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Next Steps for Congestion Pricing

On January 10, the New York City Traffic Mitigation Commission released a series of alternatives to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's original congestion pricing program for the city. The commission is slated to make final recommendations to the City Council and the State Legislature by January 31. With the commission -- and New Yorkers -- at a critical moment in this important debate, what are the alternatives under consideration and what would they mean for the city?

The Background

First, for newcomers to this issue, here are the basics: Last spring, Bloomberg released his PlaNYC 2030 proposal. PlaNYC 2030 is the mayor's environmental and sustainability legacy for the future - more than 100 transportation, housing, energy, land use and environmental programs and proposals that will reduce the city's global warming pollution by 30 percent and create the infrastructure for a city that will have 1 million more residents than it does today.

A key component of PlaNYC 2030 (certainly, the one that has received the most attention and controversy) is the proposal to create a congestion-pricing program that, for the first time, would charge drivers in midtown Manhattan at peak hours. Most of the coverage of this idea has focused on the notion of charging drivers in Manhattan's central business district to reduce congestion. But here's what's equally important: The city's proposal (and the new alternatives) will raise more than $400 million a year to give straphangers more elbow room on the 7 train, cleaner seats on the Bx1 bus and more frequent service on the F train.

In July, the state legislature passed a law that set up the commission, which embarked on a eight-month mission to consider the mayor's plan, outline alternatives and, many environmentalists and others hope, give a thumbs'-up to a three-year demonstration project by March 31, 2008.

The Five Options

The commission's January 10 report is a critical piece to figuring out what's on the horizon for the administration's proposal. (For details, check out the Interim Report itself.) In a nutshell, the commission has added four alternatives to the mayor's plan. They are:

The Mayor's Plan

Vehicles entering or leaving Manhattan below 86th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. during the week would pay $8, and trucks would pay $21. Driving within the zone would cost $4 for cars, $5.50 for trucks. Vehicles paying a bridge or tunnel toll using E-Z Pass that day would pay only the difference between the toll and the congestion charge, if any. Driving on the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway would be free.

If the mayor's proposal works as planned, it would reduce the number of miles driven in the congestion pricing zone by 6.7 percent and generate $420 million a year in revenues for transit investments. On the other hand, it's a really complicated system to manage, thanks to the intra-zone charge. And despite all the pollution and traffic they generate, taxi and livery drivers would not be charged extra for the trips they make in and out of the zone all day long. Ditto, that 18-wheeler that crossed the George Washington Bridge and came down Second Avenue or Columbus Avenue en route to Midtown, since it paid $30 on the bridge already.

The Alternative Congestion Pricing Plan

This is similar to the Mayor's plan, but it has some key changes:

  • The northern border of the congestion-pricing zone would be 60th Street.
  • There would be no charge for private vehicles driving within the zone -- only for entering it.
  • On the other hand, there would be a charge to drive on the periphery roads.
  • Taxi riders within the zone would pay a $1 surcharge.
  • The value of the toll offset would be capped at $8, meaning that those trucks on the George Washington Bridge would pay a $13 congestion charge if they cross 60th Street.
  • Parking meter rates would go up in the zone, and residential parking tax exemptions would no longer exist in the zone.

This closely resembles a proposal offered by the Empire State Transportation Alliance, a broad coalition of business, labor, environmental and other civic organizations in the city co-chaired by the Regional Plan Association and the General Contractors Association. (Full disclosure: I'm on the alliance's steering committee.)

It would cut congestion a bit more than the mayor's proposal. More important, it would generate an additional $100 million a year to give straphangers, train commuters and bus riders some extra breathing room on their trips throughout the city. Plus, it's a heck of a lot easier to implement, thanks to the elimination of the intra-zone charge. And by eliminating the parking tax exemption and adding a surcharge for cab rides in the congestion zone, it really promotes transit as the best low-cost way to get around Manhattan.

The East River and Harlem River Toll Plan

Bye-bye, congestion pricing. Bye-bye, free bridge crossings. Hello, 24-hour bridge tolls on all river crossings. There would be no toll plazas, so this would be an E-Z Pass-only system and would charge drivers $4 to cross the rivers, no matter when they travel or what crossing they use. This would end the "free" ride on many of the 14 bridges that span the East River and the Harlem River and increase the current toll on those crossings that already have a toll (e.g., on the Henry Hudson Parkway).

The commission estimates that this would reduce miles driven by 7 percent and raise $859 million/year. They may be correct. But last time I checked, East River bridge tolls were what many would call a political "third rail," to borrow a phrase from the transit world. For this to go through, unless the governor and the mayor would have to come up with a way to convince Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx residents that tolling these bridges does not discriminate against them, or that these new tolls won't create new, unintended traffic jams as people change their driving patterns in response to the new tolls.

