Congestion Pricing: Bloomberg Needs to Sweeten the Deal


Webster Avenue and Fordham Road, the Bronx

Congestion pricing is in trouble. With just weeks to go before the Traffic Mitigation Commission makes its recommendations to the City Council and State Legislature, public support is waning and opponents appear to have the upper hand. The one sales pitch that scored high in public opinion polls, using pricing revenue to hold down transit fares, was discarded this week when the Mayor decided to support the governor’s fare hike.

Congestion pricing is struggling for two reasons. First, it has been framed as a revenue issue instead of a traffic-busting, quality-of-life-improving, environmental measure. Second, City Hall has not made a politically compelling case for how pricing revenue will be used. Politics demands that congestion pricing be about more than extending the 7 train and building part of the Second Avenue subway and LIRR connector — projects that won’t be completed for many years and overwhelmingly serve Manhattan.

In contrast to these mega-projects, the congestion fee is immediate and specific. This clash between specific, immediate costs and diffuse, long-term, benefit has produced a public discussion focused on who will pay the congestion fee and how, rather than what the benefits will be and for whom. Fortunately, there is still time for Mayor Bloomberg to turn things around by combining congestion pricing’s broad social and environmental benefits with a package of short-term, highly visible, specific transportation and quality of life benefits that excite the public imagination.

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Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn.

By January 31, the Traffic Mitigation Committee will present a new congestion pricing plan that will likely suggest tolls on East River Bridges and a fee to cross 60th Street. Once the Committee issues its new recommendations, City Hall should relaunch congestion pricing by proposing two major new benefits. First, the rapid implementation of neighborhood streetscape and pedestrian improvements on the city’s busiest commercial corridors, especially outside of Manhattan. Second, a Paris-style, bus service expansion including the launch of new bus rapid transit lines and major improvements in local service accompanied by aggressive promotion targeted at bus riders and transit unions.

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Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing, Queens.

The Commission’s new congestion pricing proposal is expected to raise an estimated $500 million a year. The boroughs would be buzzing if City Hall dedicated $150 million a year of this new revenue to highly visible, streetscape and pedestrian improvements on the city’s busiest commercial corridors, especially in fast-growing Queens. The Mayor would utterly transform the congestion pricing debate if he traveled the boroughs like a Livable Streets Johny Appleseed sprinkling new buses, wider sidewalks, greenery, street furniture and truck traffic-reducing bulb-outs in his wake. In doing so, the Mayor would re-frame congestion pricing as an economic development and quality of life project rather than a "tax on the working class." The Mayor, rather than suburban Assembly member Richard Brodsky, would dominate media coverage as he met with local business and civic leaders and offered speedy, attractive plans to revitalize neighborhood centers using congestion pricing revenue.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s staff say they used three words to generate public support for congestion pricing in London: "Buses, buses and buses." City Hall should hammer the message that bus riders are the big-time beneficiaries of pricing. Local TV news networks, daily commuter papers and weekly community papers should be filled with stories about the new bus services that pricing will create in neighborhoods throughout the city. Bus riders should be made aware of exactly how many new buses, fewer delays and increased service they get on their own routes.


Roosevelt Avenue and 76th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Mayor Bloomberg’s 2030 Plan already includes a massive boost in bus service. With $258 million in one-time federal congestion pricing aid the MTA will roll out 367 new buses on 36 routes in 22 neighborhoods and ten new Bus Rapid Transit lines. But buses need even more. Paris, which is about one-third the size of New York City, is building 17 new BRT lines. With the additional revenue from the Commission’s expected bridge tolling proposal, Mayor Bloomberg could double the number of planned BRT lines to 20 for an additional $120 million per year. This would still leave $230 million per year for MTA capital expenses — substantial new revenue to bond for big subway and rail expansion.

