From a Sea of Green, Bloomberg Works a Tough Room

Flanked by dozens, if not hundreds, of citizen spectators in bright green "I Breathe and I Vote" t-shirts, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city staffers this morning made the case for a three-year congestion pricing pilot program to a largely hostile cadre of state Assembly members.

070608_040.jpgSeated alongside ten colleagues in the auditorium of the New York City Bar building in Midtown, Herman "Denny" Farrell, Jr. (D-New York), set the tone right away. In opening remarks, Farrell complained that legislators had been chastized in the media for not acting on PlaNYC before "a single public hearing" could be held, and pledged that the hearings would uncover the facts — and "just the facts" — about congestion pricing.

"Clearly, something must be done" about congestion, Farrell said. "However, we must be sure that the cure is not worse than the disease."

Farrell disagreed with Bloomberg over whether a possible $500 million federal grant for city transportation projects hinged on the approval of congestion pricing by state lawmakers, insisting that other initiatives could attract the funds. Bloomberg told Assembly members that almost half of the $500 million would cover pricing start-up costs, while the remaining funds would be invested in immediate transit improvements in the run-up to implementation. The mayor, having met with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters yesterday, said the feds will steer the half-billion dollars to another city if congestion pricing doesn’t clear the legislature.

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said pricing is expected to net $380 million in revenues in its first year, all of which would be spent on further transit upgrades. Farrell was unimpressed, wondering what effect a congestion charge would have on "working folks," and predicting that cars kept off Midtown streets by pricing would be replaced by trucks. When Doctoroff reminded Farrell that large commercial trucks would be subject to a $21 fee, Farrell was dismissive: "It’s a write-off, though."

At times Farrell seemed to be arguing for the sake of arguing. In discussing the E-ZPass technology that would be used for billing and collections, the Assembly member declared "I don’t give E-ZPass my money." When Bloomberg and company explained that congestion charges could be paid online, by phone and at retail locations throughout the city, Farrell responded with "I don’t have a computer."

A bit more thoughtful but no less confrontational, Assembly Member Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) dominated the questioners’ time, first thanking Mayor Bloomberg for bringing big ideas to the table, then congratulating him on "stampeding the political class." As if it wasn’t clear where he stood from the outset, Brodsky then referred to congestion pricing as "a 600 million dollar tax increase."

Brodsky said he conceded the "wider benefit" of pricing, but asked why the same effect couldn’t be achieved by new taxes on wealthy New Yorkers. When Bloomberg replied that the point of congestion pricing is to discourage driving by making it more expensive, Brodsky likened it to "gentrifying the roads."

Brodsky and others spent a good bit of the morning dwelling on the erosion of civil liberties they fear would be inherent in the photographing of license plates for billing purposes, with Brodsky himself going so far as to condemn traffic cameras as "Un-American."

"I don’t even like your red light cameras," he said.

Instead of pricing, Brodsky has presented the city with a proposal involving congestion rationing — which limits certain cars on certain days based on plate numbers or other identifiers (and is presumably enforced without the use of cameras). But such a plan, Doctoroff pointed out, would do nothing to raise much needed transit funds.

"I’m prepared to vote for a tax increase for mass transit," Brodsky vowed — indicating, in so many words, that Bloomberg has shamed the Assembly into action of some sort.

Not all legislators were as churlish. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) told the mayor he is "glad [Bloomberg] did not adopt a more timid approach" to the city’s environmental ills. And James Brennan, (D-Brooklyn) assured Bloomberg is he "generally sympathetic" to the pricing plan. (Even so, Brennan eventually asked how it could be "fair" to force "mom" to pay for ferrying the kids across town for a play date.)

Other queries followed regarding the discredited edge effect, "serious" penalties for late payment, and the "extremely problematical" ramifications for those who aren’t among the Manhattan "elite." On many of these points, Bloomberg and staffers — Doctoroff, PlaNYC Director Rohit Aggarwala, and new DOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Schaller — indicated a willingness to provide further clarification and an openness to negotiation. The key, Bloomberg said in his concluding remarks, is to act now.

