Placard Abuse, Construction Dysfunction, and Hit-and-Runs May End Up in the Crosshairs of a Ritchie Torres Investigation

Torres chairs the City Council's new investigative committee, and he's bristling with ideas to put it to good use.

Speaker Corey Johnson (left with Council Member Ritchie Torres) has unveiled his speed camera bill. Photo: John McCartin for NYC Council
Speaker Corey Johnson (left with Council Member Ritchie Torres) has unveiled his speed camera bill. Photo: John McCartin for NYC Council

This session, the City Council is ramping up a new oversight and investigations committee, chaired by Council Member Ritchie Torres of the Bronx. Torres promises to root out inefficiency and “complacency” throughout city bureaucracy, and he got off to a blazing start last week with a high profile hearing on the heating problems plaguing the New York City Housing Authority.

Streetsblog contacted Torres to see which streets and transit issues are on his agenda. Bureaucratic inefficiency, incompetence, and apathy manifest in many forms in the transportation sphere, from NYPD’s poor record on crash investigations to construction waste at the MTA and the Department of Design and Construction.

These problems haven’t escaped Torres’s attention (he said DDC “might as well stand for Dysfunctional Design and Construction”), and in our discussion he indicated that many of them may be targets for his committee.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How are these investigative hearings going to be different from the oversight hearings the City Council already holds? What can this committee accomplish that’s different?

We’re intent on conducting longer, deeper investigations that dig much deeper, to an extent we’ve never seen before and far beyond the conventional committee structure. And not only are we requesting information, but in some cases we’re demanding access to internal databases under the threat of subpoena.

Our goal is to learn about the inner workings of historically secretive agencies and then share the knowledge that we gain with the general public. All of it is oriented toward systemic change — our goal is not to hold a hearing and then move on, but to keep a sustained focus on the inner workings of agencies like the DDC, the New York City Housing Authority, and DOT.

If you conduct oversight without investigations, you’re scratching the surface, you’re reacting to the media cycle — none of which is conducive to systemic change. The oversight hearing is not the endpoint, it’s part of the journey, so to speak.

[Last week], it brought to light the management failures plaguing the New York City Housing Authority. We’re going to have a series of follow-ups. We’re going to continue to access NYCHA’s databases [and] ask for more information. I think we have a clear sense of what’s wrong at the New York City Housing Authority, and we’re going to demand a plan of action for correcting those failures. We’re going to keep a sustained focus until the benchmarks and the goals are fulfilled.

The council [previously had] an oversight and investigations division at one point, dating back to 1989 or 1990, but over time we allowed our investigative and oversight abilities to atrophy. Oversight, in and of itself, will only bring you so far without investigation. Investigation is what allows you to dig deep and get to the root cause of a problem, and propose systemic solutions. Without investigations, we’re destined to scratch the surface.

What transit and transportation-related issues have caught your attention?

We’re at the beginning of the process so I have not decided what all my investigative priorities are going to be, and I have to do it in partnership with committee chairs, and certainly in partnership with the speaker, who sets the strategic vision for the council.

There was an article in City Limits that caught my attention that said, “Despite New York City’s Vision Zero Progress, Most Hit-and-Run Drivers Avoid Arrest.” So that’s something I would be [interested in]: Whether the NYPD is effectively holding hit-and-run drivers accountable, whether there’s a systemic failure. Obviously we’re not going to have the kind of culture shift that Vision Zero requires if we’re allowing hit-and-run drivers to act with impunity.

I know you’ve mentioned abuse of parking placards as one issue your committee might cover. Why?

It’s an issue about which I receive a never-ending stream of complaints, particularly on Twitter. I see it as a contributing factor in congestion in the city, and, actually, it was specifically referenced as a contributing factor in the governor’s study. If you have people who are parking illegally everywhere with illegal placards, that would seem to be problematic.

It seems like a good fit since it sits at the intersection of both government inefficiency and corruption.

The hope is that we’re killing two birds with one stone with every investigation that we’re conducting, that we’re not only achieving a practical goal but that we’re generally promoting good governance. I want to caution you — our goal is not to investigate corruption, that’s the purview of the Department of Investigations and law enforcement agencies. Our goal is to make government more accountable, more efficient, more transparent, but the actual investigation of corruption is the purview of DOI. If we uncover corruption, then we have to refer to the proper authorities.

Do you have a vision for the future of government-issued parking placards?

I don’t. It’s not a topic about which I have thought about deeply — I’d be lying if I said I did. But it’s an issue that’s on my radar because of the sheer bombardment of complaints that I’ve gotten. I’m not a driver, I take public transit.

From what I understand, your committee has oversight over the MTA. How do you intend to use that authority?

A case could be made that if the city is going to invest capital or operating funds in the MTA, you ought to investigate how those dollars would be spent, so I do see a role for oversight and investigations in ensuring accountability around how city dollars are spent. When reading the series of exposés written by the Times, you cannot help but conclude that there’s something almost terminally dysfunctional about the MTA. I mean, the construction costs, the capital costs, are far and above the international average among transit system, and not by a multiple of two but by a multiple of four or five.

The MTA isn’t the only agency struggling to meet its capital commitments on-budget and on-time. Across the city, capital projects overseen by the Department of Design and Construction suffer cost overruns and project delays. That has a very real impact on people’s lives — for street redesign projects, for example, it means the greenway and street safety project you helped fund north of Starlight Park won’t even break ground until next year, and won’t complete until 2020 or later. Is that on your committee’s radar?

There is a disconnect between the urgent need for street redesigns, which I see as a matter of life and death, and the complacency of DDC. DDC might as well stand for Dysfunctional Design and Construction.

Why do you say “complacency”?

All bureaucracy is complacent but I see no evidence of improvement in DDC’s approach to design, construction, and procurement. You know, according to a study by the Center for an Urban Future, it costs DDC more per square foot to construct a library than it would cost the private sector construct a speculative office building, a hotel, a university, or a hospital.

Would you support DOT taking over DDC’s responsibilities for street reconstruction?

Street redesigns are a matter of life and death, so one would think that would generate a sense of urgency. DOT is far more effective at street redesigns — far more efficient, far more effective than DDC. I agree with that wholeheartedly. If we know street redesigns are a matter of life and death, why not transfer them to DOT, who will do them more efficiently?

How have your office’s interactions been with DDC on a local level?

Frustrating. Whether it’s Bronx River Arts Center, whether it’s the Belmont Library, DDC by far has been the most frustrating [agency] when it comes to capital projects. You know how it’s been said of Oprah Winfrey, that anything she touches turns into gold? DDC has the reverse Oprah effect, everything it touches turns into a nightmare.

What’s frustrating? Is it the lack of communication?

It’s the speed, nothing ever gets done. I see no improvement — even Parks has improved over time, NYCHA has improved over time. A number of agencies — they’re not great, but have actually improved their design procurement. DDC seems to be an exception to the rule. I think Parks is completing projects more efficiently than it did under the Bloomberg administration. The same is true of NYCHA — however imperfect their processes. I’m aware of no improvement in the process at DDC. It seems as bad as it’s ever been. It could be a lack of effective leadership, chronic understaffing, [or] just the inherent complications of agency coordination. Their projects are substantially more complicated.