Home MTA Politics Lhota, a former MTA head, tries a run for mayor

Lhota, a former MTA head, tries a run for mayor

by Benjamin Kabak

Within the cozy confines of New York politics, few positions are as potentially toxic as MTA CEO and Chairman. It is, essentially, that person’s duty to deliver bad news to New Yorkers who pay only casual attention to the inner workings of the agency’s politics and economics. Straphangers remember the service diversions and fare hikes; they recall the heat and the rats. They don’t remember the times the subways work as advertised, and they certainly don’t remember fondly those who oversee the comings and goings of the MTA.

With this in mind, it was always a surprise to me that Joe Lhota opted to use the MTA as a springboard to a run for City Hall. A former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani, Lhota served as the MTA for around a year, and as far as operations go, he was one of the better leaders in recent years. He cut costs; he streamlined some operations; and, as we know, he was at the helm when Sandy hit. Though he generally implemented plans put in motion well before his tenure began, he received accolades for getting the system up and running so quickly. Pay no attention to the March fare hikes or the current 14-month shutdown of the R train’s Montague Tubes. Those are but collateral damage.

As head of the MTA, Lhota seemed to recognize that the agency needed a steadier stream of funding sources. He fought zealously in Albany for every single dollars, and he toed a hard net-zero line in his infrequent discussions with John Samuelsen, president of the TWU. As a mayoral candidate, though, Lhota has tried to put aside everything he preached and practiced at the MTA. His ideas have included a vague plan to send the R to Staten Island and a misguided park-and-ride proposal. He decided to run for mayor because of his success at the MTA, but on the campaign trail, he’d seemingly rather voters forget about that year.

In today’s Times, Matt Flegenheimer explores those contradictions. As Flegenheimer notes, Lhota “seldom trumpets his tenure managing the authority,” referring instead to his time with Giuliani and his years in business with Madison Square Garden and on Wall St. The Times runs down Lhota’s record:

Beyond the storm, Mr. Lhota’s record at the helm of the nation’s largest subway system was complicated, marked by nimble political calculations and, occasionally, unforced errors. He slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in costs from the authority’s budget and restored many services of the agency for the first time since deep cuts in 2010. He angered workers with whom he had once hoped to reach a contract agreement.

He proposed possible fare increase packages so unappealing — by design, some suspected — that the public’s disdain for the final product, a compromise measure, appeared tempered. He reinstated the popular “Poetry in Motion” program that published verses in subway cars, but his abbreviated stay left several longer-term projects, like a plan to replace the MetroCard, unfinished on his watch.

He apologized for remarks about a state senator (“he does nothing”), Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (who, “like an idiot” made misguided service predictions after Hurricane Sandy, he said) and a member of his own board, whom he assailed as a liar and challenged to “be a man” during an uncomfortably heated public meeting about the authority’s schedule. And he remained zealously fixed on possible system disruptions — a man, some suggested, who so thrived in a crisis that at times he seemed to seek one out — investigating subway accidents or delays that might have been handled several levels below him.

But the biggest problem of all, of course, is the fare hike. Although MTA budgetary policies were in place long before Lhota took over, he continued the practice of levying a fare hike very two years. He proposed a steep initial increase to make the preferred compromise seem better than it was, and he set the MTA on a course to continue fare hikes in 2015, 2017 and every two years for the foreseeable future. It’s tough to run as the former MTA chair; it’s tougher still to run as the MTA chair who continued to raise fares.

This view may not be particularly fair to Lhota. He made the best of a tough situation, and had he continued in as head of the MTA, I’m sure we’d be assessing his tenure in a positive light right now. But he’s running for the chief executive spot of the city. He’d have less control over transit policy but hasn’t shown a willingness to port over the lessons learned from the MTA to his mayoral candidacy. That’s the prism through which Lhota the candidate is viewed, and the current image isn’t a particularly flattering one.

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38 comments

Walt Gekko August 28, 2013 - 12:06 am

With all the happenings of the Democratic primary race, it seems to have been forgotten that’s what that is, a primary. Whoever wins that very possibly has to face Lhota in November.

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Kevin Zeng August 28, 2013 - 12:07 am

Brown M train was discontinue because of the Serivce Cuts 2010. After the Montague Tunnel complete by October 2014 I would like to suggest you that bring back the Brown M train to Bay Parkway on the D train West End Line Station.
I have 3 reasons (list below) :
1. D, N, and R train are too crowded at Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center and 36th Street Station.
2. Waiting for the R train is too long for 20 minutes everyday at Prospect Avenue Station due to the lateness of this train.
3. The R train is too slow and too crowded.

