Congestion Charging in New York City: The Political Bloodbath

Though many New Yorkers are learning about congestion charging for the first time this week, the transportation policy community has been working to sell this idea to a resistant public for more than three decades. What happens when Nobel Prize winning theory meets bare-fisted New York City politics? A heavily condensed version of this story ran in this week’s New York Magazine:  

Mayor William Jay Gaynor, August 9, 1910, moments after being shot in the throat by a disgruntled former City employee. On the left, moving forward to help the mayor is Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of the first U.S. president to be assassinated. (Photo: William Warnecke)

Perhaps New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was channeling the ghost of one of his predecessors, Mayor William Jay Gaynor when he dismissed the possibility of London-style congestion charging as "a non-starter" the other day. 

Gaynor was Mayor of New York City nearly a century ago. Like Bloomberg, he was a political outsider, never even having set foot in City Hall until the day of his inauguration. Like the current Mayor, Gaynor was also a kind of technocratic managerial type. Rather than appointing hacks and cronies from the Democratic Party machine of Tammany Hall, he was noted for filling his administration with competent civil servants.

Perhaps not as good at negotiating city contracts as Bloomberg, on August 9, 1910, Gaynor was shot in the throat by a disgruntled former city employee. The Mayor survived the assassination attempt and a few months later removed the five cent tolls from the four bridges crossing the East River. The bridges have been free ever since, doomed to a century-long cycle of disrepair followed by expensive emergency fix-ups.

While "there’s never been a serious connection drawn between the assassination attempt and Gaynor’s tolling policy," says former Department of Transportation Deputy Commissioner "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, "I’m suspicious."

Schwartz has reason to be suspicious. He is one of a small cadre of transportation policy experts who have been working, in some cases, for more than thirty years to sell the idea of congestion charging to a resistant public and political power structure. The idea of using pricing to control the amount of traffic that flows into Manhattan has a long bitter history and you can hear it in the voices of those who have worked on the issue the longest.

In 1973 Mayor John Lindsay, Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved a plan to bring New York City into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act by putting .50 cent tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges. In those days before unleaded gas and catalytic converters, the plan was to clean up the city’s air by simultaneously reducing motor vehicle traffic and raising money for the failing transit system. Brian Ketcham was a young, rising star in the Lindsay Administration, responsible for developing the city’s clean air plan and selling it the public.

"The taxi industry hated me. The trucking industry, at that time mafia-controlled, was threatening me. Everybody was angry. It was a lot of agony." he recalls. "Eventually, the business community and government decided they didn’t want tolls. They finally fired me because I was trying to get it enforced and they were trying to bury it," Ketcham says.

The National Resources Defense Council sued the city and in 1975 the federal government moved to enforce the plan. Finally, in 1977, Senator Daniel Moynihan and Representative Elizabeth Holtzman amended the federal Clean Air Act to allow New York City to forgo tolls in return for funding the transit system through other sources. "That really, ultimately led to $40 billion of investment and the saving of the transit system," Ketcham says.

Upon leaving government, Ketcham and his wife, Carolyn Conheim, also in the Lindsay Administration, set up shop as consultants and continued to advocate for bridge tolls. "I pursued it for about 15 years in a tortured effort but I finally gave up on it. There’s only so much of your life you can devote to that kind of crap until you just say, ‘Well I’ve done as much as I could.’"

"The fact of life," Ketcham admits, "is that back in ’77, we still didn’t have the technology to do it. Accommodating toll plazas on the bridge entrances and exits was clearly an impossibility. But it led to saving the subway system. It was, you know…" Ketcham’s voice trails off. "I suffered a lot and it cost me a shitload of money. But in the end the public benefited."

"Gridlock" Sam worked with Ketcham during the Lindsay administration and later became a Deputy Commissioner for the Department of Transportation under Mayor Ed Koch. "In 1980 after the transit strike, Ed Koch actually introduced a traffic regulation, a new law, to charge people in driver-only cars. If you wanted to drive into Manhattan and you were alone in your car you had to use one of the toll facilities," Schwartz said.

