Kick Out the Jams

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

Bloomberg has been equally careful. His sustainability speech offered broad goals rather than specific proposals. He left it up to former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who followed the mayor with a Q&A featuring urban advocates and experts, to broach the topic of congestion pricing —and the mere mention of the term elicited applause. Asked about the mayor's own views, City Hall spokesman John Gallagher replied: "The mayor has indicated that it probably won't pass in Albany, but he is not ruling anything out when it comes to achieving the sustainability goals he laid out in his speech [in Queens]."

When will all the tiptoeing stop? The timing is tricky for toll proponents. It will be three years before the next major local election, meaning politicians have a little breathing room to try a new idea before facing the voters. So now is the time to move. However, it can take a long time to make the case for congestion pricing. London's Livingstone made the policy part of his platform in 2000, won that race, and only instituted it after several years of discussion and planning. "We really need a compelling reason for congestion pricing," says John Falcocchio, professor of transportation planning and director of the Urban Intelligent Transportation Systems Center at Polytechnic University. He does not believe there's a crisis on the roads to justify any radical steps. "I don't think the case has been made."

There are major obstacles to making that case. One of them is David Weprin, a Democratic councilman from outer Queens and likely the 2009 candidate for city comptroller. He grants that there's "a major problem with congestion," and he ought to know: He drives to work at City Hall because his district includes that lonely northeastern part of the New York City transit map where no subways go. But Weprin thinks the city can alleviate the crush by enforcing existing parking rules. "I don't think the answer is to tax residents in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx," Weprin says. "We're not talking about wealthy individuals. Imposing what I consider a tax—and it is a tax—is unfair."

Gridlock story
image: Jorge Colombo
Gridlock story

Supporters of congestion pricing tend to dismiss Weprin's argument that there are thousands of working-class people in the outer boroughs who simply must drive to work. After all, these supporters say, the Independent Budget Office found that city residents who drive across the East River bridges are more affluent than those who take mass transit. But the fact is, outer- borough residents have every reason to be suspicious: It wasn't too long ago that people in outlying areas had to pay two or even three fares for the privilege of getting into Manhattan. They have reason to fear they'll be mistreated again.

One way to minimize resistance is to give everyone a better deal. London figured this out and created an extra 11,000 bus seats before the rollout of its pricing scheme. But people need something more than just a payoff. The policy has to seem like the right solution to a pressing problem. And some congestion-pricing proponents have a way to make that argument: Turn traffic into a health issue.

After all, this is the mayor that banned smoking in bars and trans fats in restaurants. The Environmental Protection Agency says tailpipe exhaust contains material linked to cancer and heart disease. And thousands of kids in the city suffer from asthma, which several studies have suggested is worsened by breathing the particulate matter in car and truck exhaust. With projects like Atlantic Yards stoking traffic fears in the outer boroughs—which is where the political fate of congestion pricing will end up being decided—the health risks of traffic are what these advocates know they must emphasize.

And for those unmoved by the image of wheezing kids, consider this: By the year 2030, a city of 9 million will be trying to get to work. Traffic will spill off the major thoroughfares onto side streets as cars seek the dwindling supply of open road, spreading traffic through the city's bloodstream—"like cancer," as Ketcham describes it—and devouring not only space, but also time. As even the side roads clog during rush hours, drivers will race to snatch up the only capacity that remains in the surface system, which is during the "off-peak" periods. The morning and evening rushes will blend into an endless sea of traffic—a 24-hour rush hour. Do local radio stations' traffic choppers even carry that kind of fuel?

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