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MTA Buses Are About to Become Bad Drivers’ Worst Nightmare

The state budget doesn't do transit riders dirty.

A SBS stuck in traffic in Manhattan.

Friday, Mar 24, 2023 at 1st Av. & East 70th St., along the M15 bus route (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

This year's New York State budget landed like a wet fart. It's one month late, it contains no meaningful measures to address the housing crisis (the governor told reporters that housing legislation likely won't happen this year), and while it will include historic climate investments, it also has $8 billion in corporate tax subsidies, including an expansion of the bloated and dubious film tax credit program, and a baffling half a billion dollars to a horse racing industry that New Yorkers increasingly don't care for. 

However, riders of New York City mass transit have something to cheer.

First, the budget saves the MTA from going into an actual death spiral (bad service, then fewer riders leading to worse service, leading to even fewer riders) thanks in part to a $1.1 billion payroll tax increase on businesses in New York City, an extra $300 million from the state and (hopefully) $165 million from City Hall. Yes, there will be a fare hike in the near future, but it's likely a percent or more less than the 5.5 percent the agency was talking about in late 2022. 

There's also another $35 million being allocated so that the MTA can provide 8 minute subway service on nights and weekends for a dozen or so lines, and the much-discussed free bus pilot that will be unveiled on one bus line in every borough. (Who will decide which routes will be free? MTA CEO Janno Lieber, speaking to reporters last week: "The MTA is going to select in a way to make sure we can identify the impact on ridership and have it not be an accelerant to fare evasion.")

But the budget also contains a powerful tool for the MTA to speed up our buses, which are the slowest in the country: bus enforcement cameras will expand their ambit beyond drivers who block the bus lanes. Van blocking a bus stop? That's a camera ticket. Truck blocking a bike lane? That's a camera ticket. Crosswalk? Intersection? Ticket. Ticket. 

Danny Pearlstein, the policy director of the Riders Alliance, the advocacy group that has been consistently fighting for better bus and subway service in this year's budget, told Hell Gate that this new camera enforcement structure has the potential to be "more impactful and more revolutionary than [budget] dollars themselves." 

"There's been a lot of attention to the free bus pilot, but it's a much larger experiment to mount this vast network of cameras to enforce the law on the major obstacles in the way of reliable bus service," Pearlstein said.

The 450 automated MTA bus cameras currently in action as part of the Automated Bus Lane Enforcement (ABLE) have been successful at speeding up bus routes and making them safer by reducing crashes. (Watch how they work here.) The agency wants to get the number of cameras up to 1,000 by 2024, the same year the expanded enforcement authority would go into effect. Fines start at $50, but go up to $250 for drivers who rack up multiple offenses in a 12-month period. According to recent testimony from the MTA, 80 percent of drivers who get one ticket don't get another one. 

"This is where our public space issue is being addressed," Pearlstein said. "There's a basic fairness: bus riders' time should be valued."

Another principle that was apparently valued during the budget negotiations: the sovereignty of the suburbs. Suburban businesses managed to entirely dodge that MTA payroll tax increase, despite the fact that the jobs and property values that many suburban New Yorkers enjoy are derived in large part by their access to public transit. The final budget also stipulates that if new casinos are built in the suburbs, just 40 percent of the operating license fees will go to the MTA, as opposed to 50 percent of a casino located in the City. 

Transit riders might be able to claw some of that revenue back, one double-parked car at a time.

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