The legislation passed City Council and was within days of being implemented when the parking garage industry and the Automobile Club of New York sued to stop it. "We lost the law suit on the argument that the city didn’t have the authority to toll the bridges. Tolling the bridges requires state legislation." Though many of today’s congestion pricing advocates believe Automobile Club of New York v. Koch is flawed and could be overturned in court (PDF file), the City’s own lawyers and many in Albany believe that any congestion pricing system that involves tolling the city’s bridges must go through the state legislature before its enacted — an added complication to say the least.

Schwartz who later became renowned for inventing the term "gridlock," for posting signs in midtown reading, "Don’t even think of parking here," and for having Mayor Koch’s car ticketed for illegal parking while the two were having lunch together, has been advocating a complete redesign of New York City’s tolling system for years.

"We really have a very dysfunctional pricing scheme in New York City," Schwartz says. He blames much of the dysfunction on Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato who in 1986 used federal law to get rid of the eastbound tolls on the Verrazano Bridge as a gift to his Staten Island constituents. The one-way toll, according to Schwartz is one of the most "pro-congestion" traffic measures ever enacted in New York City. It "encourages truckers to barrel down the rickety BQE and downtown Brooklyn’s neighborhood streets, bounce across the creaky Manhattan Bridge, thunder over choked Canal Street, and leave the city via the Holland Tunnel" which is also free going westbound. Using this circuitous route, New Jersey and Staten Island truckers and commuters can save as much as $40 a day in tolls. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan bear most of those costs instead.

Schwartz believes that where motorists don’t have good mass transit options and where tolls don’t do much to reduce traffic in the city’s central business districts, they should simply be eliminated. The tolls on the Whitestone, Cross Bay and Marine Parkway bridges in Queens are good examples.

In fact, "we shouldn’t even be thinking in terms of ‘tolls’ anymore. We should be thinking in terms of 2010 technology" that will allow us to charge variable fees based on traffic conditions, time of day or the kind of car you’re driving, he says. "We may not have a problem with someone coming over the Brooklyn Bridge on their way to the Bronx and staying on the FDR Drive. But if they want to drive up First Avenue to bypass some of the traffic, we’re going to charge them money. If you want to drive by and show your kids the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree from the window of your SUV, I’ll charge you $25 for the pleasure of doing that. We should use pricing to establish traffic patterns that are desirable."

Schwartz gave congestion charging one more shot before he left city government. In 1987 "DOT commissioner Ross Sandler and I got Koch to go forward and propose congestion pricing," Schwartz recalls. The result? "There were demonstrations in front of City Hall. We were nearly tarred and feathered."

Ethan Geto was the political operative handing out the tar and feathers. Geto’s playbook for killing the Koch proposal is classic bare-fisted New York City politics and gives you a good sense of what any traffic reduction proposal is up against, even today. "I forged a business-labor coalition," Geto says. "At the time, the number one labor leader in the city was a guy named Barry Feinstein, president of the Teamsters. The Teamsters repped the parking garage workers. It was so fucking parochial."

With Big Labor on board, Geto rounded up the Borough Presidents, the tourism, hotel and entertainment industries, and found that hospitals also wanted to keep it cheap and easy for their patients and doctors to drive into Manhattan. "Then we got Lou Rudin, the city’s number one business and civic leader as president of the Real Estate Board of New York. It was a real powerhouse group. We had a meeting — just three guys in the room. Rudin and Feinstein conveyed the message to the Mayor. Koch withdrew it." And that was that.

Undeterred by previous failures, the Dinkins administration made a move towards congestion pricing as well. In 1990, Janette Sadik-Khan, Mayor Dinkins’ Transportation Advisor, had just completed the first draft of a major study on East River Bridge tolls.

"I remember walking into Assembly Speaker Mel Miller’s office. He was the first guy that I was presenting the results of our study to and I said, ‘Hi, I’m here from New York City DOT to talk to you about the proposal to toll the East River bridges," Sadik-Khan recalls. "He looked at me and gave me this big smile and said, ‘Oh, that’s so cute!’"

"That pretty much epitomized the uphill battle that we faced politically at the time."

