As Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s congestion fee plan gains traction and attention around the nation, news reports, such as this one featured in The Times today, act as though PLANYC2030 is reaching a tipping point.
While in the city, public transportation advocates and officials have thrown their support behind the plan, now, Gov. Eliot Spitzer is pledging to make the congestion fee a reality. In fact, even the Bush Administration is urging the state legislature to adopt the plan. The Times reports:
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan to reduce traffic by charging people who drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan received significant support on Thursday as Gov. Eliot Spitzer endorsed the idea and the Bush administration indicated that New York stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars if the plan were enacted…
Mr. Spitzer appeared alongside the United States transportation secretary, Mary E. Peters, who announced that New York City was one of nine finalists for a share of $1.1 billion in federal aid to fight urban traffic. Ms. Peters warned, however, that the city’s potential share could be endangered if the mayor’s plan did not have state approval by August.
None of this support, the articles notes, guarantees passage for the congestion fee, and State Assembly and Senate members will delve deep into their list of concerns being giving the go-ahead to this ambition traffic-curbing plan. But with the big guns aligning behind the legislation, we can start to consider the reality of a congestion fee in New York City.
According to Bloomberg, the plan could be in place within 18 months of approval. At that point, commuters will be charged hefty amounts to drive into the city’s central business district south of 86th St., and the money, Sewell Chan wrote on the Empire Zone blog, will help alleviate the MTA’s potential financial woes.
Now, all of this got me thinking: The MTA will have more money. But no one knows yet how that money will be spent. For the most part, everyone believes that windfall from the congestion fee will fund the Second Ave. subway, the 7 line extension and other capital construction projects designed to improve mass transit in the city.
But what about the increase in ridership sure to come as a result of the congestion fee? Earlier this week, The Queens Gazette noted that subway ridership numbers have increased along with the New York City economy. What is going to happen if, as the city draws in more money from the congestion fee, the economy improves and many commuters head to the subway to avoid the wallet-aches of driving?
As I see it, the MTA will face a crush of people once the fee is in place. The subways, already filled to capacity on many lines, will witness a dramatic increase in ridership, and I don’t think the MTA has the infrastructure in place to keep up. So while the city is trying to build the Second Ave. subway — a project for which I clearly am in favor — the Authority will have to find a way to modernize the system to allow for more frequent and more efficient trains.
And thus the congestion fee becomes a double-edged sword. As the city draws in more money from the fee, this money will end up invested in the subways. But at the same time, ridership and demands on the infrastructure will increase as well. While the federal government is now dangling the promise of money in front of the city and state, these funds probably won’t cover the amount the MTA needs to prepare the system for a record-shattering onslaught of straphangers.
The debates over the congestion fee this summer will focus around these issues of preparedness. Maybe this is the push the MTA needs to begin a serious overhaul of infrastructure that is 100 years old and signal technology that dates from the 1930s in most places. No matter what, it’s about time for an upgrade.