Initially, Mayor Bloomberg presented congestion pricing as part of a grand vision for a greener, more sustainable New York City. Cynical opponents diluted that vision by re-characterizing congestion pricing as just another bad tax on New York City’s working families. Yet, the Mayor’s original vision had the support of 40 percent of New Yorkers without even mention of a specific benefit. Mayor Bloomberg is a great salesman. He can win congestion pricing if he revisits the idealism of his original vision and adds to it local, visible and immediate benefits that the average New Yorker can understand and appreciate.

Flickr Photos: Betty Blade, Threecee, Haikiba, Pete Biggs.

  • Larry Littlefield

    If it goes down, it goes down. But…

    thereafter, those who opposed should be forced to come up with the money WITHOUT borrowing, WITHOUT raising already high taxes, and WITHOUT reducing services for those who were not “at or over” 55 when President Bush said the words. In particular, the public should demand that Weiner come up with hundreds of millions more in federal aid — not earmarks deducted from additional federal aid.

    And if congestion is here to stay no matter what, then street space should be allocated, with more red light cameras, bus cameras, cycle tracks and a war on permits.

    The problem with Bloomberg and Spitzer is that they put out proposals and let everyone else take shots at them, instead of first blasting the status quo and pointing to those responsible. Well, post congestion pricing they ought to fire away, especially Bloomberg.

  • Anon

    Will New Yorkers fall for a congestion pricing sales pitch that touts “economic development” as a benefit? Did it work for Dan doctoroff when he pitched NYC’s Olympic bid to city residents?

    I’m afraid cp is dead. Long live the Mayor for introducing the cp plan and doing nothing to promote its benefits to the residents of this fine city.

    London, Chicago, and San Francisco – the quality of life amenities that these cities offer residents including great bicycling, walking and public transit opportunities- will never come to fruition in NYC, the city that lives in the past by eschewing the present.

  • Mark

    Larry’s onto something with “reallocation of street space.” Reduce the width of car lanes, reduce on-street parking, reduce garage parking — squeeze the cars out. Widen sidewalks and bike lanes. These are things the mayor and the DOT can do without asking Richard Brodsky’s permission.

  • Franklin

    Anon,

    It may all be too late but Kaehny is clearly suggesting a mayoral sales pitch that touts immediate, highly local and specific QUALITY OF LIFE improvements aimed specifically at outer borough commercial corridors and commuters.

    This piece does not advocate another round of Doctoroff-style mega-project, economic development pitch.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (touts immediate, highly local and specific QUALITY OF LIFE improvements aimed specifically at outer borough commercial corridors and commuters.)

    This is what I wrote about last summer. No one who matters (those with cars) wants a restriction on their ability to drive through someone else’s neighborhood. But everyone wants restrictions on everyone else’s ability to drive through their neighborhood.

    Such NIMBYistm is not what I would prefer. But if CP goes down, I’m prepared to back it.

    One option is to give communities a choice of being “auto-oriented” or “pedestrian oriented.” The former stay as they are. The latter get residential permit parking for a small fee, higher meter rates, the first shot at additional bike and transit facilities and parks in walking distance (those in auto-oriented communties can drive to parks). AND street patterns that discourage through traffic, except perhaps on streets at least 100 feet wide and highways.

  • fdr

    If you think there was opposition to cp wait for the outrage over bridge tolls. You ain’t seen nothing yet.

  • Josh

    “London Mayor Ken Livingstone’s staff say they used three words to generate public support for congestion pricing in London: ‘Buses, buses and buses.'”

    I’ll say! I was in London last month and there are just a LOAD of bus lines. TONS of them, I’m telling you. Running frequently, well-signed, with loads of information available both online and at the stops about what buses you could take and where they could take you. And with lots of buses running at night when the Tube shuts down.

    If Bloomberg wants to get this through, he DEFINITELY needs to do a better job of showing people how charging is going to benefit them.

  • Swobo

    Why are we to accept the premise that pricing is in trouble? Why is it more in trouble now than in, say, September? Mayor’s support for the fare hike is the only fact stated in the intro to this piece.

