Clearing the Air: After Congestion Pricing

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With their prized plan stuck behind an 18-wheeler of skepticism in Albany, supporters of Mayor Bloomberg’s “congestion pricing” proposal to reduce auto traffic in Manhattan revised their itinerary last week. Partnership for New York City president and CEO Kathryn Wylde, for one, informed a public forum in Brooklyn on Friday that New York City has at least two more months to qualify for up to $500 million in federal funding that would help realize the plan – in other words, that the drop-dead deadline is not today, as City Hall had claimed. But given the political opposition to the congestion pricing proposal, backers might have to do more than just revise their ETA. They might also have to map a new route to reaching the goals of reducing traffic and air pollution.

Bloomberg has enlisted diverse backers for his proposal to charge most cars (but not taxis) $8, and trucks $21 or more, to enter Manhattan below 86th Street each weekday between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Fees would be lower for drivers who start their trip within the zone or who pay a bridge or tunnel toll coming in. City Hall’s roster of supporters includes business groups, environmental advocates, transit experts and even some elected officials whose constituents would pay the fees.

Disagreement over the plan has largely been depicted as another mano a mano affair between Bloomberg and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. (The latter’s approval is critical because the state has to sign off on any kind of tolling.) But it’s not just those two butting heads – the state Senate, City Council and much of the business community also harbor opposition. A Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce survey released at Friday’s forum at Polytechnic University, for instance, found that while almost all respondents thought congestion was a serious problem, fewer than half backed the mayor’s solution. Even supporters say the mayor’s plan is imperfect.

“If the question is congestion pricing versus an alternative plan that works better, I’ll be for that [other] plan,” Brooklyn Councilmember David Yassky told the forum. “But that plan is not out there. So if it’s congestion pricing versus nothing, then I support it.”

Indeed, no coherent alternative to the pricing plan has gained consensus. There are, however, a slew of other ideas on how to reduce the city’s traffic and improve air quality. The question is whether they’d work.

Back in December, a City Hall spokesman said the mayor felt congestion pricing “probably won’t pass in Albany,” a statement that could prove prophetic—and may be why a list of other traffic-easing policies is part of PlaNYC, the administration’s far-reaching urban planning blueprint that introduced congestion pricing. These include funding already-planned projects like the Second Avenue subway, offering more ferry service and launching new “bus rapid transit” routes that allow buses to move faster. But PlaNYC argues that mass transit improvements alone won’t get enough tires off the streets.

Opponents of congestion pricing say there are even more options. Brooklyn City Councilmember Lewis Fidler argues that acting on a long-standing proposal to build a freight tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn could get a million trucks off New York City’s roads each year. Better connecting Staten Island to mass transit and relocating the Gowanus Expressway underground would also help, Fidler adds. So could a serious effort by the federal government to end Americans’ dependence on pollution-producing combustion engines – an ambitious idea, to say the least, given that the feds haven’t even updated car fuel economy standards in 17 years. “It’s a pretty grand scheme,” Fidler admits. “Not any more grand than congestion pricing.”

Most congestion pricing opponents, however, pitch more modest alternatives. Many have suggested that stricter enforcement of the city’s parking rules on double parking and “blocking the box” would reduce traffic by making more road capacity usable. Limiting municipal employees’ use of parking permits could also discourage driving. Another set of proposals, advanced by Queens Assemblyman Rory Lancman, includes tax breaks to encourage telecommuting and car pooling. Still other ideas include lowering the subway fare during peak times, adjusting existing bridge and tunnel tolls according to traffic volume and imposing “congestion rationing,” which would bar every car from the downtown zone on some days of the week based on license plate number.

But backers of the mayor’s plan don’t think any of those more limited approaches can achieve what pricing would. “If you don’t look at demand [for road space] and try to mitigate it one way or another, you’re likely to always be playing catch-up,” adds Polytechnic University professor John Falcocchio, who supports congestion pricing but is skeptical about the specifics of the mayor’s plan. Adds Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist who endorses the Bloomberg proposal: “The mayor could have every double-parked car or illegally parked car airlifted out by helicopter. He could have traffic agents at every single intersection. The breathing room you get would very quickly be filled” by new traffic.

Even though the mayor’s scheme could increase average city travel speed by a modest 0.6 miles per hour, City Hall projects that it would reduce traffic volume in the Manhattan zone by 6.3 percent, allowing downtown streets to operate closer to the capacities at which cars can navigate smoothly. That would reduce the delivery delays and other frustrations that cost city businesses an estimated $13 billion each year, as well as limit the amount of stop-and-go traffic that tends to cause the most car-related air quality problems. What’s more, only congestion pricing promises to both ease traffic and raise revenue that—if today’s promises are kept—would go to funding mass transit at a time when the MTA faces annual budget gaps as large as $1.8 billion.

Despite those attributes, the mayor’s plan could follow earlier New York City tolling proposals to defeat (Bids to toll the free East River bridges came and went under mayors Lindsay, Koch, Dinkins and—in his first term—Bloomberg). If that happens, looking at alternatives will be the only option for transit advocates. They have said that today’s alignment of available federal dollars to fund the needed technological and other improvements, a reformist governor in Albany and a can-do mayor in City Hall represent the best shot ever to win approval of congestion pricing in New York City. “If Bloomberg can’t make this happen,” says Komanoff, “you really have to wonder who is ever going to make this happen.”

– Jarrett Murphy