Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 4

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DOT’s Dani Simons and City Hall’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Rohit Aggarwala, at a joint hearing of Manhattan Community Boards 4, 5 and 6 on July 9; one of many public hearings where Bloomberg Administration officials have met with communities to discuss congestion pricing. Tonight, Brooklyn Community Board 6 hosts a similar public forum.

Here is the fourth and final installment of Streetsblog’s congestion pricing Q&A with Rohit Aggarwala, New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Click these links to find Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Add your questions to the comments section and we’ll see if we can get Aggarwala or someone else in city government to try and answer them for you.

Aaron Naparstek: Should the mayor’s congestion pricing plan be submitted to an Environmental Impact Statement process?

Rohit Aggarwala: I don’t think so. And the reason is simply that an EIS would be no more valuable for the decision of whether or not to go forward with congestion pricing, and what to do to mitigate its impacts, than the analysis that we’ve already done, and the analysis that the commission will be doing. The problem with traffic congestion is that it is so difficult to model.

That’s why we’ve proposed a three year pilot. The pilot itself effectively will be the Environmental Impact Statement. Keep in mind congestion pricing is very different from building something you can’t tear down. We can turn this system off whenever we want. If it turns out that the environmental impacts are negative, then by all means we’ll want to turn it off. We’re pretty convinced that the impacts will be wildly positive, and any specific impacts that might take place that are negative are things that we would be able to adjust.

AN: What exemptions do you foresee or would you like to have or not have?

RA: The mayor’s plan has a few exemptions. First of all, yellow cabs and radio cars. Second, handicapped license plates. Third, mass transit and emergency vehicles. The reason for the third is kind of obvious, As for the handicapped, although we have Access-a-Ride, if you have a disability but you can still drive, there are large parts of the transit system that don’t really work that well for you.

The reason for yellow cabs and radio cars is that we believe those pretty much function as an extension of the transit system. If you take a subway into Manhattan and you’re going to the far west side, you may want to take a taxi or you may want to have the option to take a taxi home at the end of the night if you work late or something like that. Similarly, because it can be difficult to find a yellow cab, particularly parts of the outer boroughs, we want to keep the ability for people to use radio cars. I don’t think we want to force people out of taxi cabs. A taxi is actually very efficient use of the street. It never circles for parking and, particularly at rush hour, you have very high utilization of taxis, as we all know since it’s hard to find one that’s unoccupied.

Black cars and limousines would be charged in the mayor’s plan. Frankly, those are corporate trips that, number one, can bear the cost, and number two, we want those people to think, "Well, couldn’t I just take the subway it would be faster and cheaper?"

AN: Would you be open to adding more exemptions if that comes up during the commission discussion?

RA: I think the real challenge with exemptions is that they are a slippery slope. You don’t want government to be in the business of making the decision over who is driving for a good reason who is driving for an unacceptable reason. If you get into that business you wind up with all sorts of problems about how you judge. If it’s not based on, say, a handicapped license plate or some pre-existing handicapped permit, does that mean we have to establish a whole new bureaucracy for assessing who’s really in need of driving or not?

I know there was a proposal to exempt Rockland County residents because the transit options from Rockland County aren’t as good as other parts of the region. But if you do that, well, there are also parts of Brooklyn where the transit options aren’t as good. You wind up almost having to go down to the individual level to measure how long it takes someone to walk to the subway and take the subway into Manhattan. I don’t know how you do that.

AN: How will it work inside the pricing zone when people need to move their cars on street cleaning day?

RA: We will want to talk to technology vendors about the specific metrics or the specific decision rules and the billing system for how you’d do that. But there are any number of ways you could do it. Since we know by neighborhood, in fact, we know block by block when people are likely to have to move their cars to deal with alternate side parking, you could build that into the billing system.

Likewise, you could do something where you have to drive a certain number of blocks before you get charged. There are any number of ways you could do that using camera placement or billing logic. We don’t have a good proposal yet, but we have enough different ideas that we’re pretty confident we can make it work.

AN: If you keep a car inside the pricing zone and want to move the car either within or outside of the zone, how does the charging work?

RA: They pay. The rules are that if you are only moving within the zone during the 6:00 am to 6:00 pm period, you’re only going to pay $4 not $8. And that’s true wherever you live. If, for example, you drive in from Brooklyn or New Jersey at 5:30 in the morning and you’re driving around in the zone at 7:00 and you keep your car parked until 6:00 pm when pricing turns off, you’re only going to pay $4. You’re not going to pay $8 because you were only driving within the zone during the charging period.