And if we don’t, "Shame on us."

  • Jon Graf

    NY1 had the hearing live and fortunately I was able to watch most of it. It was almost sad to see the state of the discourse at times. Many members of the Assembly did not seem to understand the basic concepts of traffic reduction and were asking questions that were way too basic at this stage in the game. Some members were concerned with people driving in from upstate who wouldn’t know about the program. Brodsky thought an increase in the sales tax would have the same effect. It seemed that these politicians were unable to process more complicated notions on traffic besides “what if” scenarios about driving from here-to-there.

    It was obvious that some members like Catherine Nolan just wanted to talk. My favorite comment of hers was, “I just don’t get the 86th St. thing.” Meaning that she doesn’t understand why the zone begins below 86th St., even though the mayor had just stated that there is just as much traffic in the mid-60s and 70s as there is below 59th St. I’m not sure what there is not to “get”…

    I think the mayor did an excellent job of defending the program. It was just sad to see why it is so hard to get things done in Albany.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I can’t speak for Cathy, and I haven’t seen her questions, but I myself didn’t get the 86th Street thing until I thought about it now. The problem is that it’s hard to think of a residential area as a destination. People live in the West 60s, so why would hundreds, if not thousands, of people drive to there during business hours? At first glance it doesn’t compute.

    If you think about it, the answer is clear: New York has some of the biggest overlap of business and residential areas in the country (largely due to sensible zoning). So there are plenty of residential areas that are also destinations. I’ve had jobs that required me to commute to the Upper West and Upper East Sides, as well as Greenwich Village and Soho. I’ve worked in the World Financial Center, which is surrounded by the residential towers of Battery Park City. I’ve worked in a building that was across the street from the Citicorp Center, but just a couple blocks away from residential housing.

    The 60s contain at least three college campuses, numerous hospitals and medical offices, and lots of stores. Plenty of destinations for people to drive to during rush hours. If you want to exclude the 60s and 70s, you should probably also exclude the West Village and the Lower East Side, because they don’t have too many big employers there, but then you’d have a map that looked like swiss cheese.

    So I think that’s what there is not to get.

  • alice

    New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s June 8, 2007 joint announcement with US Department of Transportation Secretary, Mary Peters plan for Congestion Pricing in NYC has generated lots of discussion, but it is important to recognize the Congestion Pricing plan is only one prong of the US DOT national strategy to reduce congestion.
    The national strategy, dubbed Fight Gridlock Now, has its roots in the 2005 Transportation legislation SAFETEA-LU, which in many ways pushes this country toward privatizing our transportation infrastructure.
    The six major components of Fight Gridlock Now are: (1) Urban Partnership Agreements (including congestion pricing); (2) Public Private Partnerships; (3) Corridors of the Future (the Trans Texas Corridor-69 is a finalist); (4) Reducing Southern California Freight Congestion; (5) Reducing Border Congestion; and (6) Increasing Aviation Capacity.
    While fighting congestion sounds like a noble goal, the real agendas beneath this smoke and mirrors appear to be suspect, the privatizing or corporatizing of government infrastructure.
    DOT Secretary Mary Peters will soon have David James Gribbin, IV as her DOT General Counsel. Gribbin is a recent director for the US branch of Macquarie, the biggest purchaser of government infrastructure in the world. Peters and Gribbin are long time allies and both are big proponents of public private partnerships.
    For an overview of the DOT strategy see… http://www.fightgridlocknow.gov/

  • Steven H

    What could possibly seem more “un-American” than congestion rationing?! I mean, besides just going ahead and banning all noncommercial vehicles from the congestion zone.

    If Brodsky is seriously suggesting this and isn’t just putting forth a proposal he knows has no political future, it shows just how far Bloomberg and co. have moved the discussion.

  • non

    Obviously Brodsky isn’t serious about anything other than grandstanding and getting in the newspapers with easy negative shots.

  • non

    From Saturday Daily News editorial:

    “Yesterday’s Assembly hearing smacked of obfuscation and obstructionism.”

  • Cement Shoes

    Oh the hypocrisy of them all!

