Janette Sadik-Khan Is the Best Mechanic the City Streets Have Had in a Generation—So Why Do Motorists Hate Her So Much?

Kiss her asphalt, drivers!

Gives you a warm, fuzzy feeling. (NYC DOT)

Asphalt. Huge, heaping obsidian piles of oozing rock and tar, steaming tons of it mounded up on the banks of Flushing Creek in Corona, Queens. More than a million pounds of asphalt a day. This may well be the greatest legacy of the city’s innovative, controversial, visionary, despised Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan.

Completed in May 2010, the Harper Street asphalt plant produces 250,000 tons annually, much of it made from recycled rocks ripped from roads around New York. If asphalt could be considered state of the art, this would be it. The plant saves the city $5 million every year and keeps thousands of asphalt trucks that would be importing the road rock off the streets, preventing more potholes as a result.

And that is precisely the point of this plant, one of two the city now owns: to repave and repair the streets more efficiently and sustainably. It is one of hundreds of programs launched in the past four years by Ms. Sadik-Khan and the mayor, part of a $4.3 billion capital campaign. That is more than many states have spent over the same period and as much as had been spent in the first six years of the Bloomberg administration, meaning essentially a 50 percent increase in road spending under the current commissioner.

“One of the things I’m most proud of at DOT is that we’ve really increased our commitment to the basics, even while we launch new programs,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said in an interview last week. “We’ve got an unprecedented commitment to the road and bridge network.”

The Department of Transportation oversees more than 6,375 miles of surface roads in the five boroughs and 787 bridges. The Port Authority is in charge of four, the M.T.A. seven. Along those roads and bridges, there are 500 miles of on-street bike lanes, more than half of which have been built in the past four years. Of the 775 projects funded under the current capital plan, only a handful involved pedestrian plazas, like the closure of Times Square and the rest of Broadway, or bike lanes, like the litigious route along Prospect Park West. Some of these projects are so cheap, they do not even make the budget. All told,  DOT has spent $19.2 million on plazas and $15.8 million on bike lanes. That is less than 1 percent of all capital spending over the past four years, or about as much as the $30 million DOT spent on the one asphalt plant.

Tour the Public Works of Janette Sadik-Khan >>

“She has done more for drivers than anyone since Robert Moses,” one transportation professional told The Observer. Rarely is that comparison a complimentary one—Janette Sadik-Khan has long been dubbed Mrs. Moses, but it is by those who disagree with her programs and (often very successful) tactics. There is a perceived imperiousness, a sense of know-it-all-ism, my-way-or-no-highway. DOT points to the thousands of community meetings held each year for its new programs, and the poll numbers that continue to grow in the department’s favor.

No matter. The critics still honk their horns and file their lawsuits. Meanwhile, the same driven demeanor of Ms. Sadik-Khan that has seen so many bike lanes built also goes about the dirty, dismal work of so many bridges repaired and so many potholes filled—400,000 last year alone. With all the angst and ink spilled over bike lanes, the department and its supporters lament the fact that drivers have yet to appreciate all the benefits made on their behalf.

“She’s been very successful, which can be beneficial but also controversial if people do not agree with you,” said Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at N.Y.U. “Essentially, she’s taken a very shy agency and put it out there on the front pages.”

Janette Sadik-Khan Is the Best Mechanic the City Streets Have Had in a Generation—So Why Do Motorists Hate Her So Much?