The Reimagine the Canals Initiative—a statewide brainstorming session that asks ‘how can we make more money off the Erie Canal?’—threatens to reduce one of Upstate’s most valuable pieces of infrastructure into a tourist attraction.
The initiative follows last year’s Reimagine the Canals Competition. The judges of that competition thought that the Canal was most useful as a site for waterfront development and beer festivals. It also follows the Governor’s other big ideas for Upstate communities like Syracuse: amphitheaters, gondolas, year-round fairs—all schemes to attract tourists.
Tourism is a seductive economic development strategy. It could work literally anywhere, it gets out-of-towners to pay local sales and hotel taxes, and it flatters consultants and politicians from outside of the community by assuming that a place like Syracuse would be better off if it would just cater to their upper-class tastes.
But the Erie Canal isn’t just sitting there, useless, waiting for us to reimagine a reason that tourists might want to visit it. The Canal is a statewide flood control system. It’s necessary to the survival of dozens of Upstate villages, towns, and cities, and it will become even more necessary as climate change makes the flooding up here more frequent and more destructive.
The people who actually run the Canal understand this. Thankfully, they’re at least getting the initiative’s leaders to consider flood mitigation, irrigation, and environmental remediation alongside the flashier tourism proposals. Help them out by telling the Initiative that you value the Canal for what it actually does for the state. You can submit your comments at this link.
Ever since NYSDOT came out in favor of the Grid, Town of Clay Supervisor Damian Ulatowski has been spreading a real ugly idea around Onondaga County. He’s been telling anyone who will listen that the suburbs’ “voices are not being heard.”
When Ulatowski says that, he doesn’t mean that all the communities along I81 should have a say over what happens to the viaduct—he’s never lifted up voices from Binghamton, Harrisburg, Roanoke, or Knoxville. And he also doesn’t mean that all the different governments in Onondaga County should be working more closely together—he opposed Consensus in 2016. And clearly he doesn’t mean that decisions made in any one community should account for their effects on other communities—he’s never cared one bit how Clay’s sprawl reduces opportunity for people living in the City.
What Ulatowski means when he says “our voices are not being heard” is that the suburbs should have control over what happens in Syracuse. He believes that the City exists for the benefit of the suburbs, and that the people living in Syracuse can only be trusted to make decisions as long as they accept that fact.
It’s an ugly idea—laced with racism and paternalism—and it’s been hiding behind bland words like “compromise” and “cooperation.” We need to call it out. When people living in Manlius say that I81’s future should be decided by public referendum, ask why they think they should get to participate in that vote. When hotel owners in Salina say that the needs of the suburbs outweigh the needs of the City, ask what kind of messed up scale they’re using. When Damian Ulatowski says that his voice isn’t being heard, tell him you can hear him fine, it’s just that he’s not saying anything worth listening to.
As the Republican Party digs in to defend the President, Congressman John Katko is losing control of his carefully crafted image as a ‘moderate.’
It used to be that Paul Ryan would help Katko maintain that image by allowing him to cast meaningless protest votes against unpopular Republican legislation. That’s what happened in 2017 when Katko’s party tried to repeal Obamacare. Republicans had a big enough majority to make it happen even though Katko voted against them. Ryan let him—and 19 other vulnerable Republican representatives—cast that symbolic vote so that Katko could come off looking like he was defying his party without actually doing anything to protect his constituents’ health insurance.
That’s all changed now that the Republican Party has decided to defend the President at all costs. Just last week the President told four congresswomen—one an immigrant, three native-born, all American citizens—to “go back” to the countries that they “originally came from.” Katko should have condemned that statement immediately because it’s the right thing to do, because he represents the 40,000 immigrants and refugees that live in his district, and because it would have been an easy way to maintain his image as a ‘moderate’ without actually opposing any of the Republicans’ disgusting immigration policies. Instead, Katko rallied to the Republican flag—putting out a statement that disagreed with the President’s style but not the substance of what he said. When the House voted to call that racism out, Katko fell into line behind the President.
Katko won’t actually challenge the National Republican Party on any issue, so he’s needed their help to cultivate a ‘moderate’ image in Central New York. That help isn’t coming anymore, and it’s getting harder and harder for him to disguise party loyalty as ‘moderation.’ Sooner or later, he’s going to have to make a real choice.
