Volume 20 Issue 12 | August. 3 - 9, 2007

Connor likes mayor’s traffic idea, knocks his tactics

By Skye H. McFarlane

Let the debate continue.

Last Thursday, the state Legislature voted to keep the congestion mitigation conversation alive. By Tuesday night, two Downtown legislators — Assemblymember Deborah Glick and state Senator Martin Connor — stood before Community Board 1, suggesting changes and alternatives to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s original congestion pricing proposal.

In the case of Connor, there were also a few suggestions for Bloomberg as to how he might adjust his attitude and tactics in dealing with state lawmakers. Glick has been critical of the pricing concept in the past, but she steered clear of addressing that part of the plan on Tuesday night, saying only that the city must find ways to fund mass transit. Connor, on the other hand, said he would continue to push for a congestion pricing plan “notwithstanding the mayor.”

“It’s been difficult politically. Every day I would get letters and phone calls [saying], ‘Support congestion pricing,’” said Connor, noting that his Lower Manhattan constituents largely favored the idea, at least in theory. “Frankly, the city didn’t do a very good job. The mayor turned this into…a slogan contest.”

Connor, who was inclined to support the mayor’s idea, said that he assumed the Senate would pass the plan on July 16. However, Connor said that he and other senators were put off by the fact that they did not have much time to review the detailed proposal to charge cars $8 and trucks $21 to enter Manhattan south of 86th St. on weekdays. He, personally, was taken aback by what he called “hidden catches” — such as an $8 fee for residents leaving the congestion zone and a $115 fine for late payments — that had not been widely advertised in the media blitz leading up to the Senate session.

The mayor’s public relations campaign, which included support from environmental organizations, transit advocates and business leaders, was intended to drum up enough support to get congestion pricing authorized by the state in time to apply for an Urban Partnership grant from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation. The application deadline was July 16 and the money — as much as $500 million — was to be used to pay for the cameras, license plate readers and E-ZPass sensors that would allow the city to charge motorists for entering the congestion zone.

Connor said that while the Senate convened because of the deadline, they left without passing the bill for two reasons — the fact that the Assembly did not meet to consider the bill and a perception that a bullying Bloomberg wanted the legislature to pass the bill now, and ask questions later.

“Contrary to what you might think, most of us in Albany like to think of ourselves as thoughtful legislators. What [the city] gave us, essentially, were glossy pamphlets,” Connor said, later adding, “You can’t just roll over people without taking them into consideration.”

Responding to Connor’s comments, the mayor’s office Wednesday said that the city provided lawmakers with extensive documentation and testimony on the plan, including weekly written updates. Mayoral spokesperson John Gallagher rebuffed the implication that the mayor had not been flexible or forthcoming about the details of the proposal.

“Certain elements, we’ve always maintained were open to negotiation,” Gallagher wrote in an email to Downtown Express.

After the Legislature failed to approve the mayor’s plan by the July 16 deadline, it was declared dead, but the negotiations between the state’s most powerful lawmakers continued. On July 19, Bloomberg, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno announced a compromise plan intended to keep the city eligible for federal grants while giving the state more power to adjust the mayor’s proposal.

Under the plan, which the Legislature passed into law on July 26, a 17-member commission will study the mayor’s plan, as well as other options to reduce congestion in the city. The group will be charged with producing a final congestion mitigation plan, which will subsequently have to be approved by the City Council and the State Legislature.

The final plan must reduce congestion by at least as much as the mayor’s proposal (6.3 percent) and would have to include plans for how the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the state D.O.T. would use pricing revenues to improve transit and roadways. The bill sets a deadline of March 31, 2008 for the Legislature to vote on a final plan. However, if the federal government does not grant the city at least $200 million by Oct. 1, 2007, the bill becomes null and void.

The U.S. Transportation Dept. will announce its Urban Partnership finalists on Aug. 8. The agency has not publicly stated whether or not the New York City application is still eligible for the money, but the mayor and many New York lawmakers have said that private conversations have left them optimistic. Some political analysts have suggested that the federal government may find other grant money for the city if the Urban Partnership avenue comes to a dead end.

Some supporters of the mayor’s plan hailed the compromise bill as a victory, since Bloomberg, Bruno, Spitzer and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn — all congestion pricing supporters — will each appoint three of the 17 commissioners. However, Connor warned Tuesday that if the commission does not consider the concerns of the Senate Democrats, who have just one appointee, the final plan will not be likely to pass the Legislature.

“We proved that Bruno [the Republican leader] doesn’t have the votes on his own,” Connor, a Democrat, said. “It doesn’t matter that we only have one seat. We have a veto.”

Connor said that the commission should bring in experts to discuss the environmental impacts of congestion pricing, such as how many cars would likely park in the areas just outside the congestion zone and how many truck deliveries would shift to nighttime hours to avoid the fee.

Connor suggested that the final bill should adjust the prices so that commuters are just as deterred from driving into the congestion zone as outer borough residents would be (the mayor’s plan would deduct bridge and tunnel tolls from the congestion fee). He also said that gas-guzzling S.U.V.s should probably pay a higher fee than low-emission and hybrid cars.

Glick would eliminate the exception for black cars that was written into the mayor’s original plan. While taxis are a form of public transportation in the city, she argued, black cars serve only a small, wealthy population — while taking up curb space and blocking loading zones.

Along the same train of thought, she suggested that the mayor ought to enforce existing congestion-related regulations against illegal placard parking and “blocking the box” (causing intersection gridlock). These measures, she said, could be implemented immediately with no state approval.

Gallagher said that the mayor is committed to addressing both the placard problem and the gridlock issue. He pointed out that the mayor recently added 117 traffic agents to the city’s ranks to help keep intersections clear.

However, to crack down on box blocking in the way that he would like, the mayor would need state approval. Bloomberg would like to change blocking the box into a non-moving violation, which would allow the city to mail tickets to offending drivers, like it does for running red lights. Currently, traffic agents must pull cars over to issue the more serious moving violation (akin to a speeding ticket), taking up time and further blocking the roadway.

In addition to unclogging streets, Glick emphasized that the commission must find ways to fund more mass transit, otherwise there will be no room on the city’s subways to hold the additional commuters. This view contrasts with that of Silver, Glick’s fellow Lower Manhattan Assemblymember. While he stressed the need to provide more mass transit, especially in underserved areas, Silver has said that final congestion plan need not match the mayor’s proposal in terms of the revenue it generates. Silver estimated that mayor’s plan would net $250 to $300 million per year, but the compromise legislation did not set any benchmarks for revenue.

“The number one issue is decongestion,” Silver said at press conference July 19. “The issue is the health of the people.”

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