By Josh Rogers
The road congestion pricing advocates must take to pass it in only eight weeks is long, bumpy and fraught with many obstacles, interviews with state and city legislators from Downtown districts revealed this week.
The U.S. Dept. of Transportation set a March 31 deadline for the City Council and state Legislature to pass a new type of traffic reduction plan as a condition for granting $354 million in federal money for implementation.
“It’s an uphill struggle,” acknowledged Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, who represents Chelsea and was the most supportive of the plan of the legislators interviewed for this article. The rest, in order ranging from lukewarm support to near opposition, were Councilmember Alan Gerson, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Sen. Martin Connor and Assemblymember Deborah Glick.
Last week, the Congestion Traffic Mitigation Commission by a 13-2 vote, recommended a variation of the mayor’s original plan to charge drivers $8 to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan during rush hours, and to charge $4 to Manhattan drivers for driving within the zone.
The commission was made up of appointees of the mayor, governor, State Assembly, State Senate and City Council. Bloomberg endorsed the new plan last week and Gov. Eliot Spitzer praised it too.
Gottfried said “the key thing is the mayor needs to sell this concept retail to individual legislators,” adding “they are well behind the curve….People don’t like being taken for granted or ignored.”
Bloomberg, in a prepared statement Jan. 31, said he would work with the governor and legislatures to get the plan passed in time. “New York cannot afford to walk away from hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds and a guaranteed revenue stream for the M.T.A.’s capital plan which is necessary if we’re going to continue to grow and thrive and we can’t afford to do nothing about traffic choking congestion, which is costing our city billions and polluting our air,” the mayor said.
A Bloomberg spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment for the article.
THE NEW PLAN
Under the recommendation:
• Car drivers would pay one $8 fee a day to enter the restricted zone of Manhattan south of 60th St. between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., minus the E-ZPass bridge and tunnel tolls they already pay. There would be no internal charge for driving within the zone.
• Most trucks would pay a one-day, $21 fee to enter the zone at the restricted hours, minus the E-ZPass tolls. In an effort to encourage businesses to retrofit their vehicles, low-emission trucks would pay only $7.
• There would be a $1 surcharge on all taxi, black car and car service trips that start or end within the zone during the restricted hours.
• The parking tax exemption for residents would be eliminated for garages and lots in the zone.
• People who don’t use E-ZPass would pay an additional $1 surcharge to cover the added costs of processing the license plate pictures needed to collect the fees. Cameras would surround the restricted zone and there would be far fewer than under the mayor’s original plan. The commission recommends that the city provide many different payment options including convenience stores, the Internet, kiosks and phones.
Free ride for jersey?
The group estimates the plan would reduce traffic by 6.8 percent, as measured in vehicle miles traveled, and would generate $491 million a year for mass transit improvements and expansion. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority estimates that with the financial power of bonds, congestion pricing revenue would provide an additional $7.5 billion for its next capital improvement plan, which will run through 2013 and is due by the March 31 federal deadline.
“The question is, will the M.T.A. be responsive enough to transit improvements that weren’t their idea,” said Kathryn Wylde, who was appointed to the commission by Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the only Downtown legislator who backs traffic pricing enthusiastically.
The most consistent criticism of the plan from the Downtowners is that commuters who drive to Lower Manhattan through the Holland Tunnel would pay no additional costs because the Port Authority next month is raising the rush hour toll price for the New Jersey crossings to $8 during rush hours.
“They come from New Jersey into New York, they back up traffic in my district, and not a penny will go into mass transit,” said an outraged Assemblymember Glick, whose district includes Tribeca, Soho, and parts of Battery Park City and the Village
Prior to the commission’s deliberations, Wylde told attendees of a traffic forum in Chinatown last year that she hoped to change the mayor’s plan so that New Jersey and Westchester commuters already paying high tolls would have more of an incentive to leave their cars home.
She said “the commission punted on that one” because the Port, which is controlled by the New Jersey and New York governors, made it “crystal, crystal” clear that it would not go along if drivers couldn’t get a full deduction for the tunnel tolls.
Steve Sigmund, a Port spokesperson, said the new $8 tolls also represent congestion pricing since they will be $2 more than midday, nights and weekends. He added that only 60 percent of the rush hour tunnel drivers live in New Jersey. Most of the rest live in New York and are either residents of Rockland County and other western suburbs, or are reverse commuters in New York City, Sigmund said. He said the toll increase will help pay for Access to the Region’s Core, a new train tunnel that will connect New Jersey to Midtown.
Wylde, who heads the Partnership for New York City, a non-profit made up of C.E.O.s from the city’s largest corporations, said the toll deduction issue would have to be resolved in negotiations with the two governors and the legislative leaders, but one of them, Speaker Silver, said New York should just eliminate the deduction with or without the Port’s approval if New York goes forward with traffic pricing.
“We don’t need a deal,” Silver said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “All we have to do is not give the credit or limit the credit.”
Silver said the commission’s recommendation “makes more sense than the original plan,” echoing comments he first made to Downtown Express two weeks ago, when the recommendation was one of five options under consideration.
He said he “would be more inclined to support” congestion pricing if the Jersey tolls and other issues were resolved but “my supporting it and getting it passed in the Assembly are two different things.” He said the city and M.T.A. have to put forward the positive aspects of congestion pricing to individual members, and he will not be strong-arming anyone if he supports it. “This is going to be every person for themselves.”