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Walt Gekko August 28, 2013 - 5:10 am

Kevin:

A return of the Brown (M) train will not happen once Montauge reopens due to the simple fact the Orange (M) has become an extremely popular line. What could (and I think should) be done is this:

Rebuild the connection from the Nassau Street Line to the Manhattan Bridge in the Brooklyn-bound direction ONLY. What this would do is allow a Nassau Street Loop line that would begin and end at Bay Parkway or Coney Island (single terminal with the start/endpoint depending on operating needs and ridership demands) to operate via Montague to Manhattan stopping at Jay Street-Metrotech and Court Street in the Manhattan-bound direction ONLY stopping in Manhattan at Broad, Fulton and Chambers Street ONLY on the northbound track before going back over the bridge to Brooklyn. It would be a 4th Avenue/West End local mimicking the old (M) otherwise.

Other option would be to have a modified version of the “Brown R” operate between Essex Street and Bay Parkway as a 4th Avenue/West End local and also mimicking the old (M).

Those are probably your best options at this point.

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Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 10:25 am

Why wouldn’t sending the J or Z (probably Z) to Bay Parkway do the trick? I’m not saying I think the “brown” Bay Parkway-bound service is justifiable, but that seems as good as anything given the M extension to Bay Parkway was rush hour-only to begin with.

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BruceNY August 28, 2013 - 1:29 pm

I agree–a fairly simple solution vs. re-routing a very popular line (remember the K-train anyone?) or re-building the connection to the Manh. Br. Or maybe someday, once the Q train begins running up 2nd Avenue instead of to Astoria, they could revive the W-train for rush hour service, and have it continue past Whitehall where it used to terminate anc continue down 4th Avenue to supplement the R.

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Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 2:21 pm

But isn’t the point of having something like the M or J going to Bay Parkway to bring people to/from North Brooklyn and/or Ridgewood, even if it’s just a few people, while supplementing southern Brooklyn service?

You almost may as well just run more R Trains otherwise, because the R more or less is parallel to the J between Canal and Whitehall.

JMB August 28, 2013 - 7:06 pm

I’ll never understand why they destroyed the connection to the Manny B. Even if not in active use, it would seem wise to keep it for reroutes.

Chambers St on the J/Z is absymal but has so much potential as a downtown nexus. The station complex can handle the additional traffic (as opposed to Canal which is really a clusterfuck. The MTA should think about enlarging the platforms for the N because so many wait there on top those transferring between the lines).

Once Montague is back, a reinstated service connecting Nassau to Montague to serve as an additional 4th ave service could be useful. I don’t know how many trains 95th can turnaround, but there is always room for expansion into a two-island terminal there.Then let this new service connect to Manny B via the 6th ave tracks if possible and continue to Coney. It would service so many neighborhoods

Walt Gekko August 29, 2013 - 1:11 am

Rebuilding the connection to the Mannhattan Bridge from the Nassau Street line (even if it’s Brooklyn-bound ONLY) makes a LOT of sense. Maybe not now while Montague is shut down, but after Montauge re-opens. A Nassau Street loop line I would do as a 24/7 line since in the case of Broad and Fulton Streets, it would mean on weekends only needing to keep the northbound platforms of the Nassau Street line open (since such trains in Manhattan would ONLY stop on the northbound platform at Broad, Fulton and Chambers before going back to Brooklyn) and it would be a relatively cheaper line to operate because it would only have one terminal instead of two. That would make doing such a line worthwhile.

Duke August 28, 2013 - 9:43 pm

I believe it was mentioned when this idea was previously raised that there is an infrastructure problem. Namely, that East New York Yard is at capacity and therefore there is no place to store the extra rolling stock necessary to extend the J/Z. The capacity existed in Fresh Pond Yard to extend the M into south Brooklyn but that’s now being used to run the M down Queens Blvd instead.

So, extending the J/Z would require figuring out where to store the extra trains (center track on the West End line?). Furthermore, it would likely mean purchasing some new rolling stock to make those trains out of.

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Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 10:37 pm

Yeah, I thought of that, but those problems would seem to exist under any alternative except putting the M back the way it was, which seems pretty silly now.

Though, for the J/Z it might just be a matter of figuring out where to store 8-10 additional trainsets.

John Paul N. August 28, 2013 - 5:20 am

First of all, Lhota was not responsible for that cut, Walder, his predecessor, was. And given the demonstrated success of the current M, Lhota would never decide to revert it back. (Prendergast, for that matter as well.)

