What If They Had Congestion Pricing Hearings and Nobody Came?


Photo by Blueleaf via Flickr

By John DeSio

The handful of New Yorkers that bothered to show up at the public hearings on Mayor Bloomberg’s traffic mitigation proposal see compromise as the key to congestion pricing. It’s just too bad that only a total of 149 people — or 42 people not counting elected officials, civic organizations and other interested parties — showed up at the seven public hearings held by the New York City Traffic Mitigation Commission.

Last week saw the release of yet another Quinnipiac Poll indicating that New Yorkers are against Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, which would see drivers charged $8 and commercial vehicles $21 to enter Manhattan on weekdays during peak driving hours. According to the poll, 61 percent of New Yorkers oppose the plan, while just 31 percent support it. Even in Manhattan, which had been the only borough to give the plan a thumbs up for months, opposition has crept to a majority level.

But at almost the same time Environmental Defense, a not-for-profit organization that supports congestion pricing, released its own survey of the speakers who participated in any of the seven public hearings recently held by the traffic mitigation commission, the 17-member body that has been charged with tweaking Bloomberg’s original plan into something the State Legislature might find a bit more palatable.

The Environmental Defense survey found that compromise, not blind support or opposition, ruled the day during the seven commission hearings. Though equal numbers, 26 percent, testified for and against the proposal, the survey found that more speakers, 40 percent, offered suggestions to improve the plan.

The same survey also paints a grim picture of the state of civic engagement in this City, illustrating what could be described as a disturbing lack of interest on the part of the general public when it comes to voicing their opinions on a plan that would radically change the urban landscape. Just 149 individuals testified at the seven total hearings. When you subtract elected officials, civic organizations and other interested parties, you are left with just 28 percent, 42 total regular people, who felt the need to testify.

Neil Giacobbi, a spokesperson for Environmental Defense, concedes that there were definitely problems with the commission’s hearing schedule, calling it “unbelievable” in its planning method. Two hearings, one in Long Island and another in Westchester, were held on the same day, splitting the commission’s members into two groups. The Bronx’s hearing was held on Halloween, keeping many parents away given their more pressing trick-or-treating activities. And the Staten Island hearing was held the night before Election Day, with that borough having the only hot election the City would see in 2007.

Still, Giacobbi said there are great lessons to be learned in studying the responses of the accumulated testimony, that the support for congestion pricing is not as cut and dry as polls might make it seem. “We’re trying to do anything we can to demonstrate that there is more flexibility on this issue than people might believe,” said Giacobbi. When people are given more than a yes or no option, he said, they tend to offer their support for congestion pricing, albeit with their own unique changes.

Giacobbi feels that opposition to the plan stems from wrongheaded criticism, led by elected officials and the parking garage industry. He admits that opponents have done a better job making their case to the media, but does still feel that the tide can be turned. In fact, he noted that his organization has done several focus groups on the issue, and that support for the plan is almost universal when people walk out of the room.

“Most people haven’t thought about this critically,” said Giacobbi. “Once you get into the details of the plan, they come around to it.” Transit improvements have to come from somewhere, he added, and congestion pricing is the best way to pump that money into the system. The sooner people realize that the better off commuters will be, said Giacobbi.

“The poll says that New Yorkers do not fundamentally understand congestion pricing,” he said. “If they did understand it, they would support it.”