Archive for Congestion Fee

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With congestion pricing off the table, no one came to fix NYC this year.

A long time ago in a city not so far away, “wait ’til next year” became the mantra for die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fans who kept watching their crosstown-rival Yankees win World Series championships. This year, as New York State budget negotiations came to a head this past weekend, “wait ’til next year” will have to be the rallying cry for congestion pricing opponents who were, once again, let down by Albany inaction.

When his FixNYC panel unveiled a proposal for a comprehensive traffic pricing plan and Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced congestion pricing would factor into the 2018 New York State budget negotiations, many transit advocates raised a skeptical eyebrow and held their collective breaths. Cuomo never presented his own plan and didn’t seem keen to lobby the legislature (or work the backroom deals) to see congestion pricing through this year, and when the dust settled at the end of last week, we seemed to get a surcharge on for-hire vehicles and a vague promise of a phased-in approach to congestion pricing that may or may not accumulate in a real plan next year. As city streets remain choked with traffic and surface transit reliability crashing, it was, yet again, a disappointing outcome from the governor who loves to parade his love of cars around New York State.

In The New York Times this weekend, Winnie Hu wrote about the 2018 decline and fall of congestion pricing and the new surcharge on for-hire vehicle trips. She writes:

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo set the stage for an ambitious congestion pricing plan when he declared that it was “an idea whose time has come.”

But that time is not now.

There was little about congestion pricing in the state budget negotiated Friday by Mr. Cuomo and state lawmakers despite months of lobbying by advocates, a six-figure media campaign, and rallies by transit riders. The most significant development was a new surcharge that will be tacked on to every ride in for-hire vehicles in Manhattan south of 96th Street: $2.50 for yellow taxis; $2.75 for other for-hire vehicles, including Ubers and Lyfts; and 75 cents for car pool rides such as Via and UberPool.

Notably missing was the congestion zone that was the centerpiece of a congestion pricing plan, laid out by a state task force to reduce gridlock on the streets and raise money for the city’s struggling subway, which is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Under that plan, unveiled in January, drivers could have been charged a daily fee — $11.52 for passenger cars, $25.34 for trucks — to enter a congestion zone in Manhattan, from 60th Street south to the Battery, at busy times.

A coalition of transit advocates was quick to express their displeasure. Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Riders Alliance, and StreetsPAC released a joint statement on Saturday:

Our transit system is on life support. Fixing our transit system should have been Albany’s first priority this year; unfortunately, the final budget does not offer a credible plan to modernize the MTA, nor provide a sufficient revenue stream to make it possible. The crisis in our subways and on our streets will continue, and New Yorkers will continue to demand action from Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers.

If the governor is serious about alleviating the crisis, he must ensure that the initial steps laid out in this budget — for-hire vehicle surcharges, bus lane expansion and enforcement — be the catalyst for meaningful reform. First, Governor Cuomo must use a portion of the new revenue to help implement comprehensive congestion pricing, by constructing cordon infrastructure and addressing needs in transit deserts around the city. Then, the governor must establish, and commit to, a timeline to make congestion pricing a reality in New York.

New York’s transit and traffic problems may seem intractable, but with bold leadership, reform is possible. New Yorkers deserve better than broken subways, unsafe streets, and crippling gridlock, and it’s time for our representatives to deliver.

David Weprin, an Assembly Democrat of Queens, has long fought against congestion pricing despite the fact that only 4.2% of his constituents would pay a fee while a majority rely on public transit. He declared a temporary victory in the fight this weekend. “I haven’t won the war yet on congestion pricing, but I did win this battle — it’s not getting in the budget,” Weprin said to The Times. With short-sighted politicians like this representing us, Gov. Cuomo’s support was even more important, and he did not, as Gotham Gazette detailed last week in a must-read piece, come close to delivering. The bait-and-switch Cuomo pulled will enable Weprin in the future at the expensive of his own constituents and the rest of the city.

Meanwhile, the for-hire vehicle surcharge could be a first step toward comprehensive congestion pricing, if Cuomo wants it to be, and it’s worth exploring what this means for Manhattan’s crowded streets. In a tweet last week, Charles Komanoff detailed the benefits and I’ll summarize. The FHV-only surcharge will eventually speed up Manhattan traffic by around 6.7 percent but not until transit investments have significantly shifted mode-share. The charge will generate approximately $650 million per year with 64.6% borne by Manhattanites, 18.8 percent by those in the other four boroughs, and only 16.6 percent by those outside of New York City. (A full-fledged plan would have resulted in a 20 percent increase in speeds, $1.8 billion in annual revenue and a more equitable split of costs with Manhattanites picking up 32.4 percent, 36.9 percent borne by the boroughs and 30. percent carried by those outside of NYC.)

As constructed, the FHV surcharge moves the needle but has the perverse outcome of penalizing Manhattan residents while giving suburban drivers another year of a free pass. To the extent the FHV surcharge increases the costs of ride-hailing services ideally designed to eliminate private automobile trips, this FHV-only fee incentivizes private single-occupancy auto trips, thus countering one potential impact of a congestion pricing plan. A real plan has to disincentivize these discretionary trips while improving traffic flow (including, vitally, for buses) and generating money for transit expansion.

On a theoretical basis, congestion pricing polling numbers are, as they always are, middling, and congestion pricing plans that have been enacted throughout the world enjoy much more support after the plans are in place and the benefits tangible. As Justin Davidson detailed last week, the arguments against a pricing plan for New York City are not supported by data and facts. It almost seems like a fait acompli that NYC be the beneficiary of a congestion pricing plan, but it will, once again, have to wait as Andrew Cuomo and Albany failed to come through. The transit crisis, I guess, will have to wait another year for a real solution.

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The FIX NYC panel released its full report, today recommended a series of measures to reduce Manhattan congestion.

Update: The Fix NYC advisory panel released its full report on Friday morning. You can read it right here as a PDF. My questions below are still relevant, and I had some initial reactions via a thread on Twitter.

The Governor issued a statement on the panel’s report but hedged on the way forward:

“I have received the report from Fix NYC and will review it carefully. I thank the panel for their hard work and effort. I will discuss the alternatives with the legislature over the next several months. There is no doubt that we must finally address the undeniable, growing problem of traffic congestion in Manhattan’s central business district and present a real, feasible plan that will pass the legislature to raise money for MTA improvements, without raising rider fares.

A uniform pricing model for FHVs that discourages continuing presence in the central business district and incentivizes trucks to deliver on off peak hours is a necessary component. Tolls must be more fair. Trips to and from New Jersey can be less expensive than trips from New York City’s outer boroughs. Tolls vary widely, and they must be rationalized so costs are fair to all.

The report accurately points out that the objective is not to raise tolls entering the borough of Manhattan, but more specifically those trips adding to the congestion in a defined central business district. But, as a born and raised Queens boy, I have outer borough blood in my veins, and it is my priority that we keep costs down for hard working New Yorkers, and encourage use of mass transit. We must also find a way to reduce the costs for outer borough bridges in any plan ultimately passed.

I still wonder if this is a real plan he intends to champion or something he will use for cover to claim he tried to fix NYC’s traffic problems but could not overcome Albany resistance. My original post follows.

* * *

With Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC task force set to release its report on Friday afternoon, Jim Dwyer and Winnie Hu of The Times have a first glimpse at the traffic pricing plan behind which Cuomo may line up to bring relief to New York streets and money for transit. Here’s what we know so far:

Driving a car into the busiest parts of Manhattan could cost $11.52 under a major proposal prepared for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that would make New York the first city in the United States with a pay-to-drive plan…

Trucks would pay $25.34, and taxis and for-hire vehicles could see surcharges of $2 to $5 per ride. The pricing zone would cover Manhattan south of 60th Street. In a key change from past efforts, drivers would not have to pay if they entered Manhattan by all but two of the city-owned East River bridges, which are now free to cross, as long as they bypassed the congestion zone.

The proposals are part of a report by a task force, “Fix NYC,” convened by Governor Cuomo after he declared a state of emergency in the subways last June. The report says that the fees on taxis and for-hire vehicles could be put in place within a year, followed by trucks and then cars in 2020. None of those fees should be charged, the task force said, until repairs are made to the public transit system.

“Before asking commuters to abandon their cars, we must first improve mass transit capacity and reliability,” a draft of the report says.

