Mayor Bill de Blasio, for all the liberalism swirling in his veins, has always been an automobile man at heart. He doesn’t ride the subway to his Park Slope workouts. He was once very skeptical of the Prospect Park West bike lane. As a Brooklyn city councilman, he voted against a congestion pricing plan that would have funneled money to an MTA starved for funds.
Now, a decade later, he has a chance to throw his weight behind a new and better plan to add tolls to the East River bridges and lower them at other outer borough crossings, including the Verrazano-Narrows and Robert F. Kennedy bridges. The plan, known as Move NY and advanced by noted traffic engineer “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, would also toll vehicles traveling south of 60th Street in Manhattan. A couple of years ago de Blasio said the pricing scheme needed to be taken “seriously”, an encouraging sign for transportation advocates that maybe, somehow, momentum would build around a logical plan to cut down vehicular congestion and fund our crumbling transportation infrastructure.
On Tuesday, in response to a question from a Newsday reporter at an unrelated press conference, de Blasio stamped out whatever little hope transit advocates had of making Move NY a reality in the foreseeable future.
“As long as there’s a Republican State Senate, it’s not even going to get to first base,” de Blasio said. “It’s not part of my vision.”
The reporter, Matthew Chayes, asked de Blasio if he’d consider an alternative plan.
“Again, this has not been where we’re focused. I can’t speak to theoreticals,” the Democratic mayor answered.
First, the reality: de Blasio is technically correct. As long as the State Senate is controlled by suburban and upstate GOP lawmakers hostile to seriously boosting funding for public transportation, let alone adding tolls that their car-driving constituents would inevitable encounter, congestion pricing is going nowhere. Even though more state lawmakers have embraced Move NY, it’s nowhere near the number of votes needed to pass the Democrat-controlled Assembly or Republican Senate. (Adding new tolls requires the approval of the City Council, State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo.)
But de Blasio blaming Senate Republicans for his reluctance to embrace congestion pricing is disingenuous, considering he literally spent significant portions of his State of the City address on Monday talking about how progressive achievements are possible despite Republican roadblocks.
“We were told over the last two years there was no way a $15 minimum wage could get through Albany. Right? But it did,” de Blasio said. “We were told there was no way paid family leave could get through Albany, but it did. We were told there was no way pre-K could get through Albany, but it did.”
“So if we speak loudly, Albany will listen,” he added.
There’s the rub. “If we speak loudly,” translated from pep rally-speak, means “if we care.” De Blasio has invested consequential political capital in minimum wage hikes, tax hikes and universal pre-K. He has stood up as the mayor of New York and used his clout — his stumbles in Albany and ongoing criminal investigations, notwithstanding — to battle for policies he knows Republicans will resist. It’s not like he really expected Senate Republicans to give him indefinite control of the city schools, though he tried to get it anyway.
Congestion pricing was never something he cared about. As a former political operative with a long memory, he knows that it wasn’t just Senate Republicans who killed a plan that had the backing of Michael Bloomberg and Eliot Spitzer: Assembly Democrats, thanks to Speaker Sheldon Silver, never brought it up for a vote.
De Blasio isn’t going to lobby Speaker Carl Heastie, Silver’s successor, on Move NY anytime soon. He doesn’t want to. Large-scale transportation policy has never piqued his interest; even Vision Zero, his push to cut down on pedestrian fatalities, is relatively small-bore, trading off streetscape innovations advanced by Bloomberg while doing little of the heavy lifting required to actually cut deaths to zero, like decreasing the incentives to drive into car-clogged Manhattan. A problematic Brooklyn — Queens streetcar isn’t the answer, either.
Politicians only have so much bandwidth. They take up certain fights, pass on others, and set priorities that make sense from a policy and publicity standpoint. De Blasio was clear enough: congestion pricing doesn’t fit into his rubric, even if it should. Finding new revenue streams for the MTA is becoming an existential matter for the five boroughs.
Maybe the next mayor will understand that.