News & Politics

New Congestion Pricing Options as the Debate Continues


Congressman Anthony Weiner linked congestion pricing with the Bush administration — surely, one way to turn off many New Yorkers — at forum hosted by New York Civic.

New Yorkers support the stated goal of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan — improving mass transit — but just aren’t convinced that the government will follow through on its promises.

A Quinnipiac poll released yesterday found that City residents would support congestion pricing if the money is used to fund mass transit improvements, 60-37, though they oppose the idea without that caveat. Since the objective of congestion pricing is to raise money for public transportation the poll shows that New Yorkers are ready to jump on board, said Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.

“New York is a transit town. And when New Yorkers know that congestion pricing means hundreds of new buses and subway cars, new bus routes and more reliable service, they come on board,” said White. “It’s up to the City, and advocates like us, to make sure New Yorkers know these benefits are coming.”

White’s group is pushing legislators to create a so-called “lock box” for funds raised by congestion pricing, to ensure that they are used only for transit improvements. On Wednesday night Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City and perhaps the most ardent supporter of Bloomberg’s plan, admitted that a major problem congestion pricing has faced is the public’s lack of faith in the government to do the right thing, either with the funding raised by the program or with the information collected through the camera system. She noted that even though only five percent of Manhattan commuters are coming to the City by cars, the opposition to congestion pricing cuts across all types of commuters.

“The biggest source of opposition to congestion pricing…is really the fact that people don’t trust the government, whether it’s the bureaucracy of the MTA or elected officials, to really take the money and spend it on things that will make a difference in their life in terms of mass transit,” said Wylde in a panel discussion on the issue hosted by former Parks Commissioner Henry Stern’s New York Civic organization and held at the Museum of the City of New York,

She told those in attendance that the 17-member Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, of which she is a member, is making a good faith effort to address the concerns of opponents and put forward a congestion pricing plan that everyone can support. This would be a plan that was responsive to the community, that would listen to their concerns, and would do everything it could to assure New Yorkers that the money would be put back into the transit system.

She further noted that most commuters to Manhattan are driving alone. With an overwhelming 95 percent of commuters using mass transit, said Wylde, polling numbers on the issue should look much different, if not for the trust gap between government and the public.

Though their final recommendations are not due until the end of the month yesterday the commission released the particulars of the five plans it will consider as the solution to traffic congestion.

Aside from the mayor’s original plan, which charges drivers $8 and trucks $21 to enter Manhattan below 86th Street during peak driving hours, four new alternatives have also emerged for discussion. One alternative would see the northern barrier dropped to 60th Street and charge for only inbound trips. Another calls for tolling the free bridges over the Harlem and East Rivers, while another implements a license plate rationing system. The fifth proposal offers a combination of congestion pricing and on-street parking fees.

Each idea comes with its own unique set of problems, according to Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

“Traffic is a horrendous problem, New Yorkers agree,” said Carroll. “But they reject all the ideas that are being talked about to ease it. Voters remain firm in their opposition to congestion pricing, but they would support it if — IF — the money is used to improve mass transit. And when they dust off that old idea to toll the East River bridges — fuhgeddaboutit. That idea even makes congestion pricing look good.”

Congressman Anthony Weiner, an all-but-declared candidate for mayor in 2009, took a different route on the topic of government trust, stating that congestion pricing is nothing more than a Republican Trojan horse aimed at eliminating federal transportation subsidies. Congestion pricing would mean less money for the City, he said.

“There’s a reason George Bush’s administration likes this plan,” said Weiner. “Think about why it is.” Weiner argued that a “low tax, small government” president like Bush was pushing for a large government program, complete with a new tax, to further the idea that municipalities should pay for their own mass transit improvements, not the federal government. Republicans from small town districts in places like Texas, said Weiner, resent the idea that their money paid through the federal gas tax is used to build our subways. “They’ve never liked it,” said Weiner.

“The moment you start to see $200, $300, $400 million is the moment my friends in Washington start saying, ‘well, any additional monies that go in we’re going to take off the top before we send it to you,’” said Weiner, who noted that Republicans in the State Senate have put forward a similar plan to skim from the top of the funding pile whatever congestion pricing raises for the City.

Weiner even relayed a recollection of a conversation he had with a Connecticut Republican Congressman in April, when Bloomberg first announced his congestion pricing proposal. Weiner proposed a multi-state, multi-party coalition to fight the plan, but after explaining congestion pricing his Republican colleague he was surprised to find that he would support it. An $8 charge was nothing, he told Weiner. His Connecticut constituents would pay $80 to get the “riff raff” from Weiner’s district out of the way as they drove through midtown.

Michael O’Loughlin, director of the Campaign for New York’s Future and a congestion pricing supporter, argued that simply because the Bush administration supported something did not make it automatically a bad idea. “Just because the Bush administration is willing to give New York $354 million to help us put in place a system that will reduce traffic congestion and get us better transit doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea,” he said, setting up a later conversation on just who thought the Bush administration was worse and just how bad they were.

“To my colleague who sits on the panel,” said Weiner to O’Loughlin, “just because George Bush has an idea doesn’t mean it’s a bad one? So far they answer to that is yes.” Weiner was applauded, but Wylde upped the Bush-bashing ante by mocking the idea that the president has a long-term plan to eliminate transit subsidies.

“I think that the congressman is giving the Bush administration far more credit than they deserve…in terms of being able to plan out such a strategic approach,” said Wylde to even wilder applause.

The forum also featured a some exaggeration regarding the potential negatives of the plan. Former Queens City Council Member Walter McCaffery, who lobbies against congestion pricing as the head of Keep New York City Congestion Tax Free, presented the absolute worst-case scenario for plan. In noting that those who pay tolls will see those fees deducted from the congestion charge, McCaffery put forward a situation where the most vulnerable City residents would be severely hurt by the charge while the wealthiest residents of the Garden State would ride high in our City.

“When you stop and think of the fact that we’re now going to have a senior citizen couple who comes from Woodside, who now has to drive to go to NYU Medical for cancer treatment…will have to pay $8, that’s not a particularly fair item, or public policy, your putting into place,” said McCaffery, “while individuals who come from New Jersey, millionaires from New Jersey…will ultimately pay zero, that’s not fair at all.”

The comment received at least one audible groan from an forum attendee, likely upset that McCaffery had conjured such a melodramatic example.


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