impressions of other people — but only certain perspectives seem to catch his notice. In an op-ed in City Hall News last summer, Vacca wrote that the Prospect Park West bike lane had been installed “over the objections of local residents and elected officials” when in fact the project had the backing of the local community board and council member. It was just Vacca’s pal Marty Markowitz who objected, and a former high-ranking commissioner or two (and a sitting U.S. senator).

There are real problems on New York City streets, and they’re not hard to spot. Motorists run over and kill pedestrians who have the right of way with terrifying frequency, and seldom get so much as a summons from police. Where’s the Vacca hearing on NYPD’s woefully shoddy crash investigations?

Pedestrians are getting killed on streets like Atlantic Avenue and Hylan Boulevard at stunning rates, and the death toll is entirely preventable. Where’s the Vacca hearing on how to expand the safety gains on streets like Ninth Avenue and Allen Street, where injury rates have plummeted, as quickly as possible?

Bus riders are flocking to new Select Bus Service while service cuts keep them away from transit elsewhere. Shouldn’t Vacca investigate how to make service better for all of NYC’s 2.2 million daily bus riders and turn around flagging ridership?

Vacca has shown that he can bring the heat for a good cause — witness his performance during the first round of hearings on the “Saving Lives Though Better Information Bill” — but NYC needs more from him right now. Residents of other cities are fortunate to have legislators like Tommy Wells and Tim Burgess who are well-versed in transportation policy and unafraid of taking political risks to promote good ideas. New Yorkers need the same from their transportation committee chair. We need someone who will actually lead.

Back when NYC DOT was the big limiting factor restraining the city from modernizing its surface transportation system, Streetsblog ran a regular series called “Weinshall Watch” — keeping tabs on then-DOT Commissioner Iris Weinshall. Today it’s the City Council that’s become a huge drag on transportation improvements and safety innovations. James Vacca can keep on weighing down progress, or he can help make New York a safer, more livable city.

It’s time for “Vacca Watch.”