There are 24 transportation proposals in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plaNYC,
but one is getting all the attention: a pilot program to test congestion pricing.
The political battle is heating up over whether to impose a charge on motorists
both to discourage driving in car-clogged Manhattan and to yield the money needed
for big-ticket investments like the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access.
The plan's transportation list also features smaller, less expensive improvements
that could and should be implemented now, without waiting for congestion pricing.
We Have The Technology, Butâ€¦
According to his own plans, the mayor has about two years to put congestion
pricing in place. In all likelihood, it will take even longer - for technological
reasons as well as political ones. The mayor's plan is modeled on London's
geographic system: Vehicles entering the central zone during designated
business hours must pay a flat fee. The proposal sounds simple: Charge every
car $8 and every truck $21 for coming into Manhattan south of 86th Street between
6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on weekdays. But first, all river crossings, including
those that are now free, and all southbound avenues at 86th Street, will have
to be equipped with EZ-Pass readers. Cameras will have to be installed to find
and fine violators, as in London.
And a number of details, while sensible, will complicate implementation:
-- Drivers will be credited for tolls paid at bridges and tunnels to and from
Manhattan, requiring a new, system to reconcile fees collected by various charging
entities, including the Port Authority and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
--Since moving a vehicle already within the zone will incur only half the fee,
sensors and cameras will have to be installed throughout the business district,
not just at the boundaries.
--Because cars moved for alternate-side-of-the-street parking will not be subject to the charge, the system must
be able to distinguish among types of vehicle movements and trips.
--Many vehicles, including emergency vehicles, buses, taxis and cars with handicapped
license plates - will be exempt from the charge, meaning the system will need
to be able to recognize them.
All of this is technologically feasible. But information technology projects
nearly always exceed the time and money budgeted by proponents.
Money for Transit
The city needs $2.7 billion for the first two phases of the Second Avenue Subway,
$2 billion to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, and
$175 million to reopen the defunct rail line along Staten Island's North Shore.
Another $10 billion is needed to bring subway infrastructure and roads and bridges
to a state of good repair.
The administration is anticipating state and federal contributions, but congestion
pricing would be the most important local source of funds. Without congestion
pricing, argues the mayor, the big projects cannot be built, nor is there money
to complete repairs to existing transportation infrastructure anytime soon.
But Will It Reduce Traffic?
To get off the ground politically, congestion pricing cannot be seen as just
a new source of revenue. New Yorkers have to believe that it will help reduce
The administration expects congestion pricing to decrease vehicles entering
Manhattan by 6 percent and increase speeds within the charging zone by 7 percent.
In other words, the traffic improvement in Manhattan would be modest.
However, the program will surely reduce congestion in neighborhoods like Downtown
Brooklyn and Long Island City that have long suffered from through-traffic.
The different costs for the various East River crossings have demonstrated for
decades that tolls do affect driver behavior. The free Brooklyn, Manhattan,
Williamsburg, and Queensboro bridges, as well as their feeder roads, are clogged,
while traffic flows more smoothly to and through the tolled tunnels. The mayor's
proposal would correct this pricing irrationality by crediting drivers for the
cost of their tolls. The price for a round-trip using E-ZPass through a tolled
East River crossing is $8-exactly the same as the automobile congestion charge
proposed for the pilot.
Many New Yorkers will welcome the news that the administration plans to step
up traffic enforcement. In addition, The administration's plan to install Muni-Meters
(modern, credit-card-friendly parking meters) should ease traffic problems related
to curbside parking in business districts outside Manhattan. There are projects
to expand ferry service and promote cycling.
But one of the most important potential reforms has gone unmentioned-doing
something about the excessive amount of free parking in the city, especially
for government employees. Because they often get unlimited free parking at a
wide range of designated areas, government employees drive
to work in the Manhattan central business district at just about twice the rate
(27 percent versus 14 percent) of private-sector employees. To demonstrate its
commitment to reducing congestion, the Bloomberg administration should eliminate
free parking privileges for city employees-and urge other employers to do the
Make The Improvements Now
But the single most important thing the mayor can do to convince New Yorkers
to give his congestion-pricing pilot a shot is to implement transportation improvements
first. London increased bus service before implementing congestion pricing -
and that was one of the keys to London's
In his "A Greener, Greater New York" speech, the mayor announced
that transportation upgrades for underserved areas would begin right away, and
plaNYC features a chart of improvements for 22 neighborhoods with concentrations
of Manhattan-bound drivers. These include adding bus routes (College Point,
Jackson Heights and Woodside/Sunnyside), adjusting bus routes (Bay Ridge, Canarsie
and Cambria Heights), improving connections between bus and subways (15 of the
22 neighborhoods, including Co-op City, Soundview and Flatlands), changing traffic
signals to favor buses (Schuylerville, Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay), and improving
access to subway and rail stations (Clinton Hill, Kensington and South Ozone
Starting these improvements now-transportation services that should already
exist - will correct a long-standing wrong and make Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious
vision more achievable.
Hope Cohen is deputy director of the Manhattan Institute's Center
for Rethinking Development.
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