  • anonymous

    How about an even bolder proposal. Keep the $150 million for streetscape improvements, but pay the rest out as a refund to all taxpaying New Yorkers. After all, it is our air being fouled, our peace disturbed, our public space being taken away by automobiles. If we can’t get these things back, at least we can be compensated. It’s only fair.

    As a side benefit, it creates a huge constituency with a vested interest in raising the congestion fee: every New Yorker who doesn’t drive into the congestion zone. The tiny minority of drivers may complain about the rising fees, but everyone else will be eager to get a bigger check in the mail.

  • Hilary

    I would sell it as a new City Beautiful plan — with its priority to make the Queens “boulevards” into real (beautiful) boulevards rather than defacto expressways worse than anything Moses ever designed. Have the city’s aesthetes sell the vision using testimonials showing examples of beautification – the Art Commission, Landmarks commission,museums and botanical gardens, architects and landscape architects — anyone associated with projects that have created places people love. My theory about why Doctoroff’s stadium failed is that it looked like an air conditioner waiting for billboards.

    I also think it should be described as an opportunity to redistribute wealth back to the boroughs, emphasizing it as a plan to create “One City.” It’s levying a fee on the small area of the city that heretofore has received disproportionate benefits to the rest of the city that has. Why shouldn’t the great boulevards and concourses elsewhere be as grand? The city has achieved the economic strength now to afford it.

  • Hilary

    The rebate suggested by anonymous (#9)is actually pretty brilliant. Drivers can put their rebates toward the fee..

  • vnm

    The one sales pitch that scored high in public opinion polls, using pricing revenue to hold down transit fares, was discarded this week when the Mayor decided to support the governor’s fare hike.

    I disagree with this statement. As high as fares are now, they can always go higher. Pricing can help keep them from going even higher. Not this month, but for years and years and years to come.

  • Franklin

    Yeah, how brilliant. $150 million divided by, say, 5 million taxpayers. Everyone gets a $30 check to go towards next month’s cable bill instead of nicer, more inhabitable neighborhood public spaces. What a deal.

  • duh

    Franklin, it’s a smart sales pitch.

  • Concerned Parent

    (As high as fares are now)

    Including discounts, fares are lower than 12 years ago, and have plunged relative to inflation. Geez, everyone wants something for nothing, whether they take the subway or drive.

    In a way I can’t blame people, because in NY taxes and tolls are already high, and the money goes to pensions and debts from the past rather than services today. It seems like a ripoff because it is, because insiders and those who came before grabbed so much. So most people, and certainly most younger people, are ripped off.

    So Mr. Fidler, if there is no congesion pricing, I don’t want higher taxes on labor. Tax retirement income (currently tax exempt in NY), and make those former public employees who grabbed richer pay and benefits for themselves while cutting both for future public employees pay for retiree health care. And impose a massive exit tax on real estate transactions, so people can’t leave the state without paying off a chunk of the debts they planned to stick us with first.

  • anonymous

    Franklin: A $70 check may not seem like much, but it’s much more tangible and immediate to people than “streetscape improvements”, especially since you can’t improve everyone’s streetscape all at once, at least not for $500 million a year. And creating a constituency of beneficiaries like this makes it very much harder to ever get rid of it, because people like getting checks in the mail. The real objection to the scheme is philosophical: it basically amounts to people selling out their right to clean air for a few dollars. My only answer to this is that at least it’s better than giving it away for free.

  • Hilary

    It’s like Alaskans getting paid for having their environment polluted for oil (to the tune of about $1000/year). Problem is that it creates an appetite for more. That’s the problem with using sin taxes of any kind. Better to structure it as a reward for reducing the traffic. Maybe we should pay Queens in some way for every car less that it sends into Manhattan.

