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No toll hikes this year on Thruway, its TZ bridge replacement also gets a $750 million lift

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 05/22/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The state Thruway Authority's board of directors on Monday passed an amended budget that calls for no toll hikes in 2015 and allocates $750 million from a $1.3 billion bank settlement windfall to help pay for the Tappan Zee bridge replacement.

Still unknown, though, is precisely how the state will pay all the costs for the approximately $3.9 billion bridge, which will span the Hudson between Rockland and Westchester counties.

Overall, the authority's budget is dropping from approximately $2 billion to $1.9 billion, which closes a deficit identified in late 2014.

The bank settlement money helped avoid any toll hikes, explained the Thruway's Acting Executive Director Robert Megna. Using the $750 million, he explained, helps avoid borrowing costs.

Thanks to a series of settlements with banks that violated financial regulations, New York state in its current 2015-16 budget had a onetime windfall of more than $5 billion. As part of the state budget, which went into effect April 1, $1.3 billion went to the Thruway Authority, which included the $750 million in bridge money. Unlike the state's fiscal plan, the Thruway's budget is based on the calendar year.

Megna said it was too early to tell where the rest of the settlement funds would go, but suggested that it could continue to fund the bridge. Since the Thruway Authority and state have different budget years, the Thruway could conceivably use some of the money in its 2016 budget year.

There were concerns about what one board member said was the push to save money on maintenance and equipment replacement for the 570-mile Thruway system.

"There's a risk in going ahead this way," said Richard Simberg, a board member and former chief engineer for the state Department of Transportation.

Simberg noted that some pieces of equipment, such as snowplow trucks, are up to 14 years old.

Savings have come from a number of places. For example, 76 jobs in the Thruway and 16 in the Erie Canal, which is part of the system, remain unfilled. Items like travel and printing costs have been pared.

Other cost-cutting moves from a few years ago have led to lengthy legal fights. Board members on Monday were told about several lawsuits stemming from 2013 layoffs at the Authority.

One upstate business group said it was glad there would be no toll hikes, although they hoped some of the windfall money would pay for needs upstate as well as on the new bridge.

"We'd obviously like to see equal and appropriate investment upstate, but the bridge has to be built," said Greg Biryla, executive director at Unshackle Upstate.

He added that the group was happy that Onondaga County Executive Joanne Mahoney is now serving as the board chairwoman, replacing Howard Milstein. They also said they were pleased to see Megna, a longtime state budget director, as executive director.

Megna took over the Thruway authority in January following the abrupt departure of former director Thomas Madison and financial director John Bryan in December.

Reports at the time indicated the state inspector general was inquiring about the use of state-issued phones by top Thruway officials to contact prostitutes.

rkarlin@timesunion.com518-454-5758@RickKarlinTU

Categories: State/Local

Amtrak trains rolling on busy Northeast Corridor

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 05/22/2015 - 1:07am

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Amtrak trains began rolling on the busy Northeast Corridor early Monday, the first time in almost a week following a deadly crash in Philadelphia, and officials vowed to have safer trains and tracks while investigators worked to determine the cause of the derailment.

Amtrak resumed service along the corridor with a 5:30 a.m. southbound train leaving New York City. The first northbound train, scheduled to leave Philadelphia at 5:53 a.m., was delayed and pulled out of 30th Street Station at 6:07 a.m.

About three dozen passengers boarded the New York City-bound train in Philadelphia, and Mayor Michael Nutter was on hard to see the passengers and train off.

All Acela Express, Northeast Regional and other services were to also resume.

Amtrak officials said Sunday that trains along the Northeast Corridor from Washington to Boston would resume service in "complete compliance" with federal safety orders following last week's deadly derailment.

Company President Joseph Boardman said Amtrak staff and crew have been working around the clock to restore service following Tuesday night's crash that killed eight people and injured more than 200 others.

Boardman said Sunday that Amtrak would be offering a "safer service."

In Philadelphia on Monday, Nutter stood on the platform, greeting passengers and crew members. He pulled out his cellphone and took pictures as the train rolled out just after 6 am.

"It's great to be back," said Christian Milton of Philadelphia. "I've never had any real problems with Amtrak. I've been traveling it for over 10 years. There's one accident in 10 years. Something invariably is going to happen somewhere along the lines. I'm not worried about it."

Milton said he'd probably be sleeping as the train goes around the curve where the derailment happened. But, he said he'll think about victims.

"I might say a prayer for the people who died and got injured," he said.

Tom Carberry, of Philadelphia, praised the agencies involved in restoring service.

"My biggest takeaway was the under-promise and over-deliver and the surprise of having it come back this morning when that wasn't expected," Carberry said. "That was a good thing for Amtrak."

At New York City's Penn Station early Monday, police with a pair of dogs flanked the escalator as a smattering of passengers showed their tickets to a broadly smiling Amtrak agent and headed down to the platform.

A sign outside the train flashed "All Aboard" in red letters.

The conductor gave a broad all-clear wave, stepped inside and the train glided out of the station at 5:30 a.m.

Passenger Raphael Kelly of New York, looking relaxed, said he was "feeling fine" and had "no worries."

Kelly, who takes Amtrak to Philadelphia weekly, said with a smile that if he did have any concerns, "I have to get over it."

Kelly said that if anything, the train might be safer than ever.

"They're on their toes" because of the crash, he said.

At a service Sunday evening at the site to honor the crash victims, Boardman choked up as he called Tuesday "the worst day for me as a transportation professional." He vowed that the wrecked train and its passengers "will never be forgotten."

Federal regulators on Saturday ordered Amtrak to expand use of a speed-control system long in effect for southbound trains near the crash site to northbound trains in the same area.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Kevin Thompson said Sunday the automatic train control system is now fully operational on the northbound tracks. Trains going through that section of track will be governed by the system, which alerts engineers to slow down when their trains go too fast and automatically applies the brakes if the train continues to speed.

The agency also ordered Amtrak to examine all curves along the Northeast Corridor and determine if more can be done to improve safety, and to add more speed limit signs along the route.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told the 150 people present at Sunday's service that Amtrak's action on the ordered changes was one way to honor the eight passengers killed in the crash. Many were riding home to their families, he said.

"Their memories forever in our minds will fuel our work to make intercity passenger rail and our entire network in the United States stronger and safer," he said.

Almost 20 people injured in the train crash remain in Philadelphia hospitals, five in critical condition. All are expected to survive.

Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board, meanwhile, have focused on the acceleration of the train as it approached the curve, finally reaching 106 mph as it entered the 50-mph stretch north of central Philadelphia, and only managing to slow down slightly before the crash.

"The only way that an operable train can accelerate would be if the engineer pushed the throttle forward. And ... the event recorder does record throttle movement. We will be looking at that to see if that corresponds to the increase in the speed of the train," board member Robert Sumwalt told CNN's "State of the Union."

The Amtrak engineer, who was among those injured in the crash, has told authorities that he does not recall anything in the few minutes before it happened. Characterizing engineer Brandon Bostian as extremely safety conscious, a close friend said he believed reports of something striking the windshield were proof that the crash was "not his fault."

