Ghost of Congestion Pricing Lingers at RPA’s 2010 Regional Assembly

Even when there’s no breaking news at the RPA’s regional assembly, the annual get-together at the Waldorf Astoria is a good time to gauge the collective mood of the people who run the region’s transportation systems and think about planning for New York City’s future. How often do you get the heads of the MTA, NYCDOT, and the Port Authority all in the same room?

At the last three regional assemblies, funding our transit system with congestion pricing or bridge tolls seemed within reach, to varying degrees. (After the State Assembly killed congestion pricing in 2008, the zeitgeist was still kind of optimistic, because the insiders knew that road pricing would be revived soon.)

This year, the impending transit cuts in New York and New Jersey cast a bit of a pall on the proceedings. At times, the atmosphere felt tinged with foreboding, like when Lt. Governor Richard Ravitch told the crowd, "It’s hard to imagine what life will be like if we don’t make the investments in infrastructure that we have historically made."

The official theme of the event was "innovation," often encapsulated as "doing more with less" by speakers coping with shrinking budgets.

One of the more notable exchanges came at a panel on technology and transportation, when New York City Transit chief Tom Prendergast noted that the financial battering his agency has absorbed is "forcing us to do things we’ve never done before." One example: the MTA’s new open data policy.

Prendergast didn’t share much in the way of specifics, but he did hint that the MTA hopes to make transit arrival info accessible to riders before adding countdown clocks at every station and bus stop. "We’re looking at simple and innovative ways of getting that information up to people
on the street," he said.

Countdown clocks are the most expensive component of a real-time transit information system, said Chris Dempsey of the Massachusetts Executive Office of Transportation, and they take the most time to implement. You can get schedules and arrival times to passengers much more quickly and cheaply — through mobile devices — by opening up transit data to developers and letting them do the work.

Prendergast agreed that the MTA shouldn’t be trying to create a wholly proprietary system to distribute its transit information. "[MTA Chair] Jay Walder wants to reach out to the people with the core competency to run with this," he said. "You have to get past the issue of ownership at the agency level."

As for big, regionally transformative ideas, congestion pricing and the failure to enact it were still very much on people’s minds today. Port Authority chair Chris Ward told the morning crowd that "letting politicians demagogue on congestion pricing has been terrible for New York. The most important thing we can do for working class New Yorkers is to keep those subways running."

Later in the day, White House urban affairs director Adolfo Carrion got a big hand when he mentioned congestion pricing about 29 minutes into a 30-minute speech. The former Bronx Borough President and rumored 2013 mayoral contender said the Obama administration’s vision for "metro innovation" in New York includes "traffic congestion mitigation strategies and new, more innovative transportation options, including bicycles, ferries, and even maybe, dare I say, congestion pricing."

  • Glenn

    It may be that we need to hit a new nadir to rise again with a rational mass transit policy.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Carrion was an enormous disappointment to everyone I was hanging with at the RPA meeting. Distinguished only by his mediocrity. I don’t remember him being so insubstantial in NYC politics but he was in the land of the blind.

    Ward was brilliant as usual, Chris Ward for President, or King. One caveat to what you have stated is that his reference to demagoguery was in regards to race and class as they relate to congestion pricing not to deny that race and class exist in our society.

  • Carrion was an enormous disappointment to everyone I was hanging with at the RPA meeting. Distinguished only by his mediocrity. I don’t remember him being so insubstantial in NYC politics but he was in the land of the blind.

    I remember, but you’re right, it’s kind of hard to keep one pandering mediocrity separate from another.

  • JamesR

    I skipped the event as the theme of ‘innovation’ is a cover for the fact that there’s nothing much positive to really talk about on the regional planning scene at the moment. We’ve been eating a sh!t sandwich of a budget for two years running, government is broke on every level, and the public is out for blood – and this is rightfully so in many cases. Did anyone even bother to raise the issue of giant bridge over the Hudson that desperately to be replaced before it fails? Did anyone of State DOT’s Tappan Zee corridor team even have a place on a panel at the event? My guess is no, because it’s a nonstarter and everyone knows it.

  • Why is it better for the bridge to be replaced rather than fail?

  • Andrew

    Because the next bridge down dumps traffic in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.

  • E. Throop

    The public maybe out for blood, but few state legislators will lose their seats this Fall. The electoral system is rigged. The TZ Bridge debacle speaks volumes about generations of bi-partisanship mismanagement and political failure. The tolls from the TZ should have paid for its replacement.

