Borough Park

Brooklyn Yeshiva leaders demand school zone speed cameras

May 8, 2018 By Ben Fried Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Rabbi Berel Hecht at one of his neighborhood’s dangerous intersections. He supports a bid for more speed cameras near schools, though his state Senator, Simcha Felder, does not. Eagle photo by Andrew Katz

Simcha Felder has become primary obstacle to camera program expansion

Rabbi Berel Hecht can barely bring himself to watch the students at his yeshiva, Bnos Yerushalayim D’Chasidei Belz, cross the street to get to school. Drivers whipping around the corner of 15th Avenue and Dahill Road consistently endanger kids in the crosswalk.

“It’s dangerous,” he said. “It’s hard just to look at when they are crossing.” 

For that reason, Hecht is one of 23 yeshiva leaders — with 18,000 students among them — who are asking the state legislature to allow the city to install more speed-enforcement cameras.

A letter from the group will be going to every legislator in Albany — but the only man who matters is state Sen. Simcha Felder, who just happens to represent the students at Hecht’s yeshiva. 

Felder (D?R-Borough Park) has become the primary obstacle to expanding the speed camera program, which currently consists of just 140 devices across the five boroughs. 

The cameras are periodically relocated, but the city is forbidden by Albany from installing more, even though their success at deterring speeders is no longer debatable. More than 80 percent of drivers who receive the $50 fines are not caught speeding again, city officials say. 

Citywide traffic deaths have fallen from 299 in 2013 —- when speed cameras were first deployed — to 218 last year. Hundreds of people are alive today because city streets are less deadly now than they were a few years ago.

But Albany remains unconvinced — and Felder is unapproachable on the subject. Nonetheless, on Wednesday, three buses full of New Yorkers who’ve lost friends and loved ones to traffic crashes will head to the capitol to convince lawmakers to expand the speed camera program. 

Felder and fellow Brooklyn senator Martin Golden are the target of the lobbying.

Golden (R-Bay Ridge) had opposed previous attempts to install more speed cameras. He now says he supports a bill to double their numbers, but he’s in a bind because Republicans need Felder — a Democrat who nonetheless caucuses with the GOP — to retain their one-vote control of the senate. That means Felder has the upper hand. 

Last year, a bill to allow 750 speed camera zones around city schools cruised through the Assembly but couldn’t get past Golden. When the Assembly offered a compromise of 290 speed cameras, Golden dropped his opposition, but Felder did not. The bill died behind closed doors without a vote. That’s typical in Albany, where blame for a bill’s demise is hard to affix — perhaps by design.

This time around, the situation in Albany is different. Street safety advocates are starting with a bill for 290 speed camera locations, instead of last year’s more ambitious 750 locations. And Golden’s office says the senator will use his influence to get the current bill through the Senate. 

“He’s very high up in the [Republican] conference,” said Golden chief of staff John Quaglione. “His voice adds a tremendous amount of weight to this bill’s passage.”

A mere 290 cameras may not seem like a lot considering the roughly 2,000 schools in New York City, but the bill will vastly expand the impact of a program that’s already managed to make its mark. Speeding has fallen by an average of 63 percent at locations with the cameras, according to the city Department of Transportation, and traffic injuries have dropped 15 percent, even though state law prevents the city from operating the cameras when school is out of session.

The current speed camera program costs about $14 million per year to operate, but generates roughly $31 million in fines. It’s not much in the context of the city’s $89-billion budget, but the stated goal of the speed cameras has always been to prevent injuries and fatalities, not to raise money. 

In the Orthodox Jewish communities that Felder represents, where family sizes are large, safety is no small issue. In addition to the letter to state legislators from 23 yeshivas, 11 school leaders took out a pro-camera ad in Hamodia and the Jewish Press, influential papers that circulate widely in Felder’s district. 

Activists said it wasn’t hard to get the rabbis to support the campaign once they learned that it was limited in scope because of Albany.

“Nearly every head of the yeshivas we met with signed on to the coalition,” said Amy Cohen of Families for Safe Streets. “Many knew someone who had been killed or injured. There’s widespread support.” 

Cohen, who lost her son Sammy, 12, when a driver struck him on Prospect Park West in 2013, will be on a bus heading up to Albany on Wednesday. But one legislator she won’t be speaking to about speed cameras is Simcha Felder. He repeatedly rebuffed requests for a meeting from Families for Safe Streets and Transportation Alternatives, she said.

Cohen was able to buttonhole Felder in the capitol in April, approaching him with Sofia Russo, whose daughter Ariel was killed by a speeding driver the same year. 

“I don’t like cameras,” Felder told them, according to Cohen. “I don’t believe the data.” He then refused to discuss the matter further. And he declined repeated requests for comment from the Brooklyn Eagle.

Felder has used speed camera legislation as a bargaining chip. During the earlier debate, he said he would only support more cameras if the city promised to put an armed cop in every school. That proposal went nowhere, but it effectively shut down the debate over speed cameras.

This year, advocates have a stronger hand. If Golden provides key support, and the rabbis keep up the heat, Felder may not be able to stand in the way this time.

Editor’s note: The Brooklyn Eagle describes Simcha Felder as “D?R” because he was elected in 2016 as a Democrat, yet caucuses with the Republicans, giving the GOP the majority in the Senate.

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