Volume 20, Number 40 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Feb. 15 - 21 , 2008

M.T.A. exe likes traffic pricing, not free subways

Bill Wheeler, director of planning at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, took a few minutes at a recent Community Board 1 meeting to defend congestion pricing.

The congestion pricing plan under discussion would require drivers to pay $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th St. during weekdays. Most of the traffic in that zone comes from upper Manhattan and the outer boroughs, not New Jersey or other parts of New York, Wheeler said. Rush hour drivers traveling through the Holland Tunnel would pay no added fees because they will be able to deduct their $8 tolls, and Downtown politicians supportive of traffic pricing have called for changing the deduction.

But Wheeler said “the problem [of traffic congestion] is very much a city problem.”

As a result, many of the city’s drivers have access to mass transit but choose not to use it, maybe because they would have to take several buses to reach their office, he said.

“We have to put transit right under the noses of motorists,” Wheeler said. “If we’re not getting them then, we’re not going to get them at all.”

The M.T.A. already captures 88 percent of the trips into Manhattan, he said. “It’s going to take something really special to divert those [remaining] motorists,” Wheeler said.

Under congestion pricing, the M.T.A. would add new express bus service and would extend the peak E trains for an extra 30 or 45 minutes in the morning, he said. The toll money would go directly into the M.T.A.’s capital budget under the recommended plan.

Last week, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver told Downtown Express that the M.T.A. would have to release its five-year capital budget earlier than the March 31 deadline in order for the state Legislature to be able to make a decision on traffic pricing. Albany has the same deadline to pass congestion pricing in order to qualify for $354 million in federal funds.

This week, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who has effective control of the M.T.A., called on it to finish the budget by Feb. 27 and Mayor Mike Bloomberg also called for an early release.

At the C.B. 1 meeting, Wheeler cited the success of London’s program as motivation for congestion pricing in New York, but warned that results might not be immediate. The plan, he said, will require constant monitoring and readjustments.

After Wheeler spoke, Tom Goodkind, a Community Board 1 member, asked about an alternative to the congestion pricing plan, proposed by Ted Kheel and Charles Komanoff, that would raise the fees, but make subways and buses free. Komanoff outlined the idea in a Downtown Express Talking Point three weeks ago.

Wheeler is skeptical that such a plan would work. Free transit could lead to joyriding, people using transit not to make a purposeful trip but just to waste time. That has been an issue in other cities that have tried free bus loops, he said. But Wheeler added that this is just his personal view as a planner and does not represent the M.T.A.’s official position.

— Julie Shapiro and Josh Rogers

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