  • Will

    The concept of congestion pricing is strong. We need to put a price on the cost of motor vehicle usage in our city. The execution of this plan has been somewhat tortured. The Bloomberg Administration has done a poor job of selling it to the public and other elected officials. The Mayor should have done a better job of getting people excited about the concept before he released the specifics.

  • Cain

    Having the Mayor stand up on a podium on Fordham Road and a bunch of other outer boro commercial strips and announce a whole series of highly specific surface street and bus improvements funded by congestion pricing is extremely tangible and immediate and directly relates to the issue at hand — solving the city’s congestion problem and giving car commuters a decent alternative.

    Using CP revenues to provide New York tax payers with $30 tax rebates might be seen as a nice symbolic gesture in some quarters but would likely be ridiculed by every editorial board in the city except perhaps the Post. Thank you billionaire mayor for giving me back $30.

    Swobo: I think pricing is clearly in trouble from a public relations perspective though, you’re right, on the policy-making side nothing has really changed since the formation of the Commission.

  • Gary

    #9, that’s among the worst ideas I’ve ever heard.

  • Thank you John,
    There are dozens of low cost strategies that can make an overnight difference, Many are in the Brooklyn Transit Agenda like free transfer between nearby but unconnected lines, opening closed entrances and undertaking a comprehensive consumer-oriented revamping of bus lines to go where riders want to go, starting with Allan Rosen’s revenue neutral redo of all southern Brooklyn lines. BRT is great where you can get it, but we could follow London and Paris example of tackling th universal outcry against bus bunching. Start vy equipping EVERY bus and bus stop with GPS tracking and spacing of bus arrivals and notification to waiting riders of the the wait for their bus. Three years ago the installers of the Paris system said they could all Brooklyn routes in place in three years for $40 million. If BKN is 1/3 the citywide bus system, the whole shabang could be done for the $170 million for this purpose in the 2004 NYC Transportation Improvement Program (the request for fed funds.)

  • Sam

    I’m sorry but buses suck and it’s hard to picture more of them really making anything any better. More buses just don’t make me or a lot of either people think of better transit service and/ or an increased quality of life. What they really need to do is start replacing bus lines with some kind of trolley/light rail and make new trolley/light rail routes.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    The $30 formulation really takes us back to the bad old days of Giuliani and Pataki. They handed out similar kickbacks from the MTA and ran for office under a tax cutting flag. What they really did was borrow to fund the MTA, skim off a little and kick it back at election time. What ever happened to using the funds to drive the underfunded MTA capital plan? In the end congestion pricing reduces congestion and creates a pool of money. Apparently no one in New York trusts anyone else enough to put the money to any particular use. Maybe just use the money to pay off MTA debts.

  • Pete

    Y’all need to explain why the areas with excellent public transportation in the outer boroughs are constantly clogged with traffic, as shown in your great photos. Congestion pricing won’t help those situations one bit. Take Main Street or Downtown Jamaica, for example. Both have bus lines, subways and the LIRR. Both are congested as all hell. And these are areas that will experience much more residential and commercial growth than Manhattan.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Y’all need to explain why the areas with excellent public transportation in the outer boroughs are constantly clogged with traffic)

    Many regional centers in the outer boroughs are centers of public employment, because the city’s policy was to shift public employment there to help them grow. And public employees drive.

    Also, aside from buses, which are slow, mass transit is laid out like spokes in a wheel, with Manhattan at the center. Areas on the periphery only have good mass transit access to their particular spoke. Others drive. Although with most arterials heading to Manhattan, crosstown driving isn’t easy either.

  • John Kaehny

    > Agreed, there will always be another fare hike. But given the vote in late March, the mayor has politically de-coupled transit fares from congestion pricing.
    > Yes, there are many ways to program pricing revenue. The point is that this big idea needs a commensurately big political pitch.

