Hello to all. February seems to have flown by, no doubt because of the historic amount of snow that we have received over the last several weeks. However, the days are getting longer and the temperature is getting warmer, as March gets ready to usher in Spring. This has been a long, cold winter and I’m sure we’re all ready for warmer days. A lot happened in February, so let me jump right into it.

One of the biggest developments in February involved eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine. If you recall, last month I wrote that a number of elected officials, including Mayor de Blasio, as well as most of the frontrunning Mayoral candidates, had come out in support of expanding vaccine eligibility to drivers. At long last, the State acted and updated their guidance to grant eligibility for FHV drivers and restaurant delivery drivers to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.

Despite this eligibility however, it is still extremely difficult to find an appointment for the vaccine due to short supply. The relentless snow that has affected our entire country has also led to interruptions in the supply chain. It seems likely though that the supply should steadily increase in March and many believe that by April, anyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one. Waiting until then though may not be the best option so I encourage everyone to check often for vaccine availability. You should check both the City and State’s vaccine websites at vaccinefinder.nyc.gov and am-i-eligible.covid19vaccine.health.ny.gov/, respectively, to find and schedule an appointment for the vaccine.

While we’re on the subject of COVID-19, I also wanted to let you all know that one of the Biden Administration’s first actions was to enact a Federal Mask Mandate that requires the wearing of masks by travelers to prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. The language of the order specifically mentions taxis and rideshares which means that your passengers are now federally mandated to wear a mask while riding with you.

Moving onto City news, there were a few developments of note this past month. First Mayor de Blasio announced plans to close a driving lane on both the Brooklyn and Queensboro Bridges, in order to convert them into bike lanes. Under the plan, the city will ban cars from the inner lane of the Manhattan-bound side of the Brooklyn Bridge to build a two-way bike lane. The existing promenade area at the center of the bridge, which is elevated above the car lanes, will be used only by pedestrians. Cyclists will no longer be able to ride on the promenade, where there is currently a bike lane.

The plan also calls for converting the northern outer roadway of the Queensboro Bridge into a two-way bike lane. The southern outer roadway, which is currently used by Queens-bound cars, will be reconfigured as a pedestrian walkway.

As expected, cycling and transportation advocates cheered for this plan, as the pandemic has caused a major spike in biking from those trying to avoid public transportation. However, there are definitely real concerns about how this affects congestion as the city continues recovering from the pandemic and more and more people return to work. Frankly, I don’t see how this will result in anything but increased congestion.

Speaking of congestion, the MTA expressed hope that the congestion pricing plan, which had originally been slated to begin this past January, will move swiftly under the Biden Administration. For years under the Trump Administration, the MTA had been waiting for the federal government to determine what kind of environmental review the state must conduct before moving forward on the congestion pricing plan. According to the MTA, the Biden Administration has expressed their intent to fast track the environmental process. Even if it’s fast tracked however, the infrastructure requirements make it likely that this plan won’t be able to be implemented until 2023 at the earliest. We will continue monitoring progress on this issue and keep you informed.

Congestion pricing, while aimed at reducing overall traffic in the central business district, will also bring in a lot money to the financially struggling MTA. They have been very open about their financial issues and even though they expect an influx of federal funding from the Biden Administration, that didn’t stop them from approving a 7% toll hike on the seven bridges and two tunnels under their purview. Beginning in April, tolls will increase from $6.12 to $6.55 for E-ZPass users on six crossings: the Bronx-Whitestone, Triboro, Throgs Necks, and Verrazzano bridges and the Brooklyn-Battery and Queens-Midtown tunnels. Drivers without E-ZPass will be charged $10.17, up from $9.50 today.

On Upper Manhattan’s Henry Hudson Bridge, tolls will increase by 20 cents for E-ZPass users and 50 cents for everyone else. The Cross Bay and Marine Parkway bridges in Queens, meanwhile, will see tolls spiked from $2.29 for E-ZPass and $4.75 for everyone else to $2.45 and $5.09, respectively. While rising tolls is never welcome news, I do have some excellent news, for both drivers and bases, regarding the Port Authority and airports that I’m excited to share in next month’s article. It will be big news so keep an eye out for it!

Before I wrap up, I also wanted to provide an update on one of the major stories from last month’s Black Car News. If you recall, we wrote about five drivers who had been charged with fraud by the State Workers’ Compensation Board. In that article, we mentioned that being charged by the Workers’ Compensation Board isn’t the only punishment that drivers who commit fraud can face.  We warned that they could also be charged criminally. Just this week, a driver was arrested, arraigned, and pled guilty to petty larceny, with a condition that they provide The Black Car Fund with full restitution of the fraudulently obtained funds. In this case, the driver had to write a check for $11,235.18. As I said before, fraud is never worth it. You’re going to get caught, and worse, you’re stealing money from other drivers who truly need it. This criminal conviction is just the first, and we expect to have more in the near future.

On a final note, I have some great news regarding our S.A.F.E. iD program. For the last few months, many drivers have expressed interest in this benefit due to our ongoing partnership with Nexar, which provided free dual-sided dashboard cameras to drivers. Unfortunately, the Nexar part of the program has been full for months. Therefore, while drivers have been able to opt-in for the on-board device (OBD) part of the program, they have unable to opt-in to receive the camera.

The wait is now over, as we have expanded the program and partnered with a new company, Vuro Technologies. Their telematics technology provides BOTH a free dual-sided dashboard camera, as well as an onboard device, to bring you the best of both worlds. The Vuro devices also have new features such as distraction and drowsiness alerts, a panic button, and even a parking mode that protects your car while it’s parked and can record if it senses motion or impact. Drivers who are interested in opting-in to S.A.F.E. iD to receive the Vuro devices can do so by visiting our website at www.nybcf.org/safeid. Act fast because this program will fill up very quickly!

Until next time!

Article by Ira Goldstein

Ira J. Goldstein is the Executive Director of the New York Black Car Fund and Advisor to the Black Car Assistance Corp. (BCAC).

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