The License Plate Rationing Plan

Using a rationing system based on the last digit of the vehicle's license plate, each vehicle would be prohibited from entering the congestion zone (south of 86th Street) once every five days. Cameras and extra police at each of the entry points into the rationing zone would enforce this plan.

Mexico City and Athens have led the way here - and the results were clear in both cities: a new black market in license plates and a stronger market for really old, really dirty, really cheap used cars that came with the appropriate license plate.

The Combination Plan

Like the rationing plan, this isn't congestion pricing per se, except for taxis, which would have an $8 per trip surcharge for trips that begin and/or end south of 86th Street. Instead, it's a series of measures to significantly raise parking costs (not only would the resident parking tax exemption disappear, but the city's parking tax would rise from today's 18.375 percent to 38.375 percent) and dramatically reduce the number of government parking permits in the zone.

This idea doesn't cut down on driving enough to meet the statutory minimum of a 6.7 percent reduction in the number of miles driven in the zone, even though it would raise roughly $660 million/year for transit.

Here's the bottom line: The commission has done a ton of strong analytical work to figure out the pros and cons of the mayor's original proposal, and has added four more ideas for consideration. There may be some fireworks at the commission's January 24 hearings, but the most important news will come on January 31, when the commission issues its final report to the mayor, the City Council and the State Legislature.

Rich Kassel is a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, where he focuses on urban air pollution and transportation issues. He also chairs the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a regional transportation advocacy organization and blogs on a variety of environmental issues on the NRDC Switchboard.


Speeding New York's Buses

New York City has the most bus riders of any city in the country -- but the slowest and most unreliable buses, according to city officials. Two and a half million people board New York City buses each day, then travel at an average of 7.5 miles per hour as their buses sit stuck in traffic, stopped at red lights or waiting for passengers to board.

"The buses are slow en route and in wait," said Gene Russianoff, attorney and chief spokesman for the New York Public Interest Research Group's commuter advocacy group, Straphangers Campaign. "It wouldn't hurt to have a copy of 'Gone with the Wind' if you're planning a long bus trip."

Almost 20 separate north-south bus routes in Manhattan require close to two hours to complete their 10-mile journey. You can take Amtrak 110 miles from New York to Philadelphia and enjoy an authentic Philly Cheese steak in about 90 minutes.

And the problem is getting worse. Incentives like free subway/bus transfers, ridership have boosted the number of bus riders by 42 percent over the past decade but between 2002 and 2006 bus speeds decreased by 4 percent, according to the mayor's office.

Despite the dismal statistics, any effort to boost the quality and popularity of mass transit in New York City must include buses. Improving bus service remains far easier, faster and more cost efficient to than improving the subway system.

"Unlike subway lines, when talking about buses these are not items that need huge multimillion dollar capital output," said New York City Councilmember John Liu, chairman of the Transportation Committee. "We're talking months, not years or decades. It is common sense."

The Road to BRT

Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is a major component of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's quest to improve mass transit and ease traffic congestion in New York City.

"BRT tries to combine the speed and reliability of rail services with the flexibility and cost effectiveness of bus services," said Russianoff. In true BRT, buses travel in a straight, traffic-free path, like subways and railroads, meaning that bus lanes must be specially dedicated. The methods for accomplishing this - and even the definition of "dedicated lane" -- vary from city to city and country to country. The lanes can entail painting the "bus only" lanes a bright, distinctive color, physically separating the bus lanes from other traffic or even moving the bus lanes to the middle of the road, to avoid problems with turning cars.

U.S. cities and cities around the world are successfully using an array of these techniques, to reduce traffic and wait times, increase bus speeds, rider capacity and rider satisfaction while at the same time improving the environmental and reducing the number of car accidents.

Speeding the Ride

In trying to speed its own buses New York can look far to the south. During the mid-1990s, Bogotá, Colombia, has a 21st century BRT that has won accolades from around the world. But this was not always the case. A World Bank report, "Colombia: Overcoming Traffic Gridlock in Bogotá" concluded, " Bogotá's rapid growth resulted in complicated commuting patterns, severe congestion and a deteriorating transportation network. The traditional bus system was chaotic, with too many buses, poor conditions, and no organized stops."

In 2001, the city began building a BRT system, the TransMilenio. It created new bus stations that look like above-ground subway stops and work much like railroad stations. Wide bus lanes run down in the middle of the street, physically cordoned off from other traffic. The buses are elongated and have multiple doors that are flush to the curb for easier boarding. Electronic, real-time signs display the bus schedule; and fares are collected before boarding. TransMilenio, which was completed in about three years, has significantly decreased traffic, improved air quality and reduced road accidents. It has proved so successful that it has served as a model for other large cities around the world, including Los Angeles, London, and Paris.

Photo of Bus Rapid Transit

Photo (cc) 2006 Streetsblog.

