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NY Gov Considering Tappan Zee Greenway Proposal

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Tappan Zee Bridge (Nrbelex/WNYC)

(Brian Zumhagen -- WNYC) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says the state is considering turning the existing Tappan Zee Bridge into a "greenway" instead of demolishing it when a new adjacent span is built.

Such a move would turn the current 57-year-old bridge into a walkway, similar to the one spanning the Hudson 45 miles upriver at Poughkeepsie.

Officials have said a new bridge carrying the NY Thruway between Rockland and Westchester counties would cost $5.2 billion, with rail lines and bus lanes costing billions more if added to the project -- something transit advocates have been advocating fiercely for, even running radio ads to pressure Cuomo. The current plans for the replacement bridge, supported by Governor Cuomo, has no mass transit option.

Cuomo says turning the current Tappan Zee into a crossing for pedestrians and bicyclists would offer outstanding views and recreational opportunities for visitors.

The walkway idea has been raised by town of Greenburgh Supervisor Paul Feiner.

With the Associated Press

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First Two, Then the Rest: Airlines Pass On Fuel Costs to Customers

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Nearly every airline boosted fares over the past week. It's because of rising gas prices as Marketplace reports.

Jet fuel prices have taken off since the beginning of the year. Last week, JetBlue and Southwest decided to pass some of those costs along to passengers, and it didn’t take long for most of the others to follow.

Fuel prices are expected to keep rising, so George Hobica at sees more fare hikes in the future -- within limits. "Airlines can raise airfares only so much before consumers stay home, drive or find other means of transportation," he said, noting the price jumps also apply to business travelers. "Our company was just handed down an edict, please treat the company’s money as your own and consider teleconferencing and Skyping."

Still, mergers and bankruptcies have reduced competition in the airline industry. Rick Seaney at says that gives survivors more opportunities to pass along costs. "I expect airlines to continue to try to raise prices every couple weeks with limited success." This is nothing especially new. Last year when the FAA partially shutdown, airlines profited by not passing on the savings from the government's failure to collect federal passenger taxes.

Seaney says they keep a close eye on sales of middle seats. When those fall off, airlines have to roll back price hikes.

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NYC's First Ever Weeknight Subway Shutdown Could Be First of Many

Monday, January 23, 2012

Service notice for the shutdown of part of the 4/5/6 subway line. (Photo: Caitlyn Kim/WNYC)

(Brian Zumhagen, WNYC -- New York, NY) Transit officials say shutting down sections of subway lines for several nights in a row could be a new model for how to do maintenance work on the city’s subway system.

At an MTA meeting Monday, board members reviewed the first so-called "Fast Track" project that halted service on the Lexington Avenue lines from Grand Central to Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. from January 9-13.

Carmen Bianco, head of the Department of Subways, said crews can work more efficiently when they don't have to back away from the tracks every few minutes. "We're able to complete work that we would not normally be able to do in our normal customary way of doing it," he said. "Also, the level of safety, the level of exposure goes down for employees, because we're not running trains."

Bianco added that workers completed all 324 tasks they had set for themselves, including rebuilding stairways and scraping the tracks clean down to the concrete.

Still, New York City Transit President Tom Prendergast said it's too soon to say if Fast Track will become standard operating procedure. "This is the first time ever in the history of this organization that we've done this. So we need to actually have three or four more experiences before we can ascertain how successful it is and how we can improve upon it, and what the impacts are."

Transit officials said they're still studying the data from the shutdown of the No. 4, 5 and 6 line to see what changes they might make as they prepare for three other "Fast Track" operations scheduled in the coming weeks.

"The thing we are very sensitive to is that it is an inconvenience to our customers," Bianco said. "We've got a little bit of work to do in terms of making sure we're getting the right message out" to riders about service changes.

The next "Fast Track" operation will shut down the Seventh Avenue line (1, 2 and 3) between Penn Station and Nevins Street in Brooklyn from  February 13-17. Crews will then tackle the Sixth Avenue line (B, D, F and M) at the end of February, followed by the Eighth Avenue line (A, C and E) in March.

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NY Taxi Receipts May Get Advertisements

Thursday, January 19, 2012

(New York, NY -- Kathleen Horan, WNYC) Another icon of the yellow cab is swaying:  those slow-to-emerge, rice-paper thin receipts.

The small, somewhat understated receipts taxi passengers may be becoming a thing of the past as the New York Taxi and Limousine votes  to allow advertisements on the back of the receipts.  Those ads could be for almost anything  -- from gyms to strip clubs to banks.

. “Apparently they will get bigger to accommodate the ads. Our rules won’t require the receipts to be any bigger but that’s what the industry will move toward,” TLC Commissioner David Yassky said.

Yassky said any ad revenue the industry makes could potentially keep prices down for customers.

“The credit card vendors would get the advertising revenue. The theory is that it holds down the fees they charge to taxi owners and holds down fare pressure,” Yassky explained.

But the drivers group Taxi Workers Alliance opposes having ads on the back of taxi receipts, since cabbies won’t share in the revenue. The group's Executive Director Bhairavi Desai said drivers haven't received a fare increase since 2004, yet they pay at least five percent for every credit card transaction.

“Hard working drivers shouldn’t have to provide charity to 5th Avenue advertisers, taxi technology vendors or taxi garages. It’s the driver’s labor, customer service, gas money and lease, so they should have the ad money,” Desai said.

One of the two technology vendors who work with the city to provide credit card readers in cabs, VeriFone, outfits about 6, 600 of the city’s 13,237 yellow cabs. According to TLC officials, that company is most eager to put ads on the back of receipts. It might be ideal for them, since they also provide taxi meters that will print the longer receipts. They’ll have the ability to make any required tweaks the machines require.

VeriFone did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the issue.

The TLC and other industry officials have yet to release an estimate about how much revenue the possible ads could provide to the vendors.

UPDATE: The vote was tabled until next month while the TLC gets information from VeriFone on total advertising revenue.

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What's New: Unpacking Bloomberg's State of the City Address

Thursday, January 12, 2012


By WNYC Newsroom

Mayor Michael Bloomberg vowed to boot bad teachers from city schools by creating teams at struggling schools that would rate teachers and eliminate up to half of their staff.

