Archive for MTA Politics

When last we saw the lockbox bill, it had begun to garner upstate support but hadn’t yet been presented to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature. Well, late last week, the bill moved to the governor’s desk, and advocates are again calling upon Cuomo to sign the measure. Today, a statewide coalition of organizations representing labor, business, transit, the environment, disabled, aging, faith-based, smart growth, good government, bicycling, housing, and transportation groups sent the governor a letter [pdf] urging him to move on the bill.

The letter, which highlights previous efforts to pass this protective measure and the way the impact statement was stripped from the 2011 measure, lays it on the line. “Raiding dedicated transit funds is poor policy, and a breach of trust with the public who rightly believe that transit funds should go to improving transit. One quarter of the State’s workforce relies on mass transit to get to work. They, their employers, and the economy rely on these dedicated taxes to help pay for subway, bus and commuter operations and transit capital projects,” the advocates say. “Given your commitment to rebuilding and renewing New York’s economy and infrastructure, and increasing fiscal transparency and public accountability, we join the 213 members of the New York State legislature in asking you to sign the ‘transit lock box’ bill.”

Interestingly, one potential advocate — MTA head Tom Prendergast — discussed the lockbox earlier this fall and expressed only lukewarm support for it. “While I like lockboxes,” he said at a Crain’s New York business breakfast in September, “I don’t get unduly tied to them and at the end of the day, if the money we need comes our way, that’s what I’m looking forward to.” Still, New York and its myriad transit riders would be better off and better informed with the lockbox protections firmly in place.

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The New York State Court of Appeals has upheld yet another appeal of the MTA Payroll Mobility Tax, delivering another blow to Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano’s never-ending attempts to starve transit. Despite Mangano’s second such loss and a dismissal by the court that effectively means no constitutional question was directly implicated by the case, the Tea Party-backed Nassau County official, will continue to spend taxpayer dollars on another avenue of appeal.

Yancey Roy of Newsday broke the news:

New York’s top court threw out a lawsuit Thursday seeking to overturn the controversial MTA payroll tax on constitutional grounds. But Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, who filed the suit, still has 30 days to appeal on other grounds.

The state Court of Appeals dismissed Mangano’s lawsuit without comment, upholding a mid-level court ruling that the tax, paid by employers in the 12-country region served by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, is constitutional…

Court spokesman Gary Spencer said Mangano has 30 days to file a motion asking the court’s permission to argue the case. Nassau County attorney John Ciampoli said Mangano definitely will appeal. Ciampoli said the payroll tax was “fundamentally defective in how it was adopted” by the state Legislature.

At this point, Mangano is barking up the wrong tree. He’s not going to get the tax overturned, and his efforts to continue this lawsuit are bordering on laughable. If he loses his reelection bid this November, I’d expect Tom Suozzi would drop the appeal. Polling, however, is very close for this race.

More telling, though, is this comment on the Newsday article. “This tax is a hideous intrusion on the rights of Long Islanders who do not use the MTA,” one commenter said. If that’s not a telling glimpse into the provincial and siloed viewpoints of Nassau County residents who look down upon transit without realizing its true impact, I don’t know what is.

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With recent polls giving Bill de Blasio a fifty-point lead over GOP challenger and former MTA head Joe Lhota in the race for mayor, New York voters haven’t seen a particularly robust discussion of the issues, and even with a pair of debates looming, I don’t expect much of substance to emerge. Lhota faces too big a polling gap and recognition issues while de Blasio has nothing to gain from being out front of any policy debates. That said, the two candidates offered up some vague details on their funding plans for the MTA.

The city’s relationship with the transit agency has been a rough ground lately. City-based politicians seem to agree that the five boroughs should have more of a say on the MTA Board. Currently only four of the 12 seats are appointed by the Mayor, but the Governor has appointed city residents as well. Yet, city politicians aren’t keen on acknowledging that with great power comes great funding responsibility, and discussions surrounding city contributions to the MTA budget often result in a lot of stammering and attempts at changing the subject.

