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In recent months, more attention has been paid to the fact that drivers with suspended licenses in New York State are still getting behind the wheel – and killing people. Transportation Alternatives led a rally in December to bring light to the fact that ten percent of all crashes in New York are caused by unlicensed drivers, and 75 percent of unlicensed drivers still get behind the wheel.

Suspended licenses are nothing to scoff at. Often, these drivers were suspended for reckless, dangerous, drunken driving. They are a menace to not only pedestrians like the man killed on a Midtown sidewalk in December, but also to other drivers on the road. Licenses are suspended for a reason: these people should not be behind the wheel of a vehicle.

But in Albany, not everyone sees it that way, apparently. On Tuesday, the New York State Senate Transportation Committee passed – by a 10-6 vote – S3627, a bill that would add additional immediate “hardship privileges” to people whose licenses are suspended because they are in “legal limbo.” Essentially, the current law establishes that a driver who is charged with drunk driving by the results of a blood, breath, urine, or saliva test shall have their license suspended on or before their first court appearance. This law covers the period between their first court appearance and their conviction. They may be in limbo, but their test results are proof positive that they were driving drunk. Shockingly, these drunk drivers are already allowed to request a court waiver to drive under certain conditions:

For the purposes of this clause, “extreme hardship” shall mean the inability to obtain alternative means of  travel to or from the licensee’s employment, or to or from necessary medical treatment for the licensee or a member of the licensee’s household, or if the licensee is a matriculating  student enrolled in an accredited  school, college or university travel to or from such licensee’s school, college or university if such travel is necessary for the completion of the educational degree or certificate.

The new bill would add an additional provision:

OR NECESSARY OPERATION OF A VEHICLE DURING THE COURSE OF THE LICENSEE’S EMPLOYMENT 

The bill was introduced by Assemblyman David Gantt, chair of the Assembly Transportation Committee, and known foe of the texting-while-driving ban and red light cameras. The bill passed entirely along party lines, with six Republicans voting against the bill, and ten Democrats – including seven from within the New York City limits – voting in favor.

New York State Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau cited the cases of People v. Correa and People v. Henderson as why the law should be amended to include employment-related driving:

In Correa, the defendant was a New York City firefighter who was required to maintain a valid driver’s license for his employment, even though he did not drive any emergency vehicles during the work day. In Henderson, the defendant’s employment duties required him to drive to and from various job sites on a daily basis. In both cases, the respective courts held that the statute did not authorize the court to grant a limited license for the defendant to drive while at work even though holding a valid license was necessary for their employment.

Interestingly, in the Correa case, he was ultimately found guilty, and the key reason his hardship request was denied was because he lived in New York City and could have used public transit to travel to and from his employer. This makes the votes of seven New York City legislators in favor of this bill even more baffling.

What the supporters of this seemingly small change to a state statute fail to recognize is that the loss of a job is a deterrant to drunk driving. Public service announcements regularly cite the potential loss of your license and your job as consequences of driving drunk. This new law would prove both of those untrue. These people broke the law, put other’s lives in danger, and should be forced to suffer the consequences.

As Streetsblog reported earlier today, there’s another politican roaming the halls downtown who is oblivious to the facts. This week, it’s New York City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez. Just two weeks into his term representing his uptown district where 80% of his constituents don’t own a car, he has taken a decidedly pro-car stance by protesting the NYPD’s ticketing of cars who “block the box” on 181st Street:

“If you drive 125th Street there’s a team of one to two traffic agents moving traffic,” Rodriguez said. Ticketing drivers instead of helping move traffic on the street amounts to harassment, he said.

Rodriguez has put calls into the head of traffic enforcement to hopefully find a solution to the problem.

It’s obvious that the problem is not the enforcement of the law; it’s the fact that so many people are breaking the law. Rather than blame those who block the box, Rodriguez would prefer to blame the NYPD – another easy target and a favorite punching bag of politicians in minority neighborhoods.

Does Rodriguez even know that these drivers are breaking the law? Judging from the newspaper’s account of his position, it’s easy to see why his comprehension of why the “blocking the box” law even exists.

As vehicles stack up at lights, drivers, hoping the line will inch up before the light turns red, inevitably get stuck in the intersection and are ticketed.

We hope that this isn’t Rodriguez’s explanation for why these drivers shouldn’t be ticketed, and it’s simply a lack of understanding of the law on the part of Manhattan Times’ writer Daniel Bader. After all, drivers are breaking the law if they enter the intersection without adequate space to clear the intersection.