Delivering the annual State of the City address on Thursday, Bloomberg’s selection of the Bronx's Morris High School as a backdrop for the remarks drew into focus the mayor’s role in public education, a theme he drove home in his speech.

"With an evaluation system now required by law, rewarding great teaching is an idea whose time has come," Bloomberg said. "We hope the UFT (teachers' union) will join us in this effort, because it’s the right thing to do for our schools and our teachers."

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Albany to Tackle Health Exchanges in Coming Months

Monday, January 09, 2012

Governor Andrew Cuomo says creating a health insurance exchange for New York is a priority for 2012.

State-run exchanges are mandated by President Barack Obama’s federal health care overhaul. Exchanges would effectively make states play the role of insurance broker to help people and small businesses buy coverage from private companies.

Last year, Albany almost passed a bill that would lay the groundwork for an exchange, before hitting an impasse in the Republican-controlled State Senate. Now, New York runs the risk of having the Federal government impose a system on them--something State Senate Republicans say could cost the state up to $3.75 billion.

Read the full article on WNYC here.

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Cuomo's Education Commission Idea Getting Mixed Marks

Thursday, January 05, 2012

By Karen Dewitt, New York Public Radio Capital Bureau Chief

In his State of the State speech, Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a new commission to reevaluate the state’s education system. A day later, it’s receiving a mixed response.

Cuomo set up a potential fight with the education establishment during an otherwise mostly congenial State of the State speech, when he chided them for what he says is putting their own interests before those of school children. He told the crowd that superintendents, principles, teachers, and janitors have their own lobbyists.

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NY Governor Cuomo Sets State on Course for 2nd Year

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

January 4, 2012 | 4:07 PM | By WNYC Newsroom/Associated Press

  (Couresy of the Governor's office.)

Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday outlined what he hopes are the next steps to reviving New York state.

During his second State of the State address, the first-term Democrat set an aggressive, if less dramatic, agenda for his second year. It includes plans for the country's largest convention center in New York City and a $1 billion jobs initiative for the long distressed city of Buffalo.

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Full Text: 2012 State of the State Address

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

SOS Book

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First Stage of New York State Capitol Facelift Completed

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Prior to giving his State of the State address, Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders ceremonially reopened the newly renovated Hall of Governors in the State Capitol, and unveiled the restored Assembly staircase skylight, which had been painted over in World War Two.

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Cuomo Finishes First Year Strong But Biggest Challenges May Lie Ahead

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

January 4, 2012 | 12:54 PM | By Bob Hennelly

Governor Andrew Cuomo will give his second State of the State address Wednesday afternoon. It will also mark his first full year on the job.

So far, judging by his poll numbers and his list of accomplishments, Cuomo appears to have strong momentum as he heads into his second year in office. And he will need every bit of it — and more — because his greatest challenges still may be ahead of him.

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Invasion of the Body Scanners: They’re Spreading, But Are They Safe and Effective?

Friday, December 30, 2011

A Transportation Security Administration volunteer demonstrates a full-body scanner at O'Hare International Airport on March 15, 2010 in Chicago. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) This is part of our year-end series, looking at where things stand in each of our major investigations.

It has become routine for airline passengers across the country: Instead of walking through a metal detector, they now step into a body scanner, hold their arms over their heads and wait until a machine peers through their clothing to make sure they're not hiding explosives.

The Transportation Security Administration has deployed more than 500 of the body scanners, which they call "advanced imaging technology." And the agency plans to install them at nearly every security lane by 2014.

The TSA has insisted that the new scanners present "no health or safety concerns for any passenger." The agency has said they have been used around the world. And it has reiterated that the machines were evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, leading many to believe that one of the government's top safety regulators approved the technology.

But a ProPublica/PBS NewsHour investigation this year detailed how the TSA had glossed over cancer concerns about one kind of scanner that uses X-rays. In independent, peer-reviewed studies, radiation experts concluded that the X-ray scanner could cause six to 100 airline passengers each year to develop cancer. Outside the United States, few countries use X-ray imaging machines, also known as backscatters, in their airports. And the FDA has no authority to approve body scanners before they are sold because they are electronic products, not medical devices.

In 1998, an FDA advisory panel recommended a federal safety standard for the X-ray scanners. But the agency decided to go with a voluntary standard set by an industry group made up mostly of manufacturers and government agencies that wanted to use the machine.

In November, the European Union decided to prohibit X-ray body scanners in European airports. In the United States, members of Congress have pushed the TSA to conduct a new, independent safety review. And in Florida earlier this month, Broward County commissioners voted [6] to demand the TSA prove that the X-ray imagers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport are safe.

The TSA uses two types of body scanners:

  • The backscatter X-ray machine looks like two blue boxes and is used at major airports, such as Los Angeles, Chicago O'Hare and John F. Kennedy in New York.
  • The millimeter-wave machine looks like a round glass booth and is used at hubs such as Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth and San Francisco.

The X-ray scanner emits extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that strips electrons from atoms and damages DNA, potential leading to cancer. That risk, although small, has led some prominent scientists to ask why the TSA doesn't use just the millimeter-wave scanner, which uses low-powered electromagnetic waves that have not been linked to adverse health effects.

The TSA has said that keeping both technologies in play encourages the manufacturers to improve detection capability while lowering the cost for the taxpayer. The agency says the X-ray machine is safe because the radiation is equivalent to the amount passengers receive in two minutes of flying at altitude.

But ProPublica found some potential problems with the millimeter-wave scanner. Several other countries have reported a high rate of false alarms caused by innocuous things, such as folds in clothing, buttons and even sweat.

Other studies and a congressman briefed on classified tests have suggested the scanners could miss carefully concealed plastic explosives like the weapon used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009.

As Congress continues to debate the safety and quality of the body scanners, government investigators are set to release two important reports in the new year. The inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security is evaluating how well the TSA is monitoring the radiation of the backscatters. Meanwhile, the Government Accountability Office is wrapping up an investigation of the machines' detection capability, the results of which are likely to be classified.

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New York's Taxi Bill's Long and Bumpy Ride

Friday, December 23, 2011

(New York, NY -- Kathleen Horan, WNYC) The path for Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s outer borough taxi plan was much like long a cab ride: bumpy and expensive.