The mayoral race has been no different. No candidates are proposing congestion pricing or East River tolling, and while de Blasio has spoken about protecting the MTA payroll mobility tax as an important source of revenue, Lhota has suggested divorcing bridge and tunnel toll revenues from subway funding schemes. By and large, these positions have ranged from non-controversial to non-starters. Still, this week, we’ve seen divergent viewpoints from both candidates.

On Monday, Pete Donohue wrote about how Lhota would increase city contributions to the MTA’s budget. Lhota wouldn’t provide a specific figure or identify where the money would come from, but he noted that the city should be more involved in the MTA’s capital program. “I do believe the mayor and City Council should start participating in a significant way in the capital plan,” Lhota said. “We need to participate more.”

De Blasio, meanwhile, said that he doesn’t believe the city is fiscally healthy enough to up its MTA contributions. “I think there are some things we can do that are meaningful, like help expand Bus Rapid Transit in the outer boroughs, and there’s a contribution the city can make to that through capital funding,” the mayoral frontrunner said in a radio interview today. “But in terms of the core of our budget, no, we’re not in the position to do that right now.”

Since de Blasio is likely to win in November, his comments aren’t the most encouraging, but it’s all likely to be a load of nothing. Neither candidate has put out a transit plan comparable to that developed by Mayor Bloomberg four years ago, but mostly that just means neither will underdeliver when it proves impossible implement, say, free crosstown buses as Bloomberg once proposed. Still, resignation before the election won’t translate into action after, and the city’s strange economic relationship with its own subway system won’t change much from today’s awkward status quo.

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As the last sprint of the mayoral race kicks into gear in the coming weeks, New Yorkers will continue to hear about Joe Lhota’s brief tenure atop the MTA. Notable for the agency’s competent and speedy response to restore service in the aftermath of Sandy, Lhota’s reign also coincided with a fare hike and toll increase. While the economic plan predated him and was an absolute must for a cash-shy agency, he was the face of the authority as prices increased, and that’s a tough problem to overcome for a candidate running, in part, on his successes after the storm.

Meanwhile, labor relations played a small role during his time as CEO and Chairman, and John Samuelsen, president of the TWU, commands a decent sized vocal bloc. Recently, though, various public statements have led me to wonder what, exactly, Samuelsen thinks of Lhota. In a Daily News piece designed more as an insult to Jay Walder than as praise of Joe Lhota, Samuelsen issued some faint praise and an incomplete assessment. Despite some gripes with Lhota over the MTA’s smart decision to shutter the subways in advance of Sandy, Samuelsen called Lhota “a quick study” who “simply did not stick around long enough to leave any permanent imprints on our transit system.”

Is that the TWU head’s final word on the matter? Of course not. In a piece issued earlier this summer in the pro-labor Chief-Leader and reprinted on the TWU’s website, Samuelsen had harsh words for Lhota over the ongoing union contract dispute. “Lhota doesn’t know a damn thing about how to run a subway or bus system,” Samuelsen said. “Prendergast knows what Track Workers go through when they’re swinging a hammer all day in the tunnel in 110-degree heat. Lhota has no idea; he’s just a two-bit bean-counter from the financial industry.”

So was Lhota just a two-bit bean counter or was he also a quick study? Is this more of a sign of TWU leadership speaking to the diverse audiences of the Daily News and Chief-Leader? Either way, Lhota’s MTA legacy remains up for grabs before Election Day.

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When Gov. Andrew Cuomo nominated Joe Lhota to head up the MTA, transit advocates were surprised. Lhota was a behind-the-scenes numbers guy for Mayor Rudy Giuliani and an executive with Cablevision and Madison Square Garden with no real transportation experience to speak of. Yet in his brief tenure as MTA Chair and CEO, he become a vocal advocate for transit in New York City, conversant in the ins and outs of the MTA’s daily operations and its complex budget and a staunch supporter of its post-Sandy recovery efforts. I thought he could have been a very effective MTA head had he stayed, but the press coverage from the storm had him dreaming of Gracie Mansion.

I had guardedly high hopes for Lhota’s campaign. Here, after all, was a mayoral candidate who saw first-hand what happened when the city’s transit system shutdown. He recognized the importance of both restoring service and keeping open lines of communication with the millions of New Yorkers who depend upon the trains each day. He fought for external dollars and internal efficiency. He understood it.

