Archive for Staten Island
For the past few weeks, I’ve spent some time examining the contradictions of Staten Island and the borough’s tenuous relationship with transit. Its residents want better options, but they panic once they realize adding something such as Select Bus Service may mean fewer lanes for cars. They ask for subway connections to the rest of the city but are worried it could disrupt their quasi-suburban lifestyle. What Staten Islanders want in principle isn’t always what they want in practice.
Now, it’s the Staten Island Railway’s turn to come under the microscope, and State Senator Diane Savino has supplied us with the perfect opportunity to assess the MTA’s southern-most subway. Savino, an on-again/off-again champion for transit who has thrown a fit over plans to send the subway to New Jersey but not Staten Island yet voted to steal money from the MTA without bothering to read the bill, has commissioned a report on the Staten Island Railway. Hardly scientific, it relies on anecdotes and assessments from the line’s riders, but it doesn’t paint a positive picture.
Staten Island Railway riders want better service. Period. They want better security, better lighting, better ferry connections, better station environments. They want rail — and not a bus lane — on the old North Shore right of way, and they seem to want a connection to the Hudson Bergen Light Rail in New Jersey as well. As I read the report, though, I kept wondering if they were all willing to pay for it.
The Staten Island Railway is a curiosity in New York City. It provides 4.4 million paid rides annually, but fares are collected upon entry or exit only at the two most northern stations. Not many do, but Staten Islanders are free to ride from Stapleton to Tottenville without paying as often as they’d like. To improve the Staten Island Railway — to eliminate odors many find pervasive and offensive, to improve security — would likely involve rethinking how the fare works.
So onto the report. You can read the whole thing right here on Savino’s website, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it. It’s white text on a blue background, and it’s poorly written. Yet, it’s earnest. It’s fighting for better transit and features the voices of the people who actually ride the Staten Island Railway. “We need a North Shore Railroad built, not a bus lane,” said one of them. “As a Staten Island resident who does not live near/use the SIRT, I would like to see more stations and lines extending to centralized parts of Staten Island like the North Shore. This will encourage more public transportation and dispel traffic,” said another. “The trains are over 40 years old They need new cars. They also need a public address system at each station so riders can be told of delays/problems on the line,” said a third. These are real complaints for real people.
These folks who ride though aren’t happy with the service. The trains are dirty, they say. They want express service from popular stations, new rolling stock, more frequent service and nicer station environments with better connections to buses and the ferries and perhaps park-and-ride options as well. The service received an F from its riders in an admittedly biased survey.
Ultimately, Savino’s suggestions are practical and reasonable. She urged upzoning around train stations to spur development, a train tracking app for the SIR, weather protection and concessions at high-traffic stations, security cameras and even a new station to serve the Rosebank area (with funding from bond acts and a governor’s transit fund). These are incremental changes that could drastically improve intra-borough travel along the Staten Island Railway. But does anyone want to pay for them?
With the chance to elect a brand new mayor for the first time in 12 years staring New Yorkers in the face, the vagaries of electoral politics with a mix of extreme weather-related concerns lead to an outsized focus on some minor issues. When it comes to transportation, we’ve seen candidates obsess about buses, and lately, ferries have garnered some headlines as well. Candidates and representatives just love to talk about ferry service.
Lately, two distinct ferry routes have taken center stage. One involves a current initiative to provide ferry service from the Rockaways to the isle of Manhattan. This route sprang up after Sandy cut off the peninsula’s subway connection, but it’s hardly a new idea. Time and time again, this ferry route has failed due to high operating costs and low ridership. The current service costs just $2 and has seen ridership of around 700 a day. It will be extended through Labor Day, but the city won’t say at what cost.
In the grand scheme of New York City spending, the $4 or $5 million spent on a stopgap measure designed to alleviate the stress of post-hurricane travel won’t make or break anything. It’s worrying to see the city stay mum on costs when ferry subsidies far outpace per-passenger spending on buses or subways. But if the Rockaway ferry is a short-term measure, that’s fine. Budget watchdogs and transit advocates can raise a stink if this goes on forever. That other ferry service, though, warrants more of a look.