It’s been a mix of big political personalities and deep pockets that will lead to the virtual dismantling of the way New York's  for-hire transportation industry will operate in the future.

Now that the Bloomberg sponsored legislation has Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signature, and both sides have called the agreement a win, much of the rest of the industry is trying to assess what the changes will actually mean.

Street Hails for Livery Cabs Causes a Stir

It all began last January, when Bloomberg announced he'd push for legislation that would allow all New Yorkers to hail a cab, whether it was black or yellow. That  raised the ire of much of the taxi industry, who said the Bloomberg administration never consulted with them or gave them a heads up that the mayor intended to change the way the taxi business operates.

Bloomberg’s people said they worked hard to reach out to all sides as the legislation was being drafted and agreed upon.

The mayor only needed Albany’s approval to sell more yellow medallions. But he hoped to by-pass the yellow medallion industry’s pull with the City Council --  and the industry passionately opposed sharing the exclusive right to accept street hails with livery counterparts.

In the six months between the announcement of the plan in January and the passage of the legislation in June, there were feverish negotiations and loud rallies organized by various factions of the yellow and black car stakeholders. Lobbyists were hired to fight the proposal upstate.  In those first months alone, the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, the group representing 23 yellow taxi fleet garages, enlisted three different lobbying firms, paying out more than $100,000.

Bloomberg said in a written statement  at the time that “The legislation marks an historic turning point for the riding public in New York City and solves a problem that has proven intractable for decades.”

What it marked was another serving of intractable for the mayor.

The Bill's Loud, Vocal Opposition

Bloomberg’s Senate sponsor, Martin Golden, said he signed onto the plan too soon without understanding the “repercussions.” Critics said Golden agreed to sponsor the bill, in part, because Bloomberg is generous to Republicans, in the city and upstate. But the state senator didn’t realize how many in the industry opposed the plan.  His phone — as other lawmakers' — rang off the hook. Angry livery base owners and others in their constituency complained that the plan would hurt their business.

As insiders continued to fight the plan or support it, the legislation seemed to be getting the cold shoulder from Governor Cuomo.

Then, in October, Cuomo showed his political hand by commenting on an opinion letter the U.S. Attorney filed on a lawsuit alleging the city violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by not having enough accessible cabs in its fleet (about two percent of more 13,000 taxis).

Cuomo said, “I understand and appreciate the concerns raised by the U.S. Attorneys office. Moreover, I understand the human needs of the disabled community when it comes to taxis. We will be addressing the issue as we consider modifications to the pending legislation.”

The governor continued to hammer Bloomberg and Taxi and Limousine Commissioner David Yassky about wheelchair accessibility. In his public comments, Cuomo didn’t shy away from threatening veto if it wasn’t changed.

Cuomo held 2 “taxi summits” calling industry stakeholders to his office. One was held in New York City and the other was held in Albany last month — chaired by the man himself.

At one point, a deal was said to be struck, and details were leaked. The number of outer borough permits would be cut and the number of accessible medallions would increase. But Cuomo denied any ‘plan.’ Insiders said the governor resented officials in the Bloomberg administration discussing the deal and shut it down as punishment.

Countdown Begins: To Veto or Not Veto

The bill landed on Cuomo’s desk without changes and the ten day clock began to tick.

Bhairavi Desai, head of the drivers group the Taxi Workers Alliance said, “Cuomo’s meeting was very surreal. We’ve always known our opposition was wealthy and politically connected. Everyone around that table had like millions of dollars or more in assets.”

There were yellow fleet owners, lenders, financial institutions and credit unions, along with their lobbyists. Livery groups and representatives from the disability community were also in attendance.

Desai said the city offered her group some sweeteners, but it was also about opposing the fat cats. “They say it’s about the medallion value—but it’s about the monopoly—their sense of control.”

The last couple days before the deadline, political insiders and industry stakeholders forecasted a veto by Cuomo. He himself said on numerous occasions that outcome was possible. When Bloomberg was asked by reporters each day if a deal would be passed he dismissed questions with a yes. But each successive day his mantra seemed less likely.

On the ninth day, the governor’s office sent out a release at 5:20 PM saying a taxi deal was struck.

At the press conference Cuomo and accessibility activists were there, along with TLC Commissioner Yassky. But Mayor Bloomberg was not. He made his comments via loudspeaker, not unlike the Wizard of Oz.

When asked at Bloomberg's celebratory press conference, surrounded by livery and taxi drivers on Wednesday, why he didn’t attend the event announcing an agreement he had fought for the whole year, Bloomberg said, “My job is here, I’ve got to work here. I was honored to speak, I don’t need my picture on TV all the time. I had the person there in the administration [David Yassky] that did the work. I was pleased and as I remember I had to cut my presentation short to light the world’s tallest menorah!”

Bloomberg also denied there was any bad blood between him and the governor. He said the negotiations actually resulted in a better bill. “What I wanted was 500 more yellow cabs for more city revenue and the Governor was focused on more accessibility.”

Waiting for the Final Language

Both camps have quieted down now that an agreement has been reached, but likely not for long.

Several issues still remain, such as will the city actually get over $1 billion from the sale of 2,000 yellow medallions and what the long-term Disabled Accessibility Plan will look like.

Marty McLaughlin who works with the lobbying firm Connelly, McLaughlin and Wolowz, forecasts much less revenue for the city than it projects.

“When you dilute a market — any market — the product itself is diluted,” he said. “No way they’ll get a billion dollars for these medallions, they’ve been diluted.”

The Livery Roundtable’s Guy Palumbo said industry opponents are taking the holidays to rest after actively fighting the plan for a year. “It’s taken a big physical toll, people are relieved either way. There’s a feeling of let’s cool our heels till January 1st then decide what to do.”

He said they’re also waiting to see what the actual language of the law will be and if the chapter amendment passes both houses of the legislature in January. “All the advisors have been telling everyone it could be good or it could be terrible. What’s in the law? No attorney will go to court without the law. We understand what’s agreed upon but without the actual language it’s never-never land.”

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DC Dangles Cash to Fight Congestion

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rush hour motorists jam the roadway getting into Washington, DC.

