The Perfect Argument for Congestion Pricing

Verrazano_Bridge_Dawn.jpg

The Staten Island Advance ran an article last Thursday about a "perfect storm" of crushing Staten Island-bound traffic on the Gowanus Expressway and the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. To give you a sense of the frustrated tone of the article, it was entitled "21-Month Nightmare: Agency Offers Zero Solutions for Verrazano Lane Mess." Here’s how it began:

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — A best man missed his nephew’s wedding rehearsal.

A truck driver was forced to pull over and cool his heels.

Countless commuters rued that extra cup of Joe before leaving work.

And then there was the pizza delivery to a group of exasperated bus riders left stewing in the parking lot that was the Gowanus Expressway last Friday afternoon.

Experts say there’s no way to fully manage the crush of rush-hour traffic expected to continue for the next 21 months while lanes are closed on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Island commuters don’t care what the experts have to say.

Their bottom line: Fix this mess.

Otherwise, it will be a long, hot summer.

"I could have gone to Florida in as long as it took me to get home," fumed Grasmere’s Marlee Tanenbaum, who was stuck for two and a half hours aboard an X2 express bus Friday evening. "It is so insane that it’s unbelievable. I am outraged!"

If this isn’t the perfect argument for why we need congestion pricing, I don’t know what is. The fact that so many people are crushing onto the bridge shows that it is too cheap to travel over it. The toll is $9 (charged toward Staten Island, the direction of this jam), but that obviously is not enough to prevent this kind of traffic. Motorists want travel to be cheap and fast, but one who demands cheap travel can’t turn around and complain about how slow it is.

Instead of using rational pricing to solve the problem, officials are horsing around with palliatives aimed at making it easier to drive, which of course will encourage more traffic. A Verrazano traffic working group made up of elected and agency officials managed to avoid the issue of pricing or tolls, but did come up with some ideas to speed up traffic without inconveniencing anyone. (It’s magic!) Specifically: "An increased police presence, and the dispatch of traffic agents at certain Brooklyn intersections near the bridge, to help keep traffic moving smoothly, without backing up local neighborhood streets."

Prediction: None of these things are going to achieve the hoped-for increase in traffic speed. But congestion pricing — with funds directed towards more and better mass transit — should solve it just about instantly.

In fairness, more sensible proposals came from Councilman Vincent Ignizio, who suggested speeding up implementation of a fast ferry to the island’s South Shore and fast-tracking the planned extension of the Staten Island Expressway’s bus-only lane. More to the point, however, motorists’ expectations need to be managed better. They need to be told that their commute can be more expensive, it can be done in a bus or a ferry, or they can remain stuck in traffic on the Verrazano. There are no other options.

Clearly, the bridge’s $9 toll should be raised, if it’s not doing the job. The Staten Island Ferry is already free, so maybe pay people 25 cents to ride it. I’m not even kidding. Better yet, impose congestion pricing in Manhattan, and fewer people will drive to Manhattan, leaving fewer people to be stuck fuming on the Gowanus.

  • The other story about the V-N bridge is that during the morning rush hour, the toll incentivizes trucks to go through Manhattan instead of Staten Island to get to NJ. THere is a tremendous amount of capacity – it’s just a matter of aligning the tolls to channel the traffic to that capacity.

  • David

    Or simply reverse the toll the way it was before it was changed a few years ago. It’s congestion pricing just a few miles early.

  • mfs

    You can’t raise the fee on the VZ until there are better transit options, especially for brooklynites commuting to NJ (which there are many)

    But here is an argument for congestion pricing… over 50% of the inbound traffic on the gowanus exp. in the morning originates in Brooklyn neighborhoods such as bensonhurst and bay ridge, not Staten Island or even NJ.

  • Biobob

    mfs:

    I agree about the need for better transit options.

    I like the congestion pricing idea, but can MTA and NJ transit handle the increased load? I saw Governor Corzine bring that up.

    That got me worried actually. My LIRR trip from Bayside is so jam packed during rush hour, that I always stand, and there are lots of people standing in all 10 cars.

    This might be something to consider I guess.

  • NIccolo’ Machiavelli

    This is another long term chicken and egg thing. The real question in that corridor is the rebuilding of the Gowanus Expressway its much anticipated tunneling. This is a project that is easily affordable by slapping on a toll, but not really affordable any other way.
    There are several different proposals (http://www.nycroads.com/roads/gowanus/) as to how to reshape that corridor but in the end it comes down to tolling. The conservative/libertarian tendency would have this a privatized operation, sell it over the long run. Regardless a tunnel has the capability of recovering the city neighborhoods wiped out by Moses when he built the damn thing.
    Also, a related capital project issue is the freight rail tunnel to Jersey proposed repeatedly by Jerry Nadler. The Mayor’s PlaNYC leaves freight completely off the table. Remove the trucks from that corridor and see the vehicle space open up for BRT or whatever.
    There are many ways to reshape that corridor, but they all involve money and who is going to pay it.

  • Spud Spudly

    A lot of the people going over that bridge are neither going to nor coming from Manhattan — so no, congestion pricing is not going to solve something like this “instantly.” (Especially not on Friday afternoons in the summer — “getaway days” — when people are leaving the City.) People don’t do that trip unless they absolutely have to so you can charge pretty much anything for the toll and people will still do it. And oh yes, Staten Island residents will still get a deep discount.

