July 13, 2018 By Tara Law
Five city councilmembers, including one from Queens, aim to pass legislation that would require the Department of Transportation to create the position of an ombudsperson as a means to make the agency more accountable to the public.
The bill, introduced by Council Speaker Corey Johnson on June 27, would require the ombudsperson to investigate complaints and monitor comments when dealing with major transportation projects.
Councilmember Robert Holden, (Glendale, Maspeth, Middle Village, Ridgewood, Woodhaven and Woodside) is the sole Queens councilmember to sponsor the bill at this point. Holden contends that an ombudsperson could have a significant impact on DOT projects in Queens.
Holden said in an interview Friday that the ombudsperson would help to relieve some of the frustration Queens residents have with the DOT.
According to Holden, there are many examples of DOT projects in Queens that would have benefited from having an ombudsperson accessible to the public.
For instance, he said, the DOT should have been more proactive about reaching out to business owners before implementing protected bicycle lanes along Queens Boulevard, or the “Clear Curbs” project in Jackson Heights.
Local residents and business owners have complained about the loss of parking caused by both of these projects, he said.
The ombudsperson could have completed the appropriate community outreach and research prior to the start of these projects, said Holden.
“It’s not a superman— or a superwoman [position],” Holden said. “They’re not going to solve every problem. But at least some of these complaints will be addressed.”
“It remains to be seen how effective it would be, but we have to try something. It’s a step in the right direction.”
The DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was questioned about the bill in testimony prior to the City Council’s Transportation Committee meeting on June 27.
Trottenberg said that she was open to fleshing out the idea of a DOT ombudsperson at the council.
“We would welcome continued conversation about what creating this type of role at DOT would look like,” said Trottenberg.
She also added, however, that the DOT’s borough commissioners— including Nicole Garcia in Queens— serve a similar function.
Holden responded today by saying that the DOT’s poor track record of responding to the public’s complaints suggests that another role is needed.
The ombudsperson could be independent of the DOT, Holden said, and would therefore weigh in on DOT projects without, theoretically, having a conflict of interest.
He argued that while he respects Garcia, the DOT is clearly not currently able to address transportation projects in the borough with the attentiveness that they require.
“She’s overworked. I can see it,” said Holden of the borough commissioner. “We’re in crisis mode in transportation in New York City, and any help we can give to the DOT should be welcome to that agency and to the public.”
Holden said that the bill is still in committee, and that the ombudsperson role will be more fully fleshed out in the coming months.