Interviews & Profiles

Keeping tabs on the MTA’s budget and policies

An interview with state Sen. Leroy Comrie, chair of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions.

State Sen. Leroy Comrie

State Sen. Leroy Comrie State Senate

As head of the state Senate Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, Leroy Comrie has served as the primary state lawmaker with oversight of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, its policies and its budget. Comrie has emphasized overhauling bus routes throughout the outer boroughs, adding more express bus lines to transit deserts and expanding Fair Fares to boost ridership. He’s also interested in improving transit service between the city’s two major airports. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s your opinion on the congestion pricing plan set to go into effect in Manhattan? What will it mean for the city and your district?

It’s going to create hardship. It’s going to be a big learning curve. It’s going to make it difficult for most of my Queens base who commute multiple times a day into the city, and a lot of folks are going to have to figure out adjustments. If you’re an electrician who does work in the zone or a craftsperson you’ll have to figure out what to do to maintain your business with all that additional cost. 

If you live in eastern Queens, depending on where you live, it may take two and a half hours with no connective service. We have to create more express buses and direct LIRR service to areas that are not well-connected. Some folks, especially nurses who work within the zone, have to drive in because they have to work at 4 a.m. What are we doing to provide them help? 

The fees from the zone are going to negate any opportunity they have. We hopefully are planning the bus redesign to help out working people and all the folks who have fees with traveling because they have major medical issues within the zone. How do we figure that out? They get reimbursement through their health plans, but that has to be actualized. We have to see what happens with that.

What’s your view on fare evasion in the subways, which the MTA wants to crack down on? 

I think that technology is key for our fare evasion issues. Better technology and standards of station in our MTA system. People who are obscuring license plates, that has to be dealt with with higher fines and more stringent fines. The issue is technology where someone can walk through an MTA toll collection area and (not) pay tolls. That’s a major problem. There needs to be an upgrade to improve this system to reduce the inevitability of people who walk through the machines. They’re in the process of testing things now. Some have been proven already not to be workable.

Is part of the answer having more low-income riders sign up for discounted fares?

Fair Fares can address some of that. It has not been advertised well for a lot of people. We need to make sure the Fair Fares program is capturing them and embracing them and they’re actually using it.

Are there any big MTA subway or bus projects underway or in the works that you support or oppose?

We need to have more express buses in Queens and Brooklyn. The plan does not add additional express buses in Queens and that’s a major faux pas. We’re supporting the Broadway Junction upgrade and expansion and the expansion of Broadway in Elmhurst. That station needs to be planned. There are a lot of infrastructure needs throughout the system. The Brooklyn bus depot needs to be upgraded, and we need to get rid of equipment. Rail stations are 100 years old and need to be upgraded. The capital plan to complete the ADA accessibility with elevators and not ramps leading to better accessibility is important for a system that carries a lot of parents and the elderly. We need to make sure stations have accessibility to increase ridership. 

Also, we need to increase train frequency wherever possible and have dual accessibility to be able to take any commuter rail line. I look forward to Amtrak stations coming online in the Bronx as well as opportunities to do interconnectivity to Queens and Brooklyn – (like) the bus redesign plan … and trying to get all of the buses aligned for a faster commute to these relevant stations to get people (access).

New York just passed a state budget. Were there any major developments for mass transit that came out of it? What are your thoughts on the demise of the free bus pilot? 

The free bus pilot was good in theory but in practicality it created a lot of confusion in my district. Folks thought all the buses were free and it really scared the drivers. A lot of drivers were intimidated by passengers who thought every bus line was free. They were concerned because they don’t have the ability to stop that kind of activity. Until we can clean up fare evasion and expand the Fair Fares program we can’t go back to that. 

Our goal as a state is to provide the most reliable service possible. There are a lot of people who can’t afford the fares. We also created a 10% discount citywide, and regionwide for the ticketing program for folks taking commuter rail to ensure they get an additional 10% discount.

Was there any other key legislation affecting the MTA that advanced through the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions this session? 

There are a couple of things more technical in nature but we don’t have any major policy. Just making sure they have more transparency in their reporting.

One bill we’re going to take on is from (former state Sen. Tim Kennedy) to have on-duty Red Cross vehicles that deal with floods and fires exempted from congestion pricing.