Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


Getting the Most from Congestion Pricing

Those who have labored a lifetime on the city's environmental fronts were blown away on Earth Day to hear our words articulated by Mayor Michael Bloomberg with more mastery and conviction than any of us have mustered. Brilliantly couching congestion pricing in the context of the city's survival, the mayor made it a moral imperative. To convince motorists there is a trade-off, the mayor shrewdly seeks to get tangible transit improvements in place before charging motorists for entering Manhattan.

But the Mayor and Governor Eliot Spitzer must act quickly if they are not to be hamstrung in their commitments to expand transit use. They must reverse New York City Transit's plan to junk 607 subway cars as new ones arrive this year and next. NYC Transit's reason for throwing away usable cars, which could also be rebuilt for one-third the cost of new ones, is that there is no yard space for overnight storage. Accepting that limit will leave NYC Transit with no spare cars, its smallest fleet ever, and unable to deliver the increase of subway service central to the mayor's plan.

The mayor cites bus rapid transit as a quick, high-visibility way to boost ridership, but even this will take too long if it relies on dedicated buslanes. What can be installed quickly is the high-tech component ofbus
Rapid transit -- a GPS tracking and radio communication system. This would eliminate much of the bus bunching that infuriates riders, and the monitors at each bus stop, posting wait times for each route, should help make waiting for a bus more tolerable, even seducing some drivers out of their cars.

Congestion pricing could be made simpler as well. A lot more funds would be available for transit users if the congestion fees were simply collected on the bridge spans and along 60th Street, rather than at dozens -- even hundreds -- of charging points south of 86th Street. Equalizing the charges on all crossings would provide a strong signal to motorists that it doesn't pay to drive out their way to avoid tolls. While the mayor's proposed adjustments in congestion charges levied in Manhattan may remove any advantage of untolled bridges, the complexity muddies the message.

Instead of capitalizing on Manhattan having just four untolled entries, the proposed multiple checkpoints, exceeding London's charging cordon, will be a lot more costly and may raise new objections to tracking motorists' movements.

Even the staunchest supporters of congestion charges in the boroughs see neighborhood parking permits as an essential element of any plan to reduce traffic. The permits would not guarantee a parking place, but would
Charge outsiders a hefty price for precious curb space. Fees and fines could be reinvested in streetscape improvements and effective traffic calming. Such measures would reinforce the quality-of-life benefits of tolls.

The old pre-E-ZPass image of bridge tolls of long spillback of traffic from toll plazas is dead. There is a growing concession in the boroughs that a seamless charging technology can unclog approach roads to free bridges from the lemming-like traffic that is drowning neighborhoods and delaying drivers. Armed with the mayor's powerful ability to change the political
equation, why not institute congestion fees in the fastest, most productive way?

Carolyn Konheim is chair of Community Consulting Services.


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