Gotham Gazette

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A Divided Council Confronts Congestion Pricing

In the touch and go, back and forth, here and there negotiations over Mayor Michael Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, a new player got caught up in the controversy: the City Council.

If the mayor receives enough federal funding to move his plan forward and if it then receives the blessing of a 17-member commission, 51 council members will have to decide where they stand on charging cars $8 and trucks $21 to drive into or out of Manhattan below 86th Street during the workday.

Most council members are not yet ready to make that decision. But over the next several months, they could face a divisive issue, featuring the kind of democratic and sharp debate not really seen in council since the 2005 controversy over the city's waste management plan.

The Breakdown


Of the 47 City Council members who responded to Gotham Gazette’s query, only 23 council members took definite positions on the mayor's proposal. The others are leaning one way or the other or say they are undecided.

Twenty council members support or lean toward the plan. Another 11 oppose it or lean against it. Nearly a third of the council, or 16 members, contacted by Gotham Gazette said they were undecided, and three others did not return repeated phone calls. Jessica Lappin was on vacation and so unavailable.

For the plan to pass, 26 council members would have to approve it. With City Council Speaker Christine Quinn supporting the fees, Bloomberg may be able to move some members over to his side.

The next step for congestion pricing could come as early as this week when the federal government tells the city whether it will receive up to $500 million to purchase equipment to implement congestion pricing and for mass transit improvements, including buses. The plan must then receive a favorable review from a 17-member commission charged with coming up with a plan to reduce the city’s notorious traffic jams, according to the bill approved by the state legislature late last month. If all that happens, then it will be the council’s turn to weigh in. If they approve congestion pricing, the final say will rest with the legislature and the governor.

Who Stands Where on Congestion Pricing

Surprisingly, where the council members’ districts are seem to have little effect on their position. One could assume those from the outer boroughs would be the most likely to oppose the idea. But some of congestion pricing's most outspoken supporters, like Councilmember John Liu, hail from Queens, while others who have expressed doubts, like Councilmember Alan Gerson of lower Manhattan, are from districts that supposedly would reap the most benefits from it.

Many of the council members listed as for or leaning for said their continued support hinged on the city making improvements in mass transit. Bloomberg has promised to do that, using first the federal funds and then the revenues from congestion pricing.

Council Gets Its Say

Congestion pricing has the potential to be that rare thing in City Hall – a divisive issue that could split alliances. As he has repeatedly done, the mayor initially wanted to exclude the City Council from having any role in congestion pricing. But during negotiations over the plan in Albany, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver reportedly insisted that the compromise creating the commission require the council's approval before the legislature could vote on any plan to relieve congestion.

"I've been insisting that the council has an absolute right to weigh in on this," said Councilmember Lewis Fidler – a congestion-pricing foe who introduced a resolution several months ago against the proposal. "Institutionally it's very important for the council that that be done. This is the issue of whether or not tolls are going to be imposed on the streets of New York," not Albany, he added. "I for one feel relieved."

Although the deadline for council to approve or reject the plan put forth by the commission is not until March 31, 2008, Council Speaker Christine Quinn is already gearing up to reach a consensus. Quinn, who will appoint three representatives for the 17-member commission, supports congestion pricing, albeit with conditions.

In a memo sent to council members last week, the speaker stated she would schedule individual meetings with every member to review their complaints, concerns and apprehensions regarding congestion pricing.

The memo states: "While I support congestion pricing, I am keenly aware that many of you have expressed concern about congestion pricing and will have questions about the agreement. I understand that a plan of this magnitude, whether congestion pricing or another method, will profoundly and uniquely affect each of your districts. I am committed to working with each and every one of you to hear and address those issues."

Their Reasons For Support

Council members, like other New Yorkers, recognize traffic is more than an inconvenience here – it creates health problems and affects the city economy. According to the mayor's proposal, congestion costs the city $13 billion in lost business revenue, lost time and increased vehicle costs. With congestion pricing, the report contends, 94,000 commuters would shift from driving to mass transit. A transition of that magnitude would consequently reduce the emissions that cause global warming and better the city's environment.

"Besides alleviating a lot of the pollution that goes into our environment from so many people that drive into work, it will help us improve our transportation system," said Councilmember Annabel Palma, a supporter of the mayor's plan dependent upon certain transportation improvements in her Bronx district. "And again it always helps to be able to put together a plan that will keep people healthier for longer periods of time."

While some council members said congestion pricing unfairly burdens those outside of Manhattan, others see the plan as righting a longstanding inequality from borough to borough. "I lean toward it from the fact it spreads out the burden Staten Islanders have borne," said Councilmember Michael McMahon, referring to the tolls his constituents pay. Under the plan, the tolls will count toward the $8 congestion fee.

Their Reasons For Concerns

Most council members' who oppose or lean against congestion pricing say they worry that the tolls will be implemented without the transportation improvements promised in Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 environmental proposal. These include five bus rapid transit routes in each borough, allowing buses to travel in special designated lanes, and increased capacity on the city's most traveled subway lines. Even those who have endorsed the mayor's pricing proposal, like council members Simcha Felder, Palma and Quinn, have said their support depends on these other promised improvements.

"I don’t believe we've exhausted every alternative before charging residents to drive into the city," said Queens Councilmember Joseph Addabbo, an outspoken critic of congestion pricing. "We could enforce cars (to stay out of) bus lanes. We could enforce other traffic rules. We could look at delivery hours."

A short list of other complaints include:

--fears that outer-borough neighborhoods would become parking lots for commuters wanting to leave their cars outside the congestion zone;

--concerns that congestion will increase outside the zone. This would raise emissions in some neighborhoods and increase health problems, like asthma, there;

--a belief that the $8 toll equates to a regressive, commuter tax that is unfair to the poor.

"I think the plan is myopic and shortsighted and does not show the real depth and purpose in creating the types of resolutions that would benefit the entire city of New York," said Councilmember Leroy Comrie.

The Undecided

The many council members who have not made up their minds raise an array of issues including whether commuters will use parking places, crowding out neighborhood residents, and what effect hundreds of cameras photographing drivers going into, within or out of the zone could have on the privacy and security of New Yorkers.

"What about above 86th Street?" asked Councilmember Thomas White of Queens. "What about the other boroughs? On face value, I'm not satisfied."

Other members representing districts outside the zone, like Maria Baez and James Sanders, worry about plan's effect on the poor. Both suggested incorporating a tax rebate for those charged by congestion pricing.

The undecided are united on one thing: Their main concern remains getting their constituents to their destinations in the fastest, easiest and cheapest way possible.

"What I fear is mass transit won't be prepared for it," said Councilmember Joel Rivera, who also questions the impact of a looming fare increase by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Rivera, though, is still open to the concept. "As a person that drives into the city… it gets congested."

Some are simply holding off on pledging support or opposition because the final details have not been determined. "The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding isn't even in the oven," said Councilmember Robert Jackson.

In fact, the council might never get to vote on congestion pricing. The commission, comprised of members appointed by the mayor, City Council speaker, governor, State Senate majority leader, Assembly speaker and minority leaders of both houses, would meet over the next several months. The plan it recommends does not have to resemble the mayor's. Its only criteria would be to reduce congestion by as much as Bloomberg's proposal – 6.3 percent.

Whatever comes out of this, many officials expressed optimism that in several years New York City will be healthier, greener and less congested. "It's going to be definitely different," said Councilmember Gale Brewer, a pricing supporter, discussing the so-called inevitable revisions to Bloomberg's plan. "If there is real mass transit plans, if we really have a discussion about high quality mass transit that happens with the $500 million, then I think people would be interested."


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