Chol Majok’s victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary marked both the beginning of a new era and the continuation of a long tradition in Syracuse’s politics.
This City has welcomed more than 10,000 refugees and immigrants in the past two decades. They’ve come to Syracuse from places like Somalia, Burma, and Bhutan. Majok himself is from Sudan, and he will be the first member of this most recent wave of immigration to hold elected office in the City.
That’s a good thing. Immigrants are making Syracuse a better place, and they deserve better representation in City Hall. More will follow Majok’s path, making local government more reflective of the people it serves, bringing new perspectives to the table, and letting the members of Syracuse’s newest communities know that they have just as much of a right to this City as anybody else.
But Syracuse’s history of welcoming the stranger goes back more than just two decades. Over the past two centuries, people have migrated to Syracuse from Germany, Ireland, Italy, the American South, and so many other places in search of a better life. Members of all of those communities have eventually gone on to hold elected office at City Hall, and that has always been a good thing for the City.
Chol Majok came to this City in 2001 as a refugee. He has been able to build a life here, to raise a family, and to contribute to the community. Now he’s going to sit on the Common Council and help guide the City to a better future. Syracuse has always thrived when it has embraced new people.
In Syracuse, local politicians are doing all they can to expand economic opportunity. At the same time, politicians in the State government are working to eliminate New York’s carbon footprint by 2050. These two groups of politicians—along with the activists and organizations that support them—should partner to advocate for better public transportation in Syracuse. A high-quality regional-wide service would expand economic opportunity by making more jobs more accessible to more people, and it would fight climate change by taking cars off the road. Working together as a pro-transit coalition, groups interested in each of these outcomes would provide Centro with the political support it needs in order to make this kind of service a reality.
The Status Quo
As it stands, Centro has very little political support. Nobody at the City, County, State, or Federal level values bus service enough to shift money from highways to public transportation, so every year Centro has to go begging for the money just to keep its buses running. That gets enough people riled up that Albany will push a couple million dollars Centro’s way—just enough to fill the deficit—and then the exact same thing happens all over again the next year
Without the political power to fund service improvements, Centro has crafted its planning process to make them impossible. SMART1—the most recent proposal to improve public transportation in Syracuse—focused almost exclusively on service within the City. That’s because when Centro plans transit service, it uses demand models that look like this:
According to this model, enough people live and work in the blue areas to justify improved transit service. The light blue areas can justify rapid buses, the medium areas can justify light rail, and the dark blue areas can justify heavy rail.
But this demand model assumes that any new transit service has to justify its existence by first attracting a certain number of riders. That means that good service can only run where lots of people already ride the bus, ignoring the fact that people choose to ride the bus in those areas because Centro runs relatively good service there. It also means that the areas where people don’t use public transportation can’t get better service even though low ridership is caused, at least in part, by how bad the service is right now. By ignoring the effect that the quality of service has on ridership, Centro is able to justify its barely passable service, and it avoids politically impossible requests for more funding. The result is too little economic opportunity and too many cars on the road.
A coalition of economic opportunity and environmental advocates could turn that logic on its head. When you recognize transit as a necessary tool in the twin fights against poverty and climate change, low ridership is a challenge to overcome rather than a sign to give up. The emerging pro-transit coalition should respond to low ridership by improving service in order to make more jobs more accessible and to better compete with car travel. Those improvements would attract more ridership, getting more people to work and taking more cars off the road.
Transit for the Whole Region
It’s not easy to run attractive transit service in suburbs where people and jobs are spread thinly over a very large area, but in the book Transport for Suburbia, Paul Mees describes how Zurich’s network of city rail lines and suburban bus routes accomplishes the task by making connections between the trains and buses simple, convenient, and cheap. Easy connections integrate each line into the larger network. That allows public transportation to cover the entire metropolitan area, and it gives riders the same freedom that they’d have in a private car.
For Centro, that could start with a fast frequent regional rail system connecting Syracuse to Auburn, Fulton, Oswego, and Cortland. Much of the infrastructure already exists parallel to the slow infrequent coach buses that Centro already runs.
Complemented by well-timed connecting bus lines—extending to Ithaca, say, or linking suburban communities and job centers along major roads like Route 31 and Taft Road—this service would open the entire region to travel without a car, increasing economic opportunity and reducing carbon emissions at the same time.
