The special election for the vacant citywide position is set for Tuesday, February 26. More than 20 candidates have already filed petitions to get on the ballot, looking to stand out from the crowded field of competition.
Hundreds of people attended the forum, which was organized by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund. Julie Tighe, the new president of the environmental group, said questions about the environment are often not raised on the campaign trail or debates.
“This is particularly true during a special election like this one, where the campaigns are short and turnout can be very low,” she said. “We held the forum to ensure the environment is top of mind for candidates and voters.”
The forum, moderated by reporter Gloria Pazmino from Political New York, first asked for the candidates’ position on congestion pricing.
Most candidates said they support the concept of congestion pricing, depending on the details of the specific plan. Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, who has accumulated dozens of endorsements already, said he wants to see what Governor Andrew Cuomo proposes first.
“I do want to make sure I understand more of the details, because this governor in particular says some grandiose things,” Williams said, “but when you start digging into it, it’s not what you want it to be.”
Another Brooklyn councilman, Rafael Espinal, responded that not only does he support congestion pricing, but he thinks the city should split the cost with the state. He said he wants the mayor to “put his half on the table.”
“We all should be responsible for our transit system,” Espinal said. “I’m tired of the back and forth between the mayor and the governor about who should pay for what.”
But Queens Councilman Eric Ulrich, one of the few Republicans in the nonpartisan race, said he doesn’t back congestion pricing “in its current form.” He has previously supported the reinstatement of a commuter tax on people who live outside of the city.
“I think it’s very unfair for the residents and small business owners in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island that must travel into Manhattan,” Ulrich said.
Astoria resident Nomiki Konst, a progressive activist and former investigative reporter, argued that congestion pricing would be a tax on “hardworking New Yorkers.” Instead, she said, ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft should be taxed, not their drivers.
“This is why this is a band-aid solution for the real problem,” Konst said, “which has to do with people not paying taxes in the city, which are big corporations and the elites.”
The candidates were also asked if they support legalizing electric bikes and scooters. Espinal, the primary sponsor in the City Council of legislation to legalize e-bikes, said these new methods of transportation would lessen the burden on the planet and the transit system.
“It would incentivize us to get out of our cars,” he said. “It will reduce the burden on the MTA.”
Ulrich, a sponsor of Espinal’s bill, said he supports the idea of legalizing e-bikes “wholeheartedly” on the condition that they will be regulated and safe to use.
The south Queens councilman also proposes vastly expanding the number of protected bike lanes in New York City, and restricting the e-bikes and scooters to those lanes.
“I think that’s the solution and the right fit to make it work in New York,” he said.
Most candidates at the forum, including Columbia University history professor David Eichenbach, attorney Dawn Small, activist Ify Ike and Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, also backed legalizing them.
When asked how to reach the city’s goal of reducing carbon emissions 80 percent by 2050, several candidates focused on improving mass transit.
Bronx Assemblyman Michael Blake, a former Obama administration official, wants the public advocate to have a permanent seat on the MTA board. He also advocated for electric buses and rescinding tax credits for non-green building owners.
Espinal, meanwhile, touted his proposal to mandate green roofs on every New York City building and also backed an electric bus fleet.
“The city’s not aggressive enough on this conversation,” he said.
According to Ulrich, 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings, not cars. His proposal is to incentivize private landlords, corporations and building owners to become more energy efficient using tax credits or public financing.
“If we want to clean up our building stock in our city, we should finance that as well,” he said.
Konst said she would ban gas that comes from fracking, which she said is the top cause of emissions.
“Until we think bigger, we won’t solve this problem,” she said.