The old southern M portion had a lot of empty space, too much. A study of the R line, as was most recently done for the G line, would yield more productive results. Plus, if the MTA says loads for the R, N, or D are acceptable, they will not agree to increase service. I’m not saying I don’t believe you, but the MTA’s data leads to the opposite conclusion.

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Alex August 28, 2013 - 11:10 am

Loads are not the only thing that matter when discussing headways. Wait times on the R are atrocious. I don’t care if the train isn’t packed full, 8-10 minutes during rush hour is just not acceptable. But really, a simply answer that would not require any increase in overall service would be to run the D or N local instead of express along 4th Ave. Why do we need two express trains from 36th to Atlantic? It’s especially frustrating during off-peak times when you can literally watch 4 or 5 express trains zip by before finally getting an R. Yeah, it might slightly increase travel time for a few people, but overall it would serve more people more equitably.

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JMB August 28, 2013 - 7:10 pm

Agreed on all points Alex. There simply isn’t enough R service in south bk. Rush hour is frustrating but anything afterwards becomes nightmare level. Plus waiting forever for an R at 59th during offhours in my xp can seem a bit shady….there are some strange individuals that choose to call that station home. Waits at 86th street are getting ridiculous too. That skinny island platform is getting packed and with the montague shutdown, its gotten worse.

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BBnet3000 August 28, 2013 - 9:52 am

The D train is not too crowded.

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Phantom August 28, 2013 - 10:53 am

The R train is not too crowded either.

The brown M train to Bay Parkway was a ” luxury train ” where you could always get a seat precisely because hardly anyone rode it.

I work near the Seaport, and I loved that empty M private car, but the low ridership made it expendable.

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Alex August 28, 2013 - 11:11 am

Not too crowded, just too infrequent. See above.

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Phantom August 28, 2013 - 12:29 pm

I take the R train twice every work day, and often enough on weekends, and have done so for decades.

The wait times on the R are fine. The long, unusual waits are an urban legend at this point. There were major problems 20 years ago, but not now. The problem now is the tunnel closure, a pain, but a very manageable one. Which is why ridership on any one run of the fancy new ferry from Brooklyn is in the low double digits, as predicted.

Some people love to complain, and exaggerate. I guess it’s fun to play the victim, for some.

Alex August 28, 2013 - 12:51 pm

I take the R every day as well and have for years. I’m in no way “playing victim”, just saying that a 8-10 minute scheduled headway — which is exactly what it is — during the morning rush hour is not OK in a major world city. I will admit that it is at least regular when heading northbound. But southbound is another story. I frequently count 10, 12, 15 minute waits during the evening rush. Not every day, but more often than is acceptable. Ironically, the tunnel closure has improved that problem. Still, to write off the infrequency of the R train as “urban legand” is a little silly considering the headways are documented right there on the MTA site.

Berk32 August 28, 2013 - 2:45 pm

If the trains aren’t crowded – then they are running at the proper frequency

Phantom August 28, 2013 - 4:17 pm

Alex

Meet me in Manhattan or Brooklyn sometime in the day in the next few weeks with a stopwatch and we’ll measure how long it takes for the northbound or southbound trains to arrive.

The R train runs fine. And I can complain as much as the next guy, except that I try to have something to complain about before I do it.

A 10 minute headway is very, very good.

The only bad thing about the R is structural -the temporary and necessary tunnel closure, and the fact that it does run slow from Pacific to Canal. That’s life.

John-2 August 28, 2013 - 12:28 am

Lhota will have the first anniversary of Sandy in the news just prior to the Nov. 5 election, which is probably a good thing in a ‘contrast and compare’ manner to the pre-storm preparedness and post-storm consequences across the Hudson with NJ Transit. The ability of the MTA to get the subways going again and not to have squandered funds by failing to be pro-active with their rolling stock is something he’ll be able to tout at a time when if he has a chance at winning, his managerial skills at the MTA, MSG and under Giuliani will be the main thing he’ll be stressing against whomever ends up as the Democratic nominee.

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Spendmore Wastemore August 28, 2013 - 12:36 am

Lhota has a record of doing stuff.

The other ones have long records of talking about stuff.

NYC will probably pick from column B, then complain when stuff doesn’t work.

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John Paul N. August 28, 2013 - 5:01 am

When Lhota said, “I want that job,” the MTA chairmanship, he can believably say he was genuinely interested and concerned about all the little details. But he also wanted to be in the public eye, through an opening in public office, so that was a calculated move. And in the end he decides to run when waiting 4 or 8 (or 12) years would be too long.

The first paragraph of this post is now Lhota’s Waterloo. He’ll have to answer questions about the MTA in debates and his opponents will use that in demagoguery. Though I wonder why he wants to emphasize his relationship with Giuliani, which is more susceptible to demagoguery.

