By John DeSio
Most elected officials who oppose congestion pricing for Manhattan’s central business district have conceded that, in one form or another, some type of congestion relief is needed in the City. Those officials note that they must not only stand in the way of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan, they must also contribute a plan of their own.
It’s too bad those plans are wrong, according to a new report issued by Environmental Defense. The pro-congestion pricing organization, who last week issued a comprehensive survey of the select few who attended the seven hearings of the New York City Traffic Mitigation Commission and just what they said, has prepared an in-depth debunking of the three most notable congestion pricing alternatives proposed so far.
It comes on the heels of news that Bloomberg’s original plan might be scaled back considerably. Reports surfaced yesterday that the Traffic Mitigation Commission is considering plans to move the northern boundary of the congestion zone from 86th Street to 60th Street, to toll the East River Bridges and to institute higher on-street parking fees while reducing the number of cameras needed to enforce the pricing plan.
Environmental Defense’s survey examines the three main alternatives to congestion pricing so far proposed against the original Bloomberg plan, looking to find if they meet three key criteria: timeliness, ability to cut traffic, and ability to fund transit. According to the survey, each of the three proposals comes with major flaws. Rep. Anthony Weiner’s plan would only charge trucks to enter Manhattan and calls for expensive transit improvements, like the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, that do nothing to reduce traffic. City Councilman Lew Fidler’s plan places too heavy an emphasis on building three major tunnels and developing hydrogen cars, both of which are too far in the future to be a viable alternative to traffic and pollution today.
And the series of small measures to keep traffic down put forth by the Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free coalition is too speculative to work. Only congestion pricing in the Bloomberg model, states the survey, could ever meet the aforementioned criteria.
“Every other proposal falls short in delivering practical, timely, affordable congestion relief,” concludes the reports primary author Michael Replogle, transportation director with Environmental Defense. “Congestion pricing works because it opens the door to many other solutions. It makes buses run more smoothly. It cuts traffic inside the charging zone and on major approaches to it. It raises revenue in the near term to invest in transit now.”
“We’re not saying that congestion pricing is a silver bullet,” said Neil Giacobbi, spokesperson for Environmental Defense. However, he said that congestion pricing would bring a more equitable transit fee system to the metropolitan area, something that none of the other plans do. Giacobbi specifically pointed to drivers from Nassau and Suffolk counties, who can “toll shop” and choose the free way into the City while New Jersey drivers are forced to pay to enter Manhattan. “What we’re saying is that there has to be a way to equalize this,” said Giacobbi.
Though his organization is critical of elected officials like Weiner and Fidler, Giacobbi insists those critiques are not personal. Weiner and Fidler are smart elected officials who do a good job for their respective districts, he said, but are just wrong on congestion pricing. “They’ve put forward alternatives, and have been better than most elected officials [in opposition to congestion pricing] in that regard,” said Giacobbi, who added that what Weiner, Fidler and others have proposed are “more a distraction than they are a solution.”
A perfectly good alternative to reduce traffic and improve transit already exists, said Giacobbi, and it is congestion pricing in its original form. And given the $354 million in federal grant money on the line, money that the City can keep should it walk away from congestion pricing following the two-year pilot program, Giacobbi said its time for everyone to settle down and focus on Bloomberg’s initial plan. Tweaking, he added, only serves to put that grant money in jeopardy and slow down much-needed transit improvements.
“Why walk away from that money just to try congestion pricing?” said Giacobbi. “We’re just trying to be methodical and reasonable about what is available right now. And the best thing available, the best thing to improve transit and reduce traffic, is congestion pricing.”