    A comment on the spending math here: Assuming $500 million in annual net pricing revenue.
    The article proposes annual spending from CP:
    $150 for pedestrian and neighborhood greening
    $120* for BRT and bus improvements
    $230 million for MTA capital projects

    *Since the demise of the SMART fund, it’s hard to know what, if any, congestion pricing funds would go to bus and BRT improvements. The mayor’s priority is clearly building the 7 Train, followed by the MTA capital plan, 2nd Ave and LIRR connector. For the sake of this article, I estimated that the equivalent of $60 million in annual pricing revenue is intended for buses — at the high end of the PlaNYC amount. The thing to consider is that PlaNYC (via SMART) proposed spending $50billion on transportation with $31b coming from SMART. But since SMART assumed annual, bondable, funding from the city and state, and since SMART isn’t happening, the number of projects which can be funded is much smaller. Pricing revenue of $500million would generate $6 to $7billion.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/planyc2030/downloads/pdf/report_transportation.pdf

  • daniel

    the problem with this formulation (spending cp money on immediate positive initiatives) is that almost no one believes that the city will control how the money gets spent. People think this will be another example of the state taking money from the city to spend elsewhere, and its a pretty compelling argument. That is a huge hurdle that the Administration hasn’t taken on.

  • Hello everyone , I for one , do not want to hear about plan B… This battle is winnable and we MUST win it.

    The state and the city should pay ONLY for MASS transit and PUBLIC facilities with PUBLIC money (our taxes).
    Public money paying for facilities serving 5% of the population can be characterized as improper use of government funds.

    First we need to identify how much are the annual expenditures in Manhattan for traffic enforcement, and rebuiding and maintaining all manhattan bound vehicular bridges and tunnels (this should include NY, state , MTA and NJ facilities).

    Then we need to figure how to make the users of these facilites pay for it.

    We should sell the Brooklyn bridge and Manhattan’s all other automotive accesses and let a company figure out to break even. They can sell shares to the users or collect fees. This sale will finance the MTA hole, provide immediate upfront funding to accelerate transit investments and let market forces establish the value of the crossings.

    Let’s get to work.

  • No Permit Parking signs for NYC

    “Fortunately, there is still time for Mayor Bloomberg to turn things around by combining congestion pricing’s broad social and environmental benefits with a package of short-term, highly visible, specific transportation and quality of life benefits that excite the public imagination.”

    On the main failures of congestion pricing is that it did not take into account the pre-existing condition of parking permit abuse. At best, Congestion Pricing mentions it, acknowledges it – and then forgets it, without any specific mitigation of the problem. Reduction of parking permit distribution by a couple thousand permits, as the Mayor reports, means nothing when there is no real increased enforcement of parking permit regulations, a conspicous omission of congestionn taxing. PlaNYC says government sector vehicles will not be exempt from congestion pricing, but this statement has no credibility whatsoever, because the government sector has been de facto “exempt” from parking permit abuse, and has committed millions of parking violations for years. Therefore, a prerequisite of congestion pricing is the elimination of illegal parking permit abuse. Congestion pricing fails miserably because it has not addressed this issue in any real sense.

    As Sam Schwartz has stated publicly, the Mayor and DOT have to “clean house” first and eliminate parking permit abuse permanently before any thought of congestion taxing.

    For all of you non-believers, paper No Permit Parking signs have reduced parking permit abuse on a daily basis in Chinatown by 75-90% in the last six months. These signs need to be posted on a permanent basis. Permanent No Permit Parking signs would be a “highly visible” deterrent and a specific aid toward enforcement of millions of posted sign violations.

    Permanent No Permit Parking signs would effect 150,000 permit holders in NYC and would reduce, by many thousands daily, the amount of government sector commuters travelling into Manhattan and using permits illegally. Permanent No Permit Parking signs would also regain $46-million/year for NYC which is lost due to illegal parking on parking meters by the government sector. Due to the Mayor’s negligence regarding permit abuse, before trying to introduce congestion taxing, NYC has lost $300-million in parking meter revenue in the last 6-7 years.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Hello everyone , I for one , do not want to hear about plan B… This battle is winnable and we MUST win it.)