This is a better plan than I expected and approximates Michael Bloomberg’s doomed proposal from 2008. That we have gone nowhere in the past decade is very telling, and that this plan doesn’t come with East River Bridge tolling parity is disappointing. But a Start is a start is a start, and if Cuomo accepts this plan, it can be a building block to something better and more complete down the road.

In no order, though, some questions:

  • If the 59th St. and Brooklyn Bridges aren’t rolled and can be used to enter or exit the cordon zone without paying the fee, how can we protect against massive increases in traffic across those bridges?
  • What transit upgrades can be implemented by 2020 that will be sufficient enough for the panel to be comfortable with the implementation of the traffic fee? Reliability and capacity increases take years or decades to see through, and not months.
  • Can anyone really Fix NYC without MTA construction cost reforms?
  • Is this a real plan that stands a chance of passing the New York State Assembly and Senate or is this just a CYA report to bolster Cuomo’s reelection campaign? With the Cuomo-supported plan to give Senate control to the state Republicans via the breakway IDC Senators, any traffic plan faces a tough hurdle in the state legislature. Will Cuomo push for this plan so that it passes the Senate or is just supposed to make him look like he tried, but failed, to fix city streets, traffic and the MTA?
  • Will the mayor finally experience his own come-to-Jesus moment on traffic pricing or will he continue to lie, distort reality and reverse himself in discussing a plan that will impact guys like him who live in NYC for decades but are seemingly allergic to the subway?
  • Do all of the players involved realize congestion pricing is only one part of fixing the bus network and solving transit woes and that other reforms are badly needed?

Some of these questions should be answered in Friday’s report; others may take a few weeks to unfold as we see the political forces line up behind (or against) the Fix NYC recommendations. Either way, this is a start and, while far from perfect, a good one at that.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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Hollywood these days is suffering from reboot fever. Spider-Man, now a part of the all-encompassing Marvel Cinematic Universe, witnessed its third stab at the webbed avenger in 15 years while the all-female Ghostbusters drew headlines last year. By some accounts, there are over 120 reboots in the works. New York, now a city to be left out of the latest trends, wants to join in, and the reboot may just be a traffic pricing plan.

When last we left congestion pricing, so many years ago, the City Council had approved Mayor Bloomberg’s request but it died a closed-door death in the New York State Assembly when the now-disgraced Sheldon Silver killed it. This move was a blow to home rule and a blow to an effort to rationalize East River tolls and reduce the ill effects of congestion pricing. It killed a potential steady stream of income for transit investments and killed the productivity gains that would come with limited single-occupancy vehicle traffic in the busiest parts of Manhattan.

Now, as the mayor and the governor square off over transit funding, some form of a traffic pricing plan seems to be back on the table. It’s a reboot, baby, and this time, our mayor is the villain (or perhaps just playing one).

The story broke last week when Gov. Andrew Cuomo said congestion pricing is “an idea whose time has come.” He didn’t say too much more than that, and in the week since the story first broke, he’s been silent on details despite some back-slapping at the future Moynihan Station a few days ago. The Times had a little bit more on the lack of details and politics:

“Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” Mr. Cuomo said. He declined to provide specifics about how the plan would work and what it would charge, but said that he had been meeting with “interested parties” for months and that the plan would probably be substantially different from Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal.

“We have been going through the problems with the old plan and trying to come up with an updated and frankly better congestion pricing plan,” Mr. Cuomo said. A key priority is making it as palatable as possible to commuters from the suburbs and boroughs outside Manhattan without undercutting the primary goals: providing a dedicated funding stream for the transit system, while reducing traffic squeezing onto some of the country’s most gridlocked streets.

…Unlike a tax on wealthy New Yorkers, which would be limited in scope and affect a relatively small number of people, congestion pricing would have a far broader impact on people inside and outside the city. After Mr. Cuomo’s past skepticism that state lawmakers would support congestion pricing, his willingness now to support the idea may improve its fortunes in Albany.

Without any details of what kind of plan Cuomo is supporting, it’s hard to assess this move, and it’s even tougher to see through the politics of it. Mayor de Blasio, forever willing to give up leading on key transportation issues, has repeatedly said that congestion pricing is dead on arrival in Albany, and although some transit advocates think this is a maneuver to draw Cuomo’s hand in pushing congestion pricing as an opposite reaction to de Blasio, the mayor continued to speak ill of any traffic pricing plan this week. In fact, he and I. Dankee Miller, one of the worst City Council members on progressive transit issues, spoke out against Cuomo’s idea last week. The Times’ editorial board likes it in theory but Staten Island too is skeptical. (Some villains always show up for the reboots after all.)