Today Sadik-Khan is a vice president at Parsons Brinkerhoff, a global engineering firm that specializes in large-scale transportation projects. She and her staff are leading participants in the traffic congestion study that the Partnership for New York City released today (PDF). Fifteen years after her Mel Miller experience she says, "I’m not sure that the politics have changed that much. There tends to be a knee jerk reaction to anything associated with pricing."

When the issue of congestion pricing was raised in the immediate aftermath of Bloomberg’s landslide victory, the mayor killed it just about as fast as he possibly could. The idea was floated on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold, in a quote by Partnership for New York City president Kathy Wylde. Immediately, the idea of a congestion pricing push during Bloomberg’s second term swallowed up the news cycle. Cornered by reporters on Fifth Avenue before the start of the annual Veteran’s Day parade, a clearly annoyed mayor slapped the idea aside, saying, "It’s not on our agenda to look at it." And just like that, congestion charging was dead again.

Geto, for his part, says that his successful effort to kill traffic reduction during the Koch Administration is the one major lobbying campaign in his career that really gives him reservations. "Traffic has reached such a point that it is clearly a net negative for the city’s economy."

But his experience running another controversial public policy effort, the city’s 1995 and 2002 ban on smoking in restaurants and bars, gives him the sense that if Mayor Bloomberg really wanted to take major steps to reduce traffic congestion in New York City he could do make it happen. "Every lobbyist in the city was working for Phillip Morris. We stitched together a public health coalition with much less funding. Everyone said, ‘You’ll never get this done.’ All the doom and gloom turned out to be scare tactics by people with very parochial interests."

While Geto acknowledges that the traffic issue is more complex than smoking, which had three decades of public health studies and national campaigning behind it before the city’s ban went into effect, he believes that with the city’s business groups, civic associations and public health community all clamoring for traffic relief, the time is right for another run at congestion pricing.

But how do you sell it to a resistent public via a reactionary tabloid media? "It’s always the substance that sells it. You’re not going to sell this through bullshit public relations." To sell congestion pricing, Geto says "you’d have to create a variety of incentives to coax people out of their cars and improve other transportation options. You’d have to ease the pain for certain constituencies and make people in Brooklyn and Queens happy. You’d need to put together a package that says, ‘Look, we’ve got to bite the bullet on something that’s very tough for this town but the pay-off is going to be enormous.’"

"No matter how you slice it you’re going to have people squawking. It’s going to be a fight. But Bloomberg took on smoking. He reorganized the schools," Geto says. "There are very few things that a mayor can do that would have the kind of impact that a traffic reduction program could have on improving quality of life in this city."

"Talk about a Bloomberg legacy – this would be it."

  • Wow, it’s equal parts inspiring and distressing to read this history. Personally, I believe that Bloomberg has the chutzpah to pull this off, so I’m excited to see what happens next…

  • JK

    Nice piece Aaron. Too bad they didn’t run this. This go-round we have the proven non-stop tolling technology, a success in London and uniform support from the editorial boards. Now, the politics are all Queens, some muni union and not REBNY. Big problem is that Quinn is speaker because of Queens — and borough boss Tom Manton. One wonders if a deal can be brokered that sends most of the revenue to meaningful transportation improvements instead of political pork. Queens BRT improvements look especially good.

  • Queens BRT improvements look especially good.

    Actually, from an efficiency and ridership standpoint, I’d suggest that the entire city consider implementing a streetcar system to replace heavily and some moderately used buslines where ever possible. Unlike buses which last for 12-15 years, streetcars can last up to 20-30 years and they use electricity instead of diesel fuel, thus less noise and less pollution. The ride is considerably smoother, and faster because of the rapid acceleration of the streetcars versus buses.

    The best example of what I’m discussing in the United States is Portland Streetcar in Portland, Oregon.

  • JK

    David, while I personally like LRT/Trolley/Streetcars, it is extraordinarily unlikely that NYC will be investing in them on a widescale basis any time soon. The MTA has no interest, and that’s not going to change under Lee Sander.(Also, NYC transit advocates are far more interested in BRT because of it’s tremendous international success.) Additionally, the City has less than no interest in operating transit of any kind — it finally transferred it’s bus operations to the MTA. So, who is going to pay for and build this LRT?