"He's the one you'd want to be your engineer. There's none safer," James Weir of Burlison, Tennessee, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Sunday.

Investigators also have been looking into reports that the windshield of the train may have been struck by some sort of object, but Sumwalt said on CBS's "Face the Nation" program Sunday that he wanted to "downplay" the idea that damage to the windshield might have come from someone firing a shot at the train.

"I've seen the fracture pattern; it looks like something about the size of a grapefruit, if you will, and it did not even penetrate the entire windshield," Sumwalt said.

Officials said an assistant conductor on the derailed train said she heard the Amtrak engineer talking with a regional train engineer and both said their trains had been hit by objects. But Sumwalt said the regional train engineer recalls no such conversation, and investigators had listened to the dispatch tape and heard no communications from the Amtrak engineer to the dispatch center to say that something had struck the train.

———

Categories: State/Local

Alfred DelBello, state, local officeholder, dead at 80

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 05/22/2015 - 1:07am

New York

Alfred DelBello, a former New York lieutenant governor, Westchester County executive and Yonkers mayor, has died at age 80.

DelBello's wife, Dee DelBello, said he died Friday. She said her husband had been suffering from several ailments, including neuropathy.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said in a statement that DelBello "demonstrated an enduring commitment to bettering the lives of others. This state is in a better place today because of his service."

Rob Astorino, the incumbent Westchester executive, ordered county flags lowered to half-staff.

"We were good friends and I always appreciated his advice and counsel," Astorino said.

DelBello, a Democrat, began his political career on the Yonkers City Council, then became mayor in 1970. He was elected county executive in 1973, becoming the first Democrat to hold the office at a time when Westchester was heavily Republican. He was re-elected in 1977 and 1981.

While DelBello was county executive, the Westchester County Medical Center and a major recycling plant were established. County agencies were created to help women and the disabled.

In 1982, New York City Mayor Ed Koch ran for governor and chose DelBello as his running mate. Koch lost to Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary, but DelBello defeated Cuomo's chosen running mate, Carl McCall. That made for an awkward pairing of Cuomo and DelBello, but they won the election.

The two were said to have a strained relationship, but DelBello's resignation in 1985, to go into private business, was a surprise nevertheless. He called it "the most difficult decision of my career."

DelBello later returned to law and was a partner in one of Westchester County's most prominent firms. He ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate in 1994.

Besides his wife, the publisher of Westfair Communications, DelBello is survived by a son, Damon DelBello, and three grandchildren.

Categories: State/Local

Alfred DelBello, former NY lieutenant governor, dead at 80

Albany Times/Union - Fri, 05/22/2015 - 1:07am

LEWISBORO, N.Y. (AP) — Alfred DelBello, a former Westchester County executive and state lieutenant governor, has died at age 80.

DelBello's wife, Dee DelBello, said he died Friday.

Alfred DelBello, a Democrat, began his political career on the Yonkers City Council and became mayor in 1970. He was elected county executive in 1973, the first Democrat to hold the office. He was re-elected in 1977 and 1981.

While he was county executive, the Westchester County Medical Center and a major recycling plant were established. A county agency for women was created.

In 1982, New York City Mayor Ed Koch ran for governor and chose DelBello as his running mate. Koch lost to Mario Cuomo in the Democratic primary, but DelBello won his primary and was elected with Cuomo.

DelBello resigned in 1985.

"It is with great sadness that we learn of the passing of Alfred DelBello. " Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a prepared statement. "Over the course of his long and storied careers in both the public and private sectors, he demonstrated an enduring commitment to bettering the lives of others. This state is in a better place today because of his service. On behalf of all New Yorkers, I offer my deepest condolences to the DelBello family."

Categories: State/Local

'A light' fades for classmates

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 7:07pm

Hewlett

A U.S. Naval Academy midshipman killed in this week's Amtrak derailment was a humble and respectful rising star who inspired others and "put everyone before himself," mourners said Friday at his funeral.

Approximately 150 classmates of Justin Zemser's from the academy in Annapolis, Md., joined family members and students from Zemser's New York City high school for the 20-year-old's funeral on Long Island.

The sophomore was traveling from the academy to his home in the Rockaways section of Queens when he was killed in Tuesday's derailment in Philadelphia. He was one of eight people killed.

"My entire school community is devastated, the community of Rockaway is devastated, the Naval Academy is devastated," said Andrew Wettstein, a biology teacher at Beach Channel High School, from which Zemser graduated. "He was a light."

Zemser's commanding officer at the Naval Academy, Marine Capt. Brandy Soublet, said before the traditional Jewish funeral began at the Boulevard-Riverside-Hewlett Chapel that the one word to describe Zemser was "humble."

"For how talented he was morally, mentally, physically you would never know it. He was just so humble," she said.

Aurora Perez, 17, who was a freshman when Zemser was a senior at Beach Channel High School, said Zemser often returned to speak to students.

"He just told everyone to, you know, reach for the stars and never give up on your dreams," she said.

Perez said everyone at Beach Channel looked up to Zemser, including teachers.

"He was loving, caring," she said. "He put everyone before himself. ... He just cared about other people instead of his own life. If he could save anyone on that train, I know he would have."

Zemser was a member of the Navy sprint football team, the Jewish Midshipman Club and the Semper Fi Society, a Marine Corps club.

Cantor Chaim Shindler, who said he gave a young Zemser bar mitzvah lessons, described his former student as a "young man that lived his life, every moment of his young life, to the fullest and made many friends and connections to people from all walks of life."

Categories: State/Local

Around NY

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 1:07am

Sept. 11 museum sees 2.7 million visitors

NEW YORK — Officials say nearly 2.7 million people have visited the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in its first year at the World Trade Center site.

Museum officials said Friday that the visitors have come from all 50 states and more than 150 countries.

Dignitaries including President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton attended a dedication May 15, 2014. Memorial President Joe Daniels says the museum's success is a tribute to those who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Museum officials also announced a new exhibit of works by photographer Jonathan C. Hyman. It's called "Beyond Ground Zero: 9/11 and the American Landscape." The photos chronicle the ways in which the public paid tribute to victims of the attacks.

— Associated Press

Filing shows Cuomo's book income continues

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo has already made more than $500,000 on his recently published memoir and now a recently filed financial disclosure suggests he can expect at least $150,000 more.

The disclosure, filed Friday with the state, shows the Democratic governor expects to make between $150,000 and $250,000 this year off the book. The memoir, titled "All Things Possible: Setbacks and Success in Politics and Life," was published by HarperCollins last fall.

Cuomo's tax returns show he earned just under $377,000 for the book. The year before he made an $188,000 advance.Cuomo's taxes also showed he made nearly $169,000 as governor and had some modest income from investments.

— Associated Press

Toys R Us to shut iconic FAO Schwarz store

NEW YORK — Toys R Us is closing its iconic FAO Schwarz store, citing the high and rising costs of running the retail space on New York City's pricey Fifth Avenue.

The company says it will close the 45,000-square-foot store July 15 and it is looking for another location in midtown Manhattan. FAO Schwarz says it is the oldest toy store in the U.S., as it has had a location in New York City since 1870. It moved to its current Fifth Avenue location in 1986.

