City Council mostly supportive of traffic pricing

By Albert Amateau

Billed as the best chance to relieve the street-choking traffic on Manhattan’s busiest streets during weekday business hours, the proposed congestion pricing program came before a City Council public hearing on Monday, at times with standing room only, that lasted well into the evening.

Congestion pricing, a joint federal, state and city program, is intended to encourage drivers to leave their cars at home and use mass transit, improving air quality as well as speeding traffic flow.

Promoted over the last 11 months by the Bloomberg administration with the support of Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the program would charge an $8 fee for most motor vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th St. between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, with the revenue going into a “lock box” of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to be spent exclusively on public mass transit improvement and on the implementation of the program.

Trucks would pay $21 but low-emission trucks would pay $7. No fee would be charged for driving out of the zone or entirely within it. But a $1 congestion surcharge would be added to taxi, black car and car service trips that begin or end in the zone during the congestion pricing hours. On-street parking meter rates within the zone would be raised and the current exemption for city residents from the 18 percent tax for off-street parking garages would be eliminated.

And if the Council and the state Legislature pass congestion pricing by April 7, the U.S. Department of Transportation has promised to contribute $354 million in addition to the current federal appropriation for state and city transportation. All of the $354 million would pay for immediate transit improvements, including 367 new buses, eight new bus routes, new subway cars on the E and F lines and more Access-A-Ride vans. All those improvements would be in place and operating before the plan would go into effect in March 2009.

Reaffirming her support at the City Council hearing, Quinn said the program is important for continued city growth and economic expansion. “Traffic congestion is now so bad that it take more than an hour to move a couple of miles in Manhattan, adding to pollution. The city’s mass transit is bursting at the seams and in 2030 it will be worse. We need to do something now,” she said.

The day before the hearing, Quinn said in a radio news interview that she was confident that at least 26 Councilmembers — one more than half the members — would support congestion pricing and most members who spoke said they were in favor. But as of Tues., March 25, the Council had not scheduled a vote on the issue, nor had the state Legislature.

Gov. David Paterson and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno have introduced and endorsed the state bill, but opposition is high in the Assembly. The Assembly’s speaker, Sheldon Silver of Lower Manhattan, has said he could support the congestion pricing plan with changes, but he will not pressure his members to vote for it.

John Liu, Queens Councilmember and chairperson of the Transportation Committee, was among many at the hearing strongly supporting the program. “This is crunch time for congestion pricing. A lot of people drive because they don’t have a real choice of public transit,” he said.

But several Councilmembers including Oliver Koppell and Larry Seabrook from the northern Bronx, and David Weprin, Leroy Comrie, Melinda Katz and Joseph Addabbo from eastern Queens were unconvinced and opposed to the program.

Most of opponents were skeptical that the M.T.A. “lock box” for congestion pricing revenue would stay locked and be spent only for general transit improvement. Outer borough Council members feared that capital projects in Manhattan like the Second Avenue subway and the No. 7 line extension would eat up the extra revenue.

Councilmember Alan Gerson of Lower Manhattan said later that he was trying for many modifications to the program. He apparently is not one of the votes Quinn is counting on.

Lower Manhattan needs a bus management policy to deal with commuter buses, tour buses and long-distance buses to destinations from Boston to Philadelphia with a terminus in Chinatown, he insisted. Gerson also criticized the proposal to eliminate the exemption for city residents of the off-street parking garage tax.

He has said many lower income people in his district who live in public housing own cars and can’t afford to pay the higher taxes.

“I also want significant traffic mitigation on weekends, not just peak hours,” Gerson said.

“I’ve fought hard to reduce traffic congestion,” Gerson said, “and this is an opportunity to do it right. It’s critical that we don’t make the situation worse,” he said, suggesting that drivers might wait till after 6 p.m. to avoid the charge and pour into Downtown.

The plan, presented to the hearing by Transportation Commissioner Jeannette Sadik-Khan, calls for E-ZPass users to deduct the value of all tolls paid on M.T.A. or Port Authority bridges and tunnels up to $8.

Tunnel and George Washington Bridge users with E-ZPass pay $8 coming into Manhattan during weekday peak hours 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. and $6 non-peak. So they would pay no extra fees during rush hour and only a $2 congestion pricing charge coming into the Manhattan zone in the middle of the day.

Gerson and other critics called for the elimination of the toll offsets for tunnel and bridge users.

But the transportation commissioner said that an estimated two-thirds of Holland and Lincoln Tunnel drivers would pay at least some part of the fee, contributing about $45 million a year or 10 percent of the congestion pricing revenues.

To ensure that the transit money goes to general transit improvement, the fund would be supervised by the M.T.A. Capital Program Review Board with a new member appointed by Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The city would have veto power on the board and the M.T.A. would make public a report annually on all expenditures from the fund.

The plan has been modified from an earlier version, which would have charged motorists $4 for driving within the pricing zone. That plan would have required 300 cameras, but the current plan needs only 25, making it less costly to implement and operate. While the original plan was expected to yield $380 million annually, the modified plan would net an estimated $491 million.

The cost of implementing congestion pricing is estimated at $120 million, which the city is to pay from its general budget, but would be repaid as the first expenditure from the M.T.A. “lock box.”

Testimony supporting the program came from Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Transportation Workers Union, Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, The New York City Building Congress, General Building Contractors of New York, and The Partnership for New York. Others supporting the program are New York League of Conservation Voters, Straphangers Campaign, and the American Lung Association.

But Assemblymember Richard Brodsky of Westchester submitted an opposition statement.

The Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, created last year in response to Bloomberg’s request for a Congestion Pricing report, was the source of the program. But a 17-page minority report from the commission called the program, “regressive, unfair and a selective tax that disproportionately impacts working families and exempts the wealthy, residents of New Jersey and Connecticut.”