(Washington, DC -- Jessica Gould, WAMU) The District is partnering with two local universities to help employees live near where they work. As part of a new pilot program, the District is giving $60,000 each to Gallaudet and American universities to help staff members live within a couple miles of campus.

"Seventy percent of the people who work in the District of Columbia do not live in the city," says Mayor Vincent Gray. "Given the fact that we have no authority to tax income at its source it means that people who live outside the city then pay taxes in whatever jurisdiction in which they live."

The city is providing up to $6,000 dollars to help homeowners with downpayments or closing costs, and the universities will match the funds.

"It means reduced traffic congestion and air pollution and a stronger, more stable tax base for the city," says D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning.

Critics have called the program a drop in the bucket, but when it comes to improving the environment and enhancing the quality of life, Tregoning says every little bit counts.

"The employee also gets to spend less time commuting, and has a potentially healthier lifestyle because they're able to walk or bike, which is going to be good for them," Tregoning says.

For an audio version, click here.

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Just How Good Are the TSA’s Body Scanners?

Thursday, December 22, 2011

(Michael Grabell, ProPublica) It was the end of a four-hour congressional hearing, and Florida Rep. John Mica was fuming at Transportation Security Administration officials.

The TSA had begun deploying hundreds of body scanners [1] to prevent suicide bombers from smuggling explosives onto planes. But Mica, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation Committee, had asked the Government Accountability Office to test the machines. The results, he said, showed the equipment is "badly flawed" and "can be subverted."

"I've had it tested, and to me it's not acceptable," Mica said at the hearing earlier this year. "If we could reveal the failure rate, the American public would be outraged."

Mica's comments received almost no press coverage. But his outrage, together with other reports by government inspectors and outside researchers, raise the disturbing possibility that body scanners are performing far less well than the TSA contends.

The issue is difficult to assess since the government classifies the detection rates of the devices, saying it doesn't want to give terrorists a sense of their chances of beating the system.

But the evidence is mounting.

Just last week, Department of Homeland Security investigators reported that they had "identified vulnerabilities [2]" in the scanners' detection capability, though the specifics remain classified. Previous research cast doubt on whether the scanners, which are designed to see underneath clothing, would detect a carefully concealed plastic explosive like the one used by the underwear bomber on Christmas Day 2009. One study suggests the $170,000 scanners would likely miss some explosives that could be found during a pat-down.

And recently, Mica and other members of Congress were briefed by the GAO on the full findings of its covert tests. The results, Mica told ProPublica, are "embarrassing."

Other lawmakers who have also been briefed declined to comment.

How effective the machines are at thwarting terrorism is critical for evaluating whether the TSA is making airline passengers more secure or wasting taxpayers' money -- and possibly jeopardizing their safety. Research shows that one type of scanner, which uses X-rays, could slightly increase the number of cancer cases [3]. The other scanner, using millimeter waves, has been hampered by false alarms [4] caused by folds in clothing and even sweat.

The TSA says the body scanners are the best technology available and an improvement by leaps and bounds over the metal detectors, which cannot detect explosives or other nonmetallic weapons.

The agency says its body scanners have found more than 300 dangerous or illicit items -- everything from a loaded .380-caliber Ruger handgun [5] to exotic snakes [6] that a man tried to smuggle inside his pants.

Last month, TSA administrator John Pistole boasted to Congress that a scanner had picked up a piece of Nicorette gum [7]. And in Buffalo recently, a passenger who was caught with a ceramic knife [8] after a pat-down admitted that he had opted out of the scanner because he figured it would find the knife.

Although the TSA's machines have yet to find an explosive, screeners frequently come across bottles of alcohol and drugs, which could easily have been a powder or liquid explosive, spokesman Greg Soule said.

Two homeland security officials, who asked not be identified speaking about vulnerabilities, said recent intelligence that terrorists are considering implanting explosives [9] inside their bodies shows that the scanners are forcing would-be suicide bombers to adapt their methods. The body scanners see only underneath clothing, not inside the body. Carrying out an attack with an implanted weapon, the officials said, would be technically more difficult than if an attacker had a bomb strapped to their chest.

The GAO reported [10] in 2010, however, that it was "unclear" if the scanners would have caught the explosive PETN that underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to detonate on a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit.

After the failed attempt, the TSA ramped up its deployment of two types of body scanners [11] -- one using backscatter X-rays and another using low-powered electromagnetic waves, known as millimeter waves. The TSA says both are highly effective, but a small number of studies that have been released publicly raise questions about each machine's ability to detect explosives.

Last year, Leon Kaufman and Joe Carlson, two physicists at the University of California, San Francisco, simulated what the backscatter X-ray scanners might see if a passenger carefully molded explosives to blend in with the human body. The machines were effective for seeing metal objects hidden on the human body and could detect the hard edges of organic materials, such as a brick of explosives, according to the study published last year in the Journal of Transportation Security [12].

But a thin, irregularly-shaped pancake taped to the abdomen would be invisible in images because it would be easily confused with normal anatomy, Kaufman and Carlson wrote. "Thus, a third of a kilo of PETN, easily picked up in a competent pat-down, would be missed by backscatter 'high technology,'" they concluded.

"The amount of contrast between an explosive and tissue is very, very low and not in the range where someone viewing the images could discriminate it by eye," Carlson said in an interview.

Peter Kant of Rapiscan Systems, which makes the backscatter machine, declined to comment on the researchers' study but said the scanner "has exceeded all aviation security detection testing globally."

No recent study of the millimeter-wave machine, manufactured by L-3 Communications, could be found. But initial tests at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1996 showed a detection rate of 73 percent.

Bulk plastic explosives were the hardest threat to detect, according to the study by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Screeners who were new to the machine found nearly all the Glock pistols in the images, but they were able to identify the bulk explosives only 56 percent of the time.

Another study a few years later tested a primitive version of the privacy software now used in airports in which detection is performed by a computer, not a person. The detection rate was comparable, the researchers concluded, but the test did not break down the results by type of threat.

"Certain objects are tougher to find than others," said Tom Ripp, president of L-3's security and detection division. "I would think that both technologies have the capability to find these threats. Is it easy to find these threats? I would not say it's easy to find these threats. But they can be detected."

