As the calendar ticks down the September 5 start of the school session across New York, transit advocates and the head of the City Council’s transportation committee suggested New York City close streets around school buildings if the state doesn’t act in some way to turn on the city’s 140 speed cameras in school zones that were turned off on July 25th.
With the school year starting, city officials have kept the pressure on the Republican-held state Senate to return to Albany and pass a bill that would expand the number of speed cameras in school zones to 290. The mayor recently announced that cameras, which are still collecting speeding data (if not catching offenders), tracked 132,000 drivers moving 11 miles per hour above the speed limit in the previously covered school zones. That figure was backed up by the NYPD’s Chief of Transportation, Thomas Chan, who told the City Council yesterday that there was a 33 percent increase in speeding summonses given out between July 25 and July 27 in areas covered by cameras.
But in the absence of state action, Wednesday’s Transportation Committee hearing also served as a place for the city to act on its own to protect students. Before the hearing, Transportation Alternatives’ Paul Steely White told Curbed he wanted the city to explore the drastic step of shutting streets near schools to traffic. “[Closing streets] would cause many drivers to scream bloody murder, but that’s the kind of pressure required to be placed on the state Senators to get them to act. If the city can’t have the authority to control its own streets, the city should shut them down,” Steely White said.
During the hearing itself, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, who heads up the committee, asked DOT if the idea was on the table for this fall. Rebecca Forgione, the agency’s Chief Operations Office, responded that “in terms of personnel in order to carry that out, it would be a challenge,” since there are 3,000 schools in the city, and that the idea could raise new safety concerns.
“We won’t give up until the last second on restoring the speed cameras around schools,” Rodriguez told Curbed. The council member said he’d prefer some kind of action is taken in Albany before school is in session, whether that’s the state Senate reconvening to pass the bill or Governor Andrew Cuomo signing an executive order turning the cameras back on. In the absence of that action, though, he said he refuses to see the city caught flat-footed when the school year starts.
“I feel we need to have a backup plan,” Rodriguez explained. “Part of that could be an increase of crossing guards around schools, but also [we should] look at schools where logistically we can ban cars around them.”
Yesterday’s committee hearing was focused on a number of bills to improve street safety, including Brad Lander’s bills that made up the Reckless Driver Accountability Act, a package of laws that would allow the city to keep track of dangerous drivers and take drivers off the road if they’re routinely caught by speed cameras. Forgione told the Council that while the DOT supports the idea of removing reckless drivers from the road, the bill “raises legal issues that require further review,” since the state ultimately controls issues like suspending licenses.
Those bills depend in large part on whether the state Senate actually lets the city turn the cameras back on. “It’s hard to proceed, because you need to pass a bill that uses the red light cameras’ authorization,” Lander told Curbed after the hearing. While he said there are ways to move the bill forward if the Senate never turns the cameras back on, the next steps for the legislation are still to lobby and push the Senate to reauthorize the cameras since it would make for a stronger program.