The Transit Lock Box
March 24th, 2008

Can you trust City Hall? The state? The Metropolitan Transportation Authority?

That emerged as the number one issues at this morning’s hearings on congestion pricing. Transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan said over and over again that the $354 million in federal transportation aid that the city stands to get if it enacts congestion pricing will go toward transit improvements before the city even begins to charge people for driving into Manhattan south of 60th Street on weekdays. This includes 367 new buses, she said, to be placed on 33 existing lines and 12 new routes.

And she said, once the system goes into effect, all revenues from the tolls would go to expand the transit system or bring it up to state of good repair.

Many council members liked the improvements– “that’s a Tish James list,” said Councilmember Letitia James referring to a section in Sadik-Khan’s written testimony outlining improvements for Brooklyn. But they wondered if it all will come to fruition.

“How are we going to make sure it [the money] is actually going to go to expanding and improving mass transit?” Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a congestion pricing supporter, said to kick off the hearing.

“I’m not going to believe for a moment the lock box can’t be broken,” said Lew Fidler, who opposes congestion pricing. He questioned whether the state would use the revenues as a rationale to cut other funding for mass transit (the administration says no) and raised concerns about costs of admnistering parts of the program.

In a similar vein, Melinda Katz questioned where the city would get the $130 million it says it needs for cameras and other infrastructure for congestion pricing. Sadik-Khan said the city would put up the money and replace it once congestion fees start rolling in. Katz, who said she has been against congestion pricing from “the very beginning,” remained skeptical. “If it’s successful,” she said. “Originally it’s going to come out of our budget.”

“The order of how this works is illogical,” she continued. “If federal government is so anxious to get congestion pricing, they can pay to do it.”

But most members wondered more about funding for projects in their individual districts. James, for example, suggested a study to determine the feasibility of linking the G train to the IRT.

Larry Seabrook of the Bronx praised the transit improvements aimed at his Bronx district but said some of them had been bandied about for 20 years. “How are we going to be assured that these programs will go forward?” he asked.

While funding might go to mass transit, Mike McMahon questioned whether a significant portion would make its way to Staten Island, which he represents. How do we know, he asked, “that it’s not going to be spent on the Second Avenue subway or another massive project in Manhattan?”

But John Liu said he though the fees are worth a shot. “Congestion pricing is definitely annoying, inconvenient and some people may consider it unfair,” the councilmember from Queens said. If it goes through, he said, there will be “more bus lines and new ferries and commuter train access.” But he said the MTA and the city must stick to the timelines for improving transit. “The big problem people have is they don’t trust the MTA and even city government for following through and using the money effectively.”

In the end, the administration officials could not guarantee individual projects would receive funding even with congestion pricing, but they did guarantee what would happen without congestion pricing. “If we don’t do this, we will never be able to think about these things,” Aggarwala said.

The fate of any fees may be the biggest obstacle to passing congestion pricing (or at least it would be if this were going to be decided by the will of the people). According to a Q Poll out today, voters accross the state favor congestion pricing by a margin of two to one — if the revenues go to improve mass transit in the metropolitan area. But half of these same voters don’t think that is likely to happen.

(For more on congestion pricing see Gotham Gazette’s “Breaking the Gridlock on Congestion Pricing” and The Council and Congestion Pricing:Part II.)

By on March 24, 2008, 6:58 pm
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