Prompted by an outcry over the graphic images the body scanners produce, the TSA began installing privacy software [13] on all of its millimeter-wave machines this summer. Instead of creating an image of the passenger's body, the machines now display a generic outline of a human body with potential threats highlighted by yellow boxes.

"The TSA has said that automated detection had to be as good as or better than the required detection by an operator," said Bill Frain, a senior vice president at L-3. "Right now, we're on par."

The X-ray body scanner, however, still produces images of passengers' bodies, which are examined by TSA screeners in a separate room. Rapiscan has developed an automated system, but it is undergoing tests in TSA research labs.

Before such software was developed, many security and imaging experts believed the backscatter X-ray machine produced sharper images than the millimeter-wave machine. Millimeter waves have longer wavelengths than X-rays, resulting in a lower resolution.

But with automated detection software, the machines would no longer produce images, and the ability of the machines to detect threats is more dependent on the algorithms used in the software.

The TSA has spent more than $100 million on the body scanners and plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more as it outfits nearly every airport security lane with a scanner by 2014.

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Maryland To Offer Preferential Funding For Smart Growth

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

New home construction, in Urbana, Maryland

New home construction, in Urbana, Maryland (photo by Sebastian Pires via Flickr)

(Sabri Ben-Achour--Washington, DC, WAMU) The rate of land consumption in Maryland is three times the rate of population growth, according to the state's department of planning. That's a lot of urban sprawl for a small state. So earlier this week, Governor Martin O'Malley issued an executive order for an anti-sprawl strategy called PlanMaryland, but it's set up tensions around the state.

"This is America, we don't do centralized top down planning," says Rich Rothschild, a county commissioner in rural Carroll County. "That resembles the actions of a dictatorship more than a constitutional republic."

PlanMaryland asks local governments to make their growth strategies "smarter" --meaning denser, and less sprawling. And it requires state agencies to preferentially fund smart growth. So when it comes to all the things the state helps with -- public roads, utilities, transit -- money won't go to a project that the state thinks promotes sprawl.

State law clearly puts local authorities in charge of zoning, but PlanMaryland still makes some local authorities nervous. There's also somewhat of a split between rural and urban counties. Roland Stanley is in charge of planning for Montgomery County. He doesn't view PlanMaryland as a threat because his county is largely already in line with smart growth policies.

"The real impact is when there's money available and we have projects like the Purple Line etcetera, where we want to apply for state funding, it will help," says Stanley.

But Rothschild, over in Carroll County, fears that impact will be at the expense of rural counties. "Will it hurt some of these areas? Yes, it will paralyze some of them."

Andy Ratner of the Maryland Department of Planning sharply disagrees. "We want growth throughout the state," he says. "Just to be smarter that we're not just plowing under farmland and forests for more and more development that has to be supported by new public infrastructure."

Every county has areas where growth can be concentrated, and he says sprawl costs everyone. Why build a million dollar sewer line to service 100 people when it could service 1,000, even in a rural county?

PlanMaryland is set to become reality in eight months.

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Deal Reached on Controversial NYC Taxi Plan

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

(photo by Kathleen Horan/WNYC)

(New York, NY - WNYC) New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Tuesday a deal that would expand taxi service in Upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, by allowing livery cabs to pick up street hails, and meet concerns about ensuring wheelchair accessibility.

Under the deal, 2,000 medallions will be available, and all of them will be accessible. The bill that passed earlier this year would have made available 1,500 medallions with only 500 as accessible-taxi medallions.

Cuomo said the deal means the city gets "more than a good bill." The sale of the medallions will generate revenue for the city, the outer boroughs will get better service and there will be accessible cabs that will help the disabled, in particular those in wheelchairs.

"No one thought we'd get this home," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the press conference via phone. "We never gave up and we never stopped making the case."

The legislation authorizing the new cab service, and the sale by the city of $1 billion worth of medallions, has been held up for weeks by Cuomo, who said the bill did not provide enough handicap-accessible cabs, and would be shot down in court.

TLC Commissioner David Yassky said the agreement "will bring first rate, legal taxi service to all five boroughs."

As for permits for outerborough livery cabs, 18,000 permits will be made available over the next three years, and 20 percent of those cabs will have to be accessible. The city's original plan had called for 30,000 permits.

The governor hosted the press conference in the Red Room of the State Capital.

With reporting by Kathleen Horan

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Sweating Bullets: Body Scanners Can See Perspiration as a Potential Weapon

Monday, December 19, 2011

(by Michael Grabell and Christian Salewski, ProPublica) While X-ray body scanners used in airports face concerns about potentially increasing cancer cases [1], a safer type of scanner has been plagued by another problem: a high rate of false alarms.

The scanner, known as the millimeter-wave machine, uses low-level electromagnetic waves that, unlike X-rays, have not been linked to cancer. The Transportation Security Administration already uses the millimeter-wave machine and says both types of scanners are highly effective at detecting explosives hidden under clothing.

But two of Europe's largest countries, France and Germany, have decided to forgo the millimeter-wave scanners because of false alarms triggered by folds in clothing, buttons and even sweat.

In Germany, the false positive rate was 54 percent, meaning that every other person who went through the scanner had to undergo at least a limited pat-down that found nothing. Jan Korte, a German parliament member who focuses on homeland security, called the millimeter-wave scanner "a defective product."

While it's difficult to know for sure if the millimeter-wave machine has a worse false-alarm rate than the X-ray machine, recent tests suggests that it does. The TSA wouldn't release its results, citing national security. But a British study found the X-ray machine had a false-alarm rate of just 5 percent.

For the millimeter-wave machines, a complicating factor is new privacy software [2] that was installed in many countries after a public outcry over the scanners' graphic images. The software automates detection and no longer creates an image of a passenger's body. While false alarms were reported before automation when human screeners interpreted images, the software appears to have made the problem worse.

The privacy safeguards are also an obstacle to lowering the false-alarm rate, researchers say. The machines do not save images or data, which could be used to teach the software how to distinguish real threats from false ones.

The problem of false alarms comes down to fundamental physics. Millimeter waves penetrate clothing and reflect off objects. But because of their frequency, millimeter waves also reflect off water, which can cause the scanner to mistake sweat for a potentially dangerous object, said Doug McMakin [3], the lead researcher who developed the millimeter-wave scanner at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. (X-rays, which operate at a higher frequency, pass through water more easily.)