Political Support is Fundamental
This service—or something like it designed by actual transportation planners—won’t come cheap. It will cost money to acquire new rights of way, to buy new buses and trains, to hire enough operators to run them frequently, to time them precisely.
For Centro’s entire history, that kind of spending has been unthinkable. The money will have to come from the State or from the Federal Government, and that means that it will have to come at the expense of some other government program—highways, maybe. Good public transportation is a political choice, and it can’t come about unless people with power value it more than they value the other things that also require government funding.
That may finally have changed. Now that the environment and economic opportunity have moved up to the top of the agenda in Syracuse and in New York State, there may finally be a coalition broad enough and powerful enough to make public transportation a priority in this City. We can finally stop treating public transportation like a ‘program’ that’s only funded grudgingly, when all other options are exhausted and only at the bare minimum. Can we finally stop spending billions on highway expansion while ignoring million dollar plans for better bus service. We can finally take public transportation seriously as an opportunity to achieve New York’s loftiest goals.
Since 2015, City Hall’s Innovation Team has worked out new solutions for old municipal problems like aging infrastructure and snow covered sidewalks. Since February of 2018, the I-Team has set its sights on housing instability—both a major cause and effect of poverty in the City.
These initiatives are a helpful mix of quick-fixes (like tenant and landlord education) and long-term structural changes (like a tenants union). They include scalable pilots (like anti-eviction case management for SHA tenants) and city-wide initiatives (like the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication). By approaching the problem from so many angles, at so many scales, and on so many different timelines, the I-Team has developed a raft of policies that should improve the lives of people living in Syracuse even if one initiative or another ultimately fails.
However, this set of policies skirts a central cause of housing instability in Syracuse: the gap between the rents that landlords charge and what tenants can afford to pay. A strong and militant tenants union could eventually push rents down (although the I-Team seems to see such a union focusing instead on fighting evictions and educating renters), but expanded rental registry and more proactive code enforcement will likely push rents up. In a city where 56% of tenants can’t afford their rent, that’s not enough.
It’s within City Hall’s power to address this. First, City Hall can put affordability at the center of its Blueprint 15 plans by ensuring that the project does not reduce the total number of affordable homes in Syracuse. This will mean increasing the size of the project and potentially expanding its footprint to include state-owned land on Downtown’s eastern edge.
Second, City Hall needs to enforce its own 2016 ban on source-of-income discrimination in Syracuse’s rental market. A year and a half after City Hall enacted that ban, landlords still advertise in plain language that they will not rent to tenants who receive public assistance. Without proper enforcement, the ban has no effect and rent-burdened tenants are denied housing choice. (This year’s State budget included a state-wide ban on source-of-income discrimination—maybe it will have more effect).
So much of what drives up rents and causes housing instability—financial markets, construction costs, HUD policies—is completely beyond local control. These are national problems faced by every city in the country, and some of the most effective solutions will have to come from the national level. But City Hall isn’t powerless to improve the situation for people living in Syracuse now. The I-Team’s proposals will do a lot of good. They’ll do even more when coupled with additional policies that tackle rent head-on.
The mall was the defining issue of the 2000s—like I-81 is of the 2010s—and a lot of people are still bitter that Syracuse gave away so much public money in exchange for ridiculous and ultimately unfulfilled promises (an aquarium, an imitation Erie Canal Village, a hotel shaped like grass).
For those people, this news is the ultimate ‘I told you so moment’ and a dream come true: the opportunity to unmake the mistake of subsidizing the mall in the first place, wiping the slate clean and allowing a new thing to happen at the mouth of Onondaga Creek.
That’s not going to happen. If Shoppingtown’s taught us anything, it’s that doomed malls die slow deaths. And anyway, as Rick Moriarty reported, it’s all probably just a play by Pyramid Companies to get a better rate on their mortgage.
Even if the Mall were to fail, that wouldn’t be a great thing for the City. Destiny has centralized retail in the Syracuse metro area, and that benefits the City proper by making public transportation more effective and by giving City Hall leverage in negotiations with the County.
