I haven’t had much to say of late about the illustrious 2013 mayoral race because there hasn’t been very much to say. By all accounts, Bill de Blasio is going to moonwalk into Gracie Mansion in two weeks, and it’s not even going to be close. He’s currently polling between 45-50 points above Joe Lhota, and city Republicans are willing to go on the record to criticize Lhota’s campaign. What fun is a race that isn’t one?
On Tuesday night, though, words from the two candidates both intrigued and irked me. It was the second-to-last debate before the election, and as Joe Lhota attacked, the two candidates parried. The debate isn’t going to change many voters’ minds at this point, and absent an utterly shocking October Surprise, de Blasio will move up while Lhota will move on. But last night, transit came to the forefront, and it was dismaying.
First, Lhota, the former MTA head who made headlines by improving operations at the agency and leading it through the post-Sandy recovery phase, spoke once more of his plan to decouple bridge and tunnel toll revenue from the MTA. Ignoring history, Lhota believes that the city should set toll policy (but not fare policy for the subways apparently) and that the city should determine what to do with bridge and tunnel revenue. This is, by the way, in marked contrast to congestion pricing which would funnel more money to transit.
So what would the impact of such a move be? Off the bat, the MTA would lose 12 percent of its expected revenue for 2014. To recoup that in other transit fares would require a hike of nearly 25 percent or direct contributions topping $1.6 billion. Lhota hasn’t proposed another revenue stream to make it up for the lost money, and as a former agency head, he should know better. Of course, it’s pandering pure and simple, and it’s something the state would never authorize. But this is what passes for transit discourse during a city-wide campaign.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the stage, Bill de Blasio decided to go after safe streets. Both mayoral candidates agreed on this point, but de Blasio put it to words. When asked about his views on pedestrian plazas, he said, “I have profoundly mixed feelings on this issue…The jury’s out.” To me, this does not show a politician willing to lead and guide the city through early 21st century growth and progress. This shows a politician willing to kowtow to special interests that barely exist.
Is the jury still out? Four years ago, a poll found that 58 percent of New Yorkers supported the creation of a pedestrian plaza between Times and Herald Squares with just 34 percent opposing. Those numbers have only increased over the past few years. Meanwhile, a 2010 DOT survey found drastic results. Travel times and congestion were down while pedestrian safety was markedly improved. Injuries were down by 35 percent, and nearly three quarters of New Yorkers though the area had “improved dramatically.” Today, businesses love the pedestrian plazas as they are crowded at all hours of the day, and retail rents in Times Square are now the highest in the city.
The jury isn’t out, but still, politicians insist it is. Meanwhile, I’ve passed a memorial to a 12-year-old killed by a car that rips out of my heart every day I walk or run by. We hear constant stories of accidents involving young and old pedestrians while police file no charges. We ask for improvements to the city-scape that lead to more community engagement and safer streets, and yet politicians do not lead. They do not understand what makes a city a city and what makes vibrant urban life possible. It isn’t making sure we limit pedestrians to five-foot-wide strips of concrete.
Maybe when de Blasio is mayor, this rhetoric will be just that, and he’ll continue the Bloomberg Administration’s safer streets plans. But it’s dismaying and disillusioning to hear two men trying to lead the city come up empty on such important topics. It may not have the cachet of education, crime, housing or jobs, but transit, transportation and street life are integral parts of New York City. What we saw last night wasn’t anything close to leadership.