By Mark Hallum
City Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park) is shooting for re-election and is campaigning for better services for constituents still caught in the quagmire of Built It Back five years after Hurricane Sandy. He wants better public transportation, has withdrawn his support for a Constitutional Convention and is enthusiastic about a new chapter for the Queens Republican Party under different leadership.
Ulrich became the youngest sitting Council member in 2009 after winning a four-way nonpartisan special election after state Sen. Joseph Addabbo (Dâˆ’Howard Beach) vacated the seat to fill his current role. Now, at 32, Ulrich has mayoral aspirations, which he has put on hold, but numbers show his chances of re-election are at about 65 percent in a district where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a 3-to-1 ratio.
With many of the constituent complaints making their way through Ulrich’s office for mediation with the Build It Back, the councilman spoke highly of the city program’s new leadership under Lou Mendes, who oversaw the cleanup and reconstruction efforts in Manhattan following 9/11 for the city Department of Design and Construction.
“He’s really lit a fire under some of the people at other agencies … to speed up the reconstruction and the elevation process,” Ulrich said. “We should have hired this guy a long time ago. We should have transitioned to modular homes and we should have built into the program benchmarks and accountability. ‘If we don’t have X number of homes rebuilt, you’re fired.’ You really have to create that imperative. People got a paycheck every two weeks regardless of [how many residents they helped].”
The new city-subsidized ferry followed a temporary ferry service launched just after Hurricane Sandy to soften the impact of reduced rail service.
Ulrich is skeptical that the current level of the Rockaway ferry service is adequate. He said it should be expanded and supplemented with bus service in order to get cars off the road.
“The ferry is heavily subsidized… It’s a tremendous cost to the city and I think the verdict is still out as to whether or not this is getting people out of cars and creating a mode shift,” Ulrich said.
In order to expand rail service, Ulrich is in favor of an option rarely discussed regarding the derelict tracks left behind by the Rockaway Beach branch of the LIRR, which was shut down in the early 1960s.
While park advocates are fighting to have the trestle, rusted and overgrown with trees and plants, turned into a park similar to the Highline in Manhattan, transit activists say the borough has enough greenspace as it is and the right-of-way should be reclaimed to meet renewed demand for public transportation.
By reactivating parts of the line south of Atlantic Avenue and connecting it to expanded subway lines, the stretch north of Atlantic would be available park advocates who want a Highline style greenspace.
Ulrich originally supported the Constitutional Convention on the grounds that having one could open up the opportunity to eliminate pensions for disgraced politicians, but withdrew his support following concern from constituents who feared it would take away their rights to a pension at their jobs.
“It was a reminder to me that being in office is about representing the views and the values of your constituents. No matter how you feel personally, you have to do what’s right for the people that you represent,” Ulrich said. “So I said if you are really that concerned about you pensions and you’re all voting ‘no’ and people don’t want to see this, then I’ll withdraw my supportif that is any consolation to you.”
Ulrich, a self-described Rockefeller Republican, has broken with the conservative ranks by supporting minimum wage hikes and other left-leaning issues. He celebrated the election of Joann Ariola, a district leader from Lindenwood, as chairwoman of the Queens County Republican Party for her much more moderate views in contrast to her predecessor, former Congressman Bob Turner.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall