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Tunnel Vision

Could Weed Save New York's Awful Subways?

A new proposal called Weed for Rails thinks so.

by John Surico
Dec 14 2018, 6:41pm

Image by Lia Kantrowitz/Shutterstock

On April 27, 2019 the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months between Manhattan and Brooklyn to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

After years of backpedaling and underinvestment, New York’s lawmakers are poised to enter 2019 sincerely convinced (finally) of two things: that the New York City subway system is deeply fucked, and that it will take a lot of money to fix it.

Alas, what has launched in recent weeks is a scramble of proposals—some old, some new—to pay for the billions of dollars that the MTA will need to merely get the subway system up to par with the rest of the world’s major transit networks. It’s probably the best chance America’s largest city has had in decades to get the infrastructure that it has long deserved.

In July 2017, journalist Aaron Short highlighted on this website one of those proposals: legalizing weed to help fix America’s infrastructure crisis. The places that have legalized, he wrote, have amassed millions of dollars in tax revenues, which has since been reverted to help pay for infrastructure in states like Washington and Colorado. New York—which has nearly quadruple the population of Colorado and an economy bigger than countries like Argentina and the Netherlands—could stand to benefit immensely from taxing pot, Short argued. So why not put it to the subways?

And that’s exactly what a growing chorus of elected officials in New York are now thinking.

Earlier this month, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out in support of legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, and using that tax revenue to help pay for the subway fixes. He promised to urge Albany—including Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has softened his tone on the issue as other northeastern states have legalized—to act.

Joining Johnson, his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, has formally made the proposal—what she has titled ‘Weed for Rails’—a centerpiece of her candidacy for the city’s public advocate office, which will see a special election called in late February to fill the citywide seat. The former Council Speaker also sits on the MTA Sustainability Advisory Working Group, which is considering nearly a dozen potential revenue sources. And this is one of them.

VICE reached out to Mark-Viverito to find out more about the idea, and other potential ways to fund the city’s subways. (That includes Amazon.) Here’s what she had to say.

VICE: First off, what's wrong with the New York City subway system?
Melissa Mark-Viverito: It's in major crisis. It affects the quality of life for everyday New Yorkers, and it's also affecting, obviously, the vitality of the city. When you talk about our mass transit system—which is the largest, and so important in getting New Yorkers around—between the buses and the subways, you hear people's complaints of the commutes every single day. The delays; the lack of investment over years, and the infrastructure. Now, everything has just come together, and it's this crisis. You know, ‘We haven't updated the signals, so that's the delays. The infrastructure is a mess.’ I was doing a meet and greet this morning underneath the 7 train, and that line is the number one complaint of those communities. If you see the videos, how horribly overcrowded they are. But it's happening all over.

So it's just a crisis, which I don't think is getting the attention that it merits. We all know it's broken. We all know it needs fixing. But I don't hear people providing solutions. So utilizing the position of public advocate and this candidacy, I really want to champion that issue, bring the conversation to the forefront, and recommend some sort of policy solutions. And that's where the Weed for Rails came about.

How would Weed for Rails work?
It's about us saying, 'This is a substantive source of revenue that a portion of it we can allocate to this critical infrastructure need, which impacts particularly low-income and working-class communities, who have limited options.' If you got resources, you can call an Uber or Lyft every day to get you around. But if you're somebody who relies on the transportation system, even though it's still expensive for many, then you're limited in your options. So this is impacting your ability to get to work on time. It's impacting spending quality time with your family. If you get delayed to work, you could have an employer who doesn't accommodate or be flexible, so it could impact your employment. It could impact the quality of life of your children, who have to wake up earlier to get to school because of it.

It's a serious issue, and for me, saying, 'Alright, I believe in legalization of marijuana—let's legalize marijuana; second, that source of revenue, we're going to apply some of it to the critical infrastructure needs of our transit system; and the remainder, we'll invest and create opportunities in communities that have been overcriminalized and have been disproportionately impacted.’ [Another candidate for the office, Rafael Espinal, criticized the plan for not giving back enough to these communities.] That's a concrete recommendation, and people are reacting to it. It's obviously stirring up debate, and that's what we need right now. We need to focus, and we need to take this to be the crisis that it is.

What do you think are the issues that led to this?
It's always with infrastructure. It's not just with our transit system, to be honest. It's with our bridges, and in general, the lack of continued investment in the infrastructure of our city—NYCHA public housing is another example of that. So when you see that, over the years, it accumulates to a point where it's not addressed and it becomes a crisis. And that's the point where we find ourselves. So a historic disinvestment in that, and that's basically what it is.