Staten Island residents and politicians are calling for expanded Staten Island ferry service, and they’re making a compelling case for it. With a slew of candidates scouring Staten Island for votes, the time may be ripe for a movement toward increased ferry service. In mid-May lawmakers issued a call for added overnight and off-peak service. Right now, ferries operate just once per hour overnight during the week and after 7 p.m. on Saturdays. This past week, the Staten Island Advance’s editorial board picked up the call:
The fact is that a lot of people rely on the ferry during off-peak hours to get them to overnight jobs or return from a night on the town or visiting friends or relatives. They live in the city that never sleeps too. The administration certainly wouldn’t stand for one-hour waits for subway riders in Manhattan or Brooklyn, no matter what the time of day. But it’s only Staten Island, after all, and the members of this administration, who call the Upper West Side or Park Slope and Cobble Hill home, figure Staten Islanders have little need for round-the-clock transportation. Besides, then too, in their eyes, the ferry is primarily a tourist attraction, not a necessary a critical transportation service for city residents…
Another provision of the compromise back in 2004 was that the DOT had to conduct studies of ferry ridership and provide them to the Council. [Assistant DOT Commissioner Kate] Slevin cited low off-peak ridership at several points but couldn’t provide any data. Perhaps the fact that there are a surprisingly high number of people who take the ferry after 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and even after midnight on weekdays explains the DOT’s reluctance to provide the Council with a more thorough ridership analysis. DOT doesn’t want to know how many off-peak riders there really are.
But again, that’s not the point. People should not be stranded in a waiting room for an hour in the self-anointed “greatest city in the world.” All New Yorkers should be able to access adequate, reliable mass transit services from one borough to another. On Staten Island, with no subway, that’s the ferry.
The 2004 compromise mentioned by the paper involved an agreement between the Mayor’s Office and the City Council to increase peak-hour and daytime service while maintaining hour-long headways at night. The City Council had asked for service every 30 minutes, but the Mayor threatening to bring a costly suit to maintain service levels at every 60 minutes. The agreement rested on ridership levels that DOT is hesitant to release.
I certainly feel more frequent ferry service would behoove the city as a whole, and the mayor is pushing forward on a plan to bring a 625-foot-tall ferris wheel and giant shopping mall to within steps of the ferry terminal. Such attractions scream out for more frequent ferry service.
But let’s propose something else: Why not put this effort into some serious planning for a Staten Island subway connection — and one that would obviate the need for any ferry service? As it stands today, the city invests $108 million annually into ferry service. The initial capital costs for a subway to the ferry terminal would probably run upwards of $5 billion — or 50 years of ferry subsidies — but subway service would generate revenue. Fares would be collected, and the one-seat, high-speed connection would lead to an increase in property value and tax revenue for the city too. A more rigorous study for the ridership and cost projections could boost this argument, but you see where I’m going with it.
New York City has such a tenuous relationship with its waterfront due to years of development patterns that prioritized heavy industry and cars over people and job centers, but ferries still have their roles to play. It seems that Staten Island needs more frequent ferry service. With the increased attention over the next few months on what is often a forgotten borough when it comes to transportation, perhaps now the stars will align for a few more boats.
There must be something in the water on Staten Island that causes politicians such consternation over transit improvements. SI politicians desperately want these improvements, but when they actually arrive — as in the case of, say, dedicated bus lanes for Select Bus Service — the very same politicians complain. No one proved this point better than Sen. Andrew Lanza when, earlier this week, he followed a plea for better Staten Island transit service with a six-minute rant against Select Bus Service. He’s not the only one though.
Beginning this week, after nearly a year of Select Bus Service on Staten Island, camera enforcement of dedicated bus lanes will begin. At well-marked locations along Hylan Boulevard, cameras will be in place to catch lane violators, and the drivers will receive a summons in the mail. Cars can use the red lanes to make the next immediate right-hand turn or for quick pick-ups and drop-offs, but those driving in the line will get socked with a $115 fine. I’d prefer physically separated dedicated bus lanes, and even allowing limited car access to bus lanes will slow down travel. But this arrangement is better than nothing.
It’s also been a long time coming as DOT and the MTA have long made clear their desire for automated lane enforcement. But that didn’t stop Assembly Rep Nicole Malliotakis from calling camera enforcement atrocious and invasive. In explaining her position, she later claimed that senior citizens could grow confused and panicked over bus lanes and get ticketed for driving in the wrong lane. It’s a trap.
In reality, it’s not a trap but a way to improve travel for all. We cannot seem to reallocate street space to prioritize transit riders, and bus lane cameras are one measure that would help travel for all. Staten Island keeps asking for more transit, but then, its representatives don’t like the answers. Pick a side.
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.
