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These N.Y. Transportation Issues Could Get New Attention

With a new governor at the wheel after the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a handful of transportation issues could be getting renewed attention. Among them, congestion pricing and a controversial speed camera plan.

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(TNS) — As Kathy Hochul steps into the role of New York's top official amid the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, her stance on key transportation projects and policies could have a profound impact on Staten Islanders.

While the city Department of Transportation (DOT) makes the decisions on many New York City-related transportation issues, others can only be approved and implemented with the approval of the state.

Most of the legislative policies that require state action must be introduced by members of the state Senate or Assembly and approved by both houses of the state legislature, at which point they are sent to the governor's desk to be approved or vetoed.

However, the governor doesn't have all the say in these scenarios. A vetoed bill can still become law if two-thirds of both houses vote to override the governor's veto.

The governor does, however, also have the power to introduce new laws through the annual Executive Budget process, granting Hochul a great deal of influence in regard to what legislation is ultimately enacted.

In addition to impacting the laws that get passed, the governor also wields strong influence over funding allocations for proposed projects, meaning the change in leadership could potentially result in funding for projects that had not been supported by the previous administration.

The MTA, which is responsible for operating New York City's buses and subways, as well as implementing the city's congestion pricing program, is also controlled by the governor.

Here's a look at some of the local transportation issues that could be impacted by the recent gubernatorial change.

SPEED CAMERA EXPANSION


Perhaps the most controversial transportation topic on Staten Island in recent years has been the expansion of New York City's school zone speed camera program, which generates tens of millions of dollars each year through automated enforcement of city speed limits.

New York City's speed camera system began as a pilot program in June 2014, with cameras installed in 140 school zones throughout the five boroughs.

In July 2019, the number of school zones permitted to operate speed cameras increased from 140 to 750, with cameras permitted to operate year-round on weekdays, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., including school and summer vacations.

But some are now pushing for another expansion that would require state approval; an expansion that would allow the cameras to operate year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In December, the city released its Automated Speed Enforcement Program Report, a comprehensive review of the program's history and efficacy ranging from 2014 through 2019.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, citing various findings from the report, called on the state to amend the existing law and allow the cameras to operate around-the-clock, seven days a week, 365 days a year, as opposed to the current operating hours of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays.

The mayor noted that over one-third, or 36%, of non-highway traffic fatalities in 2020 occurred in school camera zones at times cameras could not issue tickets under the current law.

The report lays out statistical evidence indicating that speed cameras do, in fact, reduce speeding, crashes and injuries along corridors in which they're installed, and provides further evidence that expanding upon existing operating hours could reap additional public safety benefits.

City data indicates that corridors where speed cameras have been installed have seen, on average, a 14% decrease in crashes, a 19% decrease in injuries and a 70% reduction in speeding.

CONGESTION PRICING


In 2019, Cuomo led a push for New York City to become the first city in the country to approve a congestion pricing program, which would charge drivers a fee for entering the city's most-congested areas and use the generated revenue to fund crucial transportation projects.

"Lieutenant Governor Hochul has supported congestion pricing in the past, but the pace and timing is something she will need to evaluate further given the constantly changing impact of COVID-19 on commuters," a spokeswoman for Hochul told the Times.

If Hochul were to support the congestion pricing plan, it could still take another two years before it's implemented, with the MTA still needing to complete a federally-mandated environmental assessment before the program can be put in place.

The MTA's congestion pricing program, which was initially expected to start on Jan. 1, 2021, was stuck in limbo after it was first announced due to the former presidential administration's repeated refusal to provide clear direction on the necessary environmental review process.

The Central Business District Tolling Program (CBDTP) — expected to reduce congestion on busy Manhattan streets while generating billions in revenue to dedicate toward mass transit improvements — requires federal approval due to some roads within the program's limits receiving federal funding or being considered part of the interstate highway system.

However, there was a hold up with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review process, with the former administration repeatedly refusing to provide guidance as to whether the MTA would need to complete either an abbreviated environmental assessment or a larger-scale environmental impact statement.

