Will Congestion Pricing Live Up to City’s Needs?

Event: Civic Talk: Congestion Pricing
Location: Museum of the City of New York, 01.09.08
Speakers: Walter McCaffrey — Lobbyist, ex-councilmember; Michael O’Loughlin — Director, Campaign for New York’s Future; Anthony Weiner — Congressman, Bronx-Queens; Kathryn S. Wylde — President/CEO, Partnership for NYC
Moderator: Henry J. Stern — President, New York Civic
Organizers: Museum of the City of New York

Event: Congestion Pricing Public Forum
Location: Center for Architecture, 01.14.08
Speakers: Wiley Norvell — Communications Director, Transportation Alternatives; Peter Kostmayer, Hon. AIA — President, Citizens Committee for NYC; Alan J. Gerson — Manhattan District 1 Council member; Walter McCaffrey; Shirley McRae — Member, Brooklyn Community Board 2
Moderator: James Wright, AIA — Co-Chair, AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee
Organizers: AIANY Transportation and Infrastructure Committee

Congestion Pricing

Four of the five different congestion pricing plans on the table (l-r): The Mayor’s Plan; The Alternate Congestion Pricing Plan; The East River and Harlem River Toll Plan; and The License Plate Rationing Plan.

Courtesy NYSDOT

With five plans on the table, and a $354 million federal grant at stake, the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission has just until January 31 to decide on the best congestion pricing proposal to recommend to the Governor, State Legislature, City Council, and Mayor for review. Recently, the commission made available its Interim Report to the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each proposal. Over the last couple of weeks, a series of discussions, public forums, and events intended to include the public in the process have taken place around the city, and advocates both for and against congestion pricing are not making the commission’s decision easy. To make it more complicated, the commission can recommend any of the plans, a modified version of the plans, or a completely new plan.

Panelists — both for and against congestion pricing — emphasized that congestion mitigation and monetary income to improve mass transit must remain the two highest priorities throughout the decision process. Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO at Partnership for NYC, argued that since only 5% of commuters to NYC come by car, the remaining 95% mass transit riders would benefit, making congestion pricing indispensable. With one million additional inhabitants expected in coming years, something needs to be done, claimed Shirley McRae, Brooklyn Community Board 2 member. According to Michael O’Loughlin, director of the Campaign for New York’s Future, congestion pricing is one way to funnel money into the infrastructure. It’s rare to see so many government officials — from President Bush to Mayor Bloomberg — agree on an initiative, so now clearly is the time to act, urged Wiley Norvell, communications director at Transportation Alternatives.

Much of the skepticism about congestion pricing lies in trusting the government to follow through on its promises. Congressman for the Bronx and Queens Anthony Weiner doesn’t think the city will receive as much money as the government is projecting. With an influx of one million new inhabitants, the already overwhelmed subways will suffer further, stated Walter McCaffrey, lobbyist and ex-councilmember. Also, there is no guarantee that the net increase in funding will end up in mass transit as promised. Instead, congestion pricing could fail just like to the lottery — a government initiative intended to filter money into education, but built-in additional taxes drained that same money out of the system. In addition, Weiner believes congestion pricing will create a larger class divide citywide, in essence making Midtown a gated community. That the 17-person commission was selected by government officials, and the public won’t be able to vote on the issue, only reinforces his theory, he contends.

Many alternatives There are many congestion pricing alternatives to the proposed five plans. To name a few, Weiner suggested reinstating the commuter tax on vehicles commuting from outside of the city. He wants to see larger fees placed on trucks, since he believes they are the root cause of congestion, and create tax incentives for overnight deliveries to ease up truck congestion during rush hour. Also, instead of charging people in the city, he wants to see gas prices raised to “charge people at the pumps.” McCaffrey thinks the city needs to crack down on policies already in place, such as “block-the-box” violations and parking permit forgery. He also blames the construction industry for blocking streets, and would like to include construction-related blockages in the proposals, possibly by limiting hours that deliveries are made. Norvell suggested that carpooling and biking incentives be built in to the plans. As the March deadline nears for the state government to vote on the commission’s suggestions, a narrower vision of congestion pricing should emerge. Just whose interests the plan will aid is yet to be seen.