Kick Out the Jams

Will a toll booth at the corner of 60th and Fifth solve midtown's traffic nightmare?

In 1907, horse-drawn wagons traveled through Manhattan's streets at an average pace of almost 12 miles an hour. A century later, the average vehicle speed at rush hour has dropped to eight miles an hour.

The slowdown may have something to do with the 800,000-fold increase, over the intervening 99 years, in the number of motorized vehicles that head each day into Manhattan's central business district.

Like Singapore, Stockholm, and Oslo before it, New York is about to enter a debate over a radical solution to its traffic problem: inner-city tolls designed to discourage vehicles from entering Manhattan between 60th Street and the Battery.

Gridlock story
image: Jorge Colombo
Gridlock story

Under such a plan, New Yorkers would be forced to pay a toll to enter that coveted driving zone —or be forced to leave their cars at home.

One side of the argument says New York City absolutely must do something now to save itself from crushing congestion. The Partnership for New York City, a pro-business think tank, estimates that "excess congestion" costs the economy $13 billion a year by delaying deliveries, postponing meetings, and wasting the valuable time of New York's workforce. "Traffic congestion can no longer be dismissed as an inconvenience," the Partnership declared in a report released last month. These experts believe congestion pricing might be the only way to significantly reduce the number of tires on the road and generate the revenue needed to fund crucial mass-transit projects like the Second Avenue subway. Says Brian Ketcham, a Brooklyn-based planner at Community Consulting Services who has studied the city's traffic problem for decades, "There's nothing else you can do."

Or it's the worst possible thing you can do, if you ask those who oppose congestion pricing for New York. They say it will steal money from the pockets of working-class people who are forced to drive to Manhattan because their neighborhoods are poorly served—if served at all—by mass transit. It'll raise costs for businesses and flood the blocks just outside the toll zone with drivers trying to avoid the fee. And it will convey the impression that wealthy Manhattan residents are trying to barricade their island from the outer boroughs. As Joshua Bienstock, a lobbyist for the Queens Chamber of Commerce, asked the suit-clad crowd at a Manhattan Institute conference on traffic tolls: "Are we really going to make New York City even more elitist?"

Opponents like to emphasize the unlikelihood of congestion pricing as reason enough to drop the discussion. "The chances of this happening politically are remote," says Walter McCaffrey, a former Queens councilman and independent lobbyist who represents garage owners and real estate businesses who detest the idea of congestion charging because it might pinch their profits. "This is the third rail of New York City politics," says Evan Stavisky, a lobbyist with the Parkside Group, which is representing the Queens Chamber of Commerce. Manhattan elites, he says, "don't understand the intensity of the opposition" to tolls.

But the proponents think they have a shot. There's growing grassroots support for doing something about traffic. There's a City Hall–backed campaign to make New York City grow in a sustainable way between now and 2030. And there's what happened in London.

London's congestion was terrible a few years ago, with traffic moving through the city center even more slowly than in New York. But in the past three years, congestion in central London has dropped 26 percent. That's because in 2003, London's socialist mayor, Ken Livingstone, instituted a cordon-pricing scheme that charges most vehicles 8 (now about $15) to drive into an eight-square-mile zone in the center of town. Livingstone's foes predicted that the plan would result in "Carmageddon" and foresaw disaster for downtown businesses, but three years on there's little evidence of any economic damage, pollution has been reduced, and some $240 million has been raised for transit improvements. Livingstone was re-elected in 2004.

In New York, it has always been political masochism to suggest charging people to drive. At least three mayors have considered East River bridge tolls, only to fail or quit trying. When Mayor Bloomberg had to close a multibillion-dollar post–9-11 budget gap, he pondered tolling the bridges but ended up finding the money somewhere else.

But the traffic remained; indeed, it got worse. So in November 2005, the Partnership for New York City first broached to City Hall the idea of imposing a congestion-pricing scheme here. The newly re-elected Bloomberg—not anxious to squander any political capital—said he wasn't interested, and the Partnership backtracked.

Now the proponents of pricing are trying again—with the Partnership's recent report and a conference at the influential Manhattan Institute think tank, all timed to precede the mayor's big speech on the sustainability initiative last month.

Officially, the mayor still isn't interested in congestion pricing. In his December 12 sustainability speech at the Queens Museum, the mayor didn't even mention the word "traffic." Bloomberg recently told newspapers that a congestion-pricing scheme would only work if city residents were exempt, and then it would look like a commuter tax, which Albany would never support. You could call that a punt. Eliot Spitzer decided not to field the ball: A spokeswoman said that while the governor would consider all options, congestion pricing really wasn't on his agenda, either.

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