New York Tries to Catch Up

New York has lagged behind many cities, including Bogotá, London and Paris, but it has launched some pilot programs to speed its buses. Last summer, the Department of Transportation painted existing bus lanes bright red in areas of Manhattan and the Bronx. Russianoff believes this will have a positive impact.

"While we do have lanes that are supposed to be 'bus-only,' they are not respected or enforced," he said, "this will remind people these lanes have a special purpose."

Dedicated bus lanes, particularly those without physical barriers, such as the painted ones must be enforced to be effective, especially without physical barriers.

Democratic New York State Senator, Liz Krueger wants cameras placed on the outside of the buses. "We're never going to have a transit cop on every corner, nor would we want one," she said. "But mounting cameras on buses and streets would make it easy to track down violators who drive or park in the bus lanes, much as they do now at red lights and tunnels."

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a non-profit organization that promotes travel by means other than cars, wants a more ambitious dedicated lane system mirroring Bogotá's. He thinks bus riders are entitled to it.

"Since there are more bus riders then car riders and one bus can carry more than 10 times the number of passengers as a car. Why shouldn't they be a priority for street space?" he asked.

Broadway's Bus Bulbs

Not everyone agrees with White, however. This spring, "bus bulbs" were introduced on lower Broadway, at Spring Street and Walker Street. Taking the name from their London counterparts, the bulbs call for extending sidewalks about 10 feet into the street. This lets buses load passengers without having to pull over to the curb.

"The reason bus bulbs work is because the bus can maintain a straight trajectory while it's completing its route," White said. In New York for buses to waste time pulling into bus stops, especially when several buses arrive at once.

Like dedicated bus lines, bulbs take space from other vehicles in order to speed up bus transport. Some residents and shop owners say this only makes existing congestion worse.

"I'm not sure what the goal is," said Albert Capsouto, owner of Capsouto Freres restaurant in Tribeca. "I guess if they're trying to make driving down here completely intolerable, then I'd call it a success."

That was exactly the idea Paris' mayor had in 2001, when he vowed to reduce traffic and improve air quality in the auto-centric city. "What Paris has done right is to make it awful to get around by car and awfully easy to get around by public transportation," the Times reported last summer.

Despite the cynics, more bus bulbs are currently under construction on Broadway.

Erratic Service

Buses can spend 20 percent of their time stuck at red lights or in traffic, and another 30 percent loading passengers. "Waiting 15 minutes for a bus to come, or watching a bus pull away and not knowing when the next one will come is the biggest frustration for many riders," said White. It seems either there are no buses at all, or three buses show up in a bunch, causing delays as each bus loads and unloads passengers. Either way, you wait.

Bus Priority Signaling, now being tested in Staten Island, allows better coordination between buses and traffic lights and so could help address some of the delays. If a bus is running late, a green light can be extended until the bus makes it through the intersection, so the bus can stay on schedule.

In addition, New York City Transit has begun testing Global Positioning Systems on buses and adding real-time electronic signs at bus stops that show when the next bus really will arrive. The technology is being tried out at along the city's busiest bus route, running on First and Second Avenues.

"The benefits are twofold," said Krueger, whose district includes the bus stops. "It's very valuable for people at the bus stops to have information about when the next bus is pulling up." More importantly, she said, "it provides a coherent and logical pattern of bus traffic, with one central office sending buses where they are needed at a particular time or given a particular circumstance." This provides valuable flexibility in the event of is gridlock, bus bunching, or a burst steam pipe. "For New York City, GPS is huge," Krueger said.

Quicker Boarding

Krueger, White and Russianoff would all like to see changes in the current fare collection method. On-board MetroCard fare collection is time consuming and cumbersome. Most cities collect bus fares prior to boarding to reduce wait time.

Modifications to the buses themselves - creating longer buses to accommodate more riders, additional doors for entering and exiting, and lower floors - would make it easier for passenger, particularly the elderly and disabled, to board and so cut the amount of time buses spend at bus stops.

A Time for Testing

A spokesperson for the transportation department said it is studying the effectiveness of the current pilot programs, and hope to have a report early this year. Officials are exploring other alternatives, as well. The city plans to have five BRT routes, one in each borough, by 2009.

Whatever form New York City's BRT will ultimately take is still unknown. But, clearly, something has to be done. The more attractive we make the buses as a choice of transportation, and discourage other vehicles, the more likely we are to alleviate the congestion that makes New Yorker's wonder whether they should walk or have time to take the bus.


A Simpler Alternative to Congestion Pricing

Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal for “congestion pricing” – a fee imposed on driving in Manhattan’s central business district during prime hours – has made it safe at last to discuss traffic solutions that were previously off limits. Just last week, City Hall announced a crackdown on the official placards that allow tens of thousands of public employees to park free on the street – a topic long avoided by those in charge.

