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The congestion pricing votes: AY wasn't the issue, nor was overbuilding

A project like Atlantic Yards--a traffic magnet like the arena and the attendant residential influx--would bring a lot of traffic, especially with more than 3600 parking spaces.

So congestion pricing (CP) would seem to be a solution. However, as the recent defeat of Mayor Mike Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal suggests, local political considerations trump the long-term public policy issue. The politicians with the most at stake regarding Atlantic Yards were decidedly mixed in their approach.

For example, City Council Member Letitia James, an Atlantic Yards opponent, supported CP. City Council Member Bill de Blasio, a longstanding but increasingly critical supporter of AY, represents a district that suffers as much from traffic as does James's district. But his opposition to CP likely derives mainly from his need to court votes throughout Brooklyn in his run for Borough President.

Last November, Streetsblog, which offers savvy advocacy for and analysis of congestion pricing, characterized the performance of Brooklyn officials at a public hearing as Profiles in Discouragment.

The RPA's warning

While such major traffic changes were deemed beyond the scope of the AY environmental review, on 8/22/06, the Regional Plan Association, in its convoluted Atlantic Yards testimony, warned that "a long-term comprehensive transportation plan" including congestion pricing was needed to stave off the worsening of existing congestion:
Rather than putting a halt to all development, proactive steps must be taken to limit the congestion and allow growth. Much of the traffic that ties up this part of Brooklyn for much of the day is generated by cars and trucks going to and from the free bridges over the East River. Over the long-term, the most effective way to reduce this congestion will be to implement a congestion charge for entering the Manhattan CBD from all directions that provides incentives for traveling in non-peak times and taking transit. This may not be a solution for this year, but if it is not in place by the time the bulk of this or any other development comes on line, the area’s congestion may become untenable.


Why did it fail?

Is Sheldon Silver to blame, as Bloomberg said (and the Times editorialized), or is the mayor, as Daily News columnist Juan Gonzalez suggested? Or was it just that fact that suburban and rural legislators understandably voted their self-interest, not the long-term public interest?

Charles Komanoff offers a series of reasons in a Grist magazine column; check the comments for replies from Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and Komanoff's rebuttal.

Meanwhile, Gene Russianoff offers some interim solutions.

Overbuilding the culprit?

In a column on Ron Howell's Brooklyn Ron blog, Paul Moses of Brooklyn College (and formerly New York Newsday) offers an alternative interpretation of the CP failure, suggesting that overbuilding has caused ruinous traffic and it's time to dial back:

Of course, the group that initiated the congestion pricing plan - The New York City Partnership, lobbying arm of the Chamber of Commerce - would never go for that. It presented congestion pricing in an attractive green package, but underneath the wrapping, it was just an attempt to open up Manhattan for further real estate overdevelopment by the Partnership's members.

...Despite all of the environmental studies that are done, the truth of the matter is that development in Manhattan and, more recently, downtown Brooklyn, is carried out with little or no concern among most elected officials and the business community for increased traffic congestion and the air pollution it causes.

...It is hard to understand how Mayor Bloomberg expected drivers to make this sacrifice when he had pursued construction of a new stadium that would have drawn thousands more cars into Manhattan and when he had championed massive development that would aggravate the already congested traffic situation in downtown Brooklyn.


Moses is right to point out that Bloomberg was a latecomer to CP, prodded by the Partnership and the New York Times, and he's right to point out that development has been approved without attention to traffic congestion.

Still, CP and development are hardly incompatible--the issue is one of degree and of linkage. Even without Atlantic Yards, there'd be an argument for significant development near the Atlantic Terminal transit hub and in nearby Downtown Brooklyn, given that subway access.

However, as Moses suggests, Bloomberg and other development-supporting politicians missed the opportunity to say they'd only support such projects if they were accompanied by massive changes regarding traffic and transit.

In December 2006, I asked the Partnership's leader, Kathryn Wylde, why the group supported Atlantic Yards without CP in place. Her response: “Well, Atlantic Yards development is over a long period of time. So hopefully we’ll have some solutions on the congestion side before we hit that critical mass, in terms of additional traffic."

In other words, eventually it'll sort itself out--long after the terms of politicians like Markowitz.

Looking at the electeds nearest AY site

A quick news and blog search, mainly via Streetsblog, turns up the following positions on CP among the ten elected officials with the most at stake regarding AY. (These are the ten asked to nominate representatives to the AY Community Advisory Committee, which still hasn't gotten off the ground.)

Note that the categories below of "Critical supporters" and "Mild opponents" are inexact and fluid.

Boosters

Borough President (and potential Mayoral candidate) Marty Markowitz: conciliatory opponent of CP.

Rep. Yvette Clarke: position unknown (but Streetsblog says she should support it).

Critical supporters

City Council Member (and Comptroller candidate) David Yassky : early supporter.

City Council Member (and Borough President candidate) Bill de Blasio: opponent.

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffies: surprising opponent.

State Senator Eric Adams: on the fence.

Mild opponents

Assemblywoman Joan Millman: belated supporter.

Assemblyman (and Comptroller candidate) Jim Brennan: supporter of an alternative. (Note: the Daily News, in its survey of Assemblymembers, counts him as a "yes.")

Opponents

City Council Member Letitia James: supporter.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery: unclear, but leaning opposed. (Update 4/12: in this week's issue, the Courier-Life reports that she was for it. If so, she was pretty quiet.)

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