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Bloomberg on subways ("not that crowded"), Doctoroff, and 421-a

The topic of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's address yesterday morning at a breakfast presented by Crain's New York Business was education, but he answered questions about a range of issues, from his presidential ambitions to congestion pricing.

On the latter topic, Bloomberg improbably--and not too convincingly--deflected criticism that took off from the disturbing announcement from New York City Transit that certain subway lines, notably the numbered ones, are at or over capacity and can't add trains.

The event, held at the Sheraton New York was in Midtown, was broadcast yesterday on the Brian Lehrer Show, and the issue came up at about 17:09 . Crain's editor Greg David posed the question:
The Transit Authority said this week there’s no room on the numbered subway lines for any new riders that would head to subways if congestion pricing went into effect. Doesn’t that lend support to the opponents’ view that we’re just not ready for congestion pricing?

Bloomberg responded: So we’ll do nothing about improving mass transit, and they’ll say that’s the solution to the problem. I don’t think so.

The audience, mostly business people, clapped.

In denial

Then the mayor embarked on his own twist of reality. (He did similarly in 2004 when talking about Atlantic Yards financing.)

Bloomberg continued: If you want to fix the problem…If the subways are that crowded—and, incidentally, I take the Lex most days, and it’s not that crowded. So you stand up next to people, get real, this is New York, what’s wrong with that?

The mayor similarly told the New York Times Magazine last September: “I take the subway. My attitude is go earlier if the train’s crowded.”

Except that now there are statistics--which Bloomberg ignored. The statistics came from New York City Transit, an agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), but Bloomberg acted as if a government agency were being criticized by some outside gadflies.

He continued:
…I protected Con Ed, now I’m gonna protect the MTA. When I come to New York City in 1966, the subways were filthy, there were panhandlers, there was graffiti all over the place, they broke down, they weren’t air conditioned. I would suggest all of you take the subway with me today or tomorrow. You will find every one of those things different. It’s a great ride, it gets you where you want to go, quickly, safely, cleanly. And I can think of only once somebody ever yelled at me on the subway, this guy yelled at me, “Fix the Knicks.” OK, I can do a lot of things.

He got laughs and claps, but he'd avoided the question. And subway capacity is a very big deal if the Atlantic Yards project goes forward, since the environmental review stated that the lines serving the project site were under capacity. Congestion pricing may be a very good idea, but the city can't avoid the math.

The Post today pointed out that Bloomberg generally travels before the rush hour. The Daily News today quoted congestion pricing critic David Weprin as saying the F train in Queens is overcrowded.

Streetsblog notes that New York City Transit head Howard Roberts said that congestion pricing revenues could be used to improve the transit system, in time, notably via the Second Avenue subway. In other words, Bloomberg could've endorsed, rather than denied, the reports of crowding.

On Doctoroff

Continuing, Bloomberg endorsed a pilot program for congestion pricing, and said he expected that the State Legislature would eventually act on it, rather than micromanage. And in doing so, he suggested that Dan Doctoroff, the Deputy Mayor for Economic Development, would find a place in history.

He stated:
That’s why the pilot is the right answer. We’ll do the best we can and then see what happens. Y’know, if you take a look—history will write a book--somebody will write a book—[Robert Moses biographer Robert] Caro or somebody like that and will say, Doctoroff had a bigger impact on this city than the last big builder that came through, who lived, incidentally, in an awful lot easier time. Didn’t have the courts, didn’t have the community boards, didn’t have all of the visibility that we have today.… Dan’s done the study. He’s had experts. We’ve included every single advocacy group, whether it’s traffic or environment, pros and cons, left and rights, outer borough, inner borough. Everybody. They’ve come up with a plan that we think has a reasonable chance of working and I think we need to do it.


Doctoroff in February presented himself as a planner who'd learned the lessons of the Robert Moses era. Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx disagreed.

On 421-a

After his speech and the public interview conducted by David and Lehrer, Bloomberg took some questions from the press. I asked his views on the reform of the 421-a tax break passed by the State Legislature, specifically the expansion of the "exclusion zone" and the special break for the Atlantic Yards project.

In his answer, he ignored the Atlantic Yards question but simply said that the reform passed last December by the City Council struck the right balance.

Note that the city bill, which would require 20% affordable housing in all buildings in the exclusion zone in exchange for the tax break, would not have affected the dozen or so rental buildings planned for Atlantic Yards.

However, assuming that three or four of the 16 towers would be primarily market-rate condos, the city's reform might have cost developer Forest City Ratner more than $100 million, the value of the special break. That's an impact that I and others writing about the city's bill last December seem to have missed.

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