The discussion will continue throughout January as the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, established by the New York State legislature in response to the mayor’s congestion pricing plan issues its report later this month. The group may support City Hall’s proposal or suggest its own ideas for reducing traffic by at least as much as the 6.3 percent proposed by Bloomberg.

In its report the commission might even break a longtime taboo in the city and call for charging drivers a toll to cross the now “free” East River bridges. Such a charge, along with an overhaul of the city’s policy on parking, could meet the traffic reduction goal while also raising much-needed funds to maintain and expand the city’s transportation infrastructure.

Toll revenue helped finance the construction of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges. The tolls were discontinued – along with those on the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges – in 1911 by Mayor William J. Gaynor, who saw “no more reason for toll gates on the bridges than for toll gates on Fifth Avenue or Broadway” and proposed making up the lost revenue through an annual tax levy. Since that time, tolling the East River bridges has been the third rail of New York City transportation politics. Mayors who tried to bring up the subject – including Bloomberg himself, early on in his administration – quickly dropped it again under intense interborough pressure.

The lack of tolls has put the bridges in competition for funding with the entire array of municipal budget priorities. This has cost the bridges dearly. The absence of a dedicated funding stream resulted in deferred maintenance and, ultimately, dangerous disrepair. (Just last month, a state task force issued multiple “flags” – both “yellow” and “safety” – to the Brooklyn Bridge for problems including decaying beams.)

Meanwhile, all of the tolled East River crossings (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Triborough Bridge, Queens-Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel) and the Hudson River crossings (the Port Authority’s George Washington Bridge and Holland and Lincoln tunnels), which also charge tolls, are in exemplary condition. Tolls yield enough revenue not only to maintain the facilities to the highest standards, but also to subsidize the public transit operations of Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority.

Bloomberg wants to reap similar benefits from congestion pricing – collecting revenues from drivers to pay for maintenance of Manhattan’s streets, beaten-up from overuse. Just as the authorities collect tolls to subsidize public transit, the mayor would collect congestion fees to fund improvements in public transportation. At the same time, reductions in traffic congestion, as some drivers choose alternative modes of travel to avoid paying the fee, would benefit the city’s economy and environment.

The overall concept of City Hall’s initial proposal is elegant, but its specifics are much too complex, with different prices for driving into (or out of) the charging zone vs. driving within it, along with a very expensive – and potentially intrusive – network of E-Z Pass readers and cameras throughout the zone, from Manhattan’s Battery to 86th Street.

Eliminating the charge for driving within the zone would remove much cost and confusion. The East and Hudson rivers define all but one side of Manhattan’s business district, so adding a northern boundary and simply charging people to enter the zone would be fairly straightforward.

Now, the commission, led by Marc Shaw (whose background as a state and city budget guru served him well as first deputy mayor and as MTA executive director), is considering the advice of traffic experts Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim, among others, in examining several variations on this simplified scheme. Commission staff members estimate that adding tolls to the East River bridges and equivalent charges to cross a northern boundary at 60th Street (rather than at 86th, as City Hall proposes) would double the traffic reductions the mayor seeks and nearly double the revenue – at a fraction of the cost to collect it.

Moreover, the participation of the MTA and Port Authority executive directors on the traffic commission offers an opportunity to develop a unified approach to pricing all the crossings – and thus to rationalizing traffic patterns. Pricing influences driver behavior. The “free” bridges, as well as their feeder roads, are generally more clogged than the tolled tunnels and their approaches.

The tolling alternative would generate more revenue and less traffic than the mayor’s approach. It is simpler to understand and to implement. It acknowledges the geographic reality that Manhattan is an island whose access routes are difficult to build and expensive to maintain. It has only one apparent drawback: It would allow Manhattanites to add to pollution and congestion by moving their cars inside the central business district without constraint. But the city does not need costly cameras and sophisticated software to solve this problem.

First, a 60th Street boundary would capture entry fees from Manhattan’s most significant source of automobile commuters, the Upper East Side. Second, since availability of free parking near the workplace is the single best indicator of whether someone will drive to work in Manhattan, the panel should recommend an array of measures to charge more for parking. Possible actions include modifying metering policies, charging people to park at currently free curb space and revoking residents’ tax exemption for garage parking. City Hall’s recent placard announcement is a much needed first step on the road to parking rationality.

Thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, it is finally possible to talk about rearranging New York’s transportation subsidies – from free bridges and cheap parking to strengthened infrastructure and expanded capacity. Now that the conversation can flow freely, the commission, the City Council and the state legislature must negotiate the best ways to improve mobility in the city. By March 31 – the federal deadline for a program of congestion reduction – New Yorkers need to have moved from talk to action.

Hope Cohen is deputy director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for Rethinking Development.


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