This past June, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and US Department of Transportation Secretary announced plans for Congestion Pricing in New York City. On March 24, City Council held a hearing on congestion pricing, introducing the bill into the state senate. The plan, which would potentially change the commutes of millions of New Yorkers, remains a point of contention for many in the city.
Congestion pricing consists of a mandatory $8 fee for driving into New York’s Central Business District (CBD), from 60th Street to the Southern tip of Manhattan. The fee would be in effect during peak weekday traffic times between 6 am and 6 pm. With drivers deterred because of costs, the plan hopes to reduce commute times, improve air quality and subsidize transit alternatives with new bus routes and 300 newer, more fuel efficient buses. The MTA plans to use congestion-pricing funds to enhance subway service on many lines. The newest proposal guarantees that about $500 million in annual revenue will be invested in transit expansion, including a new express route, two new local routes and increased service on 4 existing routes. In Manhattan, the income generated by increased ridership hopes to provide funding to increase service on 16 existing routes.
The city claims that congestion pricing will not only reduce traffic in the CBD area, but also in outer lying boroughs, since less traffic will pass through these neighborhoods en route to Manhattan. Less traffic means less gridlock, which means less cars idling exhaust into the air we breathe. The city argues that this decrease in traffic will improve air quality and areas with the city’s highest asthma rates will benefit from a healthier environment.
In a recent press release promoting the plan, the city argued that charging drivers to enter the congestion-pricing zone would help encourage some drivers to leave their car at home and take mass transit. “If we’re serious about encouraging people to use public transportation, we must increase travel options for underserved areas,” said MTA Executive Director and CEO Eliot G. Sander. Even as top officials, including Governor Patterson, support Mayor Bloomberg’s initiative, community boards and neighborhood representatives aren’t rushing to publicly support a plan that leaves many questions unanswered.
Diana Reyna spokesperson Amy Cleary said, “We are researching the issue from all angles before we can give support. First we have to ensure that the residents of our neighborhood, in the Greenpoint Williamsburg area, are protected and taken care of. We’re looking out for the small businesses and lower income families in the neighborhood. We don’t want this area to become a parking lot for people riding the L train.” Assemblyman Lentol’s office did not provide a comment.
Among the proposals to combat the “parking lot” epidemic for neighborhoods that host convenient train stops such as the L, Residential Parking is offered as a solution. This method would benefit residents whose cars are registered in the State of New York. Drivers will be issued a special sticker that allows them permission to park in their neighborhood. During certain hours these restrictions will be lifted for visitors and shoppers to the neighborhood, and metered spaces will also remain.
As the neighborhoods continue debating the issues, the clock continues to tick. City Council and the State Legislature have until April 7th – recently extended from March 31st – to approve the plan in order to receive a federal grant of $354 million. “If the City Council and State Legislature approve congestion pricing, New Yorkers will get hundreds of new local buses and scores of new express buses, subway cars and new ‘one-seat’ rides [rides that don’t require a transfer] over the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) Straphangers Campaign. “It’s a great package of transit improvements and it would be awful to lose them.”
Even with a plan that has gained large approval for its lofty promises citizens remain skeptical. In a poll released by Quinnipiac University, New York State voters oppose the proposal 50 to 33 percent. When asked if the profits gained from congestion pricing were specifically used for mass transit improvements, voters statewide sing a different tune, supporting the plan 60 to 30 percent. However, 50 percent of voters say it is “not too likely” or “not at all likely” that congestion pricing money would be used for mass transit, while 42 percent say this is “very likely” or “somewhat likely.”
A glance at blog comments posted on the “Citi Room” Page, The New York Times’ blog, is evidence enough that citizens, though supportive of a greener, less congested city, are hesitant to trust large sums of federal money as a harbinger of happier times ahead. One angry resident, posting as Susan, commented, “Cash is fungible–they can call it a ‘lock box,’ but what insures against reducing appropriations for mass transit in proportion to the CP money available? It can’t be done. Now that we are in hard financial times, and getting worse, you can be sure the state will grab the lion’s share. The $354 million from the Bush administration is a Trojan horse.”
Brooklyn’s Community Board 7, representing Sunset Park and Windsor Terrace, hosted two public forums on the proposal and even voted on the matter in its last meeting. The results showed 28 people against with only one in favor and 3 abstentions. District Manager Jeremy Laufer told the Gazette, “It’s very disappointing… the administration has not been specific regarding the benefit for our community. Both [forums] showed no plans to increase transit capacity in the community and everybody seems against residential parking.”
The MTA has already announced that their intended improvements on the G line—the proposed larger car and extended service to Church Ave. in Brooklyn—will now have to be delayed. The delays were attributed to lost funds due to taxes dropping in real estate transactions. With Bloomberg statements during his Sunday radio address including that, “A critical part of the MTA’s new five-year capital plan is at least $4.5 billion in funds that would be created by bonding out $500 million a year in congestion pricing fees,” the proposed money for improvements remains a projected capital.
London and Milan have already enacted similar congestion policies in their central business districts and have seen positive results. Milan’s program doesn’t just charge a car for entering the congestion zone, it charges based on Euro emissions class and fuel type. The more environmentally friendly your vehicle, the less you pay. London charges drivers by way of text message, Internet, telephone, or in person at a retail stores for entering the central business district during peak hours. These payments are enforced using either a debit, EZ Pass-like system, or, for those without a debit account, camera technology that records your license plate.
For New Yorkers, all cars are treated equally—all drivers are responsible for a flat $8 fee. London’s program, which started in 2003, generated approximately 250 million pounds last year, while costing about 130 million to operate. New York City’s proposed transit improvements will require a larger profit margin.
Whatever the profit, the population of New York City steadily climbing past 8.2 million, and with it, the need to ensure a cleaner future in the face of climate change, increasing rates of childhood asthma, and an oil crisis is inevitable. Whether or not Bloomberg and the MTA make good on their promises for a new and improved subway, the need to plan and accommodate for the future is underway. With any luck, that future will include, at the very least, a zippy ride on the G train.