The location features a candy store, numerous specialty toy departments spread across three levels, and personal shoppers. It has been featured in several movies, including "Big," where Tom Hanks danced on its large floor piano.

— Associated Press

Effort to crack down on abuses at nail salons

NEW YORK — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is launching an effort to crack down on abuses and health risks at nail salons.

The announcement Friday comes in response to a two-part series in The New York Times. The series found that many manicurists worked for far less than minimum wage and suffered damaging effects of toxic chemicals. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a task force Monday to investigate nail salons in New York state.

The city has limited jurisdiction over labor laws. But de Blasio says the city will do what it can. Volunteers will distribute information about workers' rights at salons across the five boroughs during a "Day of Action" next Thursday. Additionally, the city Department of Consumer Affairs will test nail products for potential harm.

— Associated Press

Categories: State/Local

Appeals expected after Boston Marathon bomber sentenced to die

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 1:07am

Boston

A jury sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death Friday for the Boston Marathon bombing, sweeping aside pleas that he was just a "kid" who fell under the influence of his fanatical older brother.

Tsarnaev, 21, stood with his hands folded, his head slightly bowed, upon learning his fate, decided after 14 hours of deliberations over three days. It was the most closely watched terrorism trial in the U.S. since the Oklahoma City bombing case two decades ago.

The decision sets the stage for what could be the nation's first execution of a terrorist in the post-9/11 era, though the case is likely to go through years of appeals. The execution would be carried out by lethal injection.

"Now he will go away and we will be able to move on. Justice. In his own words, 'an eye for an eye,'" said bombing victim Sydney Corcoran, who nearly bled to death and whose mother lost both legs.

Three people were killed and more than 260 wounded when Tsarnaev and his brother set off two shrapnel-packed pressure-cooker bombs near the finish line of the race on April 15, 2013. The Tsarnaevs also shot an MIT police officer to death during their getaway.

The 12-member federal jury had to be unanimous for Tsarnaev to get the death penalty. Otherwise, the former college student would have automatically received a sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole.

Tsarnaev's father, Anzor Tsarnaev, reached by phone by the Associated Press in the Russian region of Dagestan, let out a deep moan upon hearing the news and hung up.

Tsarnaev's lawyers had no comment as they left the courtroom.

The attack and the ensuing manhunt paralyzed the city for days and cast a pall over the marathon — normally one of Boston's proudest, most exciting moments — that has yet to be lifted.

With Friday's decision, community leaders and others talked of closure, of Boston's resilience, of its Boston Strong spirit.

In a statement, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the bombing a "cowardly attack" and added: "The ultimate penalty is a fitting punishment for this horrific crime, and we hope that the completion of this prosecution will bring some measure of closure to the victims and their families."

Tsarnaev was convicted last month of all 30 federal charges against him, including use of a weapon of mass destruction. Seventeen of those charges carried the possibility of the death penalty.

Tsarnaev's chief lawyer, death penalty specialist Judy Clarke, admitted at the very start of the trial that he participated in the bombings, bluntly telling the jury: "It was him."

But the defense argued that Dzhokhar was an impressionable 19-year-old who was led astray by his volatile and domineering 26-year-old brother, Tamerlan, who was portrayed as the mastermind of the plot to punish the U.S. for its wars in Muslim countries.

Tamerlan died days after the bombing when he was shot by police and run over by Dzhokhar during a chaotic getaway attempt.

Prosecutors depicted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as an equal partner in the attack, saying he was so coldhearted he planted a bomb on the pavement behind a group of children, killing an 8-year-old boy.

To drive home their point, prosecutors cited the message he scrawled in the dry-docked boat where he was captured: "Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop." And they opened their case in the penalty phase with a startling photo of him giving the finger to a security camera in his jail cell months after his arrest. "This is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev —unconcerned, unrepentant and unchanged," prosecutor Nadine Pellegrin said.

The jurors also heard grisly and heartbreaking testimony from numerous bombing survivors who described seeing their legs blown off or watching someone next to them die.

Killed in the bombing were Lingzi Lu, a 23-year-old Boston University graduate student from China; Krystle Campbell, a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Medford; and 8-year-old Martin Richard, who had gone to watch the marathon with his family. Massachusetts Institute of Technology police Officer Sean Collier was shot to death in his cruiser days later. Seventeen people lost legs in the bombings.

The speed with which the jury reached a decision surprised some, given that it had to fill out a detailed, 24-page worksheet in which the jurors tallied up the factors for and against the death penalty.

The possible aggravating factors cited by the prosecution included the cruelty of the crime, the killing of a child, the amount of carnage inflicted and lack of remorse. The possible mitigating factors included Tsarnaev's age, the possible influence of his brother and his turbulent, dysfunctional family.

The jury agreed with the prosecution on 11 of the 12 aggravating factors cited, including lack of remorse.

U.S. District Judge George O'Toole Jr. will formally impose the sentence at a later date during a hearing in which bombing victims will be allowed to speak. Tsarnaev will also be given the opportunity to address the court.

Categories: State/Local

Applications sought for state's chief judge

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The state Commission on Judicial Nomination is seeking recommendations and applications for the post of chief judge, a position that will be vacant on Jan. 1.

The chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, turns 70 on May 19, which will force his retirement at the end of the year.

Appointed by former Gov. David Paterson in 2009, Lippman was a strong backer of a constitutional amendment that would have pushed the mandatory retirement age for top judges back by as much as a decade, but it was defeated by state voters in 2013.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo's nominee for Lippman's post will be his fifth pick for the seven-member Court of Appeals.

Applications are available from the commission's website or contact its counsel, Henry M. Greenberg, at Greenberg Traurig LLP, 54 State Street, 6th Floor, Albany, New York 12208.

Electronic filings can be emailed to CJN_Applications@gtlaw.com or submitted by mail to Greenberg no later than July 13.

The commission will recommend seven candidates for the post to Cuomo.

There will be at least one public informational meeting "to discuss the requirements for the position and the commission's procedures and rules for submitting recommendations for qualified candidates."

Court of Appeals nominees are subject to state Senate approval.

The announcement to fill the vacancy was released Thursday.

Categories: State/Local

Was train hit by object?

Albany Times/Union - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 1:07am

Philadelphia

The Amtrak train that derailed along the nation's busiest tracks may have been struck by an object in the moments before it crashed, investigators said Friday, raising new questions about the deadly accident.

National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said an assistant conductor aboard the train told investigators that she heard the Amtrak engineer talking over the radio with an engineer for a regional railroad just before the crash.

The regional engineer, who was in the same area as the Amtrak train, said his train had been hit by a rock or some other projectile. The conductor heard Brandon Bostian, who was at the Amtrak controls, say the same had happened to his train, according to Sumwalt.

The windshield of the Amtrak train was shattered in the accident but one area of glass had a breakage pattern that could be consistent with being hit by an object and the FBI is investigating, he said.

Sumwalt declined to speculate about the exact significance of a projectile, but the idea raised the possibility the engineer might have been distracted, panicked or even wounded in the moments before the train left the rails.