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Larry Littlefield August 28, 2013 - 7:15 am

As noted above, Lhota wasn’t at the MTA long enough to really do anything. The hero of the MTA’s cost cutting and Sandy preparations was Walder,those below him, and those who came before. After that stress, no wonder Walder left town. Lhota implemented the plans competently.

The optimistic scenario is that Lhota is a decent guy, not a real politician, and thus unwilling to take credit where it is not due. So he talks about things he sees as his own achievements.

The pessimistic scenario is that he understands how to play the transit whipping boy game, having played it himself as a Giuliani budget director, and doesn’t want it played on him.

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lawhawk August 28, 2013 - 10:07 am

There’s a few other reasons that Lhota is deemphasizing his MTA stint. He’s got a bunch of ties to Giuliani’s campaign team, and they’re pushing his experience in the Giuliani administration to capitalize on what they think is still goodwill within the city’s GOP for Rudy. The MTA experience as caretaker and a competent one at that helps, but he needs to be seen as more than just a bureaucrat.

He’s the best the GOP has at this point, and he’ll probably be facing de Blasio/Thompson/Quinn in the general election.

The evil of lessers. None of them are particularly standouts with a grand vision for the city, let alone its transit needs (Ben’s already covered this at some length). Transit isn’t going to win it for any of the candidates, but transit will help keep the city growing and providing for more economic opportunities.

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Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 10:36 am

I don’t really know that Lhota believes his own shit when it comes to campaign promises. To win the Republikan primary, one must pander to the stupidest and most selfish people in the city. These people don’t care about how budgets line up or what kind of transport does the greatest good for the greatest number, and aren’t open to rational explanations about those things. They like cars, police brutality, single-family homes, and a tax structure that leaves everyone but them paying for those things.

Republikan politicians are a little different, at least going by the behavior in Albany. They actually don’t mind seeing people paying for some of those things themselves, at least in New York City. But then, most of them don’t live in or particularly care for New York City.

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Larry Littlefield August 28, 2013 - 11:37 am

“To win the Republikan primary, one must pander to the stupidest and most selfish people in the city.”

The Republican primary voters may trump the Democrats on stupidity, but not necessarily on selfishness. The question is, do you blame those — particularly younger generations — who don’t vote?

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Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 1:03 pm

Some union rank-and-file may trump the Republikans on selfishness, but then Republikans and union rank-and-file overlap more than either really likes to admit.

Democrats are too convoluted to even make generalizations about. Many are just holding their nose because there isn’t another choice.

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Alex August 28, 2013 - 11:40 am

I’m in the precarious position of being a registered Republican. (This in spite of the fact that I absolutely do not align with that party anymore. I’d register as an independent if I could still vote in primaries as you can in some states, but I digress.) Lhota’s park-and-ride proposal made me retch, but he’s still a gem compared to certified buffoon John Catsimatidis with his loony monorail and anti-bike lane rants. So I’ll likely vote for Lhota in the primary and against him in the general (assuming Thompson isn’t the Democratic nominee). None of the options are great from a progressive transportation POV. But some, like Thompson and Catsimatidis, are absolutely abysmal.

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Larry Littlefield August 28, 2013 - 12:53 pm

Adopho Carrion might be worth a look. I ran into him a few times when he was also a young city planner, and found him to be a thoughtful and intelligent guy.

Then he ended up in public office with the support of the Bronx machine. I wondered what was up with that.

But he is still worth finding out what he stands for.

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Karm August 28, 2013 - 5:04 pm

yeah – to me Carrion is the best of the “Democrats” – though not running as one.

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Bolwerk August 28, 2013 - 2:27 pm

I don’t really find the monorail any dumber than the vogue mainstream sentiment in favor of BRT. If anything, the monorail carries more people and is cheaper to operate over time. It’s just that the monorail is impractical because it isn’t even compatible with the traditional rail we depend on.

Catsimatidis is just behind the times. The people who were masturbating to monorails in 2003 are now all for BRT. When BRT goes nowhere or doesn’t deliver its promises, they’ll find another gimmick.

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BrooklynBus August 28, 2013 - 11:50 am

My opinion of Lhota is steadily going down. He has proved that he is nothing more than a politician by trying to distance himself from the MTA and the fare and toll increase and proposed future increases. To his credit at least he is not asking credit for recovering from Hurricane Sandy which he had little to do with.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Catsimatidis takes the Republican nomination.

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Berk32 August 28, 2013 - 2:56 pm

FYI – Lhota is on the ballot no matter what – he already has the nomination of the Conservative Party (even if he loses the Republican party nomination to Catsimatidis)

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Karm August 28, 2013 - 5:03 pm

McDonald from the Doe Fun might still get more votes than Catsimatidis.