As a mayoral candidate, though, transit and transportation have not been Lhota’s strong suits. It’s unclear if he’s simply playing to a base of Staten Island voters vital to his mayoral chances and other pockets of GOP voting blocs that aren’t as sympathetic to transit or the MTA, but one way or another, Lhota as MTA head was far more appealing that Lhota the mayoral candidate.

Earlier this week at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein took a look at Lhota’s move away from transit advocacy. Here’s her take:

Months before Hurricane Sandy propelled Joe Lhota into the public eye, and then into a run for mayor, the then-M.T.A. chairman expressed hope that the subway system would be an issue in 2013. “I do believe that people are focused on this,” he said, in March of last year, referring to the M.T.A.’s precarious finances. “It’ll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year.”

Now Joe Lhota is the Republican nominee. And he is not talking about the M.T.A.’s finances in any sort of serious way. Which is not to say that he’s not talking about it. He thinks the M.T.A. should drop billions on a subway extension from Republican-heavy Bay Ridge to Republican-heavy Staten Island. He’s also in favor of reinstituting the commuter tax, but to fill the city’s coffers, not the M.T.A.’s.

The former Giuliani deputy who served for a year at the helm of the transit authority now wants the city to wrest control of the money-making Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority and reduce tolls for Staten Islanders, even though those tolls subsidize the hurricane-ravaged subway system. He used to think congestion pricing wasn’t such a radical idea. Now he finds the very prospect of congestion pricing “draconian,” even though the latest version to make the rounds of New York’s power circles includes a toll-equalization scheme that would benefit, among other constituencies, drivers on Staten Island.

As others Rubinstein spoke with noted, some positions — such as congestion pricing — aren’t tenable for a mayoral candidate with serious hopes for a primary victory. Furthermore, with city control over the MTA somewhat limited, the mayor can speak until he’s blue in the face about transit advocacy and policies without actually being able to do much. Still, I’d rather see a candidate support a sensible approach toward transit investment and development than backtrack on a year’s worth of progress.

There’s plenty of time for Lhota to change his tune, and I’m not convinced that Bill de Blasio is any stronger on rail and buses than Lhota could be. But as Rubinstein explores, this is as close to an about-face as one can imagine. Election Day is a week after the one-year anniversary of Sandy, and the Lhota who became a household name after the storm doesn’t yet appear to be the same Lhota as the one who will be on that ballot.

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Over the past few months, as I’ve looked on with growing dismay at the field of mayoral candidates, readers have repeatedly asked if I planned on endorsing any of the candidates. It’s easier to assess why these mayoral hopefuls don’t deserve a vote than it is to explain why they do, but I’m going to endorse a pair of candidates today anyway based solely on their transit/transportation platforms. Despite some strong transit arguments in favor of some down-ballot Democratic candidates, Bill de Blasio gets my support in his primary, and in a thin GOP field, Joe Lhota should be the voters’ choice.

We’ll start with the Democrats as they present a wider array of candidates and significant overlap in positions. Here, I’ve found it easier to eliminate candidates than to support one, which speaks volumes about their various positions. John Liu, for instance, is still going on about two sets of books years after the state comptroller who initiated the charged wound up in jail and long after two New York state courts failed to find any substance to the charge. He’s also spent years claiming that the MTA doesn’t need more money to provide better transit service and that hundreds of thousands of student rides don’t add to the MTA’s costs.

Christine Quinn, meanwhile, led some pro-transit votes while in charge of the City Council, including a vote in favor of congestion pricing, but during the campaign, her ideas have seem half-baked at best. She wants city control of the MTA but doesn’t seem to understand the costs associated with such a move or the history behind state control. Her Triboro RX SBS proposal seemed careless and haphazardly developed, and her call for countdown clocks outside of subway stations costly and unnecessary.

Overall, the various candidates struck similar themes designed to placate voters without removing traffic lanes: More Select Bus Service routes; more ferry routes; more subway service; no plans to pay for anything. Down ballot, Sal Albanese embraced Gridlock Sam’s plan for congestion pricing and transit funding, but he, unfortunately, won’t garner much support in Tuesday’s primary. How then did I come to Bill de Blasio?