    (Therefore, a prerequisite of congestion pricing is the elimination of illegal parking permit abuse.)

    You are speaking as people who don’t matter about the privileges of those who do. The keeper of those privileges is the New York State Legislature.

    And when you show up to vote in November 2008, there will probably be only one name on the ballot, or one name that is more than just a name the minority party decided to fill in.

    So they can do whatever they want, until people are willing to make the ENORMOUS effort required to at least make them nervous about how they treat everyone else. And they will keep on doing what they have been doing, because it benefits those who matter — those cashing in and moving out.

  • No permit parking , you are so right!
    first of all giving illegal permit placards to city employees as a ” bonus” instead of a raise is unethical.
    WE are telling city employees that breaking the law is not only ok but a bonus of their job. This is a slippery slope. Then everyone acts surprised when bribing and other grafts occur.

    Reminds me of Wall Street in the 80″s when traders were given cocaine as bonus..

    This is where the discourse of transporation interacts with the discourse of affordable housing : the city prefers to give illegal parking spots to city employees rather than reserving real estate to build affordable housing for the middle class in Manhattan.

    The city imposes the building of parking to developers but does not impose the building of affordable housing.

    The sad truth is cars are more valuable than people in our society. All government employees working in Manhattan should get an affordable appartement in Manhattan: Firefighters, police , teachers, hospital .

  • J:Lai

    Agree with many of the points here . . .

    I think it is imperative to create a mechanism by which revenues from congestion pricing (in whatever form it may eventually take) are dedicated to transit improvements. Without such a mechanism, many will be rightfully skeptical that those revenues will ever reach transit end users (myself included.)

    The MTA’s focus on mega-projects like the west side extension of the #7, or the 2nd ave subway, or the east side access project are wholly misguided. Capital improvements that will improve service on existing lines would do far more to improve the subways. Antiquated switching and electrical systems need to be upraded, rolling stock needs to be upgraded, and more stock should be put on the lines. Increasing the frequency and extent of bus service is another critical project that should take precedence over building new lines.

  • JF

    First we need to identify how much are the annual expenditures in Manhattan for traffic enforcement, and rebuiding and maintaining all manhattan bound vehicular bridges and tunnels (this should include NY, state , MTA and NJ facilities).

    Then we need to figure how to make the users of these facilites pay for it.

    We should sell the Brooklyn bridge and Manhattan’s all other automotive accesses and let a company figure out to break even.

    Christine, I agree with you that if the bridges are used by less than 5% of the population we shouldn’t be paying for it out of general taxes.

    However, I don’t think we should sell anything. Those bridges are way too valuable. If the Assembly won’t pay to charge people for the bridges, I say we implement Larry’s idea of turning over more and more the bridges and their approach roads to transit, pedestrian, emergency and cycling infrastructure until the congestion is pushed out to Weprin’s neighborhood. Then we’ll have a functioning city and they can stay stuck in traffic.

  • Concerned Parent

    (The MTA’s focus on mega-projects like the west side extension of the #7, or the 2nd ave subway, or the east side access project are wholly misguided.)

    Speaking as one who has worked in capital budgeting for an MTA agency, the “mega-projects” are really nickels and dimes, because they are one-time expenses and the 2nd Avenue south of 63rd isn’t happening.

    Switches and signals have been replaced on a 60-year cycle, except for the 1970s fiscal crisis. As a result of those missed years, the whole IND is overdue and vulnerable to collapse. Meanwhile, since the early 1990s ongoing expenses have been funded with borrowed money. Now the choice is to pay vastly more to keep replacing systems on a 50 or 60 year cycle PLUS THE INTEREST ON $23 BILLION IN DEBT or let the system collapse.

    That’s what the bastard protecting us from fare increases and “congestion taxes” have done to us. Oh, and their pensions will be exempt from state and local income taxes, and well pay taxes to fund them even as public services collapse.

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