Gerson: Proposed Pricing Plan Misses the Mark

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Council Member Alan Gerson says the congestion pricing plan ignores the car-choked Canal Street corridor

Yesterday we noted that District 1 City Council Member Alan Gerson was the only Manhattan representative to indicate that he would vote against the congestion pricing plan in its current form, according to an "unofficial roll call" conducted by the New York Times. We contacted Gerson’s office to find out why, given the upsides for a district in which 79 percent of households are car-free, which is saddled with chronic gridlock and which, ostensibly, will someday benefit from the pricing revenue dependent Second Avenue subway line. An aide told us the council member’s staff was "trying to get a correction," and has submitted this letter to the paper:

Dear Editor:

Your article, "Traffic Plan In Trouble", misstates my position. I have consistently stated that I would support congestion pricing if the Bloomberg Administration enhances or modifies the commission’s plan in four critical areas, on which the plan remains silent or deficient: the Holland Tunnel/ Canal Street corridor; bus management, including clean engine standards for all the buses the plan will bring into lower Manhattan ; non-pricing traffic management, which carries over into non-pricing hours; and equity among city residents. I have proposed detailed recommendations, based on community and expert input. Implementing the commission’s plan without those enhancements or changes will worsen congestion and pollution on many streets, including the canal street corridor. Meetings are scheduled to discuss these proposals. I remain optimistic that the City Council and the Administration will reach agreement on the best possible traffic plan for all New Yorkers.

At our request, Gerson’s office also sent over the council member’s eight-page position paper on congestion pricing [PDF], in which he describes the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission report as "deeply disturbing."

Significant sustained congestion avoidance and reduction requires focus on the various specific, localized congestion points and causes. It is unbelievable to me, that the TMC’s staff report does not once mention the Canal Street corridor or the Holland Tunnel.

I repeatedly urged the commission to incorporate a focus on this hottest of traffic hot spots. The New York Metropolitan Traffic Consortium (NYMTC) has spent several years developing a Canal Area Traffic Study (CATS). One would think that any serious TMC plan would evaluate how to build on NYMTC’s work and would propose resources to support and implement NYMTC’s findings and recommendations.

Three additional flaws become apparent upon examination of the analyses undertaken by the commission to date: the overemphasis on revenue generation; the failure to consider needed mitigation of adverse impact from increase in commuter buses, proposed in several schemes; and the lack of regard for the impact of different proposals on the integration and unity of the City.

Like some pricing opponents, Gerson worries about a "gentrification of the streets" effect:

Many of us over the years have become increasingly concerned about the widening stratification of our city, with parts of Manhattan becoming elite enclaves. Commission analyses have shown the relative progressivism of most congestion pricing measures. However, those analyses do not take into account the non-financial perception and actual experience of areas cordoned off by several congestion pricing schemes as socially apart from the rest of the city. To avoid this, all plans should aim to minimize the cordoning-off effect.

As also noted yesterday, this isn’t the first time Gerson has been polled as anti-pricing. Considering the number of problems he has with the plan as written, and the reductive nature of "yes/no/maybe so" surveys, it isn’t hard to see why.

Photo: J Blough/Flickr

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Alan Gerson says the congestion pricing plan ignores the car-choked Canal Street corridor)

    Other than eliminating the free-bridge reason for trucks traveling between New Jersey and Long Island to go out of their way to cross his district.

    For the outer boroughs, removing that incentive to go out of people’s way through Williamsburg, Downtown Brooklyn, Long Island City and over a free bridge is far more important than the reduction in trips.

    Same thing for Canal Street. How many of those cars and trucks in the picture do you think have an origin or destination within a mile of there?

  • Dave

    Let’s go back to two-way tolls at all MTA crossings and we’d see traffic on Canal St plummet. Talk to Molinaro of Staten Island who’s dead-set against two-way tolls on the VNB first.

    Gerson should be ashamed that his reluctance to endorse CP will cost the city $354 million in Federal Funds because he and so may other of the city legislators are NIMBY-blind to their own districts while not seeing the overall benefit to the city.

    Wanting everything to happen at-once; using the ridiculous assumption that areas next to the CP zone will see increased parking issues (you can’t park there now); supporting the small relatively wealthy few who actually drive into the city; I am disgusted with them all.

    Why don’t our city legislators take on parking placard abuse with the same vigor they attack CP? The 142,000-plus placards create huge traffic issues. Why no outcry there?

  • Moser

    Yes, Larry! Charging trucks to use the Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridge gets to the core of the Canal Street mess. Is Gerson being willfully stupid?

  • Hilary

    I assume Gerson’s letter was referring to the CAT study by the NY Metropolitan Transportation Council, not the “Traffic Consortium.” It includes good suggestions, but makes audacious requests for the same privileges for car-owning residents as in the outer boroughs. Residential parking permits in lower Manhattan is patently ridiculous. Also, reduced or no fees for high-occupancy vehicles?? By what technology is this to be achieved? Car-pooling is its own reward — a reward which rises in value with congestion pricing.