As we speculate about Cuomo’s ideas for congestion pricing and what comes next, Streetsblog, in response to Mayor de Blasio’s complaints about unfairness and “penalizing” the Outer Boroughs — has written a thoughtful defense of the Move New York plan. This plan would rationalize tolls across all river crossings into Manhattan and provide money for transit upkeep while reducing congestion.

The real wild card here though is Cuomo. We don’t know what he wants to do, and his plans have always been, well, his. He’s proposed half-baked plans for Penn Station, a backwards AirTrain for Laguardia and an overpriced Penn Station Access. He hasn’t shown a willingness to let experts help guide him to the best decisions, and everyone seems to be holding their breaths on congestion pricing. New York has an opportunity to get this right, but we can’t let it slip away. While congestion pricing won’t solve every transportation ill, it’s piece in a larger puzzle of solutions that will. It’s up to Cuomo to lead properly, and so far, he has a very mixed record on that very topic. But stay tuned. This reboot hasn’t played itself out yet, and as the 2018 gubernatorial campaign inches into view, this won’t be the last we hear of it.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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For certain reasons, The New York Times seems to bury its urban policy editorials on Saturdays, and a pro-congestion pricing missive published on May 21st continued the trend. I didn’t have an opportunity to write it up last week, but for a few reasons, it’s worth revisiting. It’s a ringing endorsement of the Move New York plan, but I worry that supporters are putting too much hope on a plan that, when judged on its merits only, is very worthwhile but isn’t the single silver bullet it is often made out to be.

Coming in between a story on the overwhelmed subway system and a look at northeast transit infrastructure, the editorial trumpets the traffic pricing plan as the way to “save New York’s overwhelmed subways.” That’s a lofty goal considering the systemic problems with the subway and the organization running it right now. Some relevant excerpts:

The real reason for this sorry state of affairs has been not poverty but an impoverished imagination and a dearth of political will. Enter a group of Democrats in the State Assembly with an ambitious plan, introduced in March, that could significantly improve the city’s transportation system if the rest of the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo get behind it. Called the Move NY Fair Plan, it would collect about $1.35 billion a year in new revenue through bridge tolls, congestion pricing and a per-mile surcharge on taxi rides in Midtown and Lower Manhattan. The money would help pay for more frequent service on existing train and bus lines and new service in parts of the city that are so far from subway lines that officials and residents refer to them as “transit deserts.”

…The biggest chunk of the money from the new tolls and fees would enable the M.T.A. to borrow money for much-needed repairs and upgrades. For example, the authority would be able to more quickly replace its aging switching and signaling system with more reliable and efficient technology. That would allow it to run more trains, since it would be able to safely reduce the distance between them. The agency would also be assured of the money needed to finish the second phase of the Second Avenue subway line up to 125th Street…

Move NY would also give the M.T.A. the money and authority to establish new subway lines. One of the most promising proposals is for a line to connect the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn over existing rail tracks,…which supporters call the Triboro Rx…Similarly, the plan includes a proposal to turn existing Long Island Rail Road tracks between the Atlantic Terminal in Brooklyn and Rosedale in Queens into a new subway line…Finally, the legislation would set aside money for transit projects in the Hudson Valley and on Long Island. It would also create new bus service and reduce fares on express buses. And it would give money to neighborhood community boards to invest in local projects like bike lanes, bus depots, public plazas and station repairs.

Considering the MTA needs four or five years of Move New York revenue to fulfill the planned budget for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway alone, that’s a lofty goal for what is, in New York City, a relatively paltry $1.35 billion a year. Of course, the MTA can bond out that money against revenue-generating projects but between all of these competing projects plus the need to expand service rapidly to make up for the demand congestion pricing will place on the transit network, that $1.35 billion won’t go nearly as far as The Times hopes.

And that’s the key: By itself, Move New York is a very worthwhile piece of a larger transportation puzzle. It should help alleviate congestion on city streets while providing another stream of dollars for transit investment, but it’s not the silver bullet.

In a Tweetstorm in response to The Times editorial, Yonah Freemark of The Transport Politic summed up this argument.

The MTA needs money, and the city’s streets need to be cleared of as many cars as possible. But the MTA also needs political support, massive cost and work rule reform, a plan to build and deliver projects quickly and efficiently, and operations reform. Move New York is a start, but it’s one piece of the puzzle, not the entire puzzle itself.

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Could this be the plan that saves the MTA's capital budget? (Source: Move NY)

Could this be the plan that saves the MTA’s capital budget? (Source: Move NY)

Flippant headline aside, someone — or a group of someones — is thinking creatively about the MTA’s capital funding problem. It’s been a long time coming, but Sam Schwartz and the Move NY coalition unveiled their restructured traffic pricing plan on Tuesday. If implemented properly, it could generate $1.5 billion that the group says could be bonded out to support the MTA’s capital plan. It may kick the debt can even further down the road, but it’s the most promising proposal we’ve seen at a time when Gov. Cuomo has seemingly left the MTA out to dry.

The details of the plan — now being called the Move NY Fair Plan — contain a mixture of new revenue streams in the form of East River bridge tolls and givebacks in the form of reduced current tolls that should appease everyone. No one will be double-tolled, and all money would be collected electronically so toll gates and the alleged traffic they could cause will be a non-factor.

The plan, in a nutshell, is simple, and I’d urge you to read Streetsblog’s primer. Essentially, tolls on current MTA bridges would drop while the currently-free East River bridge crossings would carry a charge, restoring a 104-year-old wrong. The money would go toward transit, and the corresponding drop in clogged streets would be a major boon for all New Yorkers. The plan would see a new taxi surcharge as well as congestion pricing for automobile trips south of 60th St. in Manhattan, and off-peak tolls would be cheaper than rush hour charges.

In return, Move New York promises massive transit investments. In their report [pdf], they highlight how the MTA would have a steady revenue stream that would lead to implementation of the agency’s capital plans. The coalition believes the MTA would have the money to restore bus service cut in 2010, reduce the City Ticket fares on Metro-North and LIRR, speed up SBS and BRT implementation, and address the subway system’s technological and physical issues that come with age and the need for modernization. All in all, it sounds good.

Interestingly, while as Dana Rubinstein astutely noted, Gov. Cuomo and the MTA were silent on the plan yesterday, it’s drawn support from unlikely sources. Mark Weprin, a City Council member who opposed then-Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, voiced his support as did Ydanis Rodriguez, chair of the Council’s transportation committee. The prospects for a home-rule message though remain murky as the New York State Senate GOP, with no better ideas or funding solutions, has come out against the plan. Without acknowledging that no funding solution will lead to less service and drastically higher fares, a State GOP spokesman said, with a straight face, “Hardworking New Yorkers are paying enough already.” Talk about obliviousness.

Anyway, I digress. The editorial boards for The Post and Crain’s New York, two of the tougher constituents to impress here, voiced their support, and real estate and business interests may actually line up behind this plan. Streetsblog again explored the changing political dynamics behind the Move NY Fair Plan, but as Stephen Miller noted, “The key to the plan, though, is Governor Cuomo.” If the Governor supports this idea, it will become reality; if he doesn’t, the MTA is up a $15.2 billion creek with fare hikes and service cuts as their only paddle. Make of that what you will.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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It’s not too often we get a direct glimpse into the minds and inner workings of a New York City politician attempting to come to grips with transit policy, but this weekend’s Daily News provided us with just that opportunity. Appearing in print at around the same time we learned of his support for a Soundview ferry, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. penned his take on Sam Schwartz’s Move NY toll plan. His critique is flawed and shows the battle anyone fighting for transit in New York City faces.

Claiming that the Move New York plan was revealed to the public for the first time last month — technically true as the campaign launched but Schwartz, who discussed the plan at my October 2012 “Problem Solvers” session, hasn’t exactly been quiet lately — Diaz had the audacity to call it a “unfair regressive tax.” Does the Bronx Borough President know what a regressive tax is, you may wonder. I know I certainly am. Here’s Diaz’s critique in his own words:

To make this toll plan work, supporters this time are pledging to lower the tolls on outer-borough bridges, such as the Robert F. Kennedy and Verrazano Bridges, in order to entice support from those communities that rejected this proposal in 2008. What “Move NY” has proposed is likely a Trojan horse. While the promise of lower tolls is certainly alluring, there are no guarantees that those tolls would stay low forever. In fact, given the history of this city’s bridges and their tolls, we can be certain that these so-called “lower” tolls will surge back to their original heights in short order.

