Drive traffic pricing across the finish line

New York has a chance in the next two months to begin reversing a disturbing trend that has continued for the better part of a century. One of the worst aspects of power broker Robert Moses’s record was his fixation on the automobile and highways, and his scorn and neglect of mass transit. With vehicular congestion overwhelming the city and global warming an undisputed and growing danger, mass transportation must be expanded and car travel must be reduced. Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal last year was a bold step in a new and better direction.

The Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission a few weeks ago proposed five traffic reduction options, which included definite improvements to the mayor’s plan. The group’s final recommendation is due Jan. 31 and then it will be up to the City Council and the state Legislature to say yes or no to help lower congestion and pollution and provide desperately needed money for transit and bus improvements.

Savvy congestion pricing opponents have put forward a series of arguments chock full of myths and half-truths to fire up the opposition, but a recent Quinnipiac poll revealed that there may be limits to their campaign — 60 percent of city residents would favor traffic pricing if they knew the money was going to mass transportation.

The overwhelming majority of outer borough commuters take mass transit and would benefit from the added transportation money from congestion pricing. Subway fare increases amount to a regressive tax against poor and middle class commuters who don’t get the free ride into the city that their wealthier driving counterparts do.

No one likes added fees, but the question to ask opponents of congestion pricing is which alternative do you prefer: higher taxes, reduced subway service, higher fares, or cutting schools, libraries, police or other essential services.

The mayor’s plan to charge drivers who stay in the restricted zone $4 a trip makes sense in principle but the daunting costs of the additional cameras needed to enforce this provision, probably overwhelm the benefits. The commission’s idea to only place cameras at the restricted zone’s border is an improvement. The political realities of getting this plan passed may also require adding a fee to Manhattan drivers to leave the zone during busy times.

Increasing the costs of on-street parking and ending government employees’ parking permit abuses, are two other excellent recommendations by the commission.

We are hopeful that there may be movement on this issue, but we recognize inertia is almost the rule in Albany and it can infect City Hall too. Frankly, we’ve been disappointed that none of our local elected officials have been leaders on congestion pricing when Downtown will be an even bigger beneficiary than other parts of the city.

Councilmember John Liu of Flushing, chairperson of the Council’s Transportation Committee, deserves a Profile in Courage award for his early support for congestion pricing, even though his district is more dependent on cars than Downtown.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s record fighting for mass transit improvements is stellar and perhaps unmatched. It would be a shame for him, but more so for New York and the world, if he did not take this historic opportunity.