Last Thursday, as the legislative session in Albany stumbled to a close, the august State Senate finally got around to considering Tom Prendergast as the next MTA CEO and Chair. Eventually, he sailed through the confirmation hearing, but not before a bunch of state senators had the chance to grab the microphone. None were as jaw-droppingly amazing as Senator Andrew Lanza, the Staten Island representative who has made Select Bus Service and its flashing blue lights his Moby Dick.
For ten minutes on Thursday, Lanza railed about transit options on Staten Island, and an eagle-eyed reader found the uncut video on YouTube. You can fast forward to the 1:26 mark if you’d like to watch the Senator in all his glory. The sound quality, with someone coughing in the background, isn’t all that great, and the first five minutes are all about Verrazano Bridge tolls. He really gets rolling at the 1:31:30 mark when buses take center stage. When he’s done — five minutes later after defending car lanes, worrying about desensitizing Staten Islanders to flashing blue lights, and showing little sympathy or understanding for the SBS fare payment process — he allows Prendergast a whopping 30 seconds to respond before interrupting him. The hearing isn’t about the qualifications of the person nominated to the MTA Chair spot; it’s about giving Senators a chance to complain.
As an exercise in something — pain, perhaps — I transcribed Lanza’s five-minute bus rant and offer it to you here with my own commentary. It’s a thing to read as, on the one hand, he complains that Staten Island has few transit options while, on the other, he spends the entire time slamming bus improvements. It’s hard to see how he can have it both ways, but that’s the beauty of Albany. We keep voting for these guys, and they keep failing to understand the way transit should. Let’s dive in. The indented text are Lanza’s words as I could catch them from the video.
The select bus service on SI. So we don’t have many routes to begin with. The vast majority of the population of Staten Island doesn’t really have access to public transit on Staten Island to begin with. So this is a corridor where we did have local service, and there’s also express service into Manhattan. So one day the people of Staten Island woke up…and we found that 50 of the 70 stops were going to eliminated to have … express service. I’m all for augmenting local service with express service where it makes sense…but this was for a savings of seven minutes…
The city came in and painted. We had so few lanes for traffic…so few roads for the number of cars. So in order to facilitate this new service, we took one lane out of service, we painted it red (by the way a year later, the quality of the painted started chipping and fading). So we told people who need to be in cars because they don’t have service that a third of the road space on the major roads is not available. By the way, the buses are often in the second lane. It’s not the driver’s fault; people are making turns in front of them. So cars cannot travel in those lanes and yet buses are still traveling in those other lanes anyway.
We spent millions of dollars painting the roads to save some people seven minutes. We don’t talk about the thousands of people in their cars who know how 10, 20, 30 minutes added to their shuffle because now they’re at choke points because where there was once a lane for them it is no longer there….It’s just a parking lot now and it’s because there’s a red lane. There’s hardly ever a bus there. Hardly ever. I’d like to revisit it that with you…
You can’t just talk to the people on the bus. You can find that one person who now has an express stop in front of their house who now saves seven minutes, they’re going to like it. Old people who have lost access because they’re too far from any stop, they’re not going to like it…For the people stuck in cars, it’s really creating a horrific situation.
In this section, Lanza creates a new reality for the people of Staten Island. It’s true that the MTA took a series of S79 bus stops along Hylan Boulevard and eliminated them. The new S79 SBS routes stop every half mile and connect Staten Islanders to the R train in Brooklyn. Bus the S78 still runs local. Bus servie has been augmented. Some riders can take the faster buses to improve their commutes, and many of those can give up their cars. Others — the aged and infirm — still have local service. Lanza simply overlooks that because the cars have lost some space.
Meanwhile, Lanza smirks at the improvement. He finds seven minutes of average travel time barely worth it because in his worldview, without the studies to back it up, everyone else is sitting in mind-numbing traffic. Furthermore, the buses can’t move faster because cars are turning into the bus lane. Yet, Lanza says they can’t use a third of the road. That’s some logic.
After this rant, he shifts to the issue of, as he puts it, “blue flashing strobe lights,” and his voice grows higher and higher:
It’s the law that blue lights…we hand out thousands of summonses to young people who soup up their cars with blue flashing lights. Those are reserved, as you know, by law to emergency vehicles. I happen to think it’s a great law. People are conditioned when they even sense a flashing blue light that you got to get out of the way, and that’s how we save lives…So it’s not only a law but it’s a good law, and I believe that by having flashing blue lights on buses, we are desensitizing people to the notion that this is an emergency vehicle.
I’ve heard from so many people who have said initially they got out of the way, and I don’t want a generation of drivers and pedestrians to now believe that they’re going to see a blue flashing light and not get out of the way. So finally we walk away from that policy, and I must say that I was a little disappointed that you claimed the people of Manhattan liked them.
[Recently,] I was approached by the people in the MTA to support purple lights. You know, I think it’s ridiculous. I asked where or not they’re going to be darker or light purple. It’s kind of ridiculous…it’s public safety policy that’s worked for so long in this state. If you see flashing blue lights…lights that are close to blue, you get out of the way. Do we really need flashing purple lights on buses now?
At this point, Lanza rested and allowed Prendergast a few sentences. “In other boroughs where we used them customers were able to differentiate an SBS bus vs a regular bus. I am looking to some other means of doing it but a flashing light is one they can see from a long distance away.”
After this explanation, Lanza continued, citing his own experiences riding an express bus to NYU years and years ago. “On that part, people are smarter than you give them credit for,” he said. “If I saw a bus that had an X on it, they can figure it out. People can figure it out. Done. Listen. I knew a bus that came with an X on it, that [it cost more]. People can figure it out. Period.”
What he failed to understand here, as Prendergast pointed out, is that the SBS buses require, in other boroughs, a different type of payment. In Staten Island, this is less of an issue, but elsewhere, SBS riders need to pre-pay. Without the flashing blue lights, many scramble to receive their proof of payment receipts as they cannot identify the bus until it is a block away. This is a key element of a successful bus rapid transit network, and if New York can’t even get that right, what will SBS bring?
In the end, this is a mess. Staten Island has developed such a car-dependent mentality that it cannot live with improved bus service for many people who need it the most, and such a development comes after the MTA seemingly failed to read the state’s motor vehicles law before adding flashing blue lights to their buses. Right now, the bill to allow for purple lights instead is stuck in committee where it will languish all summer, but it clearly has no ally in Senator Lanza. He represents the people of New York but not the transit network that allows for better travel. He wants more transit for Staten Island until it actually arrives, and then he doesn’t want it at all. That’s Albany for you.