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Steve Faust August 28, 2013 - 7:51 pm

Lhota opposed installing a Verrazano Bridge bicycle and pedestrian path last December. Lhota said on WNYC “The bridge cannot support a path.” followed by “Cyclists are just going to have to get over it.” Unfortunately Joe, this just ain’t so. The bridge has been engineered for two paths, outboard of the uppers roadway, under the cables, as on the GWB.

Lhota may have been quoting Triboro Bridge and Tunnel (MTA B&T) engineers, but they were misinforming him. This has been the TBTA story since before the VNB was opened in 1964, and has the cover of plausible denyability, since there was never a word written about the bridge including or excluding the paths until a year before it opened. And that word in 1963 was simply that no path would be included. This ended in 1997.

NYC Dept of City Planning studied cyclists and pedestrians across the VNB in 1997. DCP hired Ammann and Whitney – the VNB’s original engineers – to perform a structural analysis and cost estimate. Ammann & Whitney determined that the VNB has both the capacity and the space for two paths, one on each side of the upper level, without impacting any of the motor lanes. A&W estimated that the cost of two paths would be $26 million in 1997, and about $35 to $50 million today.

As of the release of the DCP VNB Report with the Ammann & Whitney engineering analysis, there was no further cover for the argument that the bridge cannot support the paths.

I had assumed in December 2012, that Joe Lhota didn’t have the engineering knowledge to argue with TBTA engineers. But the Times’ article emphasized how Lhota knew about engineering and technical problems, calling top mangers before news of problems reached them. They said, He has his sources. If Lhota has engineering skills and good sources, he should have known about the 1997 DCB VNB Report, and know that the bridge can carry a bike and pedestrian path. He should also know that prefabricated path decks can be installed quickly and at low cost.

Two questions: we need to know how Lhota as mayor will deal with the next catastrophic emergency that closes the Staten Island Ferry, the subways and buses, and leaves Staten Island cut off from the rest of the city. On 9/11, the 2003 Blackout, the Ferry Crash and Superstorm Sandy, the NYC DOTs East River Bridges moved millions on foot and bike between Manhattan and 3 Boroughs, but in each of these disasters, the MTA Police banned any and all foot and bicycle traffic trying to enter and leave Staten Island. There is no MTA Emergency Plan for moving non-motorized traffic across several critical bridges. Will Lhota demand the MTA join with the rest of the region’s transportation providers in joining in the non-motorized access plan. He failed to while he was in charge of the MTA.

Second question is what does Lhota really think about protecting pedestrians from motor traffic and including bicycles as a real transportation mode. As mayor, he should be controlling the DOT and the Police Departments. DOT has been doing good things for peds and bikes, but the NYPD has been ineffective as best and counterproductive and dangerous at worst.

For 50 years, I have been crossed the Verrazano by bike, during special events, some 65 times. We should be able to ride, run and walk across the VNB any time, any day. We have to be able to. Lhota was right, Cyclists are just going to have to get over it, very soon.

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Phantom August 28, 2013 - 8:06 pm

I would so love it if the VNB had bike access.

The new Goethals will have bike access.

I’d love to take a spin from Bay Ridge to (not so far away ) NJ someday.

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Steve Faust August 28, 2013 - 11:02 pm

The current Goethals Bridge has two narrow paths, both closed for years. Either one of these would meet the needs of occasional cyclists and walkers. PORT almost seems to be holding these hostage for support for the new bridge with a new path. Why not open one path now as mitigation for the 3+ year closing of the Bayonne Bridge bike ped/path path. Marginal cost would be nearly zero.

NJ DOT has cleaned up the sidewalk and bridge paths along Truck Route 1/9 from Jersey City to Newark, and the Hackensack and Passaic River Bridge paths on this route are as narrow as the Goethals paths.

The Bayonne Bridge had an open path to until this month. During the raising of the roadway, the path is closed. There will be a bus shuttle, check PATH website for details. “This free service will operate Friday-Sunday between the hours of 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. during the peak usage months of May-October for the duration of the Bayonne Bridge “Raise the Roadway” construction project.”

All along the Bayonne peninsula is the Hudson Bergen Light Rail Line, which is open to bicycles. I have used it when tired to get between the bridge and Jersey City, and then to NY by PATH or ferry. The HBRL south terminus is walking distance from the Bayonne Bridge.

The VNB bike/ped path is a Critical Path Missing Link in daily and emergency travel across the NY-NJ region. It must be completed.

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