2014 Legislative Wrap-up

As we have done for the past 30 years, Parks & Trails New York spearheaded advocacy efforts that led to important victories for New York’s parks and trails, as well as bicyclists and pedestrians. But there is much more work ahead to make New York a leader in outdoor recreation and bicycle and pedestrian safety.

 2014 Victories

Park Advocacy Day (13 of 18)

Advocates gather for Park Advocacy Day in Albany.

State Parks revitalization continues

It took some twists and turns to get there, but thanks to the support of our members and friends and the entire parks community, the final New York State Budget for FY14-15 included $90 million in state parks capital funding. The victory marked the third year in a row that the state budget included a significant investment in our state parks system.

This infusion of money for repairs and restoration at New York’s state parks and historic sites will go far in continuing the revitalization of our magnificent state park system. With more than a $1 billion backlog in repairs, upgrades and improvements, this funding is crucial for the long-term viability of our state parks and historic sites.

The $179 million investment made by the state over the last two years, leveraged with $50 million in other funds, is creating strong local jobs and helping to grow the state’s economy while also restoring and reinvigorating treasured and beloved state parks and historic sites. Flagships like Niagara Falls, which only a few years ago were called “shabby” and “underfinanced” by the New York Times, are beginning to receive makeovers that will encourage increased visitation from tourists all over the world.

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Advocates gather for Active Transportation Day in Albany.

Local speed limit control gains momentum

The 2014 session saw a new receptiveness to local speed limit control as a tool in increasing pedestrian and cyclist safety, at least in the downstate area. S. 7892 (Klein) / A. 10144 (Rules/O’Donnell) (Local Control on NYC speed limits) was passed by both houses, and signed by the Governor. The bill allows New York City to reduce the city speed limit by 10 miles per hour. The law will go into effect in three months. When signs with the adjusted, lower speed limit are spotted in neighborhoods throughout the City, they will signal a more welcome environment for non-motorized road users and a win for the coalition of neighborhood groups, businesses, and advocates who fought for the measure. 

Environmental Protection Fund Gets Boost

The Environmental Protection Fund (EPF)— the dedicated source of funding for protecting New York’s water and air, providing stewardship for state parks and forests, and delivering essential resources to communities such as the municipal park program which is used for local park and trail projects—was increased by $9 million to $162 million in the New York State Budget for FY14-15.

The EPF, which once stood at $255 million, suffered deep cuts in recent years during the recession, falling as low as $134 million two years ago. Last year the EPF was increased to $153 million. This year’s dedication of additional funding to the EPF is a welcome use of the state’s budget surplus, and marks a continuation of the state’s reinvestment in environmental programs. EPF programs create jobs, lower costs to taxpayers and protect parks, trails, farmland, clean water and other valuable community resources. The final budget agreement continues the progress towards restoring the EPF and growing it to a sustainable level that more adequately meets statewide demand.

Resident curator legislation signed by Governor

Legislation establishing a resident curator program in State Parks passed both houses and was signed by the Governor earlier this month. A. 7392A (Markey) / S. 4757A (Zeldin) (Resident Curator Program) authorizes State Parks to enter into agreements with private individuals who are willing to invest private funds to rehabilitate and maintain vacant and at-risk residential buildings in state parks and historic sites for which the agency has no public use and lacks the funds or staff resources to improve and maintain, in exchange for receiving a lease to live in the building for up to 40 years. Ownership of the structures would remain with State Parks, and at the end of the lease or term control would revert back to the agency.

This bill establishes the program with three residential-style properties located in three Long Island parks: Cold Spring Harbor State Park, Heckscher State Park, and Hither Hills State Park. All three properties have been vacant for many years and need major renovations.

We have advocated for this type of innovative thinking and public-private partnership that must be brought into play to ameliorate the immense problem of State Parks’ aging infrastructure. Through the NY Works program, great progress is being made towards addressing the agency’s nearly $1 billion backlog of capital projects. Given the State’s fiscal constraints and the continued slow turnaround of the economy, however, a resident curator program is a very appropriate step to take at this point and will hopefully save some important and historic properties. Similar programs have been successful in other states, including Maryland and Massachusetts.

Looking Ahead to 2015

Lots of work remains on Complete Streets and dedicated funding for bike/ped

PTNY was a supporter of the Complete Streets law that passed the NYS Legislature in 2011. Since that time, we’ve pressed for full implementation of the law’s statutes. We’ve also called for expansion of the Complete Streets philosophy to roadway design and construction decisions that weren’t covered in the 2011 legislation.

S. 6340 Kennedy / A. 8433 Ryan (Expansion of the Complete Streets law) would have amended the Complete Streets law to include consideration of accommodations for pedestrians and bicyclists when undertaking resurfacing, maintenance and pavement recycling projects, which are not covered in the current law. Despite vigorous support from bike/ped advocates including PTNY and the NY4AT coalition, the bill was not taken up in the 2014 legislative session.