In addition, millimeter waves penetrate clothing materials differently, and layers of clothing can create a barrier, triggering a false alarm.

"These are known as clutter issues in the imaging," McMakin said.

The manufacturer, L-3 Communications, said that in the United States the scanners have not experienced a high rate of false alarms caused by either clothing or sweat. L-3 executives noted that the millimeter-wave machine is installed in airports in some of America's most humid cities, including Houston, New Orleans and Miami.

But as late as last November, the head of the TSA told Congress that false alarms were too frequent to deploy the privacy software. The TSA said the rate has improved since then and now meets its standards, which it would not disclose.

"As with many types of technology, there will be an anticipated amount of false alarms that are considered acceptable, and we continue to work with industry vendors to improve both the detection and operational capabilities for all of our technology," spokesman Greg Soule said.

But results from other countries, as well as tests conducted in the United States before 9/11, show false alarms occurred between about a quarter and half of the time. Moreover, dozens of U.S. travelers told ProPublica they had to get a pat-down despite passing through the body scanners.

Only one report of the false alarm rate for the X-ray body scanners could be found. At Manchester Airport in the United Kingdom, where 13 machines have been tested on more than 2.5 million people, the rate has been less than 5 percent -- and that includes passengers who left items such as keys in their pockets, said airport spokesman John Greenway.

Referring to the false alarm rate, Peter Kant of the manufacturer, Rapiscan Systems, said, "Our numbers internally are in the very low single digits." The company, as well as several physicists, said sweat does not cause false alarms with the X-ray scanners.

In an effort to close a gaping hole in its ability to catch explosives, the TSA in 2009 began installing body scanners alongside metal detectors for routine screening. The deployment ramped up quickly after a Nigerian man tried to blow up a plane that Christmas with explosives hidden in his underwear.

The TSA purchased both types of scanners [4] with plans to deploy them at nearly every security lane by 2014. In hubs, such as Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, it installed millimeter-wave machines, which look like round glass booths and emit low-powered electromagnetic waves similar to those found in police radar guns.

In other major airports, such as Los Angeles and Chicago O'Hare, it installed X-ray machines, also known as backscatters, which look like two large blue boxes and emit extremely low levels of ionizing radiation, a form of energy that strips electrons from atoms and damages DNA, potentially leading to cancer.

The possible health risk of the X-ray scanners, while small, has prompted several prominent radiation experts to ask why the TSA doesn't just use the millimeter-wave machine. The agency has said keeping both technologies in play encourages the contractors to improve their detection capabilities and lowers the cost for taxpayers.

The United States is almost alone in deploying the X-ray body scanners for airport security: Nigeria has installed them, and the United Kingdom is testing them for random screening and to check passengers who have set off the metal detector. Last month, the European Union prohibited the X-ray machines [5], effectively leaving the millimeter-wave scanner as the only option in Europe.

The United Kingdom will have to stop using the machines once its test is completed, according to the European Commission. But the commission has also asked one of its scientific committees for a health study that could change its position on the backscatters.

Guns, Sweat and Privacy Fears

During a Republican presidential debate in 1988 [6], George H.W. Bush, pulled out a .22-caliber miniature revolver made with only a small amount of metal to dramatize the new types of guns that could pass through airport metal detectors.

"That weapon at this point cannot be detected," he said. "That weapon can kill the pilot of an airplane."

The comments, along with concerns over a new Glock pistol made of plastic, spurred the Federal Aviation Administration, which was then in charge of security, to fund research into a millimeter-wave imaging system at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

After 9/11, the lab licensed the technology to a startup company, which was acquired by L-3 in 2006.

When the scanners debuted, TSA officials boasted that they were so good at detection, that screeners could literally see the sweat on someone's back.

At that time, human operators viewed the image. Although sweat might appear similar to a threat, trained officers learned to recognize normal sweat patterns, said Kip Hawley, TSA administrator from 2005 to 2009. In fact, sweat could help officers detect a sheet explosive, he said, because something taped or glued to the body changes the natural sweat pattern.

"It never popped up where we said, 'Oh God, we're getting killed with false positives,'" Hawley said. "I think it's a training issue, training the officers on interpreting the images."

But because of the uproar over agents seeing passengers' bodies -- what critics decried as a "virtual strip search" -- other countries began installing automated detection software last year, and the TSA followed suit in July.

Now, instead of displaying an image of a particular passenger's body, the machine shows a generic, unisex outline that's reminiscent of the cartoon character Gumby. Any potential threat is indicated by a yellow box that shows up roughly where the software detected it -- on the right ankle, for example, or the left elbow.

"It looks for abnormalities," said Tom Ripp, president of L-3's security and detection division. "It looks for objects that are not supposed to be there."

The advantage, L-3 officials said, is that screeners can focus their checks on the highlighted area instead of patting down a passenger's entire body.

"If you go out to an airport like D.C., Reagan, you'll see how easily the process works," said senior vice president Bill Frain. "Usually somebody left something in their pocket. We sat there and watched for 20 minutes. The duration between an alarm and a check -- they were just putting people through. It was a very quick check."

The European Experience

That wasn't the case in Germany.

The German interior ministry tested two L-3 body scanners with the automated detection software at Hamburg Airport, screening 809,000 airline passengers from September 2010 through July 2011. Despite the high rate of detection, the delays caused by frequent false alarms were so unbearable that Germany decided that the technology was not ready for everyday use.

Nearly seven out of 10 passengers had to be stopped for further screening. Although some passengers had forgotten coins or tissues in their pockets, 54 percent of all passengers who went through the scanners triggered true false alarms -- meaning that no hidden objects were found on those people, a ministry spokesperson said.

The vast majority of false alarms, affecting 39 percent of all passengers, were attributed to sweat, buttons or folds in clothing. Another 10 percent resulted from passengers moving during the scan, while 5 percent couldn't be explained at all.

Ripp from L-3 said the high alarm rate comes down to how diligent the screeners are about asking passengers to take off belts and boots, remove bulky sweaters and assume the proper stance with their hands over their heads. In the United States, the stance has become routine, he said.