Silver’s two appointees to the commission, Assemblymembers Richard Brodsky of Westchester and Denny Farrell of Harlem, were the only two to vote against it, and they published a minority report criticizing the recommendation for many reasons including imposing higher fee increases on outer-borough drivers compared to their wealthier suburban counterparts and proceeding without a full environmental review.
A spokesperson for Brodsky did not return a call requesting comment.
Silver said before he could support traffic pricing, he would have to see the new capital budget to make sure all of the money does in fact go into the M.T.A.’s capital budget and that the projects the M.T.A. claims it can build with the money are true, pointing to the recently announced cut of the entire building out of the Fulton Transit Center under construction.
“Even if they have it in the capital plan, can you believe them?” he asked.
Jeremy Soffin, an M.T.A. spokesperson, said the Fulton station cuts were caused by the skyrocketing construction costs that are also hampering projects across the country.
He said, “congestion pricing is absolutely critical” to meeting much of the M.T.A.’s capital shortfall, currently estimated to be about $30 billion.
Soffin said the M.T.A. has already publicized the express bus routes and other expansion efforts it plans to introduce prior to the implementation of congestion pricing, but it is always open to talking with any legislators about new ideas.
Sen. Connor said the narrow subway platforms in Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill in the Brooklyn part of his district already can’t accommodate the rush hour crowds and the stations need to expand.
About 70 percent of his district is in Lower Manhattan and 30 percent in Downtown Brooklyn. Connor said he and his aides are closely reading constituent surveys he sent out on congestion pricing. He does not have final numbers, but he said on both sides of the river, people are generally receptive to the idea if their concerns can be worked out.
People are skeptical the money will in fact go to mass transportation improvements, Connor said, and in Brooklyn they also worry about parking problems from drivers looking to avoid the fees. The Traffic Commission recommends the city implement a residential permit parking plan, but there is no specific plan.
Connor shares his constituents’ concerns and also thinks tunnel commuters should pay the full $8 cost. He wants to see a legislative bill to evaluate before making a decision because the proposal is so complicated there are likely to be little-publicized details that are problems.
“Show me the bill,” he said. “The language in the bill that nobody’s talked about that’s what I always worry about.
Councilmember Gerson has a long list of “enhancements and modifications” he hopes to see to the plan, but he has been negotiating with the mayor’s office and sounded like he was looking for a way to say yes.
“We’re in a process and it’s important to put everything on the table,” he said. He suspects the proposal will do little for the “hottest of hot spots,” Canal St., since Holland Tunnel drivers will have no incentive to get to Lower Manhattan by mass transit. He wants city planners to take a look at numbers being collected by CATS or the Canal Area Transportation Study, a federally funded, long-term effort that has been proceeding for six years.
Gerson said congestion pricing should end the traffic problems caused by the one-way Verrazano Bridge tolls, which encourages Staten Island drivers to detour in and out of Lower Manhattan by taking the free inbound bridge and the free outbound tunnels.
Gerson’s list includes more traffic agents on Canal St., developing a plan to accommodate the increased bus traffic, added fees for anyone who is just passing through the restricted zone to get to other places, and a congestion fee exemption for handicapped plates and ailing people using cars for medical treatment.
A medical exemption is backed by many other legislators, but Wylde said people traveling long distances into Manhattan for treatment tend to have more money than those who use neighborhood hospitals and medical centers. “I don’t think it’s the poorest people from the outer boroughs,” she said.
Whether or not congestion pricing is regressive has been a focal battle in the debate over the last year. Proponents point to the higher incomes of the small percentage of drivers compared to the mass transit riders who will benefit, while opponents cite the higher fee increases that lower income drivers in the outer boroughs will pay compared to the suburbs.
It’s “taking money out of the pockets of working class and middle class people, and it doesn’t take money out of the pockets of the wealthy,” Glick said.
She said she could not support the plan without a commitment to do a substantial environmental review, but that typically involves consideration of alternatives, including taking no action, and it’s not clear the federal government would agree to another deadline extension to complete the study. Glick said the mayor only has himself to blame if he didn’t study the enviornmental impact more over the last year.
“Everything is about creating an emergency and then saying ‘you’re the obstacle,’” she said. “I don’t care that environmental organizations have said ‘Fine. Go ahead.’”
The commission recommendation maintains that the public forums discussing the alternatives and soliciting comments fulfill “many of the key elements” of state and city environmental laws and that the city should fulfill the remaining components by soliciting comments on any possible adverse effects of the recommended option. Since the initial review determined that the plan will be an environmental benefit, an Environment Impact Statement is not required, according to the report.
Brodsky and Farrell challenge these assertions, which would undoubtedly have to survive a court challenge before congestion pricing could be implemented. Supporters hope the plan will begin sometime next year.
Glick said the commission should not have focused on raising transportation money, which could be done with a progressive tax or some other means. She thinks the group should have given more consideration to one of the other options, license plate rationing, which would reduce traffic more by prohibiting most vehicles from entering the city one day a week, based on the license plate number.
“You might as well close the city one day a week,” Wylde said of rationing. She said there are many ways to reduce traffic, but unless you consider them in conjunction with expanding subway, bus and ferry capacity, traffic reduction will shrink the city’s economy.
“The beauty of congestion pricing is it’s a two-fer it reduces traffic and it raises money for mass transit,” she said.