The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority does not yet know what caused the damage to its train that night, said Jerri Williams, a spokeswoman for the agency.

SEPTA trains traveling through the area have had projectiles thrown at them in the past, whether by vandals or teenagers, she said. It was unusual that the SEPTA train was forced to stop on Tuesday.

NTSB spokesman Peter Knudson said the board was seeking more information about a third report of damage that night, this one involving a different Amtrak train.

Not long before the derailment, two passengers on a southbound Amtrak told The Philadelphia Inquirer something shattered a window on their train as it passed through the same area. They said Amtrak police boarded the train at 30th Street station in Philadelphia to document the incident.

The derailment has made it clear that despite the train industry's widespread use of electronic signals, sensors and warning systems, safety still sometimes comes down to the knowledge and experience of the engineer.

Those skills would have been critical on the curve where the New York-bound train derailed, killing eight and injuring more than 200 in the deadliest U.S. train accident in nearly six years.

Categories: State/Local

Three 2015 District Attorney Races Set to Begin

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 1:00am

Former SI DA Dan Donovan is sworn in to Congress (@dandonovan_ny)

Voters can look forward to soon having a clearer picture of the potential contenders for the district attorney races on November’s ballot.

Three of New York’s five district attorney positions will be voted on this fall — in Staten Island, Queens, and the Bronx — and signature petitioning to get on the ballot begins the first week in June. Brooklyn’s District Attorney, Ken Thompson, and Manhattan’s District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, will not face reelection until 2017.

While the incumbents in Queens and the Bronx are expected to run unopposed, former Staten Island district attorney Daniel Donovan’s departure in May following his election to Congress leaves that position up for grabs, with Republicans and Democrats grappling to choose official county party nominees. The parties will select their nominees at their respective conventions next week, on Tuesday and Wednesday, in advance of the day on which candidates can begin petitioning, Tuesday June 2.

“I think the key date in many ways is next week, basically,” Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and co-founder of Prime New York, said of the race in Staten Island. “If you want to start petitioning on June 2, you have to have your papers printed by June 1, I mean theoretically, people like to start on time.”

According to Skurnik, Democratic voters on Staten Island may find themselves faced with a competitive primary on September 10.

Matthew Smalls, a criminal defense attorney from Staten Island, announced in December that he would run against Donovan, motivated by the lack of indictment from the Eric Garner grand jury. Smalls confirmed to the Observer in February that he would still run following Donovan’s departure.

Former Congressmen Michael McMahon, Surrogate Court Judge Robert Gigante, and Criminal Court Judge Mario Mattei are also said to be considering running as Democrats. As sitting judges, Gigante and Mattei have been unable to comment on their possible involvement in the race.

Meanwhile, state Senator Andrew Lanza is considered the front-runner for Republicans, if he chooses to run. The Staten Island Advance reported Wednesday that GOP committee members are considering three contenders to fill the role: Lanza, retired New York Supreme Court Justice Andrew Giacobbe, and Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon. The committee will choose a candidate at its party convention Tuesday.

“I read quotes from various other elected officials saying that if [Lanza] wanted to run they’d support him, which indicates to me that he wants to run and he’ll get the Republican nomination,” Skurnik said. “I think he’s clearly the strongest Republican candidate.”

Both Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson and Queens District Attorney Richard Brown confirmed to the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago that they plan to run for reelection.

Johnson has found himself at the center of a series of controversies spanning his 26-year career as district attorney, most recently in April when it was reported that the Bronx DA’s office failed to take proper legal action as new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, who is from the Bronx, made nearly $200,000 from property gained through his mother’s embezzling and despite court orders that he relinquish the property.

Still, Johnson is expected to cruise to reelection.

In Queens, DA Brown has served in the role since 1991, earning the title of the longest-serving DA in the borough’s history. There have been rumors that the 83-year-old Brown may retire, but he does not seem to be on the verge of stepping aside. And, Brown's support in Queens appears to continue to be strong.

"Judge Brown has done a phenomenal job as District Attorney," said Queens City Council Member Rory Lancman, chair of the Council’s courts and legal services committee and a potential successor to Brown who is staunchly backing the incumbent. "He's maintained the highest conviction rate in the five boroughs while supporting new initiatives like Veterans Court and Human Trafficking Intervention Court that provide treatment and keep nonviolent offenders out of jail."

But Skurnik said the records of Johnson and Brown will not matter if they continue to run unopposed. (City Council Member Vincent Gentile attempted to make aspects of Donovan’s record as DA an issue in their congressional race, but his attacks had little effect.)

“Write-ins are always allowed in an election, but very rarely in a borough-wide election could a write-in candidate win. So if they run opposed it’s not going to matter as far as their election is concerned,” Skurnik said of their records. “Unless something happens I think they’re both going to be elected without opposition.”

Skurnik also predicted low voter turnout in Queens and the Bronx come November, especially given that it is a year without a mayoral, gubernatorial, or presidential election for New York City voters.

“An election like this year in most parts of the city where there’s no opposed candidates in November, the turnout is going to be really low,” Skurnik said. “People don’t come out if their vote is not needed.”

***
by Catie Edmondson, Gotham Gazette
@CatieEdmondson

Categories: State/Local

City Council Highlights Gains in Participatory Budgeting Program

Gotham Gazette - Thu, 05/21/2015 - 1:00am

PB voting in CD5 (photo: @BenKallos)

51,362. That's how many New Yorkers cast ballots in the recently-finished participatory budgeting cycle to determine which community projects receive funding. Implemented this year in 24 of the City Council's 51 districts, the participatory budgeting program sees council members devote $1 million or more in capital funding toward the community initiative. In a year-long process that engages district residents in local decision-making and community-building, New Yorkers not only have the opportunity to interact with each other and their local representatives, but also to learn about city government and budgeting.

And, perhaps most importantly, they have the chance to directly determine where some of the many billions of dollars the city govenrment spends each year goes. This year, those 24 council members dedicated a total of over $32 million to what is often referred to as "PB."

Rapidly expanding and just finishing its fourth year in New York City, "participatory budgeting breaks down barriers that New Yorkers may face at the polls—including youth, income status, English-language proficiency and citizenship status," said City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito in a statement Wednesday touting the cycle's results. Before becoming speaker, Mark-Viverito was one of the initial class of four council members who ran PB programs in their districts in the 2011-2012 cycle, when she was joined by Council Members Brad Lander, Jumaane Williams, and Eric Ulrich. All four continue to run the program in their districts. After the first year, the program expanded to eight, then ten districts in the following two cycles.

The four aforementioned council members are now joined by 20 colleagues, in a big jump that may signal even more participation next year - members will decide this summer whether to hold PB in their districts for 2015-2016. Since becoming speaker in early 2014, Mark-Viverito launched a PB-focused unit in the Council that helps facilitate the process in the participating districts. Still, though, some council members have hesitated to run PB because of how demanding it can be on them and their staff - council members typically have to dedicate one staff member to PB almost full-time, especially during the busiest months of the cycle. The PB process includes informational sessions, brainstorming and project proposal meetings, and a voting process. Like many community initiatives, it leads to quite a bit of constituent engagement, which can tie up staff in terms of fielding inquiries and complaints as well as running events.