  • lara

    The article is good, but it’s not clear to me if the earlier efforts at “congestion charging” were only attempts to toll the bridges or if they were of the same scope that we are currently debating–that is charging for entry everywhere south of say 96th (or 59th)? In other words, did Koch and Dinkins get pilloried for trying to implement congestion charging or bridge tolls?

    I think the article is a bit overly optomistic. One major opponent is still going to be garage owners. And not coincidentally, garage owners are a very powerful group within REBNY since very often their garages are just waiting to become office towers. So don’t write off REBNY opposition yet. IMHO, congestion pricing proponents are going to have to give them a bone of increasing curbside parking fees in the congestion zone, so that they no longer have to compete with highly subsidized curbside parking.

    Also, the big question left unanswered here is where the revenues go. Why should Bloomberg pay a high political price when the city may not see a dime of that revenue directly? Smoking is not a good analogy, even the city of Dallas did essentially the same thing. There was a lot of reward and not much downside. This is exactly the opposite.

  • epkwy

    I think anything that cuts down on unnecessary car trips is a good thing. Reduce pollution, reduce congestion, reduce noise, reduce stress.

    One thing I would advise against is putting Manhattan on a pedestal. Would the bridge tolls only be charged going in to the city, or both ways – in and out of Manhattan. If the idea is cutting down on car use, charging both ways is the best, fairest approach. It avoids the Verazzano/Holland Tunnel boondoggle.

    On the same note, the key word in my first sentence is ‘unnecessary’. Commuters within the 5 boroughs should be exempt from the tolls. Why not give people a reason to live in NYC for a change, rather than continue to drive them out to the suburbs through taxation and elimination of residency requirements for city workers? It amounts to a re-imposition of the commuter tax, and I LOVE that!

  • lara said: “IMHO, congestion pricing proponents are going to have to give them a bone of increasing curbside parking fees in the congestion zone, so that they no longer have to compete with highly subsidized curbside parking.”

    Don’t we want to do that anyway? Increase curbside parking fees (or eliminate it altogether)? I could swear I’ve seen that being discussed around here in other posts.

  • LA

    Excellent article, particularly the depth of research covering an entire century of political machinations. Every libertarian who blithely promotes congestion tolling should read this article to discover the bare-fisted opposition that real action will encounter.

  • JK

    Some people here have asked whether East River Bride tolls are the same as a CBD pricing zone. The answer is “no,” but the politics are very similar.
    NYC is effectively in the earliest stages of the political debate over pricing — which will likely take years. Unfortunately, the lesson from London’s pricing success do not include practical political lessons for NYC.

    London’s mayor, Ken Livingstone had the unilateral authority to impose pricing. During his run for office, he explicityly stated his desire to create a pricing zone as the means of improving bus service for outer borough commuters traveling to the CBD.

    Here in NYC, the mayor, City Council and probably the state legislature and governor must approve authorizing legislation. That’s a lot of consensus building. One possibility (though unlikely) is for the state legislature to pass a law giving the MTA (or another authority) the power to institute a pricing zone in the CBD. That would provide enough of a political fig leaf and it would connect pricing and transit financing (and improvements) politically.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    BRT’s tremendous international success? If only it were so:

  • Steve Adler

    This is an important discussion: Urban street space is scarce — with many potential competing uses — not just cars. Creating an efficient market for urban street space — using technologies that were practical 30 years ago, or newer 21st Century systems– would completely transform the city. The key to this — as many have noted — is to first give something to the road users who would be forced to pay for something that they now think of as being free. By opening up the market for surface transit – we bring about a new, unsubsidized system of largely owner-driven vans that would ultimately provide over ten times the service of the existing buses — saving people tremendous amounts of time — and reducing traffic, congestion, pollution, etc. To learn more about this seemingly counter- intuitive proposal — first put forward over thirty years ago — please send for my study. It is over 30 pages, 30,000+ words, in MS word format:

    Prof. William S. Vickrey — who won a Nobel Prize in Economics — largely for his work in Transportation — was advocating efficient road pricing 50 years ago.

    Bloomberg could get this done — if he understood the possiblities…

    Steve Adler


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