    So Brodsky is now willing to support a tax increase for mass transit? He was largely responsible for the REPEAL of the COMMUTER TAX in 1999!

    And Denny Farrell! We know where his bread is buttered. He wears so many hats (party and official, state and local) one can’t keep track. He’s been called Silverman’s bagman. He controls transportation projects with a tight fist (no public participation, arm twisting other interested agencies, like Parks). Why does he have such an inordinate interest in controlling the design/contract award process of these projects?? Hmm…

  • Cement Shoes

    Rationing cars entering Manhattan by license plate number? What a prescription for increasing the number of cars people own!! That idea is surely the dumbest of all to emerge from this fog.

  • Carolyn Konheim

    Clearly, the complexity of the Mayor’s charging plan is fodder for potshots. I’m married to the guy who started it all in 1972, making East River bridge tolls federal law (for 4 years)as part of the official clean air plan, and who has been the relentless lone voice uncovering the hidden cost of auto dependence {the average auto trip in NYC costs $61) No one cares more that this is done right. When are transit advocates going to object to squandering hundreds of millions of transit dollars on hundreds of unnecessary checkpoints and cameras tracking every move when tolls on four bridge spans and across 60th Street (river to river) would get results better and faster. It’s only the drivers on those bridges and the non-taxi users who will pay the $8. The more than half who pay MTA tolls would pay nothing to the the City, PANYNJ drivers (6-9 am) would pay only $3 more and the meat-ax single $21 fee for vans to tractor-trailers undermines the PANYNJ’s sensible and the MTA’s less-fine-grained axle-based tolls.

    Look for CCS’s Ten Fixes to Make Pricing Work

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Un-American? You mean like cameras in every subway car? I don’t recall hearing from Brodsky when this was proposed.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    Of course Carolyn Konheim is right. East River tolls–and a commuter tax — would accomplish the same goal. It would also eliminate the need to make the waterfront roads (which run along and through our parks) into free bypass roads. Why should driving through Manhattan — contributing nothing to the city’s economy – be free? I have yet to see the details of how the connections between the East River bridges and the FDR Drive will be made, but it would seem to require creating some “no fee zones” around those neighborhoods. I would not want to be living there.

    On the other hand, the congestion pricing plan has a benefit that bridge tolls do not. Its creation of a new entity — to be controlled by the CITY — allows it to take some of the city’s authority over its own transportation back from the State and its authorities. It is also the element of the plan that’s most likely to be jettisoned, however.

  • rhubarbpie

    Not sure it’s such a great idea to have the city control this money. Mayor Bloomberg is pushing through an extension of the 7 line — a foolish and expensive project that will feed his over-sized development there — and Mayor Giuliani wanted a link to LaGuardia that would have wiped out a nice piece of Astoria. In theory, I’d like the city to have a bit more control of how transportation money is spent; realistically, though, I don’t see how this will mean that that money is spent more wisely.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Not sure which link to La Guardia you’re talking about, Rhubarbpie, unless by “wiped out” you mean “constructed an elevated train through.” I agree that els can cause blight and it should be a subway, but that kind of hyperbole isn’t appropriate. We’re not talking about the Prospect Expressway here.

    The main problem, as I understand it, is that there’s a significant flow of transit money from the city to the suburbs, and that commuter rail fares are more highly subsidized than subway and bus fares.

  • momos

    I was at the hearing. Here are some interesting details of the congestion pricing plan that emerged:

    – 200-300 license plate reading “stations” will be set up. The cost of building them will be about $230 million.

    – The station running costs will be about $250 million annually. They will use standard off the shelf EZ-pass hardware.

    – Data from cameras will be erased immediately after payment. Drivers have 48 hours to pay their bill.

    – Cameras will only detect license plates and will not record drivers.

    – Congestion pricing will result in an overall average reduction in citywide emissions of 3-4%. Several things must be kept in mind: some areas of the city will experience at least double a cut in pollution. Also, even 3-4% of NYC’s vast amount of emissions is a very significant number in absolute terms.

