Silver signals support for traffic pricing


By Josh Rogers with Julie Shapiro

Since the mayor began pushing for traffic pricing a year ago, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s skepticism has been one of the toughest roadblocks to passage, but Silver said Wednesday he likes at least one of the suggested adjustments to the mayor’s plan.

“Just tolling the borders is less intrusive because it would have fewer cameras, and is an intriguing way to accomplish the same thing [that the mayor’s plan meant to accomplish,]” the speaker told Downtown Express. “You’d probably have more money for mass transit… There is some sense to it.”

Silver said he looked forward to seeing the Jan. 31 recommendations from the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, which released five possible plans earlier this month. He said all of the alternatives are “interesting,” but keeping in line with his well-chronicled, close-to-the-vest style, he did not commit to supporting any particular congestion pricing plan – including the border toll option he spoke most favorably about.

Under this idea, cameras would be placed around the restricted zone, which would have a northern border of 60th St. and include all of Downtown. Drivers would be charged $8 for entering the zone between 6 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Under Mayor Bloomberg’s original proposal, drivers would be charged $8 for crossing the border at 86th St., but Manhattan residents driving within the zone would also be charged $4. This would require many more cameras, driving up the implementation costs while reducing the potential funds that could fund expansion of the subway and bus systems.

If the City Council approves the commission’s final recommendation, the plan will move up to Albany, which would have to pass the measure before March 31 in order to collect $354 million in previously promised federal transportation money. Albany’s other two key players — Gov. Eliot Spitzer and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno — last year endorsed Bloomberg’s idea, but not all of its details.

Silver, who represents Lower Manhattan, said if the Council passes what the commission recommends, it would make him “more inclined to be supportive of it.”

Traffic-riddled Lower Manhattan was once thought to be fertile ground for congestion pricing support, but Silver said he has heard strong opposition and support from his constituents. Two Downtown congestion pricing forums last week suggested that there is no consensus in Lower Manhattan.

At a Community Board 1 forum Wednesday, the handful of board members who spoke, disparaged congestion pricing or expressed skepticism about the idea. At a C.B. 2 forum Monday, members who attended, though not all attendees, were favorable to the idea.

C.B. 2, which includes the Village and Soho, passed a resolution supporting the idea last year. C.B. 1, which covers most of the area south of Canal St., has not taken a position yet.

“There is a clear diversity of opinion [in Lower Manhattan],” said Councilmember Alan Gerson, who co-sponsored both forums. “The mayor’s original plan was draconian for Downtown and I don’t think people have had enough of an opportunity to digest the alternatives.”

One of the reasons Gerson organized the forums was to help publicize the alternatives that the commission released a few weeks ago.

Gerson said he favors a “mix and match” approach to the group’s alternatives and added he is also one of the councilmembers negotiating with the mayor’s office on a compromise.

Like Silver, Gerson also likes the border toll idea, which is called the alternative congestion pricing plan by the commission. He said he has not made a final decision on the best plan and that he and other councilmembers are currently negotiating with the mayor’s office on a compromise.

A Bloomberg spokesperson said the mayor did not want to comment before the commission makes its recommendation next week.

Gerson said other ideas not mentioned by the commission should also be implemented including adding a bus management plan, better traffic enforcement from rush hours not subject to congestion pricing fees — 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., and charging drivers a penalty for passing though Lower Manhattan simply to avoid tolls elsewhere.

A majority of the commission’s members have expressed support for congestion pricing, but it also includes opponents like Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, who was appointed by Silver. The commission members were appointed by the governor, mayor, the Assembly, the state Senate and the City Council. Its five options are:

*The mayor’s plan, which includes a one-day $8 fee for cars and $21 for trucks to enter Manhattan below 86th St. between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. There would also be the $4 internal driving fee.

*Alternative congestion pricing, with a northern border at 60th St. and similar fees to the mayor’s plan. There would be a $1 taxi surcharge for trips that include the restricted zone.

