Transportation Is Hot Button at East Side Town Hall

Mayor Bill de Blasio addresses a town hall gathering at the High School of Art and Design on Sept. 26, as City Councilmember Dan Garodnick looks on. | Photo by Levar Alonzo

BY LEVAR ALONZO | Residents of the East Side were primed and ready as Mayor Bill de Blasio fielded questions from all comers on Tues., Sept. 26 at a three-hour town hall meeting.

Well over 200 people were in attendance at the High School of Art and Design on E. 56th St., with District 4 Councilmember Dan Garodnick, a three-term incumbent term-limited from seeking reelection this November, co-hosting.

Transportation issues — ranging from urgent concerns about bicycle safety to complaints about the crowded conditions and unreliablity of the city’s subways and the inaccessiblity of portions of the East River waterfront — dominated the evening.

Per usual for the mayor’s town halls around the five boroughs, personnel from city agencies across the board, in some cases all the way up to the post of commissioner and including ranking brass from the NYPD, were on hand to take questions directly.

One of the highlights of the evening was the announcement that the city is making investments to upgrade St. Vartan’s Park on First Ave. between E. 35th and E. 36th Sts., installing new lighting and beautifying the space. The mayor also emphasized the $100 million committed to closing the gap in the East River Esplanade between E. 53rd and E. 61st Sts. so that local pedestrians and cyclists can enjoy unimpeded access to the riverfront.

De Blasio opened the evening by saying he likes seeing residents come out to let him know what is going on in their neighborhoods.

“This is good to see this community come out, this is a community that is known for its civic engagement,” the mayor said. “In democracy, the wellspring of all change comes from the community.”

No issue was too small or large or controversial for the town hall. One particularly hot button topic was the difficulty many pedestrians encounter as they try to navigate local streets when faced with the surging number of bicyclists.

David Achelis, a member of Community Board 5, wanted to know who was going to speak for the people in seeing that traffic laws are enforced when it comes to cyclsts. He argued the city is building bike lane infrastructure that is going unused and that rogue bike rental trucks are showing up all around Central Park, threatening the quality of life for nearby residents.

Another neighborhood resident, who identified himself as a condo board member from 411 E. 53rd Street, questioned what could be done to protect the safety of pedestrians.

“When you’re walking, the culture in New York now is here come the bikes, get the hell out of the way,” he said. “You take your life in your hands when crossing the streets.”

The mayor listens as Councilmember Dan Garodnick speaks to the crowd. | Photo by Levar Alonzo

De Blasio responded to concerns over bike safety by noting it was in the previous administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg that the city embraced a vision of creating more environmentally clean ways to travel in the city, and that he doesn’t have a specific posture toward policing bicylists, except that they are subject to rules like any other vehicle operators. One aspect of the problem he is focused on, however, is the use of elecric bikes, illegal under city law but often used for deliveries. He plans to go after those operating electric bikes and the companies that employ them, creating real consequences and penalties.

“We need everyone to abide by traffic laws, bicyclists need to abide by traffic laws too, and my instruction to the NYPD is if there are areas of reckless activity we need enforcement,” the mayor said.

Deputy Inspector Nicole Papamichael noted that the 17th precinct, where she’s been at the helm since 2016, has issued more than 800 moving summoses to cyclists this year but said that safety concerns often keep squad cars from pursuing reckless bicycles, which can move through heavy traffic more easily. Like the mayor, Papamichael emphasized that electric bikes are illegal in the city and are more often stopped and issued summonses than regular bikes.

Another resident urged de Blasio to look into New Yorkers who register their cars in other states but eat up parking spaces of those who follow the law, urging the mayor to push for a resident-only parking law. De Blasio took that opportunity to quip, “You don’t think all those people with Vermont license plate are from there?” Hizzoner then said he would look into a crackdown on people who register out of state, noting the fees lost by New York.

Service disruptions in the subways were a big topic of concern for residents at the town hall. Many complained about delays and signal failures, and some expressed fear of being stuck underground.

“We don’t control the MTA,” said de Blasio. “We can only control what we can, it’s up to the governor to come up with the plan.”

De Blasio said he has proposed a millionaires tax so New Yorkers with more pay a little extra, with that money going to fix problems at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

“Its unfortunate but we have to wait on Albany to help fix the issue with the MTA here in the city,” said the mayor, who must not only rely on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership at the MTA but would also need state legislative approval for any new tax on wealthy New Yorkers.

On the question of riverfront access, de Blasio assured residents that he plans to continue to build on the vision of creating a continuous esplanade to encircle Manhattan in its entirety. Numerous residents voiced concerns about inaccessibility and also crumbling stretches of the existing esplanade in their neighborhoods.

“My plan is create a viable, long-term esplanade for all residents of Manhattan,” the mayor said. “To be able traverse the entire loop of Manhattan would be powerful in a sense for residents and visitors.”

He said the city needs to determine the total cost and a feasible timeframe for completing the project. In the meanwhile, he emphasized the progress on areas like the stretch of the E. 50s where work is ongoing.

Garodnick, noting that the town hall represented one of the last times he would be able to address community concerns publicly as a sitting councilmember, paid tribute to the residents on hand.

“I’m at the end of my 12 years,” he said. “When I first started, a tweet was something that a bird did and Mayor de Blasio was then a senior member of the New York City Council. But we are working as a community to address the challenges that we have on the East Side.”

State Senator Liz Krueger and Assemblymember Dan Quart were in the audience and offered statements of praise for the work Garodnick had done for District 4 and the East Side.

At the end of the question and answer period, the crowd broke into small groups to speak directly with de Blasio, Garodnick, and agency officials.