City Vague on Traffic Safety Price Tag

Officials admitted that making city streets safer will almost certainly cost money. But when the City Council asked for details on that spending at Thursday's budget hearing, details were few -- despite the fact that several city agencies say it's full speed ahead on Vision Zero. 

Safety is the top priority at the Department of Transportation, Commissioner Polly Trottenberg said. At the Taxi and Limousine Commission, "staff is already hard at work" implementing the Mayor's plan to eliminate traffic deaths, according to Conan Freud, the agency's chief operating officer. 

“Some of the things proposed in the Vision Zero plan don’t require dollars,” Freud said, noting that the agency has already put announcements in taxi cabs and sent messages to drivers. But some will take additional resources, and the TLC is working with the Office of Management and Budget to pin down a figure, he added.

But new signals and signs, stepped-up enforcement, and outreach all carry a price tag. 

The Vision Zero plan calls on the DOT to undertake major safety improvements at 50 sites per year. Trottenberg said upcoming town halls and local-level workshops will help with choosing those locations. 

There is already a backlog of requests for slow zones and new speed bumps, Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer said. But those changes can take years, he added, and require jumping through endless hoops. 

“We’re hoping to streamline that, so communities don’t have to wait two or three years to get a stop sign,” Trottenberg said. That said, “there is a resource question there." 

On the Vision Zero action plan, the MTA is “conspicuously absent,” said Councilman Stephen Levin. That’s because it’s not a city agency, responded Lois Tendler, vice president of government and community relations at New York City Transit. MTA staff is having discussions with the DOT about how to be a part of the on-going effort, she said.

For Levin, those discussions should include attention to city buses. A Q59 bus killed a 21-year-old woman, Marisol Martinez, in Levin’s district early Saturday morning, he noted, and asked whether the MTA has considered putting guards on the rear wheels of the city’s bus fleet. Such guards are designed to reduce pedestrian deaths by pushing people out of the wheel’s path in case of a collision.

“We don’t think they work for us,” Tendler responded. “We think they would not help guard (against) the kind of accidents we’ve been seeing.”

The MTA was also pressed on the cost overruns for the East Side Access project. The construction on the east side was originally slated to cost $4 billion and be done by 2009. It is now expected to cost between $10.1 and $10.7 billion, and the target date is between 2021 and 2023. The council also asked about another long-standing problem: overcrowding on the 4/5/6 line.

Trains are commonly so crowded he can’t board, Councilman James Vacca said. “I don’t even have the privilege to be a sardine.”

The only hope for relief is the completion of the Second Avenue Subway, Tendler said, since the MTA cannot add more trains to the route.

The council members seemed more pleased with the answers on Select Bus Service expansion. There are currently six select bus lines running, and another is being added this spring, across the top of Manhattan to LaGuardia Airport. Tendler said that having 20 routes was “an ambitious goal in the next four years, but we’re happy to try to make it,” although, like her counterparts at the TLC and DOT, she cautioned that every improvement has budget implications.

Here are some other highlights:

The TLC seized 9,600 vehicles last year for operating as taxis without a license, a nearly 60% increase over fiscal year 2012.

There are just 250 licensed commuter vans in New York City, Freud said. Which means, Councilman I. Daneek Miller said, there are a lot of unlicensed dollar vans on the streets – and he wants a crackdown.

Many council members say they are willing to put in discretionary money to expand Citi Bike, per Councilman Brad Lander.

Councilmember Helen Rosenthal’s constituents are concerned about the environmental impacts of road salt. Fun fact: you can use gerbil litter rather than salt, she said. Although as Trottenberg said, “I’m not sure there’s a big enough global supply of gerbil litter for New York City.”