Congestion pricing plan gains actual momentum

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The Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
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In 1980, Mayor Ed Koch proposed banning single-occupant cars from the East River bridges, which have no tolls, during morning rush hour. The idea was to reduce congestion in Manhattan’s central business district by making those same drivers pay tolls at other crossings.

The Automobile Club of New York sued. And won.

“The New York driver, like drivers elsewhere, is a difficult person to convince to change,” Sam Schwartz, then Koch’s assistant transportation commissioner, said that year.

And didn’t he know it.

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By the time the Koch administration took up the fight, Schwartz, a deputy transportation commissioner under Koch, had been trying to achieve those same ends since 1971, when John Lindsay was mayor.

He’s still trying. Six mayors and 43 years later, he appears, possibly, maybe, to finally be making some headway.

The Automobile Club of New York, the club that sued over Schwartz’s plan in 1980, and also opposed former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan in 2007, is cautiously endorsing Schwartz’s Move NY plan. So is another Bloomberg congestion pricing nemesis, the New York State Motor Truck Association.

Schwartz's plan, in addition to adding tolls to East River crossings, would lower tolls on outer-borough bridges.

In an interview, John Corlett, chair of AAA New York State’s legislative committee, described the Automobile Club as “tentatively supportive.”

“For the first time in a long time we’re talking about distinct benefits for our members, including toll reductions,” he said. “When’s the last time you heard of a toll reductions? And capital improvements in roads and bridges, which we know are a mess.”

“It’s obviously a tough one for us, because we have a lot of members in Brooklyn and Queens and this involves East River bridge tolls,” he added. “But I think it’s important to have the debate.”

Kendra Hems, the president of the New York State Motor Truck Association, meanwhile, said in a statement that the trucking group “is pleased to be working with the Move NY team to find solutions to the congestion and infrastructure funding issues facing New York City. The ability to move freight efficiently is critical to the trucking industry and will help to improve the quality of life for all New Yorkers.”

And finally, to complete the trifecta, the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce, which stayed on the sidelines during Bloomberg’s failed effort, is on board with Schwartz’s tolling plan.

“Sam’s plan basically helps the outer boroughs,” said Linda Baran, the chamber’s president.

That three erstwhile nemeses have embraced a road-pricing scheme speaks both to how different that plan is from its predecessors and how truly sorry the region’s infrastructure is.

Every day, more than 11 million people flood the city’s subways and buses, taxis and commuter railroads, highways, bridges, tunnels, streets--the infrastructure that enables New York City to be New York City.

Nevertheless, its importance is not reflected in its funding.

No one can quite figure out how the M.T.A. will fund what’s estimated to be a $30 billion capital program. Washington has all but abandoned urban infrastructure. And that infrastructure is potholed and creaky.

A Center for an Urban Future report--released, eerily, the day before the East Harlem explosion that appears to have been caused by a leaky gas pipe--found that a third of all city streets are in “fair” or “poor” condition; the Gowanus Expressway is “functionally obsolete”, 47 bridges are in such bad shape that, “if a single span, beam or joint of such a bridge fails, the whole thing could come tumbling down;” a surprisingly high portion of subway signals are so old that replacement parts are no longer manufactured; subway stations are trash-strewn, their columns are rusty, their paint is peeling.

So far, the M.T.A. has managed to equip just one subway line with “communications based train control,” an increasingly popular technology that allow trains to run more frequently. Fares are rising faster than inflation.

Schwartz’s plan, Move NY, promises to help change that, by raising nearly $1.5 billion a year in revenue, with a quarter of it going to roads and bridges, and the rest going to mass transit.

The basic outlines of Schwartz’ plan are explicitly intended to be more palatable to the outer-borough voters than former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s’ failed congestion pricing scheme, which didn't offer explicit benefits for outer-borough drivers. It died in Albany.

The new plan’s principal ingredients are this: Drivers will pay tolls to enter Manhattan’s central business district, whether via the bridges spanning the East River or by driving across 60th Street; drivers will pay lower tolls to cross the Verrazano, Whitestone, Throgs Neck and Triboro, Henry Hudson Bridge, and Rockaways bridges; taxi riders south of 96th Street within will get hit with a “modest” surcharge.

About a quarter of the $1.5 billion a year in annual revenue would go toward bridge and road repairs, with the rest going toward mass transit.

All of which would, according to the proposal, increase traffic speeds in the central business district about 20 percent.

“If you take a step back and you look at what the future of our transportation system looks like, how much is it going to cost people who live here, it’s broken and it has to be fixed,” said Baran.

The coalition, which includes the Regional Plan Association, will formally launch its draft plan on Friday, at a forum at Baruch, featuring, among others, the state's transportation commissioner, Joan McDonald. It will then do a tour of sorts, meeting with community groups, and holding public forums.

It plans to release a final proposal by the end of the year, after Governor Andrew Cuomo has been safely reelected.

Conventional wisdom has it that the odds are narrow.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has expressed no interest in the plan (arguably, that’s a good thing, given his Albany record so far). Governor Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, doesn’t pay much attention to New York City infrastructure. On the other hand, he still has to figure out how he’s going to fund his Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, not to mention the M.T.A.’s next capital plan. So there is an opening for a grand bargain of some sort, perhaps one involving a repeal of the much-hated payroll mobility tax.

A Cuomo spokesman had no comment for this story.

Straphangers Campaign’s Gene Russianoff, a veteran of these sorts of fights, described an uphill battle.

“It infinitely better thought-out than the Bloomberg plan,” he said. “One might even call it politically savvy, particularly the part where you create constituencies that would see their tolls lowered.”

But, he said, “Maybe because I’m battle scarred from that process, I have a ‘I’m from Brooklyn show me’ attitude. It’s a very challenging battle.”