We are told that the congestion pricing system will be “fair.” I have a different definition of fairness than those proposing this scheme. It is not fair to place a regressive tax on those who can least afford it. It is not fair to imply that outer borough tolls will remain low forever…

If revenue is required, we can raise money in other ways. For starters, we should charge drivers to register their cars based on the vehicle’s weight and level of fuel efficiency. Not only will this incentivize drivers to choose hybrid or electric cars, it will place the burden of new funding on the vehicles that cause the most congestion and pollution. We must also begin to implement new transit plans that will lower congestion by providing alternatives, and not through new bridge taxes. This includes improvements like ferry service in Williamsburg, the Rockaways and Soundview, and new Metro North service in the East Bronx.

Just how, pricing supporters will ask, do we pay for such relatively inexpensive transit upgrades without a new pricing scheme? I would say that we have been paying all along, and that it is time for the other boroughs to be treated as “fairly” as Manhattan has been.

Diaz goes onto bemoan the high cost of construction for the Second Ave. Subway, 7 line extension and East Side Access, not because he’s concerned about MTA spending but because he can’t see the forrest for the trees. East Side Access barely touches Manhattanites as it is more concerned with bringing suburban commuters while the Second Ave. Subway will directly benefit Diaz’s constituents as they’ll enjoy less crowding on the Lexington Ave. lines that snake through the Bronx. (He conveniently doesn’t discuss the plans to add four Metro-North stations to underserved areas in his borough.)

But what of this claim of regressive taxation? We see this over and over again from politicians who have a very distorted view of who drives and who owns cars in New York City. As of early 2012, only 46 percent of Bronx households owned cars, and those who Diaz claims can’t afford a modest toll certainly aren’t driving into Manhattan every day. In fact, as Streetsblog eloquently argued a few months ago, the real regressive tax is the current tolling scheme. “It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses,” Ben Fried wrote. “It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.”

I don’t know if Schwartz’s plan is the answer to the transit funding woes, but it’s an answer. At some point, too, it will be the path of least resistance toward garnering a dedicated revenue stream for the transit system. But it’s not regressive, not by any stretch. I wouldn’t expect much more from a politician who thinks that a ferry that would serve a ridership in the low triple digits is a game-changer, but it does provide a glimpse of the mindset pervasive in the boroughs, City Hall and Albany. Misguided thinking is no way to set policies that impact millions.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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As Sam Schwartz’s Move NY traffic pricing plan once again makes the rounds, the usual suspects are lining up in support (and against) the proposal. A new mayoral administration could give supporters a chance to make waves, but this plan may live or die in the hands of Albany. Unsurprisingly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is not racing to throw his weight behind it.

To reporters yesterday, Cuomo made a brief remark on the plan, showing his skeptical hand. “The East River bridge tools were brought up may times before, he said. “It’s a proposal that’s been brought up almost every year for the past several years. It hasn’t passed in the past and I don’t believe it will pass now.” Cuomo, of course, has the power to turn his words into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he’s not even giving the plan a fair shakedown. I’m not surprised.

But should we be disappointed? Cuomo isn’t rushing out to support a traffic pricing plan for reasons I may not support, but a few good minds have cast some doubt on Schwartz’s current proposal. To get a sense of what, I’d direct you to a series of posts Cap’n Transit posted in 2012. He noted that the plan isn’t fair or equitable and went about discussing how it has incentives for future drivers and uninspired proposals and empty promises for bus service while overvaluing community boards and generally misses the point. I’m glad to see a traffic pricing plan back in the news, but it’s clear we have a long way to go before we reach a solution acceptable to everyone.

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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.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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If you’re looking for an excellent transportation event to attend tonight, check out this this program hosted by The New York Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation and the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation. It’s a conversation with Sam Schwartz. Details please:

The New York Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation and the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation invite you to join us for a conversation with former Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz on his vision for battling congestion in the New York region. Schwartz’s plan, which involves reorganizing tolls to generate $15 billion over ten years to fund road, bridge, subway and bus improvements, has been lauded by the media since its release in March 2012. Learn more about the Fair Plan and Schwartz’s career on May 29th.

