Supporters of the plan, which would raise some tolls while lowering others and use the revenue to fix roads and mass transit, at an early June rally.

Roshan Abraham

Supporters of the plan, which would raise some tolls while lowering others and use the revenue to fix roads and mass transit, at an early June rally.

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See video below
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The Move NY Fair plan has gained momentum in recent months. A bill was introduced in the state Assembly in March and on June 11, a counterpart was introduced in the state Senate.

Preceded by a congestion pricing plan by Mayor Bloomberg that the Assembly opted not to put up for a vote in April 2008, the Move NY Fair Plan has existed in its current form since 2010. The decreasing reliability of public transit and a swelling city population have provided what some feel is a stronger argument for the current plan, which would fund infrastructure improvements and lower some outer-borough bridge tolls while raising tolls into lower Manhattan.

As of July 2015 the city’s population had grown past 8.5 million, according to U.S. Census data. And in August 2015, State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli released an audit of the MTA stating that train on-time performance had fallen from 80 percent to 74 percent on weekdays and 85 to 81 percent on weekends.

These issues, along with the plan’s growing support, are why advocates are optimistic about its prospects. In May the New York Times in an editorial reiterated its support, adding to a chorus of endorsements from the city’s large papers, including The Daily News and The New York Post.

“If it keeps on coming up, it’s definitely going to pass one day. We’re really close on this,” says Boris Santos, a transit advocate with Rider’s Alliance.

On June 5, Santos along with other members of the groups Rider’s Alliance and Transportation Alternatives held a rally in Astoria Triangle in front of the Triborough Bridge in support of the bill. An advocate donned a bright orange cape and mask and stood behind a banner reading “Move NY Can Save The Day.” Afterward the groups spoke with local Queens residents who were unaware of the plan. It is part of a public information campaign that will be necessary if Move NY is to become a law.

A different approach to tolls

Move NY is a road-pricing plan that would impose fares on currently un-tolled bridges and roads entering Manhattan’s central business district—defined as anything south of 60th Street—and use the revenues to decrease fares on bridges between outer boroughs and invest in the city’s transit infrastructure.

Bridge tolls into lower Manhattan would be $5.54 with EZ-Pass and $8 without, the same as the fares for the Brooklyn Battery and Midtown tunnels. Nine outer borough bridges would have discounted fares, including a nearly 50 percent discount on the Verrazano. It is expected to generate around $1.35 billion annually.

The plan would establish a new fund called The Transit Gap Investment Fund intended to improve service to areas of the city with poorly maintained or insufficient transit options, especially those available to low- and middle-income residents. The fund would by overseen by a board including the governor, the mayor, the Council speaker, the five borough presidents and chair of the City Council transit committee.

The plan is a form of “congestion pricing”, meaning it is intended to decrease demand for road space in congested areas and times. But supporters of the Move NY plan don’t want the term “congestion pricing” associated with this new plan for fear that it will be linked to the unpopular Bloomberg-era bill. In April 2008, Assembly Democrats decided not to put that bill up for vote, citing near universal opposition from their constituents. Move NY’s website even contains a side-by-side comparison of the two plans so the public can draw quick comparisons.

Building a better plan

The Move NY plan was launched when Alex Matthiessen, an environmental advocate with a firm called Blue Marble Project, was hired by former labor negotiator Ted Kheel to study the Bloomberg congestion pricing plan and assess why it failed and whether it was possible to resurrect the idea. Matthiessen says after studying the plan in 2010, he concluded that some kind of road pricing plan would be inevitable for New York City.

Matthiessen put together a coalition of stakeholders and funders to come up with a new approach, taking time to build grassroots support, something he says the previous administration failed to do.

In 2012, Matthiessen combined his plan with one developed by Sam Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner. Schwartz’s plan included a “toll swap”, where part of the revenue from new tolls would go to decrease existing tolls, something that made it more appealing politically.

George Sweeting, deputy director of the Independent Budget Office, told City Limits that no study had been done by their office on the Move NY plan, although a study was done on the 2008 Bloomberg plan, which had a similar congestion zone. A 2015 IBO report on revenue generation suggested that tolls on the East River and Harlem River bridges would create up to $1 billion a year in additional revenue and could cause drivers to switch to public transit, reducing traffic.

