Monday, April 23, 2007

Congestion pricing plan announced; backlash continues

Mayor Mike Bloomberg yesterday presented PlaNYC: A Greener, Greater New York, which includes 127 separate initiatives, among them housing an additional 1 million New Yorkers affordably; increasing access to parks, playgrounds and open spaces; reclaiming brownfields; developing critical backup systems for our aging water network to ensure reliability; providing additional reliable power sources and upgrading our existing power plants; reducing water pollution so we can open our waterways for recreation; and reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 30%.

But the big one is a congestion pricing pilot scheduled to begin by Spring 2009, aimed to charge drivers who enter the Central Business District in Manhattan in certain hours. The money would be directed toward improving public transit and thus offer opportunities to those most burdened by the charge, though obviously the transition period could be dicey.

Successful congestion pricing programs exist in London, Singapore, and other cities. (UK Prime Minister Tony Blair offered a video tribute yesterday, as the Daily News reported.)

The concept gains support from left-ish transportation advocates (who are holding a rally at 10:30 a.m. today, noting that the mayor's plan results in "reducing car use and giving more space and priority to bus riders, pedestrians and bicycles"), wonky transportation analysts, and business groups.

It has been opposed by outer borough politicians and officials, mindful that it would hit some of their constituents--who lack good public transit access to Manhattan--the hardest. It's also been opposed by trucking companies and garage owners.

Congestion pricing is seen as necessary for the Atlantic Yards plan to have a ghost of a chance, though political backers of the plan like Borough President Marty Markowitz, as well as developer Forest City Ratner, have remained quiet about the issue.

Mayor's plan

In his speech, the mayor laid out the rationale:
So as long as we’re at the Museum of Natural History let’s talk about the elephant in the room: congestion pricing. There’s no escaping the costs of the congestion on our streets – in all five boroughs. The costs are hidden – but they’re real. Our child asthma rates are way above the national average. Congestion isn’t the only cause, but we can’t pretend it’s not a significant factor – it is.

Congestion also leads to higher costs for consumers and businesses – because deliveries cost more than they would and people who cannot use mass transit decide not to come into the city. Who wants to sit in traffic for hours? Congestion wastes fuel – which fuels global warming. And, of course it wastes time. Time we could be spending with family. Or working. Or going to a park.

As the city continues to grow, the costs of congestion – to our health, to our environment, and to our economy – are only going to get worse. The question is not whether we want to pay but how do we want to pay. With an increased asthma rate? With more greenhouse gases? Wasted time? Lost business? And higher prices? Or, do we charge a modest fee to encourage more people to take mass transit?

I’ve thought about this question a lot. And I understand the hesitation about charging a fee. I was a skeptic myself. But I looked at the facts, and that’s what I’m asking New Yorkers to do. And the fact is in cities like London and Singapore, fees succeeded in reducing congestion and improving air quality. Many people are already paying to drive into Manhattan – there are tolls on most bridges and the four tunnels. But to avoid those tolls, many people drive through neighborhood streets. That not only clogs the streets, it increases air pollution – and asthma rates.

And why should commuters from the Bronx, Queens, Staten Island, and Brooklyn – and from the northern, eastern, and western suburbs – all pay different tolls? By charging a flat fee, we can eliminate these disparities – because tolls would be deductible. This means that commuters using E-Z pass at the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge and the Henry Hudson Bridge and the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels would all pay the same amount and so would commuters taking the Brooklyn, Williamsburg, and Queensborough bridges.

They’re all going to the same place: why shouldn’t they all be treated equally?

In setting the fee, there’s no magic number, but it has to be high enough to encourage more people to switch to mass transit and low enough not to break the bank – for businesses and for those who have to drive. Based on thorough analysis and the experience of other cities, we believe that an $8 charge would achieve these goals. There are many different ways that this system could work in New York.

As a test run, we will seek state authority for a three year pilot project, and we are very optimistic that, in working with state officials, we will secure hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for it.

Cars traveling south of 86th Street would be charged $8 but those who travel only within the zone would pay half price. Most New Yorkers would not be affected at all – and not just because the vast majority don’t drive to work. We believe a fee should apply only weekdays – from 6 A.M. to 6 P.M. If you drive into Manhattan during the other twelve hours, or on a weekend, there would be no charge. And if you live below 86th Street, rest assured: you’re not going to pay for the great privilege of moving your car across the street in the morning.

In addition, even during the 6 A.M. to 6 P.M time period, there would be no charge for using the FDR or the West Side Highway so that people in Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx could still use the highways free of charge whether they’re heading to Yankee Stadium or the Holland Tunnel. Even those who take taxis wouldn’t be affected – because taxis will be exempt. In analyzing congestion pricing, we studied commuting patterns across the city, and we arrived at an astounding finding: of the New Yorkers who work in Manhattan, only five percent commute by car. Five percent!

Let me illustrate the congestion that is overcrowding subway routes and key commuter lines. Today, 11 of the 26 subway routes experience peak-period congestion, and three are already at capacity – the routes in red. (I’ve been in that red a few times myself.) Conditions are bad enough now. But if we don’t act – by 2030, the situation will be intolerable. You just have to look at all the red on this chart. By 2030, we expect that nearly every subway route – 23 of 26 – will be heavily congested.