Brooklyn Council Member Antonio Reynoso, who is new to the Council and ran the program this year, said of those who took part in PB in his district: "In eight months they became extensions of my office in which they went on site visits and attended nightly meetings. They also took on the difficult task of assessing the various needs of our changing district, and participated in outreach to get people to vote." Winning projects in Reynoso's district are "P.S.19/Brooklyn Arbor for their Environmental Upgrade, P.S.196/M.S. 582 for their Community Media and Technology Libary, and Williamsburg Houses for their Playground Renovation."

The voting that was held in April was part of the 2014-2015 process - winning projects will soon be funded directly, with the city's 2015 fiscal year ending June 30 - and the Council and Mayor Bill de Blasio are currently negotiating the fiscal 2016 city budget, which will likely come in just shy of $80 billion and begins July 1. One thing that can be challenging for constituents is that the capital funding, spending, and building processes in New York City are not often as quick as many would like. It can take years for funded projects to be finished.

Relative to the city's eight-million-plus population, 51,362 may not appear a striking number, but, council members and community groups hail participatory budgeting as an effort that is working to expand democracy and engage New Yorkers with their local government and neighborhoods in new and important ways. The fact that the projects funded fall within capital spending allows district residents to shape the physical landscape of their communities - some of the funded projects include additions to parks and schools, the building of a playground or a dog run. One of the central community groups that receives Council funding to help implement PB is Community Voices Heard, and it is largely tasked with helping to ensure that people know about the opportunity to get involved. The organization's executive director, Sondra Youdelman, said that "At Community Voices Heard, we focused our efforts on engaging public housing residents and other people typically less active in traditional political processes. Allowing people's voices and votes to determine how to spend real money on real projects in their community is helping to transform how people see their relationship to government."

Individual council members made big productions in announcing the voting results in their districts, adding to the attention that many are focusing on PB as a progressive program. In its press release publicizing the overall results of the process, Mark-Viverito's office highlighted that about 5,000 of those who voted were under 18 years old. PB allows those 16 and older to participate, with some districts even allowing 14- and 15-year-olds to vote. The Council also highlights that of the 50,000-plus PB votes, "nearly 60% identified as people of color...nearly 30% reported an annual household income of $25,000 or below...more than a quarter were born outside of the U.S... 63% identified as female" and that about 5,000 reported "they were not U.S. citizens."

PB can also provide council members with important insights. Julissa Ferreras, council member from Queens and chair of the finance committee, said that not only did her community respond "with many great ideas to improve public safety, public spaces and education," but that "this process has affirmed what the priorities are in my district, and I will continue to use this information to guide my work moving forward." The newly funded projects in Ferreras' district include school smartboards, NYPD cameras, street lighting, and trees.

***
Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetbenmax

Note: this article has been updated to better reflect the annual PB process and delink it from specific fiscal year budgets; and corrected to reflect that CM Ulrich was part of the inaugural PB class, not CM Halloran.

Categories: State/Local

Photos:.Lady Liberty still a draw

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 05/20/2015 - 1:07am

The Statue of Liberty remains a worldwide symbol of freedom and is enjoyed from the Manhattan park and frequent cruise line trips on New York Harbor.

Categories: State/Local

Dream job now a nightmare

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 05/20/2015 - 1:07am

Philadelphia

Brandon Bostian was obsessed with trains while growing up, talked about them constantly and wanted to be an engineer or a conductor.

"He would go on vacation and bring back subway maps," Stefanie McGee, a friend from Tennessee, recalled Thursday. "He would go places with his family and he would talk about the trains instead of the places."

Bostian's teenage dreams would come true.

But now, at 32, the Amtrak engineer finds himself at the very center of the investigation into the nation's deadliest train crash in nearly six years.

He was at the controls of a train that investigators say entered a sharp bend at 106 mph, or twice the speed limit. Eight people were killed and more than 200 injured in the derailment Tuesday night in an industrial section of Philadelphia.

Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that the train sped up in the last minute or so before the wreck, accelerating from 70 mph to over 100 mph.

He said it is not clear yet whether the speed was increased manually. So far, investigators have found no problems with the track, the signals or the locomotive, and the train was running on time, Sumwalt said.

Investigators want to know why the train was going so fast. But Bostian refused to talk to police on Wednesday, authorities said. On Thursday, Sumwalt said that Bostian had agreed to be interviewed by the NTSB and that the meeting will take place in the next few days.

Separately, the Philadelphia district attorney's office said it is investigating and will decide whether to bring charges.

Bostian's lawyer, Robert Goggin, told ABC News that his client suffered a concussion in the crash, needed 15 staples in his head and has "absolutely no recollection whatsoever" of the crash. Goggin also said Bostian had not been using his cellphone, drinking or using drugs.

As the death toll climbed on Thursday with the discovery of what was believed to be the last body in one of the mangled railcars, Mayor Michael Nutter again appeared to cast blame on Bostian, questioning why the train was going so fast.

"I don't think that any commonsense, rational person would think that it was OK to travel at that level of speed knowing that there was a pretty significant restriction on how fast you could go through that turn," Nutter said.

Officials believe they have now accounted for all 243 passengers and crew members who were thought to have been aboard, Nutter said. Forty-three remained hospitalized Thursday, according to the mayor. Temple University Hospital said it had six patients in critical condition, all of whom were expected to pull through.

Amtrak said limited train service between Philadelphia and New York should resume on Monday, with full service by Tuesday. Amtrak carries 11.6 million passengers a year along the Northeast Corridor, which runs between Washington and Boston.

Categories: State/Local

'New York Now' looks at Senate change of power

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 05/20/2015 - 1:07am

Don't miss this week's episode of "New York Now," the award-winning coproduction of WMHT and the Times Union. Highlights include:

WMHT's Matt Ryan chronicles the change of power in the state Senate as Dean Skelos is traded out for his fellow Long Islander John Flanagan.

Times Union state editor Casey Seiler convenes the Reporters Roundtable with Dan Levy of WNYT NewsChannel 13, Karen DeWitt of New York State Public Radio and Ryan to discuss Flanagan's win, a scathing report on a $211 million state advertising effort, and more challenging personal news from the governor's family.

"New York Now" airs at 7:30 p.m. Friday, and 10:30 a.m. and 11 p.m. Sunday on WMHT Ch. 17.

Categories: State/Local

New York lawmakers rack up nearly $1.1M in per diems

Albany Times/Union - Wed, 05/20/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The state doled out nearly $1.1 million in per diems to members of the state Legislature in the first quarter of the year, according to data compiled by the state Comptroller's office.

In total, $799,743.10 worth of the travel, lodging and food reimbursements was spread across the 150-member Assembly, and $278,196.95 was given out among the 63-member Senate.

Topping the list of Assembly recipients were freshman Michael Blake of the Bronx ($11,995.53), Deputy Assembly Speaker Earlene Hooper of Long Island ($10,825), and Nick Perry of Brooklyn ($9,800.54). In the Senate, Patty Ritchie of Oswegatchie ($8,806.35), Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx ($7,582.21) and John Sampson of Brooklyn ($7,581.40) topped the list.