In part, my support from de Blasio comes from an appreciation of his transit platform, and in part, my support comes from the recent StreetsPac endorsement. While recognizing the limits that face the mayor with regards to transit, de Blasio has made more bus rapid transit — a network over which the mayor exerts plenty of control — a centerpiece of his campaign while calling for a new Penn Station focused on the needs of commuters and biking and street safety improvements. His approach is holistic and comprehensive, and while I wish he had expressed more of a willingness to up city contributions to the MTA’s capital budget and some concrete plans for expanded subway service, his plans are the best amongst an uninspiring bunch.

On the Republican side, I am supporting Lhota, a former MTA head, because I too believe trains should stop for no kittens. Need I say more? OK, OK. I’ll say more. The kittens are ultimately besides the point anyway.

Throughout the campaign, John Catsimatidis hasn’t shown any attention to the nuances of transit, and his campaign website is devoid of any sort of issues list. Earlier tonight, he claimed that the Second Ave. Subway “is a disaster” that has “put almost every merchant out of business” and tried to blame his opponent for a project that began in earnest a decade ago. That alone is enough to dismiss his candidacy out of hand, but he’s also spent considerable time railing against bike lanes and trumpeting a monorail that would run alongside the Long Island Expressway.

Lhota, on the other hand, hasn’t run a banner campaign on transit and transportation issues. His website too is devoid of a transit platform, and he discussed removing pedestrian plazas for one. He’s also expressed a desire to remove Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority revenue from the MTA, a highly problematic proposal for the MTA’s budget, but he has proposed a subway to Staten Island either as a carrot for key GOP voters or a future transit expansion. I endorse him here for what he’s done rather than for what he’s said. As head of the MTA, Lhota showed a keen instinct for and understanding of the problems facing the agency. He has knowledge and experience to be a leader on transit if he so chooses.

I wish I could be more enthusiastic about a candidate running for mayor. I wish we could witness a robust debate on transit investment priorities and expansion opportunities. For the primaries, at least, those discussions don’t often win votes or support. So this is where we are. Get out there and vote on Tuesday, and if transit and transportation are on your mind, Bill de Blasio or Joe Lhota should get your lever pull.

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Mercifully, the mayoral primary season is rapidly drawing to a close. By this time next week, we’ll know if a runoff is in our future or if the Democratic and Republican candidates for Gracie Mansion have been selected by a sliver of New York City voters, many of whom head to the polls with a strong bone to pick. Still, before this bit of political theater wraps up, we had to suffer through one final debate.

During the Democratic demagoguery, the topic of discussion shifted to transit developments, and two reports from the debate show the same old/same old. Stephen Miller at Streetsblog summarized accordingly:

If you thought the last Democratic mayoral debate was thin on transportation issues, you could be forgiven for thinking that the issue didn’t come up at all during last night’s event. Blink, and you might have missed it. Like last time, transit was relegated to the lightning round, and thin questions from the moderators didn’t elicit much information from the candidates.

At the previous debate, all the candidates had MetroCards in their pockets but we learned last night that they are, for the most part, infrequent straphangers: Thompson said he had last taken the subway on Monday, while de Blasio and Weiner rode the train last week; Liu and Quinn hadn’t swiped a MetroCard in about two weeks.

On the subject of the MTA, Liu said he had “gone after very powerful interests,” repeating the myth created by disgraced former Comptroller Alan Hevesi that the authority keeps “two sets of books” to obscure its finances from the public.

I don’t even have the heart to argue against Liu and his stubborn — if not worse — insistence that the MTA kept two sets of books. It’s been proven false every which way to Sunday, and the man who didn’t qualify for public funds because he actually kept fake campaign finance books isn’t one to talk. Those who vote for Liu deserve the worst.

Dana Rubinstein meanwhile reported on a different exchange:

The imposition of tolls on the East River bridges is widely understood to be a component of any realistic congestion-pricing scheme, and congestion pricing is the only recourse transportation advocates consistently put forward as the solution to the M.T.A.’s chronic budget problems.

“Do you support East River tolls?” asked one of the moderators. “Let me begin with you, Ms. Quinn.”

“I don’t support East River tolls,” she responded. “No.”

