Why Gridlock Sam’s Traffic Plan Could Go the Distance

Saturday will mark two months of non-stop acclaim for Gridlock Sam’s traffic-pricing plan. The accolades kicked off on March 5 with a gushing op-ed, “Meet Sam Schwartz,” by New York Times emeritus editor Bill Keller, and they haven’t let up. The Wall Street Journal, Transportation Nation, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Channel 13, and Crain’s New York (a profile plus an editorial) have extolled Sam’s plan to overhaul New York’s tolling network and generate $15 billion over the next decade to improve roads, bridges, subways and buses across the city. By now, any New Yorker who professes ignorance of the plan has either been hiding under the proverbial rock or is flummoxed by its political implications.

Such an outpouring of support is unprecedented for congestion pricing proposals anywhere, and is virtually unheard of for any serious policy proposal in New York. I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering it from my vantage point as a long-time traffic-pricing proponent; as an exponent of rival but complementary pricing plans, first with Ted Kheel and more recently with the Move NY coalition; and currently as a modeler helping Sam quantify his plan’s traffic and revenue benefits. (That work is supported not by Sam but by the Kheel family’s Nurture Nature Foundation.)

So how do I explain the overwhelmingly positive press reactions to Gridlock Sam’s Fair Plan, as he calls it?

First, the plan feels inclusive, far more so than any prior traffic-pricing plan.

Consider what it offers residents of Queens, the city’s most car-dependent borough after Staten Island: dollar fares on MTA buses in subway-less areas; Bus Rapid Transit service on the Long Island Expressway; and, most spectacularly, a halving of current tolls on the borough’s five MTA bridges, from the Throgs Neck in northern Queens to the Gil Hodges and Cross Bay Blvd. Bridges in the Rockaways. These benefits are palpable — the MTA bridge discounts alone will save Queens residents $100 million a year — and they are integral to the plan, in accordance with the precept of charging premium tolls to drive into the congested heart of the city. Other boroughs are slated to get similar discounts and benefits including BRT on the Belt Parkway and the Bruckner Expressway, a widened Staten Island Expressway, and highway expansions intended to take trucks off Brooklyn streets.

Second, Sam’s plan feels egalitarian.

The borough chipping in the most dollars is gilded Manhattan, thanks largely to an average $1.75 surcharge on medallion taxi fares (much of it delivered via a 30 percent boost to the wait time charge — in effect, a fee on taxi congestion). Another Sam measure, terminating Manhattan car owners’ sales tax break on monthly garage fees, won’t bring in much, just $15 million a year, or 1 percent of the plan’s total revenue, but it will further soften the rap on congestion pricing as a tool to enrich the wealthy. And of course the billion dollars a year in revenue reserved for mass transit will be a boon to all: the city’s non-car-owning majority gets better transit, while drivers get less-congested rides because thousands of straphangers didn’t defect to cars.

Still, the appeal of Sam’s plan may owe more to vision and character than to inclusiveness and egalitarianism.

The Gridlock Sam plan is built on a clear-eyed understanding of how transportation really works, and it starts with overturning the city’s current dysfunctional toll system. East River toll-shopping, the bane of downtown Brooklyn and Long Island City for generations, disappears, since all four bridges and two tunnels will be tolled equally. The one-way Verrazano Bridge toll that for a quarter-century has rewarded truckers who lumber through lower Manhattan’s narrow streets is largely neutralized by effectively transferring the point of toll collection from Staten Island to Canal Street. Even Sam’s insistence on a 50-cent toll to bike into the CBD over a bridge, a lightning rod for criticism, draws attention to his visionary bike-pedestrian bridges as well as to his hard-won experience maintaining the East River bridges as DOT’s chief engineer during the fiscally-strapped 1980s.

Then there’s character, which in Sam’s case denotes both integrity and shtick. Sam Schwartz is a “New Yorker to his kishkes,” as Bill Keller wrote, and his plan “is a Brooklyn boy’s gift to his city.” His “Gridlock Sam” moniker conveys, in a couple of words, what prior proponents of congestion pricing couldn’t buy at any price: a sense that the plan comes from someone whose career has been dedicated to extricating folks like you from traffic — someone who has earned the public’s trust.