Of course, in a month where we’ve seen politicians mislead, deflect blame, and outright lie to justify positions that inconvenience and endanger those without cars, it’s not surprising that Rodriguez caught the bug that makes him just another run-of-the-mill politician.

Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Astoria) at Astoria Park in July 2009

It’s becoming clear that the key reason that the MTA suffers from a lack of state and city funding is a lack of understanding among public officials. Last week, Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther blamed the MTA for the failure to place tolls on East River bridges – an issue that was squarely the responsibility of the state legislature.

Yesterday, City Councilman Peter Vallone, Jr. (D-Astoria) blamed the MTA for something else that the agency has absolutely no control over: union salaries. Per today’s Daily News:

Protesters held up signs that read “Save Our Subways” while Vallone chided the MTA for granting an 11.3% raise to its workers over three years.

“You can’t give raises and then cut services. It’s Business 101, and they failed it,” said Vallone.

Vallone failed Labor Relations 101. The MTA and Transport Workers’ Union went into binding arbitration last January. When the arbitrator awarded the 11.3% raise to TWU workers, the MTA appealed the decision, citing among other things that the raise was unreasonable when the agency is in dire fiscal straits. The MTA did everything they could to stop this raise, but citing other city agencies receiving similar raises, the Union had the upper hand and a judge denied the MTA’s appeal.

Of course, Vallone would never fault the union for asking for and receiving such a raise in a recession, since merely criticizing unions is taboo among Democrats. Vallone prefers to entirely rewrite how labor negotiations work and claim that the MTA “gave raises” to TWU workers.

Vallone also fails to mention that non-union workers – including the MTA’s top executives - are taking a 10% paycut in 2010 to cover part of the budget gap left by higher blue-collar wages and a cut in state aid. The councilman may have conveniently left this out this fact, but considering his lack of understanding about arbitration, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if he didn’t even know.

Beyond all this, Vallone claimed that the city can’t do anything about the MTA’s cuts:

“A lot of people think that the city officials have control over this, but we don’t,” said Vallone (D-Astoria). “What I can do is speak out for my district, and that’s what I will continue to do.”

Vallone seems to miss the fact that the city controls a portion of the funding provided to the MTA. Coincidentally, the city’s $159 million tithe for transit operations has been virtually unchanged since the mid-90s. If the services provided to the MTA are so important to his district, why isn’t Vallone suggesting that the city step up their funding of the MTA? That’s certainly within his control. And on the same day that Vallone said the cuts are out of the city’s hands, Council Speaker Christine Quinn suggested that the city could cover the cost of Student Metrocards that the MTA can no longer afford to subsidize.

As long as the ill-informed have their hands on the money that funds the backbone of New York City’s economy, the MTA will be a New York politician’s favorite punching bag.

Not willing to settle for simply making uninformed accusations about the MTA’s finances, New York State Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther decided to rewrite history in a letter to the editor in last Wednesday’s Middletown Times Herald-Record:

The MTA failed to put tolls on the New York City bridges, which would have generated vital revenue for the state. It is that kind of frivolous spending and financial mismanagement that has put the MTA in this awful predicament — not the Legislature.

This borders on the level of hilarity. Not only do these legislators not understand the dire need for state support for the MTA, but they do not even understand that one proposed solution – East River bridge tolls – needs to be approved by the very legislative body they’re in. And last year, that solution failed.

In addition, the assemblywoman makes a baseless attack on Jay Walder’s salary, ironically, by calling his salary level “baseless:”

Jay Walder, the MTA chief, who has been blaming the Legislature for the MTA’s problems, has an excessive — and baseless — $350,000 salary.

Assemblywoman Gunther fails to mention that Walder will be taking a 10% paycut this year as part of the MTA’s plan to cover its deficit. She also neglects to mention the salaries of San Francisco and Los Angeles’ transit chiefs, who each make over $310,000 a year to run agencies that move a tenth as many people as the MTA.

The misinformation campaign continues, and there’s seemingly nobody in the MTA’s 400-strong Public Relations department strategizing a campaign to deflect the blame.

Taking their cue from MSNBC’s Keith OlbermannWPIX‘s manufactured anger about MTA service cuts has now boiled over. They’ve created a “Project S.O.S. (Support Our Students)” page to “take a stand” against the MTA’s cuts to student Metrocards. Naturally, the page’s “graffiti board” has become a space to baselessly bash the MTA:

This is not about the debt that the MTA has. Whatever happened with the 2 books found last year? Every year is a different issue with this Agency. Why not do the right thing and “CLEAN HOUSE”, get rid of the executives and give this agency a fresh start.