“Mr. Liu?”

“No, but I have a plan to implement them for out-of-city residents,” he added.

“Mr. Weiner?”

“Absolutely not,” he said.

“Mr. Thompson?”

“Definitely not.”

“Alright, and Mr. de Blasio?”


The candidates all have various wishes to expand transit access, and a few have been forth some concrete plans. No one, though, wants to pay for it, and we’ve gotten the summer of “no, no, no.” John Liu’s plan, torn up by Streetsblog in April, was again the least thought-out even among a field of flat-out denials, and somehow, one of these politicians will have a loud say in the future transit policies and priorities of New York City.

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When Michael Bloomberg ran in 2009 for his third term as mayor, he launched his campaign with 33 changes for the MTA. These ranged from the obvious, with more countdown clocks and a new farecard leading the way, to an impossible plan to implement F express service during the Culver Viaduct rehab to a strange call for free crosstown bus service. Just days after winning reelection, Bloomberg seemed to rollback his promises, calling them mere suggestions instead, and if any have seen the light of day over the past four years, Bloomberg certainly shouldn’t receive the credit.

In 2009, Bloomberg’s problem wasn’t one of underthinking. He had ideas, but they came out of left field. Much as his drawing-on-a-cocktail napkin plan to send the 7 to Secaucus materialized out of thin air, his transit proposals too were developed seemingly with no input for anyone actively engaged in the space. The had their Big Ideas, but those Big Ideas had little to no chance of becoming reality. I still, after all, have to pay for my crosstown bus.

Four years later, we have a mayoral campaign one week away from the party primaries, and there are no Big Ideas. The leading candidates have talked vaguely about more subway service for outer borough residents, increasing the reach of Select Bus Service and expanding the city’s network of ferries. The former MTA head has discussed building a subway to Staten Island (though good luck finding any mention of it on his website), and the guy polling a distant second wants to build a monorail down the center of the Long Island Expressway. Transformative Big Ideas are missing from the discussion, and I’ve been thinking about why.

As my thinking goes, I’ve come up with a few reasons why there are no Big Ideas. The first is a practical one that doesn’t hold up. As the state controls the MTA, most transit expansion is allegedly out of the hands of the mayor. It’s easy for a candidate to wash his or her hands of transit planning if responsibility for funding and operations lies elsewhere, but that’s the easy way out. Mayor Bloomberg wanted the 7 line extension built; he delivered the money; and in less than 10 months, the 7 will terminate at 34th St. and 11th Ave. A mayoral candidate with the right Big Idea could easily see it through.

The second reason dovetails with the first: It’s easy to come up with Big Ideas; it’s less easy to convince voters to pay for them. The 7 line extension cost over $2 billion, and someone had to pay for it. The Second Ave. Subway costs over $4 billion, and the money has to come from somewhere. Paying for Big Ideas often involves convincing voters to fork over more money in the form of taxes or user fees (that is, East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing), and increased taxes or user fees doesn’t win primary voters. Without a way to pay for Big Ideas, any Big Ideas put forward become empty promises.

The third reason concerns timing. The 7 line extension was first proposed during Mayor Bloomberg’s first term; the groundbreaking was in his second term; and the start of revenue service will be during the next mayor’s first term. Even with three terms, Bloomberg will not be in office long enough to see his pet project open up. There will be no ribbon cutting with the mayor and no photo op. As ribbon cuttings and photo ops are the lifeblood of local politics, candidates are more than hesitant to argue for something that won’t see the light of day well after their terms are up. Why should someone else steal the limelight?

Finally, the last reason focuses around the key rule of primaries and, to a larger extent, electoral politics in general: Do not upset your voters. Although New Yorkers support congestion pricing plans that fund transit, primary voters do not. Although New Yorkers want more subway routes, people bemoan the impact of construction to no end. Although New Yorkers recognize the inadequacy of the bus network, removing space for cars and handing it over to buses instead seems to be tantamount to signing your own death sentence. In all cases, too, the people who care the most and have the most to lose, as they see it, turn out to vote in primaries.