Macy’s only has one store in the Syracuse market, and that store is at Destiny. The same is true for Lord & Taylor, JC Penney, and dozens of other retailers. If those stores weren’t located at Destiny, they’d be somewhere else in the County—probably somewhere in the suburbs like Penn-Can, Shoppingtown or Great Northern. Destiny beat all of those other locations out, and it pulled their tenants into the City.
If you get around in a car, then it doesn’t much matter whether Macy’s is in Clay or Cicero or DeWitt or Syracuse. This is a 20-minute-city, after all. If you get around by bus, though, it matters a lot. Neither Clay nor Cicero nor DeWitt can support good bus service, but Syracuse can, and Destiny has some of the best bus service in the entire County.
That good service has made the Mall the most popular bus stop in Centro’s network by far. That matters because the Mall is a major center of employment—especially entry-level employment. Getting all those jobs within reach of all those buses is exactly the kind of thing that economic development should do, and it’s a rare, major, unsung success in this town.
City Hall and Onondaga County just renewed the sales tax sharing agreement that Joanie Mahoney and Stephanie Miner negotiated in 2010. A lot of people want to hold that agreement up as a symbol of increased cooperation and goodwill between the City and its suburbs, but it’s really a symbol of the City’s growing economic power.
The basic question is this: should City Hall charge and collect its own sales tax within the city limits, or should it leave that up to the County in exchange for a cut of the County-wide revenues? If there’s not much retail activity in the City, then there’s little sense in giving up even a small cut of the County-wide revenues. The County understands this, and it used to be able to get City Hall to accept a small sliver of sales tax revenue. City Hall negotiated from a weak position and got screwed.
Now that Destiny has drawn so much retail activity into the City, though, City Hall has a much stronger position in those sales tax negotiations, and that empowers the Mayor to get a better deal.
The Mall has a rocky relationship with the City. It’s tricked Syracuse out of a lot of property tax revenue at a time when City Hall needs all the money it can get. It closed the door on the possibility that Downtown would ever be a major retail destination like it was 60 years ago. It’s currently trying to get a $3,600,000,000 hole bored through Syracuse for no good reason.
But the Mall has also been good for the City in ways that don’t get much attention. By centralizing the metro area’s major retailers, it put a lot of jobs within access of public transportation. By bringing that retail activity within the city limits, it has strengthened City Hall’s negotiating position with the County.
This week, a couple of upstate politicians from rural districts introduced legislation to give people living in rural areas more power in New York State’s government. Their plan is to redraw State Senate districts to match existing county lines. It’s being pitched and covered as a plan to “boost upstate new york political clout,” but that plan would also take political power away from cities like Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany. It’s difficult to hold both of those facts in your head at the same time—you have to pretend that those cities aren’t part of Upstate. But those cities are part of Upstate, and they’re better off with the way New York elects its State Senators now.
The argument for giving Upstate more control by changing State Senate elections goes something like this: Upstate is Republican and Downstate is Democratic. The Republican-controlled State Senate was Upstate’s voice in Albany, and with Republicans out of power, Upstate has lost its voice:
“When Democrats gained majority control of the 63-seat New York Senate in November, only three members of the party represented Upstate New York. The other 24 senators north of Westchester County are Republicans.”
That analysis ignores why three upstate senate districts sent Democrats to Albany. It wasn’t some statistical anomaly. The three upstate Democratic state senators are from Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany—three of Upstate’s four big cities (Rochester lost its representation in the State Senate to gerrymandering).
Now that Democrats are in control of the New York State Senate, those upstate cities haven’t lost their voice—they’ve gained it. It used to be that rural upstate Republicans negotiated deals with downstate Democrats that left out Upstate’s cities—new spending on MTA and rural upstate roads and bridges, but not upstate transit authorities, that kind of thing.
With Democrats in charge of state government, senators from upstate cities are finally a part of the majority, and they’re in a position to advocate for Upstate’s urban communities. All three of those upstate Democrats are committee chairs. Tim Kennedy (D-Buffalo) chairs the State Senate’s Transportation Committee, meaning that Centro, NFTA, CDTA, and RTS finally have a shot at equitable funding this budget season.
This plan to elect State Senators by county would take power away from upstate cities in two ways. First, it would give the 80,317 residents of rural Cattaraugus County just as much say in the State Senate as the 465,398 residents of urbanized Onondaga County, or the 2,648,771 residents of Kings County (Brooklyn)—making rural votes more valuable than city ones. Second, and more importantly, this partisan power-grab would marginalize upstate cities by relegating their representatives in the State Senate to the minority and making New York State government less responsive to their concerns.