  • You mean the one that’s already at capacity?

  • Andrew

    The GWB isn’t at capacity. Some of the roads it feeds into, most notably the Cross Bronx Expressway, are. So this would just dump more spillover traffic onto local streets.

  • Why is it better for the bridge to be replaced rather than fail?

    Because bridge failures kill.

    Granted, you could make a utilitarian argument against it. Maybe the effect of reduced overall traffic, minus the effect of more traffic in Washington Heights, would offset it. Maybe the cost of replacement is so high that it’s better to shut the bridge down and spend the money on something else. However, both arguments are empirical and would require some sort of documentation.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “The TZ Bridge debacle speaks volumes about generations of bi-partisanship mismanagement and political failure. The tolls from the TZ should have paid for its replacement.”

    It’s worse than that. The future tolls have been borrowed against, so we can’t use those to replace the bridge either.

    Meanwhile, other tolls all around the metro area were removed during the Pataki administration, to great acclaim. Pataki also enacted the policy of shifting construction to nights and weekends at inflated costs, to avoid inconveniencing rush hour drivers — in the short run.

  • Who says the bridge has to fail?

  • I should say, who says there have to be cars on it when it fails?

  • E. Throop

    Cap’n. The TZ carries a huge volume of trucks/freight. There is no rail alternative for the bulk of that truck traffic. The TZ is a crucial link in the regional economy. Even if all the people moved out of the Mid-Hudson, we’d still need that bridge to sustain cities and towns elsewhere. Best would be a really good TZ, with fewer delays, that could pull some trucks traffic north of the city. Per Larry, the bonding of future TZ toll money means that even if they double tolls, it still isn’t nearly enough to pay for the replacement.

  • Strictly speaking, there is a rail alternative – running electric freight trains through the Penn Station tunnels. However, that goes against the diesel-only tradition of American freight railroads. So the local politicos want to build a cross-harbor freight rail tunnel, for the same cost of electrifying a few thousand km of freight track.

  • vnm

    Larry, which tolls did Pataki eliminate?

  • There is no rail alternative for the bulk of that truck traffic.

    And it’ll be that much harder to build one since a perfectly sound railroad bridge a few miles upriver that could have carried a big chunk of that freight was just converted to a nonmotorized trail that is not expected to carry much more than light recreational traffic.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Larry, which tolls did Pataki eliminate?)

    Just the ones I can think of: a Thruway toll in Rockland. Southern State Parkway near the Queens border. Hutcheson River Parkway at a bridge in the Bronx. Saw Mill River parkway near the Bronx in Yonkers. It pretty much became a they got it so we get it thing.

    “In 1998, the Westchester County Executive introduced legislation to remove the Yonkers barrier toll plaza, but the legislation was never enacted. Earlier in the 1990’s, the Suffern barrier toll plaza was removed, and tolls for passenger cars at the Spring Valley barrier toll plaza were eliminated. Tolls still apply for commercial vehicles at the Spring Valley plaza.”

    http://www.nycroads.com/roads/thruway/

    Sounds like the Thruway Authority would lose that much less revenue of the Tappan Zee bridge had to close. Traffic to NYC could come down through NJ.

  • Bolwerk

    [A] perfectly sound railroad bridge a few miles upriver that could have carried a big chunk of that freight was just converted to a nonmotorized trail that is not expected to carry much more than light recreational traffic.

    I doubt it. If you want to seriously do something about truck freight in NYC, make it so freight gets to Long Island by some means other than the GWB either by rail or truck. Of course, LI NIMBYs don’t want freight for goods they consume to be transferred in LI from rail to truck — they want that to happen elsewhere, where it makes less sense.

    The Cross-Harbor Tunnel seems like a good investment to me, if it’s utilized well. It would be better if it was four tracks and carried HBLR to Brooklyn. 😉

    Of course, congestion pricing would improve things too.

    BTW, I like those points about redundancy.

  • The preferred alternative for the Cross-Harbor Tunnel is single-track. The amount of expected traffic doesn’t justify double tracking, and there are no plans for leveraging it as a passenger train bypass of Penn Station. (This is a good thing – for passenger service, Hoboken-Fulton-Atlantic would be both cheaper and more useful. The Triboro RX route is a great orbital subway, but it misses all the major job centers in Brooklyn and Queens, making it a terrible commuter line.)

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