The endless parade of mayoral forums various boroughs and city organizations host over the course of an election season may not bring much clarity on the differences amongst the candidates. After a while, everyone starts to sound the same, and the various discussions blend together into one giant mess of pandering city politicians. Yet, they can provide fodder for potential projects that may never have a chance to see the light of day, and last night’s on Staten Island did not disappoint.
When Staten Island hosts a mayoral forum, the discussion inevitably turns to the transportation options. SI residents hate the tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge; they hate the lack of transit options on the island; and they hate how the mayor has focused on a potential subway to Secaucus before exploring a subway to Staten Island. (In fact, Diane Savino has threatened to throw an obstructionist fit in the off chance the mayor’s plan moves forward before the end of the year.)
Last night, in between candidates decrying state control of the MTA and the need to improve ferry service, former MTA Chairman and GOP mayoral hopeful Joe Lhota spoke about the need to connect Staten Island to, well, somewhere. During the forum, Lhota discussed the need to connect the R train to Staten Island. Lhota’s plan, hardly unique in the recent history of proposals to send the subway to Staten Island, harkens back to the original 1913 BMT plans and the 1939 IND Second System proposal to dig under the Narrows via 67th St. in Brooklyn. As part of an aborted effort to realize this subway extension, workers dug out around 150 feet but gave up after a dispute with Mayor Hylan in the mid-1920s.
So does it make sense for 2013? Ignoring the idea that Staten Island is likely better served with rail on the North Shore and a connection to the Hudson Bergen Rail Light, let’s look at a potential cross-Narrows connection. First, we have the issue of cost. In 2007, Lew Fidler proposed transit and rail freight tunnels that he estimated would cost a total of $10 billion, and in 2010, Diane Savino claimed a subway connection would set back the city by $3 billion. As there are no serious recent studies on the tunnel, it’s unclear how much it would cost, but billions — with a b — is a good starting point.
Next up are travel times. My kneejerk reaction to suggest that a cross-harbor tunnel with a direct connection to Lower Manhattan would be a better use of funds, but it would use up more of those funds. Furthermore, travel times to key job centers may not be worse along 4th Ave. If a Staten Island subway ran express or if riders transferred at 59th St. to an N, that segment of ride lasts about 10 mintes to the Atlantic Ave./Barclays Center stop and around 30-35 minutes to Times Square. A cross-harbor subway, spanning the 5+ miles to the 1 at South Ferry or R at Whitehall St., would likely arrive in Lower Manhattan in about 8-12 minutes but would bypass any job centers in Brooklyn completely.
Meanwhile, there’s a third cost element to consider: Would either a cross-Harbor or a trans-Narrows subway allow the city to cut back or eliminate Staten Island ferry service? According to the latest figures, the subsidizes ferry trips to the tune of $108 million annually. Cutting ferry subsidies to zero would still require three decades or more to recoup costs, but fare collection could help offset the investment. That’s a dirty calculation that assumes the city could cut ferry service entirely, but it’s a factor to consider at least.
For now, we’re just dreaming and thinking off the cuff. No one is yet willing to champion a subway to Staten Island, and even those politicians such as Savino who are willing to talk about it use it as a threat more than a promise. At the mayoral forum, Lhota recognized a need and a talking point that plays well to the audience, but the truth is that there are far more worthwhile subway expansion projects than this one. Staten Island will likely just have to keep on waiting.
Considering Staten Island’s lukewarm embrace of Select Bus Services and the fits SI politicians threw over flashing blue lights, the news that camera enforcement is coming to SBS bus lanes should raise an eyebrow or two. As the Staten Island Advance reported yesterday, DOT crews are installing cameras along the bus lane on Hylan Boulevard and expect to activate them by month’s end. Those drivers found cruising down the SBS lanes during certain hours will receive a $115 summons in the mail.
According to the Advance, drivers can make only an immediate right-hand turn or pick up and drop off passengers, but continued travel in the dedicated lane will result in a fine. Already, Staten Islanders are concerned that “drivers unfamiliar wth the area could be at a disadvantage,” but these residents recognize the benefits. “I think overall, for the intention that they are trying to do in keeping motorists out of the lanes, it will work,” Michael Reilly said to the paper.
Lane enforcement is the next step in improving the bus system. Without it, SBS lanes are nothing but painted strips of asphalt, and the cameras will help clear the lanes of cars while keeping the buses moving. DOT plans to add signal prioritization to Staten Island later this year, and by then, we’ll know how accepting the prickly borough has been of camera lane enforcement efforts.