Upstate’s cities vote for Democrats. They do it mayoral races, gubernatorial races, assembly races, senate races, congressional races, and presidential races. In that way, upstate cities aren’t very different from downstate cities like New Rochelle, Yonkers, or New York City. That makes sense when Democratic candidates support policies that address city residents’ concerns while Republican candidates more often focus on rural issues.
When you try to conflate ‘Upstate’ with ‘Rural Republican’ and ‘Downstate’ with ‘City Democrat,’ you miss that. ‘Upstate’ isn’t out of power because Democrats control Albany—it’s just the sparsely populated rural parts of the State whose representatives are in the minority. Upstate’s cities are finally in power. It’s a Country/City issue, not an Upstate/Downstate issue. Anybody who says otherwise is ignoring Upstate’s cities.
Since Democrats took full control of the state government in Albany on January 9, they have been working overtime, already passing the Reproductive Health Act, GENDA, and voting reform. All of these major pieces of progressive legislation are necessary to push back against the regressive policies coming out of the federal government. They’re part of an agenda that will make New York State a progressive beacon for the nation, and that agenda needs to include better support for public transportation across the State.
In more normal times, the federal government gives money to local transit agencies for capital improvements like new buses, shelters, and bus lanes. When the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council recommended that Centro run a new Bus Rapid Transit service, it picked out Small Starts—a Federal Transportation Administration program designed exactly for this kind of project—as the best place to get the money to build it.
SMART1 BRT Lines
Of course, these aren’t normal times. The current FTA is acting in bad faith, holding back money that it had already promised to local transit agencies:
“FTA’s position for next year’s budget is that the pipeline of transit projects should grind to a halt completely, leaving cities and communities on their own to raise yet more local funding than they already have to complete their projects.”
Because public transportation empowers poor people, because it’s most useful in cities, because it’s environmentally responsible, regressive federal politicians are defunding it in cities across the country.
Clearly, Centro isn’t going to be able to work with this administration’s FTA to provide the kind of bus service that Syracuse really needs—multiple high-frequency routes connecting the City’s most populous neighborhoods to its centers of employment, signal priority at stop lights, new shelters that tell riders when the next bus is coming, dedicated bus lanes.
And so the same logic that has made it necessary for New York State to pass a law like the Reproductive Health Act also makes it necessary for New York State to increase its support for public transportation. Good bus service is necessary for a progressive society, it’s under attack from a regressive federal government, and New York State has the power and the responsibility to protect and advance it.
Last week, Onondaga’s Town Supervisors—a group of people without any governmental responsibility for the City—got together to again let everybody know that they would like for I81 to stay in the middle of Syracuse. They want that, in part, because they’re concerned about the ‘environmental impacts‘ of removing the I81 viaduct.
On the face of it, that’s a stupid concern. The environment will be better off with one fewer piece of obsolete, overbuilt, car-only transportation infrastructure. Get rid of the viaduct, and there’s room for new housing within walking distance of major employers, making it more possible for more people to drive less.
But those supervisors were never really concerned about the environment. They’re concerned about upending the status quo where all of the County’s environmental problems get dumped in the City. Ed Michalenko doesn’t care that vehicular exhaust is giving kids asthma so long as those kids don’t live in DeWitt. Jim Lanning doesn’t care that trucks are driving through Onondaga County so long as they go through Syracuse instead of Skaneateles.
That’s the danger of shoving all of the County’s problems onto one community—it lets these suburban supervisors believe that if a problem doesn’t exist for them, then it doesn’t exist at all. It’s telling that their ‘compromise‘ for I81 is to bury it through the middle of Syracuse, as if putting those cars out of sight is the same thing as taking them off the road.
The only way that this project will do anything positive for the environment is if it makes Onondaga County into a place where fewer people have to drive to run every single errand. That’s the promise of the Grid—more walkable neighborhoods that can support better bus service, fewer miles of highway subsidizing and necessitating car ownership. That’s an environmental impact to be excited about, and by making car ownership less necessary in Onondaga County, it might just reduce the traffic in places like Skaneateles and DeWitt.