By Josh Rogers
In the wake of Monday’s defeat of congestion pricing, Downtown lawmakers looked to higher taxes to close the M.T.A.’s capital budget gap.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Sen. Martin Connor and Councilmember Alan Gerson, all late supporters of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s plan to charge drivers $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th St. during the day, said in separate interviews that new taxes should be considered. Gov. David Paterson also announced a new panel Tuesday to look at taxes and other ways to close the gap.
Higher taxes may have been considered anyway because even with the estimated $4.5 billion that would have been added to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s 5-year capital budget under traffic pricing, there still would have been a $9.5 billion deficit. The shortfall is now about $14 billion.
New York missed the April 7 deadline for $354 million in federal money for congestion pricing and is no longer eligible for the payment, Mary Peters, the U.S. Transportation secretary, announced Monday.
The three Downtown legislators, despite their coming around to the mayor’s view, all criticized his handling of the issue.
The measure died Monday when Silver decided not to bring it to the floor of the Assembly even though he said he would have voted for it. Silver said the overwhelming majority of the Democratic conference was against the bill with fewer than 25 supporters. He said Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco “couldn’t deliver more than 25 to 30 votes tops,” but even if a majority of the members, 76, supported the plan, Silver said he still wouldn’t have brought it to the floor without a majority of Democratic support.
“There is a tradition in both houses,” Silver said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “The majority conference sets the agenda….
“There were a lot of members in Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx who saw this as a tax on their residents,” Silver said. “I looked at it as a representative of Lower Manhattan and by the way there is not a universal view in our district.”
Indeed, although polls showed most city residents supported the measure with the highest percentages in Manhattan, there were also vocal opponents of the plan in Lower Manhattan. Community Board 1 backed it, but members also recommended numerous changes.
Bloomberg’s camp maintains Silver was not willing to negotiate on congestion pricing in the final days, but Silver points to Bloomberg’s statement on Sunday that he was not willing to make any more amendments to the final bill.
Silver said his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires would have raised $5 billion, but “the mayor shot it down.” It was also opposed by the governor and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno.
Silver said finding a way to close the M.T.A. capital budget is the best way to solve traffic problems. “Making mass transit available is a way to reduce traffic,” he said.
He said Paterson’s new commission to look at ways to raise transit money is the right move.
Connor said “on balance” he would have voted for the plan, but he joined his fellow Democrats in not going to the floor Monday because they did not know what Bruno had planned. Connor said members did not want to cast a vote on traffic pricing when it was already clear it was not going to pass the Assembly.
“The word was Bruno was going to bring it to a vote even though it was dead,” Connor said. He said Democrats were also worried that Bruno might spring an unexpected budget bill on them with little time to read it. The Senate Republicans, with a two-seat majority, need Democratic help for a quorum.
Connor thinks Albany will come up with another way to reduce traffic and raise transit money at the same time.
“I would not be surprised if in the next few months, if we don’t see some iteration of a traffic mitigation plan…. I think we need to go for revenue,” Connor said.
He also thinks taxes should be on the table and suggested taking a look at taxing businesses for each employee on the theory that the firms benefit when it’s easier for workers to commute.
Asked if that would hamper job growth, Connor said “it has to be studied and evaluated. We certainly don’t want to have a negative impact. It’s just an idea floating around.”
Gerson said commuter, corporate, business or income taxes should all be considered to pay for the needed transit improvements. He thinks Monday’s defeat still leaves an opportunity to reduce traffic. “We can’t lose the momentum,” he said.
Gerson thought he had extracted a series of pledges from the Bloomberg administration in exchange for his support for congestion pricing and conditional on the plan passing Albany, but John Gallagher, a Bloomberg spokesperson said last week when the proposal was still alive that the city had made none of the promises for Lower Manhattan that Gerson claimed.
“We haven’t made any commitments to this councilmember and if he has any requests, they will be evaluated on the merits,” Gallagher wrote in an email to Downtown Express.
“Either it’s a mistake or somebody’s lying,” Gerson said. He said the negotiations also involved Council Speaker Christine Quinn, but her spokesperson refused to comment on the dispute.
According to Gerson, the police department agreed to provide extra traffic agents on Canal St. on nights and weekends and step up enforcement of illegally parked placard vehicles, and the city also promised to finally finish a long awaited Canal St. traffic study by the end of the year, pay for a study of the Verrazano Bridge tolling system, which encourages drivers into Lower Manhattan, and come up with a bus management plan.
“I spoke directly to [police] commissioner Ray Kelly,” Gerson said. “I spoke directly to D.O.T. commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan. I spoke directly to the mayor at Gracie Mansion although at that point we had not worked out the details of the commitments.”
D.O.T.’s spokesperson referred all questions on the matter to Gallagher. This week Gallagher said the city is still willing to consider Gerson’s ideas.