As the Mayor’s idea to bring the 7 train to Secaucus has gained steam over the past few weeks, New Yorkers have raised a skeptical eyebrow toward this plan. As many have noted, why should the city look to expand its subway to New Jersey when parts of, say, eastern Queens are chomping at the bit for better transit? Nowhere have the cries been louder to ignore the Garden State in favor of city-focused expansion than from Staten Island.
Now, I’ve been skeptical of Staten Island and its politicians. As I explored last week, the elected official raising the most hell is also the one who has been the least willing to embrace transit. State Senator Diane Savino vowed to block any funding for a subway to New Jersey that may arise before Staten Island gets its subway, but she’s also been one of the worst transit detractors amongst the New York City constituency in Albany. The city should hardly reward such petulant behavior.
But if we put aside petty differences and an obsession with borders that trumps a focus on the regional economy, we have to ask a serious question: Does Staten Island and its demographics warrant a rail connection, and if so, where should that rail connection go? The Staten Island Advance earlier this week kinda, sorta made that argument. In a piece that focused more on feeling left out of the city’s place, the Advance’s editorial board opined:
It seems to us that New Jersey commuters already have multiple mass transit connections to Manhattan, including the PATH tubes from Jersey City and Hoboken into downtown Manhattan and the New Jersey Transit tunnel that brings trains on that line into Penn Station. (And don’t forget that New Jersey residents also have ample car and bus access into the city via the Lincoln and Holland tunnels and the George Washington Bridge.)
This is where we start jumping up and down and yelling, “Hey! Mayor Mike! We’re over here!” State Sen. Diane Savino responded to the news of this proposal with disbelief…She has warned that she will vote against any state funds for expanding the No. 7 train unless Staten Island gets a rail connection to Manhattan. A light rail line to connect to New Jersey Transit’s Hudson Bergen Light Rail station in Bayonne over the Bayonne Bridge will do fine — and it wouldn’t cost anywhere near what a tunnel under the Hudson will cost…
And, in any case, Mr. Bloomberg will be out of office by the end of the year, and will no doubt take this big idea with him. Still, it would nice if he thought about his fellow New Yorkers in this borough before worrying about easing the commute for people in northern New Jersey.
Here, we encounter two ideas for a Staten Island subway: a connection to Manhattan (either the slow way via 4th Ave. in Brooklyn or the fast way under the harbor to South Ferry) or a rail line over the Bayonne Bridge. There is no small irony in the Advance advocating for the latter while bemoaning Bloomberg’s “worrying about easing the commute for people in northern New Jersey” because that’s exactly what a connection to the Hudson Bergen Light Rail would do. Stil, Staten Island deserves something.
As it stands now, approximately 56,000 Staten Island residents commute to Manhattan every day. On the other hand, as of late last decade, over 70,000 Hudson County residents and over 65,000 Bergen County residents made the trip from New Jersey to Manhattan. According to research conducted by the Center for an Urban Future, approximately thirty percent of those New Jersey commuters drove alone into the city. The numbers for Staten Island weigh against a Manhattan connection in lieu of a Secaucus subway, but we run into a chicken/egg problem. A fast connection between Staten Island and Manhattan would likely boost the number of commuters, and New Jersey does indeed enjoy robust transit connections into Manhattan.
Meanwhile, the HBLR connection is likely a better one. The Center for an Urban Future has determined that, since 1990, the percent of Staten Island residents commuting to Manhattan grew by just four percent while trips within Staten Island grew by 32 percent and trips to adjacent counties — including New Jersey — increased by 22 percent.
So where does that leave us? The obvious candidates for Staten Island rail connections if we want to meet growing demand would involve an intra-island option — such as a reactivation of the North Shore Rail Line (and not a base lane) — and a rail link to the HBLR via the Bayonne Bridge. A subway to Manhattan would be superfluous with a cost that far exceeds its demand. Even still, Staten Island certainly could use the increased transit investments, and the options are on the table for all to see. They’re just not as sexy as a subway to New Jersey for an outgoing mayor looking to leave one final lasting mark on his city.
Albany: Home to a bunch of crooks, stool pigeons and politicians who are adept at cutting off their noses to spite their face. We know that Albany’s relationship with sensible transit planning isn’t a particularly strong one, but Diane Savino, a State Senator from Staten Island takes the cake this week. In response to the EDC endorsement of the 7 line to Secaucus, Savino has vowed a war. She will do all she can to block any state funding for such a subway extension until and unless Staten Island gets a subway connection to the rest of the city first.