There’s evidence that congestion pricing plans have succeeded in reducing traffic in other cities.

In London, a congestion pricing plan lead to a 30 percent decrease of traffic within the charging zone in the first 12 months, according to a 2014 report by Transport for London. By 2012, congestion approached pre-charge levels, but would have been worse without the charge, according to the same report. It also shifted users away from using cars, with an 11 percent reduction in kilometers driven between 2002 and 2012.

A similar program in Stockholm reduced traffic by up to 20 percent, according to a paper by Stockholm Transportation Department Director Jonas Eliasson, which was published by the Centre for Transport Studies. As in many cities, Stockholm residents were fiercely opposed to congestion pricing when a pilot program was introduced in 2006. But public support had increased enough that a referendum vote in 2007 made the plan permanent, and by 2011 public support had increased to 70 percent.

One argument used to shut down the 2008 congestion pricing plan was that the tolls would hurt middle- and lower-income people. This argument is often used against congestion pricing plans in other cities. But in 2007, the Independent Budget Office conducted a study of commuters heading into the proposed fare zone – everyone below 86th Street, compared to everyone below 60th Street for the Move NY Plan – and found that their median income was 30 percent higher than other commuters in the city. This trend is reversed for commuters from the suburbs, however, where mass transit users were on average more affluent than drivers, according to a 2008 IBO study.

Saeed Asadi Baglooe, a transit researcher at Monash University in Australia, told City Limits that there’s evidence congestion pricing has worked in cities where it has been instituted to reduce congestion. He also encourages congestion plans to use revenue to subsidize other roads. The Move NY plan does devote a quarter of its revenue to improve roads and bridges.

And the toll swaps could make the Move NY plan more politically viable. Thomas Vanoutrive, a transit researcher at the University of Antwerp, told City Limits that such swaps are often used as a selling-point in congestion pricing, and that without it the plan tends to be unpopular.

Uncertain road ahead

The Move NY bill was presented to the state Assembly on March 24, sponsored by member Robert Rodriguez. A Senate bill—with some differences from the Assembly bill—was introduced on June 11 by, sponsored by Senator Andrew Lanza, a Republican, and co-sponsored by Senator Diane Savino, a Democrat who is part of the centrist Independent Democratic Conference.

While the plan has strong support from the City Council and growing support from the State Assembly, it needs support from Republican-controlled Senate to move to hearings, and the support of Gov. Cuomo to pass.

Cuomo has been dismissive about the bill. While discussing the Move NY plan as a revenue source for the MTA capital plan in 2015, Cuomo told NY 1, “If you think that’s going to close the gap and that’s going to pass, then I think you’re going to be sorely disappointed once again.”

Matthiessen says that advocates will use the off-season before the next legislative session begins to expand support throughout the MTA region and to explore potential support upstate.

“We’re hoping to get [assembly support] up to over 50 by the time the next session starts,” he says. If the bill is enacted, it would likely not go into effect until 2019, Matthiessen says.

Transit advocates remain optimistic that the bill could become a law within the next legislative session. One reason is the increase in congestion and delays resulting from signal failures and other infrastructure issues.

“If we’re serious about finding solutions for the many problems our transportation infrastructure faces in this city then unfortunately that daily onslaught of bad news from the transit system actually helps our cause,” Matthiessen says.

The recently agreed-upon MTA capital plan leaves $12 billion of revenue unaccounted for. This, Matthiessen says, means that lawmakers will have to either contend with raising taxes or with implementing Move NY, the only comprehensive bill in the Assembly that addresses revenue generation for the MTA.

“By not enacting this plan, the legislature is throwing away net benefits to New Yorkers of two and a half billion dollars a year,” Charles Komanoff, founder of Transportation Alternatives told City Limits.

Advocates, however, must contend with the fact that the plan is not widely known to most drivers and users of NYC’s mass transit. Santos says that’s the biggest job ahead for MoveNY supporters. “When it comes to any type of policy we definitely need to go around and educate the masses,” Santos says.

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Advocates discuss the Move NY Plan
BKLive, May 18, 2016