  • Lew from Brooklyn

    For the record, the undecided Mr. Gerson has given this issue more coherent thought than most.
    Lew from Brooklyn

  • glenn

    The problem is that unless something actually comes up for a vote with no other options on the table everyone can talk about their pet additions. Unless the final bill is actually amended to include their hopes and dreams they just have to vote on the bill. If Gerson, or for that matter Lappin, thinks they have a future in Manhattan politics by voting against pricing because it lacks absolute perfection then they are in for an awakening…

  • “Commission analyses have shown the relative progressivism of most congestion pricing measures. However, those analyses do not take into account the non-financial perception and actual experience of areas cordoned off”

    It’s funny how the discovery of unwanted fact is often followed by an impassioned plea to emotion. Gerson would like to have it both ways on pricing (a sign that he’s afraid of popular support for it), but his support for alternate-universe versions of pricing doesn’t do a bit of good for his constituents that want this one to pass. I doubt they’ll be confused.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    “For the record, the undecided Mr. Gerson has given this issue more coherent thought than most.
    Lew from Brooklyn”

    For the record, that is a new low in “coherent thought”.

  • jacknyc

    FINALLY A PUBLIC OFFICIAL WHO THINKS FOR HIMSELF… AND DOSN’T GO WITH THE POLITICAL CORRECT AGENDA…. THANK YOU ALAN GERSON!.

  • JF

    Hm, judging from the comments coming out of the legislative echo chambers, there’s nothing more politically correct than supporting congestion pricing “in principle,” while at the same time withholding full support due to grave doubts about its dreaded effect on “working people.”

    Gerson does seem to be thinking for himself in the sense of putting relatively strict conditions on his support of congestion pricing.

    But unlike his letter to the Times, his position paper includes a laundry list of ideas, some that currently exist but aren’t enforced, some that are counterproductive, some that are difficult to implement, and some that are no-brainers. To me this looks less like coherent thought and more like some combination of obstructionism and micromanagement.

    The “equity among city residents” bit is more of the same hogwash we’ve gotten from people like Jeffries, where “equity” seems to mean “make sure that my staff and donors continue to be able to pollute the air and endanger pedestrians more than anyone else.”

  • JF

    I’m sorry, Jack, maybe by “politically correct” you didn’t mean “following the groupthink of the people I’m afraid to offend,” but rather “belonging to people further to the left of me.”

  • ManhattanDowntowner

    Gerson is conveying the thoughts of most people in Downtown Manhattan. Congestion pricing is an added financial burden for small businesses who depend on deliveries from the outer boroughs regularly – $5,000+/year per delivery vehicle adds up quick – and the added delivery costs would be added on to the consumer on the street. Congestion pricing also does not adequately consider NJ traffic since their bridge/tunnel tolls are subtracted from Congestion Taxing – where’s the advantage here? In fact, New Jerseyans would be encouraged by congestion pricing because they would be getting a “break”.

  • JF

    If that’s what “most people in Downtown Manhattan” think (and I don’t see any poll data there), then I’m at a loss for why they’d be so clueless. Eric Gioia, who’s added his name to the anti-congestion pricing list, indicated over a year ago that for most small businesses that deliver to Manhattan, the cost of congestion was far more than $2,000 per vehicle per year (where did you get $5,000+?).

    The issue of “considering NJ traffic” has been discussed here many times: they already pay congestion pricing, they’re already being discouraged. And please don’t drag us into another round of “but they need to pay the added costs!” without reading the debates in the archives.

  • MaybeNot

    The CP proposal won’t help the parts of lower Manhattan subjected to the Canal St. mess. The combination of the toll offset, and not tolling the ER bridges means status quo ante for much of lower Manhattan. It’s perfectly reasonable for Gerson to cite this as a flaw in the CP plan that’s on the table. Whether it’s a fatal flaw and reason enough to vote against it is a difficult calculation for him to make. I don’t think this shows him as somehow craven or neanderthal or caving in to unspecified interests, or any of that nonsense.

    The estimated benefits of CP as proposed are actually pretty modest — ~6% reduction in vehicle-miles traveled in the CBD + revenues that are a gnat on the ass of an elephant compared to the financial hole the MTA is in.
    Given the Canal St. mess, and the fact that the programs explicitly funded by the Federal CP grant are broadly distributed, Gerson’s district seems unlikely to see a lot of good coming out of CP, and at least some of his constituents are going to get hit in the pocket book. His position may be parochial, but it’s not irrational. This is the essence of the problem with the whole proposal — It it is an attempt to implement small, broadly distributed benefits via a political process that is designed for advocacy of narrow, targeted interests. Gerson is doing his job as a local representative.