All in all, these factors lead to safe and uninspiring campaign promises that candidates won’t try too hard to keep anyway. The problem is partially structural and partially due to the lack of a frontrunner. But here we are, a week away from primary day with no Big Ideas in sight.

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It was back in the waning days of June when the State Senate and Assembly both passed a lockbox bill with strong protections for transit funding. This was the second time that the bill had passed the legislature, and while Gov. Cuomo had gutted the protections that prevented a raid on transit financing last time around, advocates were optimistic that the bill would gain Cuomo’s signature. Since then, though, we’ve waited. And waited. And waited.

Lately, though, there is a reason for some optimism as upstate newspapers, not usually in favor of anything that bolsters the MTA — they amazingly view it as a drain on the rest of New York State — have lined up behind the lockbox. Since the bill protects all transit money and not just that earmarked for the MTA, upstaters have reason to argue for a signature. The Buffalo News voiced its support this week, and The Press-Republican from Plattsburgh sounded off last week.

Over at Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein sees this groundswell of support as an indicator that Cuomo will soon have to sign the bill. If everyone in New York state wants these modest protections in place, the governor will have to step in and govern soon enough.

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A simple question posed by The Times with some not-so-ambitious answers.

A simple question posed by The Times with some not-so-ambitious answers.

We’re hitting the home stretch of the silly part of the 2013 mayoral race. In two weeks, the first primaries will be over, and we’ll know if a run-off is in our future. The early stages of the race to succeed Mayor Bloomberg have not been particularly comforting for New Yorkers looking for a champion of progressive transit and transportation issues. Buses and ferries have dominating the discussion while a lackluster embrace of bike infrastructure, to say nothing of any truly transformative ideas, has marred the race.

In today’s papers, we have two issue summaries of the candidates’ various stances on transit and transportation, and you may wind up sighing in frustration after reading through these Q-and-A’s. Dan Rivoli in amNew York asked about MTA governance and funding, transit “ideas” and biking. He hit upon the key issues, and the candidates’ responses left something to be desired.

When it comes to MTA funding, Bill de Blasio, for instances, wants to “change the federal approach to mass transit funding and get the federal government much more deeply into the mass transit business again.” Bill Thompson wants to restore the commuter tax, and John Liu would have the city throw in an additional $100 million to the MTA’s capital budget — an amount equal to less than one half of one percent of the capital budget. Christine Quinn continues to bang the drum for mayoral control, but she doesn’t explain why. John Catsimatidis called for an MTA Inspector General, a position that has been in place since 1983, and everyone — Republicans and Democrats alike — has endorsed more Select Bus Service lanes.

In The Times today, Matt Flegenheimer conducted similar interviews with a focus on the question I posted above. The ideas for improving subway service reveal vague promises light on detail. De Blasio wants to “address outer borough subway service needs” while Liu and Quinn repeated their amNew York answers. Thompson wants to “reduce waiting times between trains and to accelerate the installation of countdown clocks across the system.” Joe Lhota discussed an city support for “an in-station recycling program…to keep platforms clean.” Catsimatidis again repeated his desires to build a monorail somewhere for some reason.

As I read through these answers, a few common threads emerged: First, everyone wants more, but no one wants to have the uncomfortable conversations about paying. We want more subway service, more bus service, more ferry service, more countdown clocks, more this, more that. But only fringe candidates with no real chances at winning have mentioned East River bridge tolls or congestion pricing as a revenue generator. (Thompson can talk himself blue in the face about the commuter tax, but that is a political hot potato he won’t pursue if elected.)

The second thread concerns ideas already in place. I’ve already dispatched with Quinn’s countdown clocks complaints, but she’s not the only one proposing something already in motion. De Blasio called for more Metro-North stops in the Bronx, which is the likely outcome of the Penn Station Access studies, and DOT and the MTA are working, albeit painfully slowly, on more Select Bus Services routes. It’s not a promise to call for something in the works.

If I truly believed the mayoral candidates would offer up something juicy during the campaign season, you could call me naive, but even for New York politicians, this is scraping the bottom of the transit barrel. No one wants to delve into the Midtown East rezoning, the Second Ave. Subway, the Triboro RX line or any discussions on funding. It’s far easier to give safe answers, but the city needs something more these days than safe answers.

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