Another important plank in PTNY’s 2014 legislative agenda, the call for dedicated funding for bike/ped infrastructure, met a similar fate. In January 2014, NY4AT delivered 1,300 postcards and a letter, signed by more than 50 partner organizations and local governments, to the Governor’s office calling for dedicated funding to improve New York’s pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure. Specifically, NY4AT and its coalition members asked the Governor to include $20 million in the 2014-15 state budget dedicated to funding pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure projects. The $20 million figure represents pennies spent on our overall transportation dollar. Moreover, New York has high levels of pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities, with over a 1/4 of all traffic fatalities involving these roadway users. Unfortunately, the Governor and legislature did not respond to the needs of bicyclists and pedestrians with funding required to protect and promote active transportation.

PTNY believes that Complete Streets and infrastructure such as bike lanes and sidewalks are important to New Yorkers and will renew calls for the strengthening of the Complete Streets law and dedicated funding for bike/ped infrastructure in the 2015 legislative session.

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Great state parks like Letchworth need adequate funding.

Lean park operations budget taking a toll

The Parks’ operations budget has been cut 23% since the 2008 economic crisis—more than many agencies—and the agency is operating today with 1,500 fewer staff than in 2008. The effects can be felt on the ground with reduced hours, days, and seasons, fewer programs and workers, fewer park police, and less maintenance, not to mention fewer resources dedicated to natural resource protection and the visitor experience.

The state budget included a flat State Parks’ operations budget, as it has for the last several years. Rising costs outside of the agency’s control mean that even a level operations budget will have deleterious results.

Essentially, our state parks are serving more and more visitors, but being given fewer and fewer resources with which to do so. While capital improvements are critically important, without sufficient funding for operations the agency is left struggling to achieve its mission of “providing safe and enjoyable recreational and interpretive opportunities for all New York State residents and visitors and to be responsible stewards of our valuable natural, historic and cultural resources.”

In 2015 we’ll work to get the Parks’ operations budget back on an upward trajectory.

Expanding local speed limit control

A local speed control bill, similar to NYC’s bill but for non-suburban towns, S. 1356 Little / A. 6089 Russell (Local control of town road speed limits), passed the Senate, but failed to gain support in the Assembly. The bill would have allowed town boards to establish maximum speed limits on town highways classified as local roads located outside of villages in non-suburban towns having a population of 50,000 or less. This “upstate” local speed limit law was not without considerable support, as the NY4AT coalition garnered the support of more than 50 mayors and supervisors and hundreds of organizations in a letter to the Governor and legislative leaders. Undoubtedly, using speed limit controls to promote safety and strengthen local business districts will be revisited in the coming legislative session.

Closing the gaps in the Erie Canalway Trail 

While no legislation was introduced in this year’s session, Closing the Gaps in the Erie Canalway Trail remained a priority item for PTNY. As in years past, trail advocates brought the ask for funding to complete New York’s premier multi-use trail with them…. wherever they went. They talked to legislators about the ECT’s impact on the state’s tourism economy and potential to bring additional revenue to towns along its route at the Active Transportation Lobby Day in February. Canalway Trail Association New York members sent a letter to Governor Cuomo asking for $30 million in funding to close the gaps in March. Diverse groups of local stakeholders even brought the message to district offices of Syracuse-area Senators and Assembly members, requesting their assistance in connecting the trail sections that terminate on either side of the city. In July, during the annual Cycling the Erie Canal ride, PTNY released a report on the economic impact of the Erie Canalway Trail, and riders from across the country filled out postcards asking for the trail’s completion. Their message to Albany legislators was simple, “I rode all 400 miles of the Erie Canalway Trail. Now it’s your turn.” In the next legislative session, we’ll carry that message forward, promoting the potential of a complete, continuous Erie Canalway Trail, and asking legislators to support that vision through funding.

Greater protections for local parks still needed

“Alienation” is the taking of parkland for a non-park use. Before alienation can legally proceed in New York State, there are several steps a municipality must take, including seeking approval from the state Legislature. In order to alienate parkland, municipalities are in most cases required by the Legislature to either dedicate replacement parkland or dedicate funding toward the acquisition of additional parkland or park improvements.

Currently, there is no process to track these alienation actions once they are approved by the Legislature to ensure that the terms of the approval have been met – that is, replacement parkland has been dedicated, funds have been set aside for future park acquisition, or funds have been dedicated to park improvements. S. 5600 (Serrano)/A. 10066 (Englebright) would establish a process for tracking parkland alienation. The bill, a priority for PTNY and one we worked to have introduced, would impose minimal administrative burden on local governments while providing the public and the state with a means to track alienation actions and hold government accountable. The bill provides for enforcement by the Attorney General, making it even stronger. Read more about the bill in our memo of support.

Though the bill stalled in the Assembly, it passed the Senate nearly unanimously. We’ll be working hard to advance this and other bills to protect local parks in the 2015 legislative session.

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