The hot new public-policy bible, Thinking, Fast and Slow, by the behavioral economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, teaches that two cognitive modes compete in making decisions. “System One” makes fast and intuitive judgments but is prone to “cognitive illusions,” whereas “System Two” sifts evidence slowly and painstakingly at a high mental cost. That’s why traffic pricing tends to lure policy wonks — “look at these fabulous gorgeous benefit-cost ratios” — while repelling Average Joes on a gut level — “why should I trust you?” Gridlock Sam will have his work cut out pulling the two strands together, but no one can deny that he’s off to a flying start.

  • Ben from Bed Stuy

    Well said. The media seems to have been receptive. Now, how do we get moving on this plan, nudging our politicians to endorse it, too?

  • Mark Walker

    This plan should be Issue Number One in the next mayoral campaign — followed by the next gubernatorial campaign.

  • Larry Littlefield

    How much of the added money goes to the next MTA capital plan (in cash, not backing for debt) and to fill the MTA’s pension hole?  And if none, where is THAT money going to come from.

    Recall that Bloomberg’s plan as proposed in the Plan 2020 documents originally included all kinds of goodies, but it was quickly shifted to a way to pay for the MTA’s financial problems. 

    I guess you can say we were lucky that people ended up paying new payroll taxes in exchange for nothing due to the deals of the past, rather than tolls in exchange for nothing.  But if think cyclists are going to end up getting anything, think again.

  • Glenn

    What Sam also has is no major political baggage. Albany politicians seem to want to stuff the Mayor for very personal political reasons. Albany is where this needs to happen and it’s clear no one has an ax to grind against a thoughtful proposal that could help grow revenue in a smart way. Kudos to Gridlock Sam. Let’s just hope that the revenue actually makes it to the projects he is proposing, as opposed to finding its way to fund upstate boondoggles somehow.

  • Anonymous

    “Subways 10% faster”: What does this mean?  And will the frequency of trains increase?  

  • Anonymous

    @HamTech87:disqus  “Subways 10% faster” is my estimate of the extent to which roughly $500M a year invested in *capital* projects (e.g., overhaul/upgrade of signals, tracks and stations; new tech such as Communications-Based Train Control; even station modernizations such as elevators that help get riders in/out more quickly) and a similar amount spent each year on operations (more trains) will reduce the average duration of subway trips. Write me off-line if you would like me to walk you into and through the modeling.

  • fj

    Would much prefer the quarter $billion went to bike share; to make it accessible, convenient and practical to virtually everyone all over the city; improved transit of bike share’s net zero and nearly net zero vehicles across the city’s bridges including automation and auxiliary powering; completely safe streets  . . . , even weather protection.

    This would be a much bigger win.

    Much more bang for the buck; servicing many more people providing virtually universal accessibility.  Directly addresses climate change in the most efficient expeditious way, etc., etc.

    Subways, conventional massive transit, and cars are money pits and legacy technologies; and typical of legacy technologies do not provide good service, are difficult to maintain and waste huge amounts of resources including money; despite that current public transit in NYC is probably the best it has ever been; expectation levels are just too low for what can really be done with low cost long term transportation solutions that quickly and comprehensively address climate change.

  • fj

    With a diversity of methods and apparatus deploying the world’s first large-scale net zero transit system comprised of over 100,000 vehicles — with many more private ones as well — New York City could easily become the world’s first modern grand-scale transportation incubator and enterprise zone securing an enviable position in the major transition coming rapidly upon us building humanity’s future.

  • fj

    . . . for the global transportation market valued in the $trillions.

  • I don’t understand the logic behind a $10 congestion charge at 3am when there’s no traffic and transit is terrible or nonexistent for a lot of parts of the metro area at that hour.  

  • fj

    If Google can make a driverless car for a blind person it can much easier make a driverless recumbent 3-wheeler; much safer, cost-effective, smaller, lighter; much more near net zero energy and emissions cradle to cradle.