"That was not the case in these trials in Hamburg," Ripp said.

The German interior ministry, however, dismissed the idea that it hadn't followed the manufacturer's protocol. Officials there provided ProPublica with a flier [7] that was handed out to passengers before the screening that specifically tells them how to stand and to remove sweaters, belts and boots.

"Prior to the field test, the security personnel was specially trained to deal with body scanners and has adhered to the control procedure," the spokesperson said via email. "The passengers were asked to take off the named items."

Germany wasn't the only country to have problems with false alarms.

France tested the scanners with and without the privacy software on more than 8,000 passengers flying out of Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport to New York from February to May 2010. But the government decided not to deploy them because there were too many false alarms, said Eric Heraud, a spokesman for the French civil aviation authority.

Heraud wouldn't release specific figures but said the false alarm rate was higher with the automated detection than when officers interpreted the images. France plans to conduct a new test of the millimeter-wave scanners in 2012.

In Italy, the rate of false alarms was 23 percent, said Giuseppe Daniele Carrabba, head of the airports coordination department for the Italian civil aviation authority.

Italy tested two L-3 scanners with the automated detection software at the airports in Rome and Milan. The test ended in September, and officials are awaiting a final decision on whether to deploy the machines later this month. Carrabba said he thinks Italy will use them, and that the false positive rate will improve with more training and better preparation of the passengers for screening.

L-3 attributed the variations in experiences to the different settings that countries choose for what to detect and what to ignore.

Other countries that have deployed millimeter-wave scanners -- Canada with 51 machines and the Netherlands with 60 -- said they had not experienced problems with false alarms. They declined to disclose their false-positive rates.

The American Experience

In the United States, the TSA has deployed more than 250 millimeter-wave machines and plans to install 300 more by next spring.

The TSA declined to answer detailed questions. Instead, the agency released a statement saying that it had tested the automated detection software rigorously.

"Once it met the same high standards as the technology currently in use, TSA successfully tested the software in airports to determine whether it was a viable option for deployment," the statement said. "While there are no silver bullet technologies, advanced imaging technology with this new software is effective at detecting both metallic and non-metallic threats."

Shortly after the machines were developed, preliminary tests at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 1996 resulted in a false alarm rate of 31 percent, according to a research paper presented at a conference the following year. During the tests, screeners who were new to the machine viewed images of people carrying various weapons, explosives and innocuous objects and had up to 27 seconds to identify them. According to the paper, researchers did test the results with layered clothing.

In 2000, those same images were run through a primitive model of the automated detection and privacy software. The false alarm rate increased to 38.5 percent when the machine was set on high sensitivity but decreased to 17 percent when set on low sensitivity, according to another study by the same researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

"Overall, these results show comparable performance" between the software and the human screeners, the researchers concluded.

The TSA ran additional tests over several years before deploying the scanners, but late last year, administrator John Pistole told Congress the tests were still showing a high rate of false alarms with the software. Officials said the false alarm rate improved, and the agency began installing the software over the summer.

Still, American travelers frequently complain about false positives similar to those experienced in Europe.

Lynne Goldstein, an archaeologist at Michigan State University, said she generally prefers the scanners because, with two knee replacements, she always sets off the metal detectors and has to undergo a pat-down.

But, she said, a cotton shirt she frequently wears while traveling set off the millimeter-wave machine several times while flying out of Detroit. TSA agents told her it was the shirt's "kangaroo pocket" similar to those found on sweatshirts that triggered the alarm.

"The last time, they did a full pat-down," Goldstein said. "The thing that's ironic to me: I actually like the machine."

Many travelers, however, also reported false alarms with the X-ray body scanner.

Jason Ritchie, an associate chemistry professor at the University of Mississippi, said he was flying out of Memphis on his way to a conference in August when the operator of the X-ray machine spotted something that required further checking.

The suspicious item: The pockets of his cargo pants, he was told.

"It kind of annoys me when I have to go through the X-ray system because I don't like to be irradiated unnecessarily," Ritchie said. "To have to go through that and then be told I also had to get a pat-down was frustrating."

ProPublica tried to get a handle on the false alarm rate in the United States by commissioning a poll by Harris Interactive. The poll of 2,198 people was conducted online to ensure that those who responded could view images of the machines in addition to reading a description.

Of the 581 people who said they had taken a flight in the past six months, nearly two-thirds, or 367, reported going through a body scanner.

About 11 percent of those scanned said they were patted down anyway despite having nothing on them -- the equivalent of a false alarm.

Among this group, the rate of false alarms was slightly higher for the millimeter-wave machine over the X-ray scanner. But Harris Interactive cautioned that because the sample size of people reporting this experience was small, the result cannot be generalized to the population at large.

Possible Solutions

Improving the technology to increase detection but limit false alarms is extremely challenging because of the great variety of body shapes and clothing, said McMakin of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The machine can be taught to recognize patterns in clothing such as a left breast pocket in men's dress shirts, he said. But whereas screeners could generally see the outline of an abnormal pocket or buttons in an image, the privacy software eliminates such human discretion.

One option is to combine the millimeter-wave scan with an optical camera to weed out those issues, McMakin said. For example, software could compare the millimeter-wave scan with the photograph to determine if a button or a zipper was causing the alarm. Developers could also increase or decrease the frequency of the waves or improve the shape and location information in the algorithm, he added.

"We're just at the beginning of where this technology can go," McMakin said.

Ripp from L-3 said it all comes down to "machine learning."

Getting the information of what's normal in order to improve the technology requires many thousands of scans. But because of the privacy outcry, the machines used in airports do not save the images or data from the scans. Without that real-world data, developers have to find other ways to teach the software to distinguish real threats from false ones.

Christian Salewski, a former fellow at ProPublica and a staff writer for the Financial Times Deutschland, reported from Hamburg.



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Daytona Beach Researchers Transform Air Travel

Friday, December 16, 2011

A Virtual Airplane Flies in the NextGen Test Bed at Daytona Beach International Airport

(Nicole Creston -- Orlando, FL, WMFE )  Most people think beaches, bikers and NASCAR when they hear about Daytona Beach. But research at Daytona Beach International Airport and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is expected to revolutionize cockpits and airport control towers around the country, and eventually, the world. That’s where a group of aviation experts are working on the “Next Generation” of air travel technology, called "NextGen" for short.