What do you think about other spending proposals on the table?
Obviously congestion pricing is something I support, and I've been a supporter of it strongly since 2008. And the fact that we haven't passed that is ridiculous. But that revenue alone is a drop in the bucket in terms of the needs of the MTA. So the capital construction is where I'm talking about investing the money, but then there's the operational side, which is a whole other set of conversations. That's about pensions, management in general, and how the MTA functions. That's a separate conversation. But my recommendation is specifically about investing in the infrastructure needs. When we talk about President Andy Byford's Fast Forward Plan, he's talking about uploading a lot of the capital infrastructure work. You know, bringing it closer—within 10 years, as opposed to 20 or 15 years. In doing that, you're basically going to have front load, and put more money into that. To realize that plan, we need to invest heavily. So the gap is huge, and it's billions of dollars that we're talking about. Trying to at least address that plan, which is to bring the capital infrastructure up to speed, is where I'm focusing the plan on.

How do you see yourself using the Public Advocate's office—which isn't necessarily a lawmaking position—to get something like this through? What will the push look like?
The public advocate can introduce legislation. It's also a bully pulpit, too—you have a citywide position, raising your voice, making it an issue, saying that the state needs to focus on this. Making the voice of the disillusioned New Yorkers who are frustrated, letting them know that there is someone in government that's listening to them, and that is trying to force a debate and a conversation about how are we going to find a solution.

The vigorous debate that has ensued is a testament to that, so I want to do that in that role, not only for the transportation issue, but for the other issues I care about. So it's really important that we think outside of the box; that we be creative, and that we're not ignoring it. Cynthia Nixon made her campaign about the MTA, and that was important. I think it was important for people to see that somebody cared about that — it's something that people are frustrated about every day.

As you know, the politics around the subway have grown sour. There has been an ongoing debate between the mayor and the governor about who's responsible here. Where do you see this proposal falling into that larger political mess?
My thing is, look, I'm tired of the pettiness. I'm tired of the fighting. And so are New Yorkers, because they're not seeing things getting done. I'm not saying who is more to blame here, but it's a constant pissing match. You know, the governor wants to overstep and then say that he's completely a state authority, but then the city is responsible. But, come on. It's a way of deflecting responsibility and accountability. We have to all just figure out how we're going to make this work. My thing is that this is cutting right through the middle of it, throwing a big and bold idea on the table, and like, let's see what we do with this.

Another fix that has been floated of late: forcing Amazon to help pay for transit infrastructure in exchange for the massive tax breaks they received to bring their second office to Western Queens . Earlier this week, your old office at City Council held a contentious hearing with Amazon executives where issues like this were pressed. What do you think there?
At the end of the day, what happened with that deal is anti-democratic. Because a review process that would bring in community voices was completely usurped. And that is the governor and the mayor who colluded in that. That's unacceptable. The fact that they would not have advocated for a peace labor agreement, or for setting aside money to improve the transportation infrastructure... there's a lot of holes in this. I'm not saying as if the deal is done, because I think we need to get rid of that deal, but in terms of what they negotiated, they put together some sort of little infrastructure fund, but there's no indication of what that's for.

Like, what were they doing? And who were they advocating for? It wasn't the average New Yorker, who's going to be impacted by this monster of a corporation in the middle of Long Island City. So definitely a lot of questions about how this deal was struck, and at the end of the day, who does it really benefit. We know they have anti-labor practices, and history; that the jobs that they create squeeze the small businesses, and maybe lose jobs in that sector. There's a lot of concerns about it. And then there's the question of how we dole out subsidies to begin with now. We have to re-focus and revisit that whole conversation: what are we investing in?

Whoever becomes the city's public advocate would take office right around when the L train shutdown is getting underway. What do you see as the office's role there?
There's been a lot of conversation about that, and I know the Council has weighed in. Another role of the public advocate is oversight. Monitoring and making sure all things are going, so that process should be monitored heavily. There are all of these different recommendations about providing alternatives, and how to make that happen. So it's a matter of making sure there's constant engagement with the riders and the commuters and how that's going, and making sure we figure out how to facilitate the access to the service, to those who live in areas that are a little bit removed, and solely rely on this subway line. So a lot of it is monitoring and oversight over that process.

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