Gotham Gazette

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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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