The Blame Game: City Pols Didn’t Back Bill Allowing NYC to Control its Own Speed Limits, State Lawmakers Say 

Welcome to the Albany blame game.
Welcome to the Albany blame game.

The legislative session in Albany just ended, but the finger pointing has only gotten started.

State lawmakers are blaming their colleagues in the five boroughs for failing to support Sammy’s Law — a bill that would have allowed New York City to set its own speed limits below 25 miles per hour, and which advocates, pols, and even the mayor had long sought amid one of the deadliest years for traffic violence since the start of Vision Zero.

Like the state’s reauthorization and expansion of the city’s school-zone speed camera program, Sammy’s Law required what’s called a “home rule” message from the 51-member City Council.

But to the confusion and surprise of pols upstate (and some downstate), the Council did not give it.

“We didn’t get the home rule for the council, which knee-capped our ability to move the legislation,” said State Sen. Brad Holyman (D-Upper West Side), who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber. “I am informed they caucused it, as they do, and there just wasn’t the support.”

News of its failure in the East Wing of City Hall came as a shock to some pols, because last year, the Council voted 42-to-6 to send a home rule message in support of “Sammy’s Law” — named after 12-year-old Sammy Cohen Eckstein who was killed by a reckless driver in Brooklyn in 2013. The state Senate then overwhelmingly passed the legislation, but it died in the Assembly, which failed to hold a vote before gaveling out the session.

That was bad enough for Sammy’s mother, Amy Cohen, a co-founder of Families for Safe Streets. This year’s failure was even worse.

“This isn’t just personal for me. Sammy’s Law will save lives,” said Cohen. “The Council took a very strong step for Vision Zero in advancing the home rule message for 24/7 speed cameras. But Families for Safe Streets and the NYS Safe Streets Coalition are very disappointed that they didn’t do the same for Sammy’s Law [this year]. It pains Families for Safe Streets members to relive the most painful days of our lives as we seek policy changes, but we are ready to do this all over again next year to pass Sammy’s Law.”

Several state lawmakers claim the bill would have cleared the Assembly this time around had it made it there — a promise made by upstate Assembly Member William Magnarelli, who chairs the Transportation Committee and has historically been seen as an impediment to street safety.

“The transportation committee chair in the Assembly had assured me that the bill would be reported [voted on] as soon as he had the required home rule message,” said Assembly Member Dick Gottfried, who sponsored the bill in the lower chamber.

Magnarelli did not respond to a request for comment, but told Streetsblog last month that he was willing to pass bills as long as home rule requests came in from local municipalities.

“We don’t pass local laws without being asked to do so. They have to deliver a home rule [request] for us to vote on it,” Magnarelli said at the time, then speaking about the speed camera legislation, which got its home rule message from the Council, but only after the bill was gutted of several provisions that would rein in reckless drivers (including some members of the Council itself).

Gottfried is adamant about the fact that Council Speaker Adrienne Adams’s office was informed that this time the bill would make it out of Assembly, and she and her colleagues still opposed it.

“I had made it very clear to her that we had that promise from Magnarelli. At that point I had no inkling that there would be opposition to approving the home rule message,” he said.

Gottfried says the about-face this year to the bill is somewhat obvious, given the massive turn over in the Council, with term limits leading to 35 new faces.

“A majority of the Council are new members,” said Gottfried. “Members of the Council are, by and large, people who drive cars and I’ve seen in news reports that a number of them have gotten tickets as a result of speed cameras. An element of self-interest. It’s very frustrating to me that the bill died this year again, and especially even though the legislature prepared to pass it. Lives are at stake.”

But other local pols said they felt blindsided and confused as to opposition towards a life-saving bill from their own colleagues.

“I expected them to pass it, we should control our speed limits on our streets,” said Queens Council Member Bob Holden. “I’ve had nine pedestrian deaths in my one precinct in just over two years — most of the pedestrians struck are by people who are careless and speeding.”

But Adams’s office is throwing the blame back at state lawmakers, saying the Council only offered home rule messages on bills that were certain of passing.

“We advanced home rule messages with strong chances of passing both houses of the state legislature,” said a Council spokesperson, adding that there was “no indication” that last year’s dynamic — with the bill dying in the Assembly — would be any different this year.

“The Council focused its attention where two-house agreements existed,” the spokesperson said, claiming that the Assembly leadership gave a list of the home rule messages it wanted from the city, and Sammy’s Law was not one of them.

A different Council source also quibbled with Gottfried’s read of the situation, claiming he’s just a rank-and-file member and, as such, clueless as to what was actually happening behind the scenes with leadership, and speaker-to-speaker conversations. (Gottfried is not exactly a newbie; he’s been in the Assembly since 1971.)

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did Transportation Committee Chair Selvena Brooks-Powers nor did Shaun Abreu, the chairman of the Council Committee on State and Federal Legislation.