Lawmakers can collect up to $172 per day for travel, lodging and food expenses.

Amid recent cases of per diem abuse, changes to the system were adopted in the state budget as part of a larger ethics package. Lawmakers will be required to use an electronic swipe card to verify their stops in Albany; the leaders of both chambers will implement other policies to verify attendance at events; reimbursement rates will match the federal government's; and the Legislature will create a website detailing members' reimbursements and travel.

Those reforms were adopted shortly before now-former Assemblyman William Scarborough, D-Queens, pleaded guilty to federal charges that he bilked the state by charging for per diems on days he wasn't in Albany. Scarborough also pleaded guilty to state charges that he used a campaign account for personal expenses.

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

As He Campaigns for Top Priorities, Many Wonder Where Cuomo is on DREAM

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 05/20/2015 - 1:00am

Gov. Cuomo on Sunday in Brooklyn (photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)

It was as if Gov. Andrew Cuomo was on the campaign trail again last week, visiting Long Island and Buffalo one day and then four churches and a Yeshiva in Brooklyn on another. Cuomo doesn't have to run for office again for another three years, of course, but his barnstorming last week was designed to promote what he's calling a top priority: passing a $150 million plan mostly aimed at giving tax credits to families whose children attend private and religious schools and to others who donate to those schools. The push is so campaign-like that Cuomo's visage is plastered across television screens in ads sponsored by supporters of the Parental Choice in Education Act.

With the 2015 legislative session winding down Cuomo has been saying in no uncertain terms that he is committed to seeing the education tax credit pass. To some, Cuomo sounds like a guardian angel. To others, he sounds more like a villain. The governor's message has pained advocates and legislators who support the DREAM Act, which would allow qualifying undocumented immigrants access to state tuition assistance when attending college or university.

"It's upsetting to us because our members have been receiving daily mail with his face on it pushing for the education tax credit," said Javier Valdes of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group that includes many immigrants. "The only time we got mailers with his face on it supporting the DREAM Act is when he was running for re-election."

Cuomo touted The DREAM Act as a major priority during his 2014 re-election campaign - especially during visits to New York City - but it appears to many advocates and legislators that Cuomo is still holding the act hostage in an attempt to force the Assembly to pass the education tax credit. The Democrat-heavy Assembly has deep ties to teachers unions that oppose the tax credit, saying that it will take money away from traditional public schools.

At the same time, some advocates and legislators have withheld criticism of Cuomo, believing that Cuomo will move on the DREAM Act. The governor has continued to express support for the act, but not in such grand terms. Many believe he could and may still take executive action to create a tuition assistance program for immigrants within SUNY and CUNY. Even that possibility would not satisfy some legislators who want the act passed and fear executive action might serve as a distraction.

Cuomo linked the DREAM Act and an older version of the education tax credit in his budget proposal, angering supporters of each. Both measures were discarded from a final budget deal, but legislators who support DREAM say they had Cuomo's assurance he would return to the issue with a vengeance. Public enthusiasm from the governor has thus far been absent in the post-budget session. "Heck yes, it bothers me the governor isn't doing for the DREAM Act what he is out there doing now for the education tax credit," Assembly Member Francisco Moya told Gotham Gazette.

In some ways it appears the two issues have become wrapped up in Cuomo's war of attrition with forces in public education. Education advocates like Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education and Michael Mulgrew of the United Federation of Teachers, both Cuomo foils, are adamantly opposed to the education tax credit because they say it will take away funding from public schools while benefitting large corporate donors - donors who have close relationships with Cuomo. The UFT has even launched a radio campaign called "Mr. Money Bags" slamming the tax credit and Cuomo.

Many legislators remain under the impression that Cuomo won't put his full force behind the DREAM Act until the Assembly passes the tax credit. "We need to see if the Assembly can't sort things out on the tax credit and after that I believe the Dream Act will come into play," Sen. Jose Peralta told Gotham Gazette.

Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group, which supports the DREAM Act, said the Assembly has plenty of reason to believe action on the tax credit will not get them anything on DREAM. "At the end of session everything is connected," said Horner. "But I would counsel the Assembly that some people have been known to promise things and forget those promises when it becomes convenient."

Cuomo was asked if he might link the DREAM Act and the education tax credit in his future advocacy during his stops in Brooklyn on Sunday.

"Yes," Cuomo responded. "There are about seven or eight bills that we're pushing. This is an event on this bill. You can go to the events on sexual assault and say 'are you only doing sexual assault? Why didn't you mention the Education Tax Credit at the sexual assault event?' It's because it's a sexual assault event. You can go to a DREAM Act event and say 'why didn't' you mention sexual assault?' So the DREAM Act is a priority, sexual assault is a priory, ETC is a priority, mayoral control is a priority, 421-a is a priority. They're all priorities."

If both issues remain linked it appears likely they will both fail, as Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie told reporters on Tuesday that there wasn't enough support for the tax credit bill to pass his conference. "I still think the conference is where it is," Heastie said. "It still has some members that support it. It's an unwritten rule, but it's a rule: This is a governmental body and majority rules. I've been very clear that if we don't have a majority of Democrats to pass a bill, we're not going to bring it to the floor."

Heastie then tweaked Cuomo on the DREAM Act:

"We'd love to see the Dream Act passed," said Heastie. "But I think that's a question you need to ask the governor, why he's not out campaigning to get the Senate to pass the Dream Act."

As for executive action around the DREAM Act, there are some legislators who believe that Cuomo may be in the mood to make an impact on the issue without the help of the Legislature. Hamstrung by Senate Republicans on a minimum wage increase, Cuomo recently called for a state wage board to consider hiking the hourly rate for fast food workers. Some observers believe the move is boxing Republicans in on the issue by highlighting the popularity of a minimum wage increase and showing that Cuomo can take action without them.

However, some advocates worry that the move may give Republicans more reason to oppose actual legislation and that the same could happen if Cuomo takes executive action related to DREAM. Moya doesn't think things are that complicated.

"I think it would be a good thing but we are focused on working to see the governor keep his promise and deliver the DREAM Act before the end of the session," said Moya. "We've seen that when he puts his energy into an issue he can make anything happen."

Horner said that his organization has advocated the governor take executive action on other issues before and he doesn't see much reason the governor shouldn't act on tuition assistance for undocumented students.

"If the governor can take action and help students without giving the Legislature something then I think it is pretty cut and dry," said Horner.

 

***
by David King, Albany editor, Gotham Gazette
@DavidHowardKing

Categories: State/Local

Fix NYCHA First

Gotham Gazette - Wed, 05/20/2015 - 1:00am

NYCHA buildings in Harlem (photo: David Schalliol)

Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration have turned heads with bold plans for lifting 800,000 families out of poverty, boosting school performance, and making the city more livable and equitable for all. His OneNYC plan aims to do nothing less than convert New York City into a progressive Sweden on the Hudson. The affordable housing component of the plan, the outline of which was first announced last year, alone promises to help finance construction of 80,000 units of below-market subsidized housing, extend subsidies for 120,000 existing units, and stimulate construction of 160,000 market-rate apartments, in part to relieve overall pressure on prices.