    – Congestion pricing will move 112,000 cars off the road each day. 90,000 of these trips will move to mass transit.

    – The plan distinguishes between cars and trucks. A “truck” is a vehicle with a minimum weight of 7,000 lbs. This is the definition used by the MTA.

    – The Mayor, not the Assembly or any other state-wide official, has the sole authority to renew the pilot after 3 years.

    Regarding the questioning by the legislators of Bloomberg, I would echo the comments of others. The Albany pols were shockingly ill informed and mostly spoke to the cameras. David Gantt, chairman of the Transportation Committee, was especially disappointing. He mumbled so incoherently into his mic that Bloomberg twice asked him to speak up. When he did, he wondered aloud for 10 mins about whether drivers from upstate would know if they had entered the pricing zone. Apparently upstate drivers don’t notice road signs.

  • Steve

    Momos,

    The privacy protection measures you mention are not in the draft state legislation posted the other day. The legislation also contradicts what you heard about “trucks”–it does not apply a weight-based classification to determine which vehicles are trucks, it only uses weight to determine the amount that “trucks” (defined as vehicles designed primarily for transporting property) will pay. If you are correct about the 7,0000 cutofgf for trucks, then certain of the more overgrown SUVs would in theory get hit with a higher charge.

    Did anyone at the hearing ask or explain why these details were not addressed in/in conflict with the draft legislation?

  • momos

    Steve,

    I haven’t read the draft legislation. Please post a link so streetsblog readers can readily find it.

    You highlight important contradictions. My summary comes from notes I jotted down while in the room listening to the hearing. Doctoroff specifically said the plan is to use the MTA’s definition of a truck, which he said is a vehicle weighing in excess of 7,000 lbs.

    Bloomberg also indicated the bill in its current draft form will be amended to address privacy issues following the London example, where information is deleted immediately upon payment.

    Regarding your point about SUVs and trucks, According to Edmunds.com, a 2007 Chevrolet Suburban LT 2500 with a V8 and 4WD drivetrain has a curb weight of 6,327 lbs.

    Interestingly, the ’08 Dodge Sprinter van (a rebadged Mercedes-Benz commercial vehicle) that FedEx and many construction firms use in the city has a curb weight ranging from 4,861 lbs to 5,978 lbs.

    It’s also interesting to compare the Suburban and Sprinter on fuel economy. The American-designed Suburban, in its most fuel efficient 2005-model year form with 2WD and “flex fuel V8” is rated 15 city/19 hwy. The European-designed Sprinter, in its larger 2005 model-year configuration with high ceiling, 118in wheel base and turbo diesel 5 cylinder is rated 22 city/24 hwy.

    In short, the Dodge Sprinter commercial van in most versions has a longer wheelbase than a Chevrolet Suburban, has vastly more interior room, but weighs significantly less and gets better fuel economy. It is also intended specifically for use in commercial settings, while the Suburban isn’t.

    This raises interesting questions about how to determine which vehicles should be charged more.

  • lee

    I’m happy that at 8,500 lbs Hummer owners would have to pay the $21.

  • Steve

    Momos, here is the link to the draft legislation:

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/06/07/congestion-pricing-legislation-introduced-download-it-here/

    Just search the pdf on “truck” and you will find the definition. Glad to hear they are going to add provisiions on privacy. Sounds like the draft legislation was prepared with major components missing, not sure if it was by design or just a rush job. Hope that does not prove an impediment to enactment.

  • momos

    Steve, thanks for the link. The more I look into how a truck is defined, the more I share your concern about the thoroughness of the draft legislation.

    The draft bill: “‘Truck’ means any vehicle or combination of vehicles designed primarily for the transportation of property.” (Page 6, line 1)

    Port Authority: “a motor vehicle having dual rear wheels designed, used or maintained primarily for the transportation of goods, wares and merchandise or registered for such use.”
    (“Traffic Rules & Handbook,” http://www.panynj.gov/CommutingTravel/CustomerRelations/pdf/green_book.pdf)

    MTA: “To qualify as a passenger vehicle, your vehicle must have only 2 axles and weigh less than 7,000 pounds.” All other vehicles are considered commercial.
    (“Enrollment Details for EZ Pass, http://www.mta.info/bandt/html/ezdetail.htm

    At the hearing, Doctoroff asserted that the city will use the MTA truck definition.

