Gotham Gazette

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The Council and Congestion Pricing: Part II

If legislation has the support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, some City Hall observers say it is guaranteed to pass.

That is, unless that bill is a proposal to implement congestion pricing in Manhattan, charging drivers $8 to enter the borough below 60th Street during the workday.

In the next two weeks city and state officials might have to come down on either side of the congestion pricing cliff, and the City Council will be the first to step up to the ledge. Given the vast number of term limited officials eyeing the 2009 race and those looking to swap seats with state legislators later this year, some say officials might hesitate to take any politically risky position.

More than six months ago, Gotham Gazette polled all of the City Council's 51 members on the congestion pricing plan -- which then included a zone cordoned off at 86th Street. A vast majority declined to take a stand -- nearly half would not say whether they were declaratively for or against the transportation proposal.

Since then, other media organizations, including the New York Times, which conducted a survey earlier this month, have taken polls. And it seems the political tide is turning against the mayor.

What's Next

Both the State Legislature and the City Council must approve the recommendations of the Congestion Mitigation Commission , which came down with a congestion pricing proposal (See related story here ) in January.

Once a bill has been introduced in Albany and is assigned a bill number, the City Council must draft a state legislative request, otherwise known as a home rule message, urging the State Legislature to approve the measure. It is not required to hold a hearing on the message nor let the procedural legislation age -- meaning the council can introduce, approve in committee and OK the bill on the chamber floor all in one day, according to city officials.

Once Albany has the message in its hands, said city officials, then it can vote on the legislation.

All of this -- after multiple deadline revisions -- must be done by April 7 in order for the city to receive $354 million in federal funding that is slated to go toward mass transportation improvements.

With the clock ticking and renewed support from Albany with the endorsement of Gov. David Paterson, the City Council is likely to vote on congestion pricing within the next two weeks. The body has a meeting scheduled for this week, though officials said it's unlikely they would consider the matter then.

A Shifting Stance

Our August poll found that 13 members of the City Council, including Quinn, were in favor of the mayor's congestion pricing proposal and seven members leaned toward supporting it.

On the other hand, 10 members were against the proposal and one was leaning against. We found that 16 members were undecided.

Earlier this month, the New York Times found some members had made up or changed their minds: 12 were in favor, 20 opposed, 11 were undecided and 8 did not respond.

Comparing the two surveys, we found seven members who were undecided or leaning toward the proposal have now come out against it. That includes the entire Staten Island delegation and the chair of the Environmental Protection Committee James Gennaro.

And one member says the media still hasn't gotten his position right. Councilmember Alan Gerson, whose district is one of three that is entirely within the congestion pricing zone, says he is actually undecided, not against the measure, as both the Times and Gotham Gazette described him.

"I am undecided as it now stands," said Gerson. "I have had several very productive meetings with the Department of Transportation, the mayor's office and the speaker's office. We have raised several very legitimate concerns, relating to the Canal Street-Holland Tunnel corridor to bus management and issues of equity."

With officials coming out for or against the new proposal every day -- even its most stringent supporters have raised questions on fairness and equity -- congestion pricing seems to be a difficult issue to see in only two colors.

While it isn't black and white, members of the City Council could soon be faced with an up or down vote, which obviously does not come in shades of gray.

A Reason to Change or A Position Renewed

Much has changed since the summer. The congestion pricing zone has shrunk from 86th Street to 60th. The new proposal also eradicates a congestion pricing toll exemption for vehicles on the FDR Drive.

And more and more members have questioned whether it is fair for drivers from New Jersey to pay no more than the $8 toll already doled out to get through the Lincoln or Holland tunnels, while those in the outer boroughs are faced with a brand new fee.

Councilmember Simcha Felder, who told us he was for the plan in the summer, is now against it, said his Director of Communication Eric Kuo. The devil's in the details, said Kuo. Until Felder knows exactly where transportation funding would be directed, he is going to withhold support.

"At this point he's definitely against it, and there hasn’t been a plan to vote for," said Kuo.

Others credit the looming election with positions that have ebbed and flowed. (Though Felder is considering a run for city comptroller, his communications director said the upcoming election is not a factor in his decision.)

Councilmember Lewis Fidler, who is a staunch opponent of the plan, said some of his colleagues are watching what side potential political opponents may come down on. If a member knows his or her opponent in an upcoming State Senate race opposes congestion pricing, he or she is unlikely to vote in contrast to that position to avoid political vulnerability, he said.

"The fact that we are voting first, you can't avoid it," said Fidler. "You can't take the politics out of this unfortunately."

A Compromise Here and There

Given the authority and power behind the Bloomberg administration, some city officials have confirmed that council members might wait to see what they could get for their districts before they take a firm position on congestion pricing.

The congestion pricing funding will be geared toward mass transportation improvements, which could primarily be outlined in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital plan. But because the authority's capital plan is grossly underfunded and projects are revised every year, some officials say promises on certain projects, from increased ferry service to increased service on the G, are not set in stone. A member could be basing their vote on an empty pledge, officials said.

But whether the vote is for politics or premise, city officials say congestion pricing will likely go down as the most divided vote in the history of the City Council -- which is usually characterized as a rubber stamp of the mayor.

"I think the mayor, up until recently, has taken passing in the council for granted," said Fidler. "I would say if everyone walked in today, for those of us that are committed, it's going to go down by a 2 to 1 margin."


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