The presentation: Congestion pricing may be stalled, but Gridlock Sam Schwartz keeps going

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Pre-1911 East River bridge tolls. (via SamSchwartz.com)
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Transportation guru Sam Schwartz has been making the rounds with a presentation outlining a new congestion-pricing scheme, one that proposes tolling cross-Hudson bridges and pumping much of the resulting revenue into New York City's ailing mass-transit system.

“I’ve been told to have low expectations,” Schwartz told Capital. 

But, he said, "I’ve gotten a warm response from a number of people, some of whom were opponents to previous plans, and I’m hoping that a champion or champions will arise in the legislature that will sponsor this and carry this through."

Schwartz, a former city traffic commissioner who for a long time wrote as "Gridlock Sam" in the Daily News, has yet to make any publicly discernable conversions, though he's certainly tried, according to a slide in his presentation listing meetings he'd held to that point. 

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His targets so far include Charles Fuschillo, chair of the transportation committee in the state Senate, where funding the M.T.A. is not particularly popular; Port Authority executive director Patrick Foye; M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota; General Contractors Association managing director Denise Richardson; Real Estate Board of New York president Steve Spinola; and Kathy Wylde, president of the city’s business lobby, the Partnership for New York, among others.

It's hard to imagine any congestion-pricing scheme making it through Albany without support from some or all of these people. The Bloomberg administration's push for a congestion-pricing arrangement, which didn't have much institutional support at the state level, was uncermoniously smothered to death, after which the mayor himself gave up the cause as hopeless.

Schwartz declined to discuss who he’s met with.

“Everybody’s skittish about having their names associated with a plan this early,” he said.

When asked if he’d managed to corner anyone from the governor’s office yet, Schwartz said, “I haven’t met with the governor’s office per se, but I’ve met with state officials."

(The slides in this presentation, including the one detailing who Schwartz has met with, are not necessarily current, or comprehensive; the version of the presentation posted on Schwartz's website, which doesn't include the meetings slide, also posits a larger toll-derived revenue stream.)

Schwartz has been immersed in transportation policy for about four decades, and currently runs an eponymous transportation engineering firm.

He is an unabashed advocate of more, and more stable, funding for the M.T.A., which could certainly use the assistance.

Even now, just after Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature touted a package the provides money for the M.T.A. to pay for its five-year capital plan, the authority's finances are getting worse, not better; the plan is paid for by new debt, and it's not at all clear how the authority will be able to bear the ballooning debt payments anticipated for future years. Congestion pricing, for Schwartz, represents an opportunity to solve a traffic problem and a transit-revenue problem at once.

To forestall outer-borough anger of the sort that helped kill congestion-pricing last time, Schwartz proposes reducing tolls in between the Bronx, Queens and Upper Manhattan, within Queens and between Brooklyn and Staten Island, and to increase tolls on the bridges and tunnels that feed into Manhattan's central business district. (Those would be the Manhattan, Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Queensboro bridges, which don't have tolls now, and on the Brooklyn Battery and Midtown tunnels.)

To lessen suburban opposition, Schwartz's plan allocates one third of the estimated $1.9 billion in resulting revenue to non-mass-transit purposes, including roads and pedestrian bridges.

“We need a plan that also addresses those people that have constituencies that never use the transit system,” says Schwartz.

As Schwartz points out in his presentation, tolling East River bridges has been a hot-button issue since at least 1911, the year Mayor William Jay Gaynor stopped charging 5 cents for pushcarts and 10 cents for automobiles.

The 1898 unification of the city was, at the time, a very recent memory.

“This was another statement saying we’re one city,” said Schwartz. “We’re not going to charge you to go within one city.”