So, a resident who lives in Hells Kitchen, say, and owns a car and decides for whatever reason that he’s going to drive down to City Hall during the day is only going to pay $4. But if that person drives out of the zone between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm, our proposal is they pay $8. The reason for that is that if they choose to drive out at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon when everybody else is also driving out, they’re making a significant contribution to congestion.

AN: I promised this interview would be about the policy not the politics but what do you think is the key to moving congestion pricing forward?

RA: Educating people about what congestion pricing really is, and what it isn’t. There are a lot of myths out there, some of which have been perpetuated by the opposition. We need to make sure people are aware of what the proceeds could be used for and what the benefits would be. We need to ask New Yorkers to start thinking about what alternatives we have for reducing congestion and improving transit. The answer is we don’t really have any good alternatives. The 17 member Congestion Mitigation Commission and the timetable that we’ve agreed to with the legislatures and the governor allows us a little more time to make our case and explain this to people.

AN: Speaking of timetables, I see we’re out of time. Thanks for doing this. Are you sick of answering these same questions over and over again?

RA: I’m kind of used to it at this point.

  • Boogiedown

    Question: Would the system be privitized, or would the city maintain control?

  • f(t)

    does anyone know how will the CP be enforced for the out of state drivers who don’t have ez-pass?
    i understand that the bills are supposed to be send out after their plats are recognized, but how will they be obligated to pay those fees?
    a lot of them already decide to ignore their parking tickets.
    also i hope that public workers (nypd, fdny and many others…) will not be exempt from the CP fees.

  • Gelston

    Why bother figuring out some elaborate way to exempt people from moving their cars on alternate side of the street parking days? It would only be $4, a small charge for free parking all day.

    The handicapped exemption is going to be wildly abused and generate tremendous resentment. It’s easy to get a handicapped permit for one member of a household and then let everyone else use that vehicle. There must be a better way to let handicapped individuals recoup the cost of driving into Manhattan when they need to.

  • lee

    indeed. i hope by handicapped they don’t mean everyone who has one of those rearview mirror hangers which allow parking in off-street parking lots but rather limit it to the City’s SPPD permit which is much less common and allows exemptions to certain parking rules.

  • Thousands of people suddenly became handicapped after transpo officials in Rome, Italy began restricting driving into the center of the city during bad air days.

  • out of state driver enforcement is a good question, especially since so many people who live here are (illegally) registering their cars in other states for cheaper insurance.

  • Rit seems unaware that the State Environmental Quality Review Act is LAW. Complying with SEQRA may be inconvenient and more often than not fails its obligation to accurately and adequately disclose all impacts, but it is mandatory in New York State for all discretionary actions of government thatt have the potential for causing a significant impact. Making a dramtic difference is, indeed, the intention of the 3-year test. The virtue of the goal does not excuse compliance.

    Out of prudence alone, the City should be preparing at least an EAS to preempt 11th hour litigation. This means gathering and analyzing the extensive baseline data that preceded London’s test program during the narrow window of time before mid-November for it to be valid. If Rit thinks the data already collected (or at least reported)are adequate, we are really flying blind. Traffic models may make imperfect forecasts, but the city is making down to the dollar projections based on appaent speculation, e.g., who’s actually going to pay the $8 or $21 if other toll payments made the same day are going to be deducted?

    This leads to the importance of an EAS or EIS in examining alternatives. If, in fact, the congestion fee would fall heaviest on those now not paying any tolls (the free bridges and drivers crossing 60th Street), a compelling alternative to a network of 2000 charging stations to be examined in an EAS or EIS would be tolling those bridges and setting up a high-tech charging cordon across 60th Street river to river. If forthright analysis shows that charging at just 50 points accomplishes the traffic goals (both in and well beyond the pricing zone) at half the cost, generating twice the funds for transit, the EAS or EIS will have served the purpose of SEQRA–to enable INFORMED decisions.

    More of the unsupported, piecemeal bits that were made in response to the Assembly’s questions is no substitute for a coherent data-based analysis in which all assumptions must meet the test of public scrutiny. I can’t believe the Mayor doesn’t know this and isn’t protecting the city’s future—and his enormous psychic investment–by rounding up other than the usual suspects to begin a genuine environmental review.

  • JK

    Carolyn is not alone in feeling concerned about an EIS. A number of very experienced environmental litigators I have spoken share Carolyn’s view. I too am very puzzled by why the city doesnt prepare an EIS in anticipation of the inevitable state and federal lawsuits.

    City Hall is making a big bet that the courts will buy the novel legal arguement that since pricing can be turned off, an EIS is not required. I want to see pricing and I hope the courts go along with mayor or this could be a very costly miscalculation.

  • Citizen

    Carolyn is 100% right about the value of an EIS. And anyone who went to one of the public “hearings” for PlaNYