Volume 20, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Feb. 22 - 28 , 2008

Talking Point

Don’t let ‘perfect’ be the enemy of a good traffic plan

By Andrew Berman

With a state commission’s recent approval, a congestion pricing plan appears headed toward potential implementation later this year. An unusual coalition of environmental groups, neighborhood groups, mass-transit advocates and business leaders have been calling for such measures, successfully implemented in cities like London and Stockholm, for years. Charging an additional fee for vehicles entering Manhattan below 60th St. — both to reduce congestion and to generate funding for mass transit — now at last seems tantalizingly close to becoming reality, albeit with action by the state Legislature and City Council, and hammering out of the final details, still required.

I am a strong supporter of congestion pricing, and I think these recent developments are a tremendously positive step in the right direction. The lower half of Manhattan is choked with traffic, which makes for an unhealthy and often dangerous environment for residents and visitors alike. Mass transit is New York City’s lifeline, and yet it continues to suffer from inadequate funding, ancient infrastructure and, in many respects, poor service and limited options. The time to address these grievous problems is long overdue, and I believe it is critical that we encourage our legislators to implement a congestion pricing system as soon as possible.

That said, the current congestion pricing plan has some serious holes in it, which prevent it from being as effective as it could be — and as equitable as it may need to be to get the support necessary for implementation. The current amended plan eliminates some of the less palatable provisions of the mayor’s original congestion pricing plan, such as $4 charges for moving a car even short distances within the congestion pricing zone, and the need for license plate-reading cameras on virtually every corner. But the current plan still allows the tolls drivers pay on trans-Hudson crossings, such as the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, to be discounted against the $8 congestion pricing fee. This in essence means that drivers coming into Manhattan from New Jersey pay little or no additional congestion pricing fee, and this stunning and confounding exemption is a big problem.

Such an exemption unfairly benefits drivers from New Jersey and points west, while disproportionately shifting the burden for congestion pricing onto drivers entering Lower Manhattan from the five boroughs and Upper Manhattan. Such an inequitable system is bound to engender opposition from those areas of New York City where there is already the greatest skepticism about congestion pricing, and rightly so. With this exemption, congestion pricing would also do nothing to reduce the choking, incapacitating traffic we see around the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, which are without a doubt among the most serious traffic congestion trouble spots in Lower Manhattan, New York City and the region. This proposed exemption also greatly reduces the disincentive that might otherwise be provided against drivers using Lower Manhattan as a means to traverse the region, such as going from Long Island to New Jersey — an all-too-common and unnecessary occurrence that should be at the top of the congestion pricing hit list.

Fortunately some key players in this debate, such as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, are on record opposing the Hudson toll exemption, so clearly the possibility of its elimination from the congestion pricing plan exists. Hopefully, with some pressure from the public, this can become reality before the plan is approved. And further changes to make the plan more effective, and more equitable, can also still occur after it is implemented.

This is critical, because even if the Hudson toll exemption were eliminated, the current congestion pricing plan would still be far from perfect. What may be the biggest shortcoming of all in the current plan is that it is only in effect during the day on weekdays. But as many of us know, especially those living near the Lincoln or Holland Tunnels, traffic can be just as snarled and overwhelming on weekends as on weekdays — sometimes even more so. So why does the current plan focus exclusively on daytimes during the week?

Frankly, the main force behind the congestion pricing plan has been the city’s business leaders, who see the lower half of Manhattan’s intractable traffic congestion interfering with their ability to do business. And while improving the health, environment and qualify of life for the residents of and visitors to Manhattan below 60th St. would be a consequence of the current congestion pricing plan, it’s sad to say that it does not appear to be the primary goal or rationale.

Ensuring that congestion pricing addresses New Jersey traffic, as well as weekend traffic, are goals that may be achievable with the current plan, or may take years. But with our foot in the door, there is reason to hope that an even more effective and equitable plan may be possible. Even an imperfect plan will likely positively impact the terrible and unhealthy traffic problems our neighborhoods face — albeit much less than it should if the Hudson River toll and weekend exemptions were removed. But with time, and effort by the public, a congestion pricing plan equally geared toward protecting the health of residents as it is toward protecting the interests of business can be achieved. And in the meantime, a step in the right direction is still better than what we have now.

Andrew Berman is a board member of the Clinton Hell’s Kitchen Pedestrian Safety Coalition, Hell’s Kitchen Neighborhood Association and the West Side Neighborhood Alliance.

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