  • Anonymous

    @yahoo-RU4T6BRNXOMOWMVQR4B56F56PA:disqus  Sam is trying to keep the exposition simple while it gets off the ground, politically. As that happens, you’ll almost certainly find him tweaking the tolls so they’re higher in the peak and lower off-peak.

  • vnm

    This has the praise of the press. This makes so much sense on every level of logic, it really just has to happen. So now it just needs a backer in Albany. 

    Earlier, inferior plans, have come inches away from passing, earning the support of the City Council, State Assembly, and the then-Senate Majority except for four men who reveled in obstructionism, ignoring the best interests of their own constituents. Three of those men (Kruger, Espada and Monserrate) have been forced out of office by ethics scandals of their own making. And the one still in office has exposed himself as thoroughly out of step with the State (Diaz, Sr., on gay marriage).

    So, again, now this plan just needs a backer in Albany. Someone with some gravitas, a broke progressive who has proven he can accomplish much-needed reforms.

    Man, oh, man, if Governor Cuomo can make this happen, I will be thoroughly tempted to forgive and forget any transgressions he may have otherwise made against livable streets.

  • bill b

    Would there be a 50 cent toll if you carried your bike across a bridge? They would have to freeze this toll tax for a period of time because if this was not done the toll will increase and increase. Central Park is conjested at times would it be included in Sam’s plan? 

  • Andrew

    Sorry to be a spoilsport, but I still don’t like it.

    Let’s go step-by-step.

    You say it “feels” inclusive.

    Dollar bus fares in some parts of the city but not in others don’t feel inclusive to me. There have been free transfers between buses and subways since the late 90’s, which bring the bus-plus-subway fare in eastern Queens in line with the subway-only fare in neighborhoods near the subway. What purpose do discounted bus fares serve? Does it cost the MTA less to operate a bus in eastern Queens than in a neighborhood near the subway? Is there a reason you’re trying to promote bus use (which increases costs to the MTA) in some neighborhoods but not in others?

    By Bus Rapid Transit I assume you mean what is conventionally (in New York) called express bus service: buses that circulate through a residential neighborhood for pickups, run nonstop for a long distance, and then make dropoffs in the CBD. The problem is that express buses are highly costly due to the lack of turnover, the long travel distances, and the strongly peaked nature of the service. The higher fare also works against your egalitarian goal. If you want to improve transit service for Queens residents, improve the local buses and boost the capacity of the subway, where needed – that would bring far better service to far more people (even the ones who can’t afford to pay a premium fare), at lower long-term cost to the MTA. The express bus system should be contracted, not expanded.

    (If you do mean conventional BRT, with fairly widely spaced stops along the entire route, the LIE is a pretty atrocious corridor for it, and the Bruckner and Belt are even worse.)

    You say it “feels” egalitarian, because it dumps the costs disproportionately on Manhattan. I suppose it feels that way if you assume that everybody in Manhattan is a billionaire. In fact, Manhattan has residents of all socioeconomic standings, and the borough with the highest median household income is – drumroll – Staten Island. Expanding express bus offerings is not egalitarian at all.

    Is there an economic or transportation reason to dump the costs disproportionately on Manhattan? Are Manhattan residents responsible for a disproportionate share of transportation-related costs? (Actually, they are – a disproportionately low share.) Are we trying to encourage Manhattan residents to move elsewhere?

    This plan, despite its title, isn’t about doing what’s fair. This plan isn’t about making the city’s transportation network a little bit more rational. This is entirely about pandering to the parts of the city that are most strongly wedded to their cars, that feel a strong entitlement to drive, that have a knee-jerk anti-Manhattan bias.

    If the basic problem is that driving is underpriced, then we should tackle the problem head-on and raise the price of driving. Yes, there will be winners and there will be losers, but the outcome is overall a winning outcome. Rather than skew the whole program so far from its objective that the result is unrecognizable, we should focus on educating the many skeptical New Yorkers (and their elected officials) who are concerned about the additional out-of-pocket cost but aren’t convinced of the many real benefits of reduced congestion.

    Keep the reduced tolls on the outer borough bridges. Drop the rest.

  • Miles Bader

    Plus the name Sam is genius

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