Mayor de Blasio's planned investments stand in clear contrast to the strategies available to leaders of many other U.S. cities, such as Baltimore and Detroit, where permanent economic decline has rendered city halls all but helpless. De Blasio's broad ambition is laudable. But the truth of the matter is that the figure that matters most for the mayor's legacy is 178,000: the number of apartments in the city's public housing portfolio. If Mayor de Blasio doesn't fix NYCHA first, every other initiative will be forgotten.

NYCHA - the New York City Housing Authority - is an irreplaceable asset — home to half a million or more poor New Yorkers, some in the workforce and some living on disability and old-age pensions or other public assistance. Apartments are comfortably sized. Most are in decent neighborhoods, and some in highly desirable ones, with access to transit, shopping, and other services. Rents, which are tabulated as a share of a tenant's income, average just $464 a month. Evictions are rare, and only for egregious violations of policy. During the past recession, when many working families at NYCHA lost their jobs, having a public housing apartment prevented homelessness. Most complexes also offer a range of on-site social programs.

But these apartments are suffering from chronic underfunding and deferred maintenance after a decade and a half of attacks by conservative lawmakers in Washington on funding for public housing. (Historically, approximately fifty percent of funds of maintenance and operation came from federal grants.) What had been America's best big-city housing authority, known for a solid level of service and balanced budgets, now shows signs of severe strain.

Elevators have not been replaced or repaired quickly; major capital projects (facades, bathrooms, pipes, and roofs) have been deferred. Many local maintenance positions on NYCHA grounds — the key to swift repairs — have gone unfilled. Thousands of remaining staff still make millions of repairs every year, but leaky walls, aging pipes, and unsound parapets often undo even the best efforts. Inflexible union rules, a legacy of more financially flush eras, further complicate maintenance goals. The mayor's decision to move more homeless families into NYCHA buildings is adding further stresses, as the rents these families can pay is even less likely to cover costs than that of the current mixture of tenants.

Allowing this disinvestment to continue will devastate families and communities across the city. And further decline in conditions would cancel out any benefits of the new housing the mayor has called for, not least because few NYCHA residents are financially stable enough to qualify for the new units or would be lucky enough to secure one, given that homes are distributed by lottery and demand far outpaces supply. Most important, replacement — should conditions slide far enough to require that — is all but inconceivable, with construction costs for 178,000 new apartments estimated at $66 billion.

[Inside a NYCHA building (David Schalliol)]

Mayor de Blasio ran on a strong platform of revitalizing NYCHA and there are some encouraging signs of progress. New subsidies have been earmarked for NYCHA by the State of New York for the first time in years. And an impressive $3 billion dollars has also been promised by the federal government, although not through usual housing funds but in the form of disaster relief to aid 33 NYCHA developments damaged by Sandy.

Locally, de Blasio's NYCHA Chair, Shola Olatoye, has decentralized maintenance operations, returning control to on-site managers. Renovation contracts have been streamlined and are moving forward. A quick decision was made to sell a half-share in certain privately built complexes that had been developed under HUD's project-based Section 8 program but that were never up to NYCHA standards for quality, and that are now too far-gone for NYCHA to repair on its own. An additional 16,093 deteriorated units are planned for partial sale.

Of equal importance, de Blasio has begun relieving NYCHA of many expenses, making it more like a typical city agency than a semiautonomous authority responsible for generating its own income. Under this initiative, the city has installed new security cameras, relieved NYCHA of annual payments for policing and PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes), subsidized NYCHA community programs, and will shortly assume responsibility for 1,000 NYCHA administrative and clerical staff. Chair Olatoye has also announced plans to raise fees for parking and improve rent collection, although these will likely face resistance from residents.

[Mayor de Blasio unveils his new NYCHA plan (photo: @CoreyinNYC)]

But Mayor de Blasio needs to do much more to keep the system from falling into complete disarray. Billions of additional dollars for capital improvements are needed (by one reckoning, $17 billion) to bring NYCHA complexes back to the high standards of earlier eras and ensure the health and safety of tenants. Yet unlike in those earlier eras when the city could count on Albany and Washington for aid, the only entity today with the liberal will to devote that kind of money to public housing is New York City itself.

The most promising solution is for city leaders to create a permanent, dedicated capital fund for rebuilding NYCHA with clear annual targets rather than dole out a limited amount each year as is done today, such as the $300 million recently allocated for roof repairs — an amount that is far less than required to undo the mold and leaks found in far too many buildings. To address the real scale of renovation needed, it may even be necessary to create a new city entity, outside NYCHA, with renovation of public housing as its sole purpose.

The proposal to lease or sell NYCHA parking lots, now back on the table with the administration's NextGeneration NYCHA plan, also merits wide support because it can yield additional millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of dollars for these necessary repairs. Some residents will lose their parking spaces and views, but the potential benefits to NYCHA residents as a whole outweigh any losses to individuals. Shifting the 10,000 NYCHA staff who will remain on NYCHA's books to city payrolls will also be required because rents paid by tenants are simply too far out of line with the agency's high wages.

The New York City Housing Authority's vast system is the legacy of a great period of liberalism in the U.S. that started in the 1930s and has endured in New York, despite many challenges, while fading elsewhere. The best way for Mayor de Blasio to reinvigorate broad support — locally but also in Albany and Washington — for the kinds of liberal programs on his agenda is to prove that existing ones like public housing are flexible, solvent, and of the highest quality. The 178,000 families who call NYCHA apartments home will hardly benefit from universal prekindergarten and other generous new initiatives if their homes become unlivable. And if that happens, Mayor de Blasio won't be remembered for much else.

***
by Nicholas Dagen Bloom and Matthew Gordon Lasner

Nicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor at New York Institute of Technology and Matthew Gordon Lasner is assistant professor at Hunter College. They are co-editors of the forthcoming book "Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies that Transformed a City."

Categories: State/Local

Train moved at 106 mph

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 05/19/2015 - 1:07am

Philadelphia

The Amtrak train that crashed in Philadelphia, killing at least seven people, was hurtling at 106 mph before it ran off the rails along a sharp curve where the speed limit is just 50 mph, federal investigators said Wednesday.

The engineer applied the emergency brakes moments before the crash but managed to slow the train to only 102 mph by the time the locomotive's black box stopped recording data, said Robert Sumwalt of the National Transportation Safety Board. The speed limit just before the bend is 80 mph, he said.

The engineer, whose name was not released, refused to give a statement to law enforcement and left a police precinct with a lawyer. Sumwalt said federal accident investigators hope to interview him but will give him a day or two to recover from the "traumatic event."

"Our mission is to find out not only what happened but why it happened, so that we can prevent it from happening again," Sumwalt said.

More than 200 people aboard the Washington-to-New York train were injured in the wreck, which took place in a decayed industrial neighborhood not far from the Delaware River just before 9:30 p.m. Tuesday. Passengers crawled out the windows of the torn and toppled rail cars in the darkness and emerged, dazed and bloody, in the nation's deadliest train accident in nearly seven years.

