Once of Mayor Bloomberg’s defining moments in the middle of his second term was to be a traffic pricing plan. Designed to raise revenues for the MTA whiling reducing congestion across the city’s East River Bridges, Bloomberg proposed a daily fee for automobiles entering Manhattan south of 59th St. with revenues set to bolster rail and bus service. The congestion pricing plan was controversial but had garnered the support of a majority of New Yorkers so long as the money went to transit. What happened next was Albany at its finest.
Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan passed the City Council, and the measure went to Albany for a home rule request. Usually, Albany is generous in granting these measures, but this time, Sheldon Silver had other plans. The powerful Assembly speaker and Lower Manhattan rep let the bill die in committee. It never even came up for a vote, and at that point, Bloomberg’s 2030 plan lost a major source of revenue. Albany, coincidentally, lost a major ally too as New York’s mayor, never one to embrace the upstate capital, seemed largely at odds with New York’s state leadership after the vote.
For years, a congestion pricing plan has hovered around the edges of New York City politics. The idea itself hasn’t completely died, but support for a pricing scheme hasn’t rematerialized. Over the years, Sam Schwartz has continued to refine the idea into a fair tolling scheme, and he and I spoke on it at my Problem Solvers event last October. Now, with a new mayor — albeit one who hasn’t embraced a congestion pricing or East River bridge toll plan — and the MTA’s five-year needs coming into view, time may be right for another attempt.
That, at least, is what Matt Flegenheimer argues in The Times today. Here’s his story:
First, the name had to go. There could be no more talk, transit advocates reasoned, of “congestion pricing,” a phrase Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg often used before his sweeping plan to overhaul New York City’s bridge tolling system was vanquished in 2008, and treated as political arsenic ever since. Then, with a clean slate, supporters could move on to the hard part: sculpting a proposal that might succeed where the mayor failed.
And so, more than five years after Mr. Bloomberg’s plan died in Albany, a cadre of the city’s transit minds has primed a successor, fine-tuning a pricing model that might be more palatable to residents outside Manhattan, meeting quietly with former opponents and preparing to take its case early next year to a public that has grown accustomed to free, if traffic-choked, rides over the East River.
Political obstacles abound, including securing the support of the State Legislature. But in what the plan’s supporters have billed as the most significant change of heart so far, Councilman Mark Weprin, an outspoken critic of the old proposal, said in an interview last week that he was receptive to this reimagined version. “I’d like to have a chance to talk to them again,” he said of his constituents, “and say this makes a lot more sense.” (Mr. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, is running for City Council speaker.)
The latest version of Schwartz’s plan is available in a presentation on his website (pdf), and it essentially involves a series of trade-offs. The Verrazano Bridge toll would be lowered while the free East River crossings would come with a charge. Direct routes through and into Manhattan would all carry the same charge so that traffic would find the most efficient route and not the cheapest while transit would enjoy added revenue.
It’s a much more rigorous plan than that put forth by Mayor Bloomberg, but absent some serious political pressure it won’t happen. The first obstacle is the MTA. The agency won’t advocate for this plan on its own, and any proposal that involves reducing Verrazano tolls means that the MTA’s own revenue streams would be reduced. Unless the city bridges are all turned over to the MTA, lowering MTA tolls is risky, and I’ve received indications that MTA doesn’t particularly want control over all the bridges and all the attendant headaches that came along with it.
Next up is the idea that change emerges out of a crisis. Right now, reports indicated that the MTA’s finances are stronger than expected and that the agency is enjoying unexpected surpluses. We know how fragile the budget is, and we know that the MTA needs to fund a $28 billion five-year capital plan. But the average voter may not recognize as much. Levying more fees on people who think New York is already too pricey won’t go over well in bad economic times; it certainly won’t be smiled upon in good times.
Finally, there are the Usual Suspects. Take, for instances, Richard Brodsky. The one-time Westchester rep is still leading the charge against congestion pricing, and he still doesn’t understand who drives into Manhattan on a daily basis. “It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” he said to The Times, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.” Brodsky has yet to realize, five years later, that the guy with that ’97 can’t afford to drive into Manhattan anyway.
I want Schwartz’s plan to succeed. I want to see an equitable pricing scheme that reduces traffic into Manhattan and along the arteries that serve the island at the center of the city. I want Lee Sander’s comments to The Times — “If people oppose this, there is an obligation for them to come up with their alternative for how we fund the region’s subways, commuter rail and bus system” — to come true. But I’m not sure the political will is there quite yet. Someone high up will have to be a champion.