  • Susan

    As a pedestrian with a dog who crosses Canal St. on the western end several times a day, I can assure you that the NJ-bound traffic heading into the Holland Tunnel makes it unsafe to cross the street. Cars and trucks blatently ignore the lights, block the crosswalks (and the entire intersection) and terrorize my dog, who is afraid to squeeze between cars. Unless the same $8 charge is applied to NJ commuters, this mess will only get worse: suburbanites are actually ENCOURAGED to drive under this plan, since it costs them nothing and their rides will be faster and easier thanks to removing city residents from their own roads. I applaud Councilman Gerson for insisting that these issues be addressed before any plan is voted in, because it certainly will not be addressed once Bloomberg gets what he wants.

  • HF

    How can you say the East River Bridges won’t be tolled? Anyone coming in over them will now pay $8 whereas before they had paid nothing. Explain the difference between that and a toll?

  • HF

    Susan – the $8 charge IS applied to NJ commuters – it just happens to go to the Port Authority rather than the MTA. May be a good compromise would be some kind of arrangement where PA kicks some of that money back to the MTA?

  • Susan

    HF–NJ bridge and tunnel tolls remain the same whether or not there is congestion pricing, so they have no disincentive (actually, have an incentive) to drive into the city under this plan. New York residents don’t get to deduct bridge and tunnel tolls from NJ Turnpike tolls–what’s the difference?

  • HF

    Susan – do you really think the average driver differentiates in their head whether they are paying a “normal” toll or a “congestion pricing” toll? $8 is $8, no matter what bridge you’re crossing, no?

  • Susan

    HF–NO! If it doesn’t cost any more to drive after CP than before, why would a driver change his habits? Isn’t the point supposed to be traffic and pollution reduction?

  • Susan, do you think this is a negotiating tactic by Gerson? Would you support the plan personally if that one concern were addressed? As far as I’m concerned the way people (who all seem to be car owners) go on about NJ related to the plan is over the top, but I can sympathize with those that live near tunnel entrances and exists.

    Instead of talking about Turnpike tolls, which couldn’t be further from a concern of most New Yorkers, let’s just talk about getting some cars off Canal. I think the toll deduction structure is important and should be retained. But if the city can get the PA to raise their own tolls beyond $8 and throw some money at the MTA, that should allay fears that in isolated areas congestion would increase as people already paying $8 stream in on their way to enjoy the newly decongested areas. Would that win your overall support?

    (I do not think this is a negotiating tactic by Gerson; his general language and tone convey a veiled opposition to pricing in general, but I would love to be proved wrong.)

  • MRS-MAN

    Maybe the best way to deal with the issue of perceived unfairness is to have a small part of the CP charge be unrefundable:

    CP charge $8, $5 refunded if using a tolled crossing.

    With Port Authority crossings now at $8, a NJ commuter would pay $8 to cross at the GWB, Goethals, Bayonne, and Outerbridge. If a CP charge like above were put into effect, the same NJ commuter would pay $11 ($8 to PA and $3 to the city) to use the Holland or Lincoln Tunnels. While not doubling the cost of using the Lincoln or Holland, perhaps the $3 additional fee would be enough of a disincentive for NJ commuters to shortcut through Manhattan streets and stick to the expressways.

  • Susan

    Tolls on one road should not depend on tolls on another. (Is this done anywhere?) Why should we be encouraging drivers from NJ? I don’t know Mr. Gerson and cannot impute any motive to his position, so I’ll simply take him at his word.

  • Dave

    I am going to repeat myself that the re-installation of two-way tolls at the MTA crossings will address the “fairness” issue and drastically reduce traffic on Canal. The technology is there to implement this without new toll plazas or high cost.

    A commuter would pay $4 to the MTA to enter Manhattan, a $4 CP fee, and $4 leaving the city by any bridge or tunnel. A total of $12 which is $4 more than what they pay now.

    For equity’s sake place a $2 toll each way on the East River bridges so city commuters would pay $2 toll + $6 CP fee and $2 leaving for a total of $10.

    Toll-shopping creates huge traffic issues on the Gowanus, the East River bridges and all of lower Manhattan. Why am I the only one bringing it up?

  • MaybeNot

    HF: much of the traffic crossing lower Manhattan (especially Canal St.) consists of trucks coming from the Holland Tunnel and going to the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. They are doing this to avoid the tolls they would have to pay if they were to follow the highway routes between NJ and LI (e.g., one of the NJ-SI crossings, then the VZ bridge). Because the congestion pricing plan includes an offset to the Port Authority tolls, it maintains the perverse incentive created by the current toll scheme that has thousands of trucks a day turning Canal St into one of the bleakest corridors in the entire city. Tolling the ER bridges and/or making the VZ bridge tolled in both directions would address this, but neither of these actions is part of the proposal. Got it now?

