Photo by Carlotta Mohamed/QNS
Riders, advocates and organized labor held a rally outside of the Jamaica Center Station for passage of congestion pricing.

With nine days remaining for legislators in Albany to negotiate the final state budget due April 1, transit riders and advocates rallied in southeast Jamaica on Thursday for the adoption of congestion pricing — a plan they say will help repair the crippling subway and transit system in their neighborhood.

Members of Riders Alliance, Transportation Alternatives, Transport Workers Union Local 100, the Environmental Defense Fund, and the Regional Plan Association, addressed the many benefits of congestion pricing at the bustling Jamaica Center Subway Station by Parsons Boulevard and Archer Avenue.

Advocates say that congestion pricing will help pay for transit upgrades, improve local and express bus services, and reduce commuter rail and express bus fares in southeast Queens — often referred to as the “transit desert.”

“Transportation deserts like this one require proper funding and that starts with congestion pricing,” said Natasha Saunders of Riders Alliance, a grassroots movement for public transit. “While the legislators are in Albany negotiating the state budget for April 1, we want to make sure that congestion pricing is passed, and if it is passed that people from southeast Queens are able to see funding from it.”

Under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, a surcharge would be placed on vehicles entering central business districts in Manhattan. The governor has suggested an $11.52 surcharge for cars, a $23.34 charge for trucks, and a charge of $2 to $5 per ride on for-hire vehicles entering congestion zones. It could generate between $810 million and $1.1 billion annually, which could then be used to fund critical repairs to the New York City subway.

Saunders, who lives in St. Albans and owns a business in Manhattan, relies heavily on public transportation, which she said has become so unpredictable having to spend extra cash daily taking an Uber or the LIRR to reach her clients in time.

“As a business owner, that affects my bottom line and profits I use to take care of my family,” said Saunders. 

Fed-up after years of slow, unreliable commutes, other Riders Alliance commuters testified about their daily challenges dealing with the subways and buses in the community.

Samuel Santaella, 25, of St. Albans, who takes the J train and two buses to Brooklyn every day, said he spends about 20 minutes or more waiting for his second bus to arrive.

“It bothers me that the state wants to spend a few billion dollars to widen the Van Wyck Expressway, where history that highway widenings eventually bring more drivers and worsens congestion,” said Santaella. “And the give or take $40 billion tag price to fix the subways — not even to expand them remains unaddressed.”  

Jeanne Majors, 70, who lives at the Greater Allen Cathedral Senior Residence on Merrick Boulevard, stressed the need for an upgraded subway signal system and removal of diesel buses.

Majors shows the cane she uses to get on the bus every day.

“Those signal systems have been in existence since I went to high school which was 1967,” said Majors. “They have not made any changes to do anything. It’s just overlooked because it’s not a priority. Living here at the community senior center, we have a lot of people who are disabled and cannot get on those buses … the old diesel buses suck.”

According to Ya-Ting Liu, of The Environmental Defense Fund, congestion pricing will not only help alleviate traffic but also eliminate pollution of carbon emissions in New York state.

“If we want to make a dent and get to a clean energy future and combat climate change, the only way to do that is to invest in public transit and make sure that we green our buses,” said Liu. “Congestion pricing will be a huge first step and a huge down payment into transforming the New York City bus fleet. We now say to Albany legislators, do not fail 6 million plus New Yorkers on this; pass congestion pricing.”

Members of Riders Alliance say they have spoken to southeast Queens district representatives — Senators Leroy Comrie and James Sanders Jr., and Assembly members Alicia Hyndman and Clyde Vanel about the issue. 

“They all agreed that we need more reliable buses to get around the neighborhood and to Jamaica Center and back,” said Saunders. “It just goes to show you how much we depend on elected officials here to have a bold voice because so much of their constituents depend on public transit.”

The organizations are asking for elected officials to work with them to inquire additional funding and to also hold the MTA accountable to make sure southeast Queens isn’t forgotten on the map.

A town hall forum on congestion pricing was held on March 21 by senators Leroy Comrie and John Liu at Martin Van Buren High School located at 230-17 Hillside Ave. in Queens Village. 

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