    What isn’t clear, however, is whether the MTA’s definition considers a vehicle’s gross weight or curb weight. This makes a major difference. Below are vehicle weights from Edmunds.com.

    Hummer H1: 7,263 lbs curb; 10,300 lbs gross
    Hummer H2: 6,400 lbs curb; 8,600 lbs gross
    Hummer H3: 4,700 lbs curb; 5,850 lbs gross

    As you can see, using gross weight means all Hummers except the “compact” H1 would be charged as a truck. For comparison, here are some popular light duty commercial vehicles:

    Ford Econoline Cargo Van: 4,767 lbs curb
    Chevrolet Cargo Van: 4,654 lbs curb
    Dodge Sprinter cargo van: 4,861 lbs curb
    Chevrolet C/K 3500 pick up: 5,889 lbs curb
    Ford F3500 pick up: 9,000 lbs gross

    And by way of still more comparison, here are the weights of some popular passenger vehicles:

    Honda Accord: 3,142 lbs curb
    Honda Civic: 2,904 lbs curb
    Toyota Camry: 3,263 lbs curb
    Toyota Corolla: 2,530 lbs curb
    Toyota Prius: 2,932 lbs curb

    Perhaps the weight threshold should be lowered to about 4,500 lbs curb weight. Or an altogether more precise way of targeting more polluting vehicles would be to tie price to grams of CO2 emitted per mile. The UK taxes its cars on this basis, using a standard measurement method for all vehicles sold in the country.

    These technical considerations further underscore Steve’s point that the devil is in the details.

  • Glen

    Framed. The issue is being framed incorrectly guys.

    We all want less traffic and less pollution – that I am sure everyone agrees with. But we don’t need to CHARGE people to get it done. There are several other ways to get it done. All it needs is a little tweaking. One example; only allow hybrid vehicles into congested areas. That would remove more traffic than you could possibly remove with a charge AND it would LOWER all the pollution – everywhere. Easy to do, with no cameras and no TAX GRAB. Just a sticker on a car and if the sticker is phony, a ticket is issued…….easy.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Glen, your suggestion isn’t a simple framing suggestion or a tweaking; it’s a wholesale reworking. You’re accepting the “tax grab” framing put forth by the opponents of the plan – and promoting it by putting it in ALL CAPS.

    The best frames to use are fairness, subsidy and true cost: make people pay their fair share of the true costs of accommodating their personal vehicles. Your “only hybrids” wouldn’t do that.

    It’s true that this is partly about air quality, but not entirely. It’s also about getting space-hogging vehicles off the road so that there’s room for buses, which can move a lot more (or should that be “mucher”?) people.

  • momos

    Glen – your suggestion is interesting, but without charging no new revenue for transit is realized. The money has to come from somewhere. Auto use is the best source for many reasons.

  • Steve

    I continue to see enactment of congestion pricing as a long shot, facing substantial opposition from pols like Silver and the unthinking voters to which they pander. This plan is already weighted with more than its share of controversy and opposition. Now is not the time to propose hybrids only in the congestion zone. Now IS the time to flesh out responses to the specific criticisms that are being made by some–the privacy issues, the how intra-zone trips will be defined and detected, the buffer effect, and making sure that mass transit is up to handling the influx of ~100,000+ new riders by the time congestion pricing comes into effect. If congestion pricing in some form is enacted, and is not a disaster, we have plenty of time to fiddle with it. Eventually they should make the big SUVs pay more, give the hybrids a break, and charge cabs and liveries something but I don’t think we want to deal with those issues now.

  • Steve Davis

    What about Initiative #128 – streetlighting.
    See climatesummit.org case histories. NYC has
    been “the elephant in the room” holding up the state Light Pollution Bill for the past 5 years making the rest of the state suffer. If Calgary, Los Angeles, Tucson, East Hampton and others can do it, so can NYC.

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