*East and Harlem River tolls, with a $4 per trip fee for crossing these rivers. This plan is the least popular according to a recent poll, and it may have received its final coffin nail last week when U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said it would not qualify for the $354 million federal allocation.

*License plate rationing, which would limit different license plate numbers each day for a daily reduction of 20 percent. This plan would reduce traffic more than the others but it would generate no money for mass transit improvements.

*The combination plan would substantially increase parking fees. Parking taxes would more than double to 38.375 percent. Residential parking tax exemptions would be eliminated and an $8 taxi surcharge would be added for trips that start or end south of 86th St. This proposal would only reduce traffic by 3.2 percent and the commission is not legally permitted to recommend this option alone since it is below the 6.3 percent reduction minimum.

Panelists at Gerson’s forums outlined the alternatives objectively and then moved on to the arguments.

Walter McCaffrey, a former Queens councilmember, said at the C.B. 2 forum that the congestion pricing alternative makes a bad plan worse because the outer-borough drivers will pay most of the costs.

“This is unfair to the people who are not in Manhattan,” he said.

Gerson said later that since Manhattan drivers would no longer be charged for driving within the zone, he could support a fee for them to leave during rush hours.

Brad Hoylman, C.B. 2’s chairperson, and other proponents at the meeting said congestion pricing represented a rare chance to reduce pollution and traffic problems, while raising mass transit money at the same time.

But C.B. 1 members who spoke two days later did not see it that way. Ro Sheffe said he was skeptical the congestion pricing money would really go to mass transit, a concern that also resonated at the C.B. 2 forum.

In recent days, aides to Gov. Spitzer have reportedly been talking about setting up a “lockbox” to make sure money is not diverted to other projects.

Gerson said transportation money is important, but it does not necessarily need to be tied to a traffic plan. “I don’t think we should view congestion pricing as a revenue generating means,” but “there has to be an ironclad guarantee that there is spending on mass transit to mitigate all of the ramifications from congestion pricing,” referring to increased subway crowds and parking problems near the restricted zone.

He said higher gas taxes is another possible way to get mass transit money.

Silver said last year that he could accept a traffic reduction plan that did not also raise money for mass transit, but his comments this week suggest that transit money will be an important factor in his decision.

Kathleen Moore, who lives near the World Trade Center site, said she was skeptical because if the plan is too successful reducing traffic, it may mean little money for the subways.

“It’s not cutting congestion — it’s shifting things around,” she said. “The money disappears.”

But a panelist at both forums, Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives, a strong congestion pricing supporter, said: “We stopped 50 years ago building the subway. This plan will put more than $400 million a year in the mass transit system.”

C.B. 1 member Allan Tannenbaum, fresh off of a trip to London, warned the panelists not to apply London’s congestion pricing plan here. “London is not New York,” Tannenbaum said. He added that drivers are increasingly willing to pay the fees in London, so congestion there is returning.

Tannenbaum gave his own list of suggestions for reducing traffic: stricter enforcement of blocking the box and jaywalking laws, smaller cabs, limits on corporate black cars and, as his “most radical” suggestion, affordable housing so first responders who work Downtown can live Downtown too.

“A lot of those things will help around the margins,” said Dani Simons, a director at the city Department of Transportation, but none of them will be enough.

After the meeting, Simons said that placard holders would not be exempt from congestion pricing, as some in Chinatown have speculated. She also said that a “lockbox” for the congestion pricing revenue could be built into the plan, but that the state Legislature would have to craft it.

Tammy To, Gerson’s aide, cautioned not to draw conclusions about Lower Manhattan’s overall feelings after the C.B. 1 forum. She said people who aren’t worried about congestion pricing are not likely to show up at meetings.

Indeed, Quinnipiac released a poll this month indicating that 70 percent of Manhattan residents and 67 percent of all city residents would support congestion pricing if they were assured the money would go to mass transit improvements.