CEO and Founder of Sam Schwartz Engineering, “Gridlock Sam” is considered a worldwide authority in traffic, highway, bridge, transit and parking systems. Prior to founding the firm in 1995, Schwartz was responsible for transportation engineering, infrastructure, and quality control and planning as Senior Vice President of Hayden Wegman Consulting Engineers, Inc. from 1990 to 1995. At the New York City Department of Transportation, he was responsible for an 8,000-person agency, a $350 million expense budget and a $700 million capital budget. Schwartz is a visiting scholar at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and a member of the New York Transportation Journal Editorial Board.

The shindig kicks off at 6 p.m. and runs until around 8 tonight. It’s on the 2nd Floor of the Puck Building at 295 Lafayette Street, easily accessible from the B, D, F, M, N, R and 6 trains. RSVP here if you’re interested.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to make a few trips between Washington Heights and Forest Hills. If I had unlimited hours, I could take a few trains, but we had more pressing matters to attend to (and groceries to cart home). Thus, I’ve had the experience of driving on a weekend over the Triborough Bridge, across the Cross Bronx, over the Whitestone Bridge, through that ugly part of the GWB approach in Manhattan and down the Deegan and FDR Drive. I’m always amazed anyone can do that on a regular basis.

While driving around on roads that were too small for the traffic, perennially under construction and in various states of disrepair, I marveled at our infrastructure. Here was a city that once built out a vast transit network but hasn’t managed to expand it much past the 1950s. Bus routes seem set in stone; subway expansion plans can be counted in new stations instead of new miles or even boroughs transversed. We don’t dream big, and we barely dream at all as many areas of the city feature bridges, roadways and elevated trains plagued by rust and potholes.

The problem, of course, is one of money. New York doesn’t have the money to spend maintaining antiquated roads, and few people are advocating for road expansion within the confines of the five boroughs. The MTA, meanwhile, definitely has no money. It has trouble covering operating costs and had to beg for its vital capital dollars just a few weeks ago. Over the years, Albany has rolled back taxes, denied other revenue-generating measures and generally acted as naysayers at a time when investment can both save our infrastructure and spur job creation.

Within New York City, at least, this trend of scorning transit could change if local politicians and officials have their way. Today, two stories showcasing various ways in which we could see a radical change in transit policy, if only Albany would act, hit the wires. Scott Stringer, a mayoral hopeful and current Manhattan Borough President, wants to see the commuter tax restored with dollars heading to the MTA. “I don’t want us to have a first-rate city with a second-rate transportation system. I am tired of the old ideas. I am tired of people saying it can’t be done,” he said to New York 1.

Stringer has been pushing for sensible transit policies for a few years now. (In fact, I attended and spoke at a conference on the future of transportation in New York City that his office hosted.) Whether it will play with the general electorate remains to be seen, but the Commuter Tax is a relatively “safe” issue. It doesn’t impact people voting for mayor and could in fact generate money for the transit network we all use. Stringer’s plan would siphon commuter tax revenue into an infrastructure bank, and considering how those who commute also avail themselves of the transit network, such a tax could serve as an equitable funding mechanism for the subways.

Then, of course, there is Sam Schwartz’s ambitious congestion pricing plan (pdf). Schwartz’s plan would lower some tolls on less congested routes while rising the fees to enter the busiest parts of the city and includes investment in the transit network. As Crain’s New York wrote in an editorial endorsing the plan, “Lowering the tolls between Queens and the Bronx, or Brooklyn and Staten Island, would increase commerce. Use of outer-borough bridges is light enough that their tolls can be lowered without snarling traffic. By the same token, imposing fees on users of congested roads would speed traffic, benefiting businesses whose time is more valuable than the cost of tolls.”

Of course, the same problems remain: Albany is obstinate. Suburban representatives won’t endorse a Commuter Tax, and no one seems to have an appetite for a congestion pricing plan or a bridge toll plan, no matter how sensible they are. So we’re stuck in the same old rut. Our transit network is decaying; our roads are forever clogged; and simple solutions that are on the table are ignored out of stubbornness and petty politics. That’s no way to run a city.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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