But it doesn’t have to be this way if we increase the speed at which trains travel, which will help reduce crowding – while also improving their reliability if we expand rapid bus service to areas of the city – particularly in Queens – that are poorly served by the subway if we build the 2nd Avenue Subway – not just from 96th Street to 63rd St, but all the way from Harlem to the Battery. If we expand ferry service to our growing waterfront communities and if we build a rail link to connect Lower Manhattan with Brooklyn, Jamaica, JFK, and Long Island where a light rail system could help many city residents and Long Islanders get to work more easily.

I know, If. If. If. If.

For decades, these and other major transportation projects – such as super express subway service to Queens – have been on the drawing boards spoken of in dream-like terms by planners and residents alike. If we could only build this, if we could only build that. The reason they haven’t been built, of course, or why our subway hasn’t been brought up to a state of good repair, is money. In fact, we have identified 18 critical transportation projects that, collectively, face a $31 billion funding gap.

Well, we can continue to talk about filling that gap and I think we all know how that will turn out or, we can work with the State, and together, we can fill it. The consequences are clear. It’s our choice. And we are choosing action.

In the weeks ahead, we will begin by asking our partners in Albany to create a “Sustainable Mobility and Regional Transportation” – or “SMART” – Financing Authority. The SMART Authority will be authorized to raise funds and issue revenue bonds and it will award matching grants to transportation agencies – the MTA, the Port Authority, and the City’s Department of Transportation – for key mass transit projects.

SMART funds will come from three sources: first, the City is prepared to make an unprecedented commitment of more than $200 million a year to the SMART fund. Second, we’ll ask the Legislature to match our commitment, just as it did with our school capital plan. And the third source of funding will be from congestion pricing.

Reactions

In the New York Observer's blog, The Real Estate, Matthew Schuerman called it a modest proposal, noting, "At just $8 a car (compared to twice that in London), traffic will diminish by a mere 6.3 percent."

WINS reported:
Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, a U.S. congressman who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, is running to be elected mayor in 2009, opposes congestion pricing and said it amounts to a "tax on working families."

The proposal needs approval from the state legislature. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, who represents Prospect Heights and environs, sent out a news release stating, "The Mayor's congestion pricing proposal is suburban-friendly, Manhattan-centric and blatantly unfair to Brooklyn residents. The proposal represents a back-door toll on the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. While it is certainly important to discourage automobile traffic, any effort should be fair and equitable. There is absolutely no justification for charging Brooklyn taxpayers eight dollars to enter Manhattan, while out-of-state New Jersey residents are given a discount."

I followed up, pointing out that congestion pricing is seen as necessary to the Atlantic Yards plan (which Jeffries supports more than not), and he responded, "I am willing to consider a congestion pricing plan that treats everyone fairly. It appears that under the Mayor's proposal, Brooklyn taxpayers will be forced to pay $8 to use the bridges while Manhattan residents will only have to pay $4 to drive during the same hours, and New Jersey residents will get a discount because they use either the Holland or Lincoln Tunnels. The impact on congestion and pollution in the City does not change based on the point of departure of an automobile and therefore everyone should be discouraged from driving by being forced to pay the same price."

In the Daily News today, "Gridlock Sam" Schwartz, the consultant who, among other things, worked on the Atlantic Yards transportation plan for Forest City Ratner, offers a host of suggestions for Bloomberg to sell the plan, including:
* Get trucks off Brooklyn streets by rebuilding the Belt Parkway to allow commercial vehicles. Add a few more adjacent parks while we're at it. The cars-only restriction is a Robert Moses anachronism.
* Give all city residents five free trips a year that they can barter if they don't use them. One of the biggest complaints I hear is, "What do I do if I have to go into Manhattan to the doctor or want to catch a play?"
* Apply congestion pricing to transit. Reduce the bus fares in the subway-less neighborhoods to $1.
* City employees must not be exempt. And before the city gets moving on congestion pricing, it must crack down on government abuse of parking.


Eventually?

According to Metro:
John Liu, D-Queens, chair of the City Council’s Transportation Committee, called for additional express buses before implementation of congestion pricing.
“To the extent that further measures are needed to ease congestion, driver fees can be considered as with everything else being on the table,” Liu said in a statement. “The city must make mass transit a real option for commuters who now drive but in reality would be happy to hop on an express bus. The mayor should get that done before hitting city residents with an additional $2,000 annual commuting fee.”


The Post quoted a real estate official who said outer-borough opposition was such that "It's never going to happen."

Then again, the Post offered this summation:
Former Queens Borough President Claire Shulman told The Post, "I think it was a great speech, and the mayor is very courageous."

Asked if she would back congestion pricing, she responded: "Yes, on balance, I do."

Other officials said they expect a drawn-out battle in which opponents eventually fall by the wayside as traffic gets worse and worse.

"Like gay marriage, someday it will happen," predicted civic activist Henry Stern, the former city parks commissioner.

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