  • Susan, I don’t understand your answer. If you take Gerson at his word I guess that means you believe he does want congestion pricing, does want to get some kind of plan through, and is holding out momentarily to negotiate rather than obstruct. Would you support this plan if it were altered to offer greater relief to Canal Street, through higher PA tolls specifically?

  • Susan

    My understanding from friends who live near the Lincoln Tunnel is that they deal with the same problem–it isn’t just Canal St. I’m sure those near other bridges and tunnels have had simimilar experiences. Why do you think suburban commuters should be exempt from CP? This would also apply to the Triborough Bridge, the Midtown Tunnel, and any other tolled access used by out-of-city drivers.

  • Alan Gerson, my councilmember, is notoriously incapable of making a decision.

    He wants everyone to love him and the opposite results.

    Instead of action, he constantly issues position papers and forms task forces, which go nowhere.

    Because a few of his constituents do not want CP, he will not offend them. As a result the other, vaster majority gets offended.

    Alan, for once in your life, take a stand!

    Your home community board, your political club, your neighbors want CP.

    For once, show leadership and not waffling.

    You have only one more year to leave a legacy other than one of constant indecision. Cut the Hamlet act!

    Come out strongly in favor of CP.

    (And why would you want to pee-off Speaker Christine Quinn, who supports CP. She will only cut her discretionary funding to you and we are the ones who suffer.)

  • HF

    MaybeNot – I am no expert, but every time I am on Canal Street during the day the vast majority of vehicles are NOT trucks – they are personal vehicles, taxis and commercial vans, but not trucks. I completely agree that the Verrazano situation is inane, but I don’t think this should be a show stopper for congestion pricing.

  • MaybeNot

    HF: Many traffic counts, studies, etc. have shown truck volumes on Canal St. to be in the thousands per day. Regardless, the “toll shopping” problem is well documented among both commercial and non-commercial vehicles. It’s a bad situation. I’m not saying it should necessarily be a show stopper for CP, but Gerson’s position (which is the subject of this thread) is worth considering. Supporting CP will cost him politically. Why should he do it if his corner of the City isn’t much improved by it? He can’t get on the stump and tell his constituents who live and work along Canal St. that life is going to get better for them, because in all likelihood it won’t.

  • Ian D

    Susan:

    I think you have to take a step back and think for a second.

    Today, I live in SoHo and work at the Newark Airport (where I get free storage of my car, courtesy of my employer, though they won’t pay for my train/bus fare. But that’s another thread.)

    Most of the time I choose to take public transportation to and from work. Why? (Pretend I’m not so strongly pro-transit for a minute.) Because it is going to cost me $8 to drive through the tunnel. It’s going to cost me more to take the train, but $8 + the hassle of finding parking, dealing with traffic, etc. makes worth it to take the train. Equations:

    hassles of driving hassles of transit + train fare

    So there is already congestion pricing at the Holland Tunnel – it convinced me not to drive!

    Now, I’m not going to argue against the point that there should be more than an $8 congestion fee. Is $8 enough at the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels? Ask SoHo residents or the wonderful folks over at CHEKPEDs. But it would be worse without the $8 congestion fee that’s already in place (that the PA happens to collect)!

    I disagree with Alan that this is a serious sticking point – and strongly disagree that it will not significantly discourage the free-ride seekers that overwhelm Canal St.

    And to DGV in #27: You entertain me when we’re on the same side. Argh.

  • So there is already congestion pricing at the Holland Tunnel – it convinced me not to drive!

    Thanks, Ian!

    Here is something that some people seem to be overlooking: the Port Authority raised the tolls from $6 to $8 on March 2. This is an added charge that people driving from New Jersey are paying. The money is going to transit. That is congestion pricing. Just because they beat us to it and did it without a federal grant doesn’t make it somehow not congestion pricing.

    As Larry and others point out, congestion pricing is designed to eliminate toll-shopping. It’s designed to discourage people from driving through Manhattan during congested times. It’s designed to fix the Canal Street mess at its source, rather than the micro-fixes that Gerson prefers.

  • “it isn’t just Canal St. I’m sure those near other bridges and tunnels have had simimilar experiences. Why do you think suburban commuters should be exempt from CP? ”

    Susan, you started off with a nice practical story about walking your terrorized dog across Canal Street. That’s the only reason I engaged in conversation, to look for simple solutions that might win your support for the plan. If you want to talk about “why not let’s completely change the plan with only weeks to go!”, someone else may bite. Maybe there are few people left that are not yet bored with the philosophical debate over toll deductions that is irrelevant by virtue of the timeline.

    If we could raise tolls on PA tunnels beyond $8, naturally we could do it for GWB too. I’m no expert on the tolls since I don’t drive, but if there are any others that are $8 already it would make sense to raise them to throw a bone to neighborhood residents. And their terrorized dogs.

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