The bevy of candidates vying for the office of public advocate squared off Tuesday night in a debate focused on sustainability and environmental issues, touching on topics like congestion pricing, the regulation of electric bikes and scooters and funding the beleaguered MTA.
More than a dozen contenders participated in the debate, hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund at Brooklyn Law School. Voters will get a chance to cast ballots for the next public advocate during a special election on Feb. 26, filling the seat previously held by Letitia James, who vacated the post at the start of the year after being elected state attorney general. City Council Speaker Corey Johnson is the acting public advocate until next month’s vote, after which the winner will take office right away, though they’ll have to run again in the November general election.
The public advocate position was first introduced in 1993, and the post comes with a wide range of potential powers, though its overarching role is to serve as “an ombudsperson for all New Yorkers—a government official who champions the public and ensures government is responsive to their needs,” according to the office’s website.
During Tuesday’s debate, moderator and Politico reporter Gloria Pazmino quizzed the candidates on a number of issues; here’s what they had to say on a few hot-button transportation topics.
Pazmino asked the panel of candidates their stance on congestion pricing—the idea of charging cars a fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan. She specifically asked the group if they support Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal, outlined in his State of the State speech this week, to institute congestion pricing and have the revenue it raises help fund the MTA’s capital plan, with the city and state evenly splitting the funds needed to make up any shortfall.
Several candidates said they support the concept of congestion pricing, but would need to see the exact details of Cuomo’s plan before signing on.
“This governor, in particular says some grandiose things, and when you start digging into it, it’s not what you want it to be,” said City Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who says he supports the implementation of both congestion pricing and a millionaire’s tax, a method Mayor Bill de Blasio favors to raise transit revenue.
Ben Yee, a political and civics activist, said he too supports congestion pricing as a concept, and also favors reforming the price of parking in the city as a supplemental or alternative option. Councilmember Rafael Espinal, likewise, said he is “100 percent supportive of congestion pricing” and agrees that the city and state should split the bill when it comes to MTA funding.
“We all should be responsible for our transit system,” he said. “I am tired of the back and forth between the mayor and the governor about who should pay for what.”
Several candidates running for public advocate participated in a debate Tuesday on environmental issues.Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, who chairs the City Council’s transportation committee, told the crowd he’s “been working for congestion pricing since day one,” and that if elected, he would open a transportation division within the public advocate’s office to monitor the MTA. Attorney Dawn Smalls said she too supports a congestion fee, but would want to make sure any plan offers protection to outer borough residents in so-called “transit deserts.”
“I do think we should explore other solutions, possibly Park and Ride, and getting facilities where people can get from those transit deserts to facilities where they can park their cars and then get on public transportation,” she explained.
Ify Ike, an attorney and activist who’s worked on a number of city programs, including the Young Men’s Initiative, said she supports congestion pricing “in theory” but wants to make sure it’s rolled out in an equitable way. “I don’t trust Andrew Cuomo worth nothing,” she told the crowd. “There also are some equity issues that we need to look at and the next public advocate has to have an equity mindset.”
Journalist Nomiki Konst also said she supports congestion pricing, but called it “a band aid solution,” for the city’s public transit troubles. She said she would want to tax the city’s wealthiest residents and biggest corporations to drum up needed transit funds. “It should be these executives in these big companies who are getting these huge tax benefits and are donors to the mayor and governor.”
Attorney Jared Rich said he would like to implement a broader “congestion plan,” one facet of which would be congestion pricing, but with some exceptions. “We need to exempt low-income New Yorkers who have to drive into the city, who have to drive into Manhattan—we can’t let them be paying for this,” he said. “This should be a tourist and a taxi tax more than anything else, and I think that the money should be going to the schools.”
Dissent to congestion pricing came from a few candidates, among them Mike Zumbluskas, a political activist and Department of Transportation analyst, who said his opposition stems from distrust in the MTA. “The MTA is so mismanaged that we’re throwing bad money after bad,” he said. Fellow candidate Walter Iwachiw said he opposes a congestion fee because it would “divide the city by boroughs.”
“People are entitled to move freely throughout the city and that is what I’m going to fight for,” he said.
Councilmember Eric Ulrich, who represents Queens, said he also feels congestion pricing “in its current form” would unfairly target outer borough residents; he’d prefer to reinstate the commuter tax that state lawmakers repealed in 1999.
“I think that the governor’s plan and what the mayor is proposing in particular is basically a commuter tax for the outer boroughs,” he said. “I think it’s very unfair for the residents and small business owners in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island that travel into Manhattan.”
E-Bikes and E-Scooters
A number of candidates said they support the idea of legalizing and regulating electric bikes and scooters, saying the vehicles offer another option for getting around the city without using a car. Espinal has introduced several City Council bills to do so, legislation that’s been co-sponsored by his fellow Councilmembers Rodriguez, Ulrich and Williams.
“We should broaden the transportation options that New Yorkers have; it would incentivize us to get off our cars, it would reduce the burden on our MTA,” Espinal said, adding that his bills would also regulate use of the e-scooters to ensure they aren’t left haphazardly on the streets, a problem other cities have been seen.
“Of course, they have to be regulated,” Williams said, but added that he thinks it’s “critical that we continue to think about creative ways” to share the road.
Ulrich said legalization of e-vehicles should come with the expansion of the city’s bike lane network.
“Part of the solution to making sure it works in a big city like New York is vastly expanding the number of protected bike lanes and bike lanes in general in the city, and restricting those scooters and those e-bikes to the bike lanes,” he said.
Rodriguez echoed this sentiment, saying he would like to see the city add 100 protected bike lanes a year. Ike said she is also supportive of e-bikes, and sees them as “an equitable, accessible way to have social mobility within communities that do not have access right now to get into other communities.”
A few candidates brought up safety concerns; Iwachiw said any legalization of e-bikes and scooters should be paired with some kind of licensing system as well as training. “They travel too fast,” he said. “They zoom past you and you don’t hear them.” Zumbluskas agreed, saying he knows people who’ve been struck by cyclists, and predicted that “you’re going to get a lot more of that with the e-scooters.”
Rich said that while he loves bikes, he thinks the city committed a “monumental failure” in rolling out new bike lanes without doing more educational outreach to cyclists and drivers. “We had all these bike lanes start appearing [but] there was no public information given to the drivers or to the bikers or to anyone what to do,” he said.
Others, though, fired back at the idea that bikes and scooters are the real safety issue.
“You want to know what’s dangerous? Cars are dangerous, but we let them on the streets,” Yee countered. “Nobody is saying we should have these things just zipping around the streets. We regulate cars, and we should have a regulated system for riding e-bikes around or e-scooters.”
David Eisenbach, a history teacher at Columbia University, compared the hysteria over e-bikes to the worries people had about CitiBike in the period before the bike-sharing system launched. “There were a lot of nightmare stories and a lot of fear about the sky falling,” he said, adding that the legalization of e-bikes would be especially beneficial to “hard-working delivery people who are very essential to our economy.”
Konst said she supports legalizing and regulating the vehicles, but called it a “band aid” measure that “is not going to solve our transportation crisis.” That, she added, won’t happen “until the public advocate is willing to take on the real estate industry and pay for our subway.”
Smalls told the crowd that she herself has been knocked over in the street by a bicycle.
“You have to have the safety measures in place before you allow e-scooters and e-bikes,” she said, but added that she thinks doing so is the right move. “This is where we need to go. If you look at European cities, and you look at sustainable cities, they all have a robust cycling program.”
You can watch video of the debate in full here.