Volume 20, Number 43 | THE NEWSPAPER OF LOWER MANHATTAN - MARCH 7 -- 13, 2008

Silver open to traffic pricing as C.B. 1 gives tepid support

By Julie Shapiro

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver went from being one of congestion pricing’s leading skeptics to being close to the biggest proponents — all without changing his position.

The speaker’s support of congestion pricing seemed lukewarm last month, compared to some of the plan’s more ardent advocates. But now, as opposition to congestion pricing continues to build momentum in the Assembly, Silver’s position of keeping an open mind toward traffic pricing looks more positive than ever.

“Right now, I believe I’m in the minority among legislators.” Silver told Downtown Express this week.

Silver added that he is more willing than most of his colleagues to trust the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but at the same time, “I don’t question people’s questioning of the M.T.A.,” he said, referring to the $10 -$14 billion gap in M.T.A.’s newly released capital plan.

Last month, Silver said he would not try to convince legislators to support the plan, and he stuck to that this week. The plan first has to go to the City Council for a vote — where Silver said he doesn’t have the ability to convince people — before the Legislature could get a chance to vote on it.

The congestion pricing plan currently under consideration would collect an $8 toll from cars entering Manhattan below 60th St. on weekdays. Trucks would have to pay $21, unless they were retrofitted, in which case they would pay $7. The plan also imposes a $1 surcharge on taxi trips and removes the residential parking tax credit.

Elected officials must reach a decision on congestion pricing by March 31 or lose $354 million in federal funding for new low-emission buses and other implementation costs. Revenue from congestion pricing would fund transit improvements.

Under pressure from Silver and Governor Eliot Spitzer, the M.T.A. released its capital plan last week to show the benefits of congestion pricing. Of the $29.5 billion the M.T.A. plans to spend between 2008 and 2013, congestion pricing would provide $4.5 billion, or roughly 15 percent.

The M.T.A. has only identified $20 billion in funding so far, leaving a shortfall of $9.5 billion. If the Legislature and City Council do not pass congestion pricing, that budget hole would grow by nearly 50 percent.

Until last week, Community Board 1 had not weighed in on congestion pricing. After hours of back-and-forth discussion at two meetings, C.B. 1 narrowly passed a resolution Feb. 26 approving congestion pricing.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity,” board member Andy Neale said.

But most of those who spoke at the full board meeting either opposed the plan or had serious concerns about it, which were reflected in the 15 suggested changes included in the board’s resolution. The resolution passed 22 to 16.

The board’s chief worry was that the plan would disproportionately burden the locals and suggested changes that would reduce or eliminate the charges to Manhattan drivers.

“Manhattan residents are consistently mistreated,” John Fratta said. “This is totally ridiculous.”

The plan has triggered more opposition in Brooklyn and Queens, whose drivers would pay more than most Manhattan residents with cars.

Marc Ameruso also strongly opposes congestion pricing. “Residents should be exempt,” he said. “We are not commuters.”

Neale replied that the plan’s goal is to cut down on congestion, not commuting. Local or not, every car on the street creates traffic and pollution, he said.

Paul Hovitz was concerned that companies like Fresh Direct would pass the congestion tolls on to their customers by jacking up prices. He suggested a tax credit for residents to make up for the increased cost of living.

Several board members agreed with Hovitz, but Bill Love was hesitant. “The revenues are important here because they’re going to support transit,” Love said. If the city returns a substantial portion of the revenue to residents, then the M.T.A.’s large capital improvements might not happen, he said.

Bob Townley wasn’t sure that the city should even be trying to reduce congestion. Cars are already mowing down pedestrians on Lower Manhattan’s narrow streets, so he doesn’t like imagining them going even faster. “We need pedestrian safety,” he said.

The board also complained that commuters from New Jersey will be able to deduct the tolls they’ve already paid from the congestion-pricing fee, which means that congestion pricing would have little or no effect. Silver and other Downtown politicians have raised the same point. The board’s resolution suggests eliminating this deduction. The resolution also advocates a 50 percent cut in placard parking for government employees and asks legislators to keep the residential parking tax exemption in place.

Board members had a variety of additional suggestions on amending the congestion-pricing plan, which did not make the final resolution. Joe Lerner wanted to do away with parking placards altogether and Albert Capsouto wanted to see license plate rationing.

One of the most extreme ideas came from Barry Skolnick, who suggested banning all traffic below 60th St. except for residents, taxis and deliveries.

“That’s not something that takes a lawyer to interpret,” Skolnick said of his plan. In contrast, the plan the city and state are considering “is creating a bureaucratic monstrosity,” he said.

Diane Lapson thinks the government should focus on enforcing the traffic rules already on the books before leaping into congestion pricing.

“I don’t like this plan — I don’t trust it,” Lapson said. “I’m a little paranoid about New York right now.”






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