Finally, in late-March, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) informed the MTA, as well as the city and state Transportation departments, that they will need to complete an Environmental Assessment, the quicker of two possible review processes.

While the environmental assessment process is often much quicker than the one for environmental impact statements, MTA officials told the New York Times that the assessment is still expected to take 16 months to complete.

In addition to the environmental review, the MTA still has to convene the program's Traffic Mobility Review Board, a six-member panel that will offer recommendations on toll amounts, exemptions and other program details.

Last month, de Blasio recommended Department of Finance Commissioner Sherif Soliman to the Traffic Mobility Review Board, but the MTA has yet to appoint any of the other five members.

HOV LANE EXTENSION


Since 2017, Councilman Steven Matteo ( R-Mid-Island) has petitioned Cuomo and the New York State Department of Transportation (NYSDOT) to extend the borough's HOV lane to span the entire length of the Staten Island Expressway, from the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge to the Goethals Bridge, in order to ease congestion at the terminus of the lane.

The Staten Island Expressway HOV lane currently stretches from the Verrazzano to the Victory Boulevard exit.

To this point, the state has been unwilling to support the proposed HOV lane extension for the Staten Island Expressway, but it's possible that new leadership could be more receptive to the project.

However, even if the extension were to be supported by statewide leaders, it could carry a hefty price tag that would likely require federal funding to complete.

Last November, the NYSDOT provided Matteo with what he described as an "astronomical estimate" of $500 million to $800 million to complete the HOV lane in both directions, and $300 million to complete it in just one direction.

"An extension of the lane would require major reconstruction of multiple mainline and ramp structures on the SIE and the SIE/West Shore Expressway interchange. In addition, there would be a need for large retaining walls, extensive wetland mitigation, and significant amounts of new pavement," wrote NYSDOT regional director Craig Ruyle.

"An extension of only the eastbound or westbound HOV lane would still involve many of the same costly elements noted above," Ruyle added.

Matteo has been highly skeptical of the exorbitant price tag associated with the proposed extension, in part because it only cost $111.07 million when the lane was extended from Slosson Avenue to Victory Boulevard, and $76.29 million of those dollars were federally funded.

CRASH VICTIMS RIGHTS AND SAFETY ACT


Other transportation-related bills that could be impacted by the gubernatorial change include the Crash Victims Rights and Safety Act, a package of eight bills designed to reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on New York streets.

The bills have drawn wide-ranging support from city and state legislators, local politicians, city transportation officials and a host of safe streets advocacy groups, like Transportation Alternatives and Families for Safe Streets.

Included in the eight bills is the previously discussed expansion of New York City's speed camera program, which would allow speed cameras to operate at all hours, every day of the year.

Here's a look at some of the other bills included in the Crash Victims Rights and Safety Act.

The Traffic Crash Victim Bill of Rights would make it easier for crash victims and their families to receive police reports, attend and testify at Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) hearings and receive support following a devastating crash.

Sammy's Law, named after Samuel Cohen Eckstein, a 12-year-old boy from Brooklyn who was killed by a reckless driver in 2013, would allow New York City to lower existing speed limits below the currently-mandated minimum of 25 miles per hour, or 15 miles per hour in school zones.

The Vehicle Safety Rating and Labeling bill would require the New York State Department of Transportation and New York State Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to create a safety rating system accounting for the risks that each vehicle poses to pedestrians and cyclists.

The Dangerous Driving Act is designed to make it easier for prosecutors to hold reckless drivers responsible for their actions in a court of law.

The BAC .05 bill would lower the legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) for drivers from the existing .08% to .05%, while also lowering the standard for aggravated driving while intoxicated from .18% to .12%.

The Right to Safe Passage bill is designed to bolster cyclist safety by providing a clear indication of how much space must be given when passing a cyclist in a motor vehicle.

The DMV Pre-Licensing Bill seeks to enhance safety for vulnerable road users by requiring more comprehensive street safety education prior to new motorists receiving their driver's permit.

©2021 Staten Island Advance, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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