Fall 2002, p.3

Publisher's Letter: There's Trouble in River City

It's 8:50 am on a damp Thursday in September, and I'm lying flat on my back in the intersection of 7th Avenue and 42nd Streets, looking at the pearl gray sky. Wow, it seems that steel plate wasn't just slippery; it was frictionless. My helmet makes a comfortable pillow, my bike is securely within arms reach and it feels good not to move. Suddenly, a curious hard hat leans over and bellows, "Hey buddy! Are you dead?" A straight line that deserves a witty response. But all of a sudden my shoulder hurts, and the novelty of lying in 42nd Street during rush hour wears off.

A month later, my hand is still broken, shoulder not quite right and the same illegal steel plates are still there. City regulations require that all steel plates used to cover street cuts be coated with a non-skid surface, and that the plates be flush with each other and securely affixed to the street. But with 55,000 intersections and 6,400 miles of streets to monitor, the Department of Transportation doesn't have enough street inspectors to track street contractors and enforce safety rules.

But it's not me I'm worried about. It's New York City. Not only is the City flat-broke-on its back, it's being run over by a steam roller. The City can only come up with $10 billion of the $15 billion it spends on core services like police, fire, sanitation, parks and transportation. Old time New Yorkers remember the last time the City was broke. The physical city fell apart. Streets were rarely repaved or cleaned, garbage wasn't picked-up, parks decayed and bridges-literally-started falling down. City spending cuts also result in more homeless people, deteriorating schools and jam-packed classrooms.

The budget crunch also does damage in other, less obvious ways. Ironically, this will keep the Department of Transportation from hiring street inspectors who can raise money by issuing fines and save the City many million in legal settlements. The freeze will also keep the DOT from hiring talented new bicycle and pedestrian planners, which will slow spending on federally-funded bike/ped projects.

But there are some silver linings to these budget clouds. Mayor Bloomberg proposes closing some of the budget gap by tolling East River bridges, which can raise $1 billion and sharply reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. And, according to at least two polls, tolls on the East River bridges are something that New Yorkers strongly support as the best way to close the budget gap. Legal research commissioned by T.A. and the Straphangers Campaign found that the City Council has the authority to toll the bridges-a political shocker in a city where almost everything must be approved by the state legislature.

Tolling the bridges has been a dream of transportation reformers for decades. The free bridges cost city tax payers $65 million a year to maintain and hundreds of millions more in annual rebuilding costs. Additionally, keeping them "free" causes traffic jams as motorists divert from the tolls at the Midtown Tunnel to the Queensboro Bridge and from the Battery Tunnel to the Brooklyn. Free East River bridges are a sacred entitlement of the motoring classes and their elected representatives in Queens and Brooklyn. But the Mayor wants them badly and even ardent tolling foes in City Council fear the political consequences of huge cuts in city services. The time is right for tolls, and they will be in place by 2005.

There is big, big budget trouble ahead. But the Mayor's support for tolls, and the Department of Transportation's willingness to take risks on initiatives like "Thru Streets" in Midtown suggest there are also big opportunities. The Mayor seems to agree. He has convinced the MTA to take over the City's franchise bus fleet, which serves Queens and Brooklyn (savings $170 million a year). Along with imposing tolls, the City should charge much more for metered parking. It is astounding that it costs only $1 per hour to store a car on NYC streets-which is among the most valuable real estate in the world. Raising parking fees, like bridge tolls, would be controversial. But, it would raise hundreds of millions and reduce traffic.

The City's budget may be as busted as my hand, but this could be the perfect time to start fixing its irrational transportation system. Watch out for those plates.

John Kaehny,
Executive Director


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