Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Improve Transit Before Congestion Pricing

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, But…

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 traffic.

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 same.

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 success.

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 Park).

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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