It uses GPS, among other things, and is expected to be the most expensive national transportation project since interstates were built. The Federal Aviation Administration expects NextGen to improve communications, lower fuel costs, and decrease delays for airplane passengers.

Pilots are busy. They’re flying the plane, and keeping track of many important details. Some of the most crucial information comes from air traffic controllers with specifics on take-offs, landings, routes and weather conditions.

It sounds something like this: “’Turn right 30 degrees radar vectors for traffic climb and maintain flight level at two-four-zero and contact Washington center on one-three-five-point-zero.’”

That example comes courtesy of Embry-Riddle professor Sid McGuirk, a 35-year air traffic control veteran. “There’s a lot of information in there,” he adds.

McGuirk says currently pilots have to write most of that down as they’re maneuvering the plane. They’re trained to handle it, he points out, but research at Embry Riddle’s Daytona International test bed could help the NextGen system make all that easier…and that never hurts.

“In the future, the communications [are] going to be much like an email message, or a tweet, or twitter, if you will,” explains McGuirk. “So, the controller can tweet the clearance to the pilot and the pilot can tweet back that he or she acknowledges the clearance.”

Like those new communications, most of the test bed’s research takes place on computers – in fact, the 10,000 square-foot facility could be mistaken for simply an office building at first glance. But the centerpiece of the test bed is a console topped with three enormous screens that simulate the view out of Daytona International’s air traffic control tower windows…in real time. Real airplanes are being tracked on those screens, as they come and go.

Three Screens Display a Virtual View of Looking Out of a Airport Control Tower

But, it’s a simulation. So researchers can slip in virtual aircraft equipped with NextGen technology, including advanced GPS and lots of new communication gear, and see if they can work within the existing system.

McGuirk says he adapted to many updates throughout his time as an air traffic controller, but he’s amazed at how different things are now than when he first started. He says, “You actually had to take a piece of plastic, and write on the piece of plastic with a grease pencil and then manually push the piece of plastic across the flat radar screen to follow the aircraft!”

US Congressman John Mica of Winter Park heads up the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Mica says the FAA, Embry Riddle experts, and the private aviation industry all agreed the system needs an upgrade.

“Well, we basically have a post –World War II aviation air traffic control system,” Mica says. “We rely on a ground-based radar system.”

He’s says he’s happy to have Central Florida’s unique resources on the job. “A test bed, an actually functioning model at the Daytona Beach International Airport which is located and co-located – the property’s adjacent to Embry Riddle. Couldn’t have a better combination.”

Mica says air traffic is expected to double globally by the year 2020. That’s where GPS comes in. The ability to see exactly where an airplane is in the sky means aviation officials can look for unused airspace that’ll fit more planes in the air, safely. And GPS has a knack for finding the shortest routes, which saves money on fuel and reduces travel time for passengers.

NextGen program manager Wade Lester says there’s more good news for passengers – the system will cut down on weather-related slowdowns, which make up 60 percent of all air travel delays. Air traffic controllers will see weather trouble way before they can now.

“They’re able to say, ‘Oh, at this point in time, this aircraft will converge with this bad weather,’” Lester explains. “So rather than waiting until you fly right up to it and the pilot says, ‘I see really bad weather and I’m going to have to’ what we call vector, ‘I’m going to have to vector around that weather,’ they say, ‘Just make a small course correction early and you’ll arrive much closer to your original destination.’”

Lester says the GPS additions and improved communications are just part of this massive air travel modernization project, and implementing all the changes will take some time. Pilots, air traffic controllers, and passengers should see the benefits within the next few years, but the FAA is aiming for full completion in 2025.

Researcher Josh Daily Flies a Virtual Airplane at the NextGen Test Bed


Click here for an audio version of this story.

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NY Governor Cuomo Signs MTA Tax Reduction Into Law

Monday, December 12, 2011

Cuomo signs MTA Tax Cut Into Law (photo: NY Govenor's Office)

UPDATED (West Hempstead, NY -- Colby Hamilton with Jim O'Grady, WNYC) Following up on the first two pieces of his economic package passed last week, Governor Andrew Cuomo today signed into law a $250 million cut to the MTA payroll tax. The tax had been a consistent target of suburban lawmakers.

“Small businesses are New York’s growth engine and this tax reduction will help create jobs and get our state’s economy back on track without jeopardizing funding for the MTA,” the Governor said in a statement.

Today’s signing was held at a high school in West Hempstead, Long Island, where Cuomo basked in the approval of dozens of local elected officials who've been trying to repeal the tax since it passed in 2009.

“The MTA payroll tax has been particularly burdensome on Long Island," he said, before predicting that the tax cut would spark an “economic rebound” in Nassau and Suffolk Counties—along with the ten other counties served by the authority.

His remarks were interrupted several times by applause. When done, the governor posed for photos with one politician after another while displaying the newly signed bill.

According to Cuomo’s office, 289,000 businesses with annual payrolls below $1.25 million will see the tax disappear, while more than 6,000 businesses with payrolls between $1.25 and $1.75 million  will see their payroll tax cut by as much as two-thirds. An estimated 414,000 self-employed workers will also see their taxes lowered by reduced by the measure.

The new measure would also make elementary and secondary schools–both public and private–exempt from the tax, which won praise locally from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers. The Governor has said that the state will pick up the quarter billion in funding for the transit authority lost through the tax cut.

“The MTA Payroll Tax has been damaging our economy and restricting the growth of quality jobs in New York,” Long Island State Senator Lee Zeldin said in a statement. “Repealing this tax for all small businesses and schools, and reducing the rate for others, spurs real economic development, and helps put New York State on the path towards prosperity.”

Transit advocates expressed concern after the bill’s passage that state has reneged in the past on promises like the one Cuomo is making to shore up the MTA's budget, and that it's led to led to steep fare hikes and service cuts like those seen in 2010.

Cuomo promised on Friday to match funds lost "dollar for dollar," but the actual legislation is silent on how that will be determined, and the governor added no specifics at today's event.

For more stories by Colby Hamilton, click here.

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