Despite the zaniness of the mayoral candidates’ transit policies and proposals, I had long assumed Joe Lhota would emerge as the sensible voice on transportation. After all, he’s running for mayor largely because of his brief tenure atop the MTA, and even though he didn’t spend much time running the agency, he seemed to grasp the larger problems facing transit improvements. His campaign has left me wanting more.
So far, we haven’t gotten much in the way of policies from any of the GOP candidates. Lhota, the presumptive frontrunner, has a website but no policy statements. He’s spent a lot of time clamoring for city control over the bridges and tunnels at the expense of the funding scheme established through the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority and the MTA. I explored some of those issues yesterday. Now, in the form of a radio appearance, we have a little bit more from Lhota. It’s not quite what I had expected.
As part of an interview on WOR, Lhota spoke about the possible mechanisms for funding transit, and the conversation turned to congestion pricing. Once upon a time, congestion pricing had a powerful champion in City Hall and the support of a majority of the city’s residents (so long as the money were guaranteed to go transit improvements). It is the only way to ensure that fewer cars are entering congested areas of the Manhattan and part of a larger package to improve travel times and environmental, economic and safety conditions along heavily-trafficked corridors. Somehow, it’s turned into a political hot potato as no one will even discuss it any longer.
So Lhota got around to talking about it yesterday, but in a very roundabout way. Dana Rubinstein turned in and offered up select quotes:
“We’ve got to do everything we can to mitigate the number of cars in the city by doing smart things, common sense things, before we start saying ‘Well, let’s start charging people for coming into midtown, or congestion pricing,'” said Lhota this morning on the John Gambling radio show. “That’s the last step.”
…Today, when WOR radio host John Gambling asked Lhota his thoughts on congestion pricing, he started talking about parking lots instead. “Long before we have a real formal debate on congestion pricing, we’ve got to do everything we can to reduce the number of cars in the city and there are ways to do it,” said Lhota. “One of the things that I proposed when I was at the M.T.A., and I will definitely do while I’m mayor is, if you look at the end of every one of the subway lines, whether in the north along the Westchester County border, or along the border with Queens and Nassau County, at the ends of each of those lines, I want to be able to build parking garages and basically tell the people who are coming in from Nassau County, ‘You know what, don’t drive in. Why don’t you park in one of these nice, pretty garages that we’ll prepare for you and then take the subway in.'”
And to help lure the millenial set: WiFi. “We’ve got to make sure that our subway system is WiFi-ed,” said Lhota. “We’ve got to make sure that our buses have WiFi. The number of people who would would get on buses if they had access to WiFi and be able to use their computers or their smartphones would be extraordinary.”
Talk about overstating your case. If these are the prerequisites to congestion pricing, we’ll never see it happen under Lhota. Let’s work backwards.
WiFi in the subway is a great idea and one I’ve supported for years. But it’s not about to turn subway cars into roving offices. From a practical perspective, try whipping out your laptop on a Manhattan-Q train at 8:30 in the morning, and then let me know how much work you can get done. It’s tough enough to read the newspaper on an iPad, let alone hammer away at a keyboard with a computer on your lap. I question too how many people would eschew cars for subways simply because of the Internet. That’s a luxury of marginal overall utility, not an upgrade in any meaningful way.
Then, we arrive at the park-and-ride idea. As Rubinstein notes in her piece, this is a drum Lhota has banged before, and it’s a terrible one. First, most — if not all — subway terminals are in built-up densely settled urban areas that have no room or need for a deadening parking garage. Second, parking garages serve to encourage driving when we want to eliminate it by making it easier to park, and thus, more convenient to drive. Third, we have an entire network of suburban park-and-rides with easy access to trains. It’s called Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road, and it funnels suburban travelers to their job centers more quickly and more directly the subways from, say, Jamaica or Wakefield would.
So this leaves us with a recognition that we need to do more to mitigate the number of cars entering and traveling through core areas of Manhattan each day, the knowledge that the MTA’s finances could use an infusion of cash, and the belief, left over from the 1950s apparently, that park-and-ride will do the trick. And therein lies your 2013 mayoral campaign in a nutshell.