    For commuting purposes, the only alternative to driving is taking an express bus (which still has to sit in the same traffic) or taking the ferry (which is slow, inconvenient, and hard to get both to and from at either end of the trip). So the fact is Staten Island residents in particular are just S.O.L. until the bridge maintenance is complete. Bridges need maintenance to survive, and lanes have to be closed for maintenance.

  • SPer

    Nico:

    As much as I would be happy to see the elevated Gowanus Expressway replaced with an underground road, I do not expect this to happen within my lifetime.

  • NIccolo’ Machiavelli

    Me neither SPer, same with the freight tunnel, but in the end it is the same sort of maypole dance with pricing that makes that determination. Lots of great capital projects are possible with tolling, none without it, thats my only point. And, the earlier point that David made “It’s congestion pricing just a few miles early.” is essentially correct, but from the Staten Island Commuters point of view the VN-TBTA toll is already congestion pricing of sorts.

    The Staten Island people would level many more blocks of Brooklyn to improve their commutes and have it paid for with other peoples money. They crowd on the road and complain about the toll on the VN which they get discounted. If there were no VN-TBTA toll imagine how many cars there would be.

    And don’t get me started on the Ferry. It is free, thanks to shrewd Giuliani’s need to placate his SI constituency. Biggest bargain in transportation America.

  • Spud,

    As you and mfs noted, of course many of the V-N motorists are not going to or from Manhattan. But all you have to do is remove the ones who are, and you have less congestion and faster service on the bridge. So while one idea I raised was raising the existing toll, the better solution overall would be to implement congestion pricing as it is being proposed. It is important for people to realize that congestion pricing’s benefits radiate throughout the metropolitan area in unexpected ways.

  • Until we build a subway to Staten Island, the SI Ferry should be free, or at least come with a free subway connection.

    Both the Gowanus Expressway Tunnel option and the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel are important projects. Trucks do the most damage to highways, are a menace to others on the road, and are extremely unfriendly to the environment. Building the freight tunnel would remove a great deal of truck traffic from our streets. Everyone benefits (except trucking companies).

    The Gowanus Expressway is a disaster. In poor condition, expensive to maintain, and in dire need of full replacement in spite of the millions spent on rehabilitation. It is also a blight on a wide swath of Brooklyn, an enduring monument to Moses’ hubris. The alternatives discussed include a tunnel, but also hare-brained schemes to rebuild the elevated structure, and even to build an even higher viaduct above it.

    I simply refuse to accept “not in my lifetime” as an option. Call your reps, your councilman, your senators, and harangue the DOT. These things CAN and WILL happen within our lifetime.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I had the impression that there were already dedicated bus lanes from SI all the way to Manhattan. If there aren’t, then they should be put in ASAP, so that smart transit users like Ms. Tanenbaum aren’t forced to sit in traffic for hours.

  • Spud Spudly

    Aaron, removing motorists going to Manhattan from that bridge isn’t as easy as I think you think it is. Again, the only alternatives are the ferry or a bus.

    Eight dollars isn’t much compared to the pain in the neck involved in getting to the ferry (which is all the way at the northeast corner of S.I. and typically involves a long bus ride), waiting for the ferry (there aren’t that many of them), sitting on the ferry (it’s a long ride and the scenery gets old fast), and then getting to wherever you’re going on the other side (a subway ride for most people). If it was easy then people would already be doing it because it’s free after all.

    And the mayor’s congestion pricing plan — which would not affect him and his fellow billionaires — deducts from the $8 the tolls that people pay at places like the Lincoln Tunnel. How much you wanna bet that the Verrazano gets included in that deal in any political agreement that could get this through Albany? That would essentially make Staten Islanders exempt from congestion pricing.

    The fact is this current situation on the bridge is caused by construction. There are only six lanes going in either direction. Close one or two of them and it will have a great effect on traffic. Ultimately the most effective way to get people on the ferry will be the congestion itself.

  • SI visitor

    it’s all nice and dandy, there is that bus lane in staten island, but 90% of vehicles that use it are cars with one person in it. and it’s not like it happens once in a while. they just use it as just another SIE lane. don’t aske me how they get away with it. (my guess, public officials, cops…). same thing happens on the the gowanus HOV lane. most of the cars have only drivers in them.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Very interesting, SI Visitor. I wonder if the Advance would do a story about that.

    It’s obvious that Staten Island needs more mass transit connections. Here are some options:

    Express bus to the Bayonne light rail station, anticipated within the next few months.

    Extension of the Hudson-Bergen light rail line across the Bayonne Bridge, anticipated to be built some time before 2020.

    Restoration of the North Shore Line across the Arthur Kill bridge to transfer to Northeast Corridor trains at Cranford, NJ doesn’t seem to be on too many people’s radar, but it could be faster than the light rail through Bayonne. Instead, plans seem to be for it to be a branch of the above light rail extension.

  • S.I. residents pay only $4.80 for crossing V-N Bridge with EZ Pass, or $2.50 when there’s 3 people in the car. So, the toll is not scaring away folks from traveling by car, plus mass transit options are limited here.

    My $.02

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