“Are they out of their minds?” Savino said to the Staten Island Advance. “We are part of New York City, we are a borough of over half a million people, it is past time we have similar transportation alternatives that are provided to the other boroughs. The NYCEDC would be better served by following their mandate, serving the people of the City of New York.”
Savino’s attitude is beyond provincial and focuses far too much on state borders instead of the proper measures of use, efficiency and economic development. Would a subway from Staten Island to Manhattan (or even to the R train along 4th Ave.) be feasible, cheaper and, most importantly, as heavily utilized as an extension into Secaucus? Without much further study, we don’t know, but the Hoboken/Secaucus area has a much higher population density than Staten Island. Were Savino to make good on her threat, it could seriously impact a project that could be of great benefit to all of New York City.
Meanwhile, if Savino is serious about a subway to Staten Island, she could start by being a better transit advocate. Over the years, she has voted to reduce MTA subsidies without reading the bill at hand, she has urged for a repeal of the payroll mobility tax, and she has was disproportionately outraged over a request for information the MTA issued two years ago.
Buried deep with the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Laws is a peculiar provision governing the use of flashing lights on motor vehicles. The law states that, except as otherwise outlined, only white lights may be used outside of vehicles. Those exceptions, as you may have guessed, cover emergency vehicles. Blue lights, for instance, may be used only by volunteer firefighters and, in combination with red and white lights, by other emergency responders on their vehicles.
“That’s great, Ben,” you may be thinking, “but why should we care about flashing blue lights?” Well, since 2008, when the MTA and DOT launched Select Bus Service, the city’s half-hearted attempt at a bus rapid transit network, the MTA SBS vehicles have been adorned with flashing blue lights to distinguish these vehicles from local buses. Today, the MTA issued an order rescinding the use of such lights and a statement:
Reacting to specific concerns, MTA New York City Transit has agreed to turn off the flashing blue lights that have served to alert riders to the arrival of Select Bus Service buses (SBS) since the speedier service was introduced. This measure is being taken to eliminate the possibility of confusing the vehicles with volunteer emergency vehicles, which are entitled by law to use the blue lights. We are currently in the process of developing an alternate means of identifying SBS buses.
The statement and its timing are both interesting. The MTA doesn’t make a nod toward the Vehicle and Traffic Law provision which it has ostensibly been violating, and it’s unclear if anyone in enforcement actually cared. A 2010 Pete Donohue piece on the questionable legality of the flashing blue lights featured a NYPD Highway Unit captain who had no idea the blue light law was even on the books.
Yet, this dispute arises from somewhere, and for that somewhere, we turn our eyes to Staten Island. Staten Island has never been much for road re-allocation, and some politicians raised a stink when the MTA added SBS lanes to Hylan Boulevard. State Sen. Andrew Lanza and City Councilman Vincent Ignizio issued a call this fall for the MTA to change the lights. The two were concerned that drivers would become “desensitized” to flashing lights.
Another SI rep added a gem: “These were highly distracting, partially blinding and made drivers unreasonably nervous when they saw flashing blue lights in their rearview mirrors,” Assembly member Joe Borelli said. I’m not sure how many times people have confused the sky blue SBS lights with a volunteer fire fighter’s car or a police vehicle, but I digress.
This whole dust-up seems to be the perfect storm of careful planning and needling politicians looking to make a point. The MTA will have to pay to retrofit its Select Bus Service vehicles with other flashing lights, and a group of Staten Island politicians can claim political victory over that meddlesome new bus service. And to think, all of this could have been avoided if the MTA had simply consulted with lawyers familiar with state law in the first place.
As the 2012 focus on fare evasion continues, The Daily News has learned that the city’s most porous buses can be found on Staten Island. According to Pete Donohue’s latest, the S44 and the S74 are the citywide leaders in fare evasion with a greater percentage of riders opting not to pay. Three routes in the Bronx — the Bx19, Bx36 and Bx11 — rounded out the top five.
MTA Board Member and State Islander Allan Cappelli continued his crusade against free-loaders. “The problem is so pervasive it’s really going to require a sustained and publicized effort,” he said. “In order to eradicate it, we need to change people’s perception that they can get away with not paying, and that there’s no penalty for doing it.”
Police have so far responded in turn as arrests for fare evasion have increased by over 100 percent this year. With renewed focus on the economic losses due to fare evasion — nearly $100 million across the bus and subway networks — police enforcement will likely increase over the next few months. Is it money well spent? The jury will remain out on that question for some time.