And how come MTA is not making it publicly known that the Taxi and Limousine commission already gives the 50 cents from EACH passenger ride from EACH cab driver…47,000 cab drivers day AND night..you do the math! Shame on disgusting MTA

THe bottom line here is that the MTA needs a complete audit, for the last ten years, by a state run, non-associated auditor. CLEARLY there is major mismanagement at the MTA and something needs to be done.

The MTA should really get a grip and start managing their money better. Stop doing track work! There’s no reason to take away a free service that is helping kids get a good education. That would be like donating to a charity and then requesting your check back. Leave the students alone!

And then there’s the above poll, to which I ask: how do they suggest MTA “find” money?

At least in the poll they give an option that recognizes the crux of the issue is a lack of state funding. Unfortunately, they completely ignore that in their phony outrage on the air.

By the way, if anyone on WPIX’s staff happens to come across this post, I’d like to direct you to my rundown of myths about the MTA’s fiscal crisis so that you can finally provide some balanced reporting.

In my previous post, I pulled out a quote from City Council Chair Christine Quinn, who among her many charges, claimed that the MTA must have public hearings on these service cuts.

Those quotes are nearly identical to the talking points on a web page in the City Council’s “Action Center,” which calls on citizens to sign a petition to ask the MTA for a “more democratic process” in determining the 2010 budget.

Nowhere on the page does it mention that the MTA is required by law to pass a balanced budget before the end of the year. Nowhere on the page does it mention that the two major sources of the deficit are the result of mandated cuts and underprojection of revenue by the state. Nowhere on the page does it mention that today’s vote by the MTA Board was completely democratic, nor that the board is represented by members appointed by elected officials. Nowhere on the page does it mention that it is the city’s responsibility to fund transportation for students, nor that the MTA was funding it voluntarily. Nowhere on the page does it mention that the MTA faces an overall $400 million deficit, most likely because the City Council merely proposes a $140 million source of funding from Federal stimulus dollars and shifting of capital funds that will further delay construction and rehabilitation projects.

All this page does is use city resources – a taxpayer-funded web site – to attack the MTA. It does not suggest any long-term solutions for revenue to prevent this crisis from happening annually. The page is a five-paragraph screed of misleading statements meant to deflect blame and purposely misinform the public.

There’s a reason that I had to repost a rundown of the myths associated with the MTA’s latest fiscal crisis. Not only do the city’s elected officials still believe these myths, but they still spread them.

“This cannot be today the last opportunity the public has to make their voice heard,” [City Council Chair Christine] Quinn said. “By conducting business in this way, you send a message, perhaps unintentionally, but that the opinions of those you are charged to serve do not matter. Now that’s not the message you want to send. But worse than sending that message, you cut off any opportunity to have other ideas put on the table.” (via NY1)

“We in this city have been ambushed by the MTA by the quick of their vote today,” NYC Councilman (D), James Vacca said. (via WABC)

As I’ve mentioned before, the MTA has a legal obligation to pass a balanced budget by the end of the calendar year. There’s not time to put an array of other ideas on the table when the state dumps a $343 million funding shortfall on the MTA in early December. “Conducting business in this way” is the way the state requires the MTA to conduct business. But again, Quinn and Vacca would rather blame the MTA, not the state.

By the way, a full board meeting was always scheduled for today, so to suggest that the MTA pulled a fast one by calling a meeting at the last minute to vote on these cuts is completely disingenuous.

“This is a body that was charged with having cooked books,” NYC City Councilman Charles Barron said. “We don’t even know if you really have a deficit, or when you have a surplus, or what you do with the money when you do have a surplus.” (via NewYorkology)

A clever play on words by Barron. Yes, the MTA was charged with having cooked books (seven years ago, by the way), but was later absolved of those charges in court. And there’s a really simple way, Councilman Barron, to know if you “really have a deficit:” you review the MTA’s Financial Statements, which are posted right on their web site.

Public Advocate-elect Bill de Blasio released a statement on the vote saying: “The MTA’s vote today could very well result in students missing school because their families can’t afford the extra cost of a metro card.  We cannot place such an unfair burden on low income students and their families in the middle of a recession.” (via NBC New York)

It’s funny, because I didn’t see Bill de Blasio release a similar statement when the state cut their already-paltry funding of student Metrocards to just $6 million last year and forced the MTA to pick up the bill.

There is a constant effort for elected officials who cut funding for the MTA to deflect blame back at the MTA for what is their own fault.  It’s disgusting, and it’s unproductive. Until this pattern of pointing fingers stops, transit riders will continue to suffer, and nothing will get done.

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