Transportation Mainly a Pocketbook Issue at First Mayoral Debate

Transportation didn’t get much airtime during last night’s debate between Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota, but the candidates did trade a few jabs. Over the course of the debate, which aired on WABC, the pair fielded a handful of questions on MTA fares, traffic enforcement, waste management, and development — with Lhota at one point deriding Robert Moses.

All in all, these exchanges were a pretty sad commentary on the state of the mass-audience transportation policy debate. To hear the candidates, transportation is mainly a pocketbook issue, not a matter of making streets safer or developing a more efficient system to get around the city.

Here were the highlights:

  • Responding to the first question of the night, Lhota said that rather than cracking down on motorcycle gangs — he seemed to confuse motorcycles with bicycles during this exchange — de Blasio would direct NYPD to have coffee with them. De Blasio rebutted that police should target the groups “on the spot,” and that his NYPD would have no tolerance for those who would harm drivers or impede auto traffic. “Anyone who tries to slow down traffic on a highway, or create any situation that might endanger motorists, those folks are going to end up in jail,” de Blasio said. No one brought up the fact that no charges were filed against the drivers who killed three kids last week, or that traffic crashes are the leading injury-related cause of child deaths in NYC.
  • Lhota praised the Bloomberg administration for subsidies that helped Fresh Direct move to the Bronx. De Blasio said that corporate subsidies are “not the way forward.”
  • Responding to a viewer question about MTA fare hikes, Lhota correctly noted that the agency’s financial problems are caused by state lawmakers. “The state of New York keeps raiding MTA funds,” said Lhota. “There was a time when New York State was number one in their subsidies to mass transit. Now they’re dead last of all the states in this country that actually have mass transit.” Lhota said Albany compelled fare and toll hikes in 2009 (true in a sense, but omits the primary causes — economic collapse, rising MTA debt, and other fixed costs — and Albany’s failure to enact bridge tolls), and that he “did everything [he] could to keep costs down.” He also said he helped keep Verrazano-Narrows bridge tolls at $6 for Staten Island motorists. Lhota again pledged to “get more money for the MTA.” Other than blaming Lhota for fare and toll hikes, de Blasio had nothing to say. “I think he should just own his history and acknowledge it,” de Blasio said, before launching into a non sequitur about corporate tax breaks.
  • Another viewer asked whether the candidates supported the 91st Street waste transfer station, part of the city’s plan to spread the burden of sanitation truck traffic more equitably. De Blasio said he’s in favor of a “five borough approach to dealing with our sanitation reality,” and that he would take “very, very seriously” concerns over truck emissions, truck traffic, and resulting dangers to kids. Lhota opposes the station, and said Manhattan should continue to send its trash to New Jersey.
  • To an open-ended question about their “dream” for New York City, Lhota said he wants to create a Battery Park City on the East River, with residential and commercial development, basically the same as Bloomberg’s “Seaport City” concept. “We’re recognizing our waterfront once again once Robert Moses decided to make it disappear,” he said.
  • It was nothing new, but Lhota reiterated his intent to keep Ray Kelly as police commissioner, while de Blasio said he would not.

Last night’s debate was the first of three. The second one is scheduled for next Tuesday, October 22.