"We are heartbroken by what has happened here," Mayor Michael Nutter said.

Amtrak suspended all service until further notice along the Philadelphia-to-New York stretch of the nation's busiest rail corridor — snarling the morning commute and forcing thousands to find some other way to reach their destination — as investigators examined the wreckage and the tracks and gathered up other evidence.

The dead included an Associated Press employee and a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. Many of the injured suffered broken bones or burns. At least 10 remained hospitalized in critical condition.

Nutter said some people remained unaccounted for, though he cautioned that some passengers listed on the Amtrak manifest might not have boarded the train, while others might not have checked in with authorities.

"We will not cease our efforts until we go through every vehicle," the mayor said in the afternoon. He said rescuers expanded the search area and used dogs to look for victims in case someone was thrown from the wreckage.

The NTSB finding about the train's speed corroborated an Associated Press analysis done earlier in the day of surveillance video from a spot along the tracks. It concluded from the footage that the train was speeding at approximately 107 mph moments before it entered the curve.

Despite pressure from Congress and safety regulators, Amtrak had not installed along that section of track Positive Train Control, a technology that uses GPS, wireless radio and computers to prevent trains from going over the speed limit, the railroad agency said.

Most of Amtrak's Northeast Corridor is equipped with Positive Train Control.

"Based on what we know right now, we feel that had such a system been installed in this section of track, this accident would not have occurred," Sumwalt said.

The notoriously tight curve is not far from the site of the site of one of the deadliest train wrecks in U.S. history: the 1943 derailment of the Congressional Limited, bound from Washington to New York. Seventy-nine people were killed.

Amtrak inspected the stretch of track on Tuesday, just hours before the accident, and found no defects, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. In addition to the data recorder, the train had a video camera in its front end that could yield clues to what happened, Sumwalt said.

The crash took place about 10 minutes after the train pulled out of Philadelphia's 30th Street Station with 238 passengers and five crew members listed aboard. The locomotive and all seven passenger cars lurched off the track as the train made a left turn, Sumwalt said.

Jillian Jorgensen, 27, was seated in the second passenger car and said the train was going "fast enough for me to be worried" when it began to lurch to the right. Then the lights went out and Jorgensen was thrown from her seat.

She said she "flew across the train" and landed under some seats that had apparently broken loose from the floor.

Jorgensen, a reporter for The New York Observer who lives in Jersey City, N.J., said she wriggled free as fellow passengers screamed. She saw one man lying still, his face covered in blood, and a woman with a broken leg.

She climbed out an emergency exit window, and a firefighter helped her down a ladder to safety.

"It was terrifying and awful, and as it was happening it just did not feel like the kind of thing you could walk away from, so I feel very lucky," Jorgensen said in an email. "The scene in the car I was in was total disarray, and people were clearly in a great deal of pain."

Award-winning AP video software architect Jim Gaines, a 48-year-old father of two, was among the dead. Also killed was Justin Zemser, a 20-year-old Naval Academy midshipman from New York City.

Categories: State/Local

Indoor e-cigarette ban gathers steam

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 05/19/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

Some state lawmakers want e-cigarette use in places like offices and restaurants to disappear in a puff of smoke.

A bill before the state Senate and Assembly would add e-cigarettes — electronic vaporizers that let users inhale nicotine and exhale plumes of vapor — to the list of products covered under the state's Clean Indoor Air Act, which bans traditional smoking in certain indoor areas.

The bill, which awaits action in both houses, also appears to be aimed at curbing children's exposure to e-cigarettes at shops that sell them.

According to the Senate bill's memo, it would require e-cigarette retailers not registered with the state Department of Taxation and Finance — such stores currently aren't required to have a tobacco registration — to register with the Department of Health, opening them up to compliance checks.

Critics of e-cigarettes point to studies that show short-term adverse health effects, as well as a lack of studies looking at long-term impacts.

"We have a lot of information with regard to the effects of nicotine, which are the main ingredients in the e-cigarettes," state Medical Society President Dr. Joseph Maldonado said at a press conference at the Capitol on Wednesday. "What we don't know is the effects of some of the other ingredients that are in many of these e-cigarettes, so that research needs to continue."

E-cigarettes also are not regulated by the FDA, though such regulations may be outlined in the coming months.

"This lack of oversight is placing individuals at risk because there is little known about the chemical makeup of the liquid nicotine or the harm to individuals from inhaling the vapor directly or through secondhand exposure," state Sen. Kemp Hannon's bill memo states. "In fact, testing performed by the FDA found that electronic cigarettes can be dangerous because users inhale carcinogens and toxic chemicals, such as diethylene glycol, an ingredient found in antifreeze."

Jeff Stier, a senior fellow at the conservative think-tank the National Center for Public Policy Research, was supportive of the FDA's approach.

He questioned why the state would force former smokers using a less harmful way of ingesting nicotine to stand outside of, say, a bar with other cigarette smokers and increase their chances of picking up combustible tobacco again. Stier also said that while opening e-cigarette retailers up to compliance checks to make sure they aren't selling to minors is a good thing, opening them up to possible taxation could make the less harmful alternative cost-prohibitive to those trying to kick the habit.

"I'm pleased that the FDA is doing the science first," Stier said. "I would only hope that the members of the New York State (Legislature) have the same discipline, because there could be unintended consequences."

mhamilton@timesunion.com • 518-454-5449 • @matt_hamilton10

Categories: State/Local

State bill calls for training for caregivers to avoid patient return to hospitals

Albany Times/Union - Tue, 05/19/2015 - 1:07am

Albany

The state chapter of AARP was joined by lawmakers at a Capitol news conference on Wednesday to urge the Assembly to schedule a vote on the CARE Act, legislation that would require hospitals to offer training in certain after-care tasks to a designated caregiver before a patient is sent home.

The bill, which passed the state Senate unanimously last month, aims to assist what's estimated to be 4 million New Yorkers involved in caring for an estimated 1.6 million people discharged from hospitals in the state every year.

The most affected group, advocates said, would be caregivers for those with chronic or terminal conditions such as Alzheimer's.

Among the advocates who spoke was Linda Waddington of Rotterdam, who cared for her husband, Frank, for a decade as Alzheimer's stripped away his memory and sense of self.

"Taking care of somebody when this happens is overwhelming," Waddington said of her care for her husband, which included everything from managing his daily medications to setting bells on the doors of their home to make sure he didn't wander off.

The bill's justification memo notes caregivers are often tasked with providing "basic activities of daily living, such as mobility, eating, and dressing," and even more complex daily work like wound care and operating medical equipment.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, who sponsors the bill in her chamber, said the bill was scheduled for a committee vote next week. "There are only memos of support; I have no memos against it," she said.

Rosenthal said whatever cost was entailed by caregiver training would be more than offset by the savings in the expected drop in hospital readmissions of patients due to the actions of a caregiver who made an inadvertent error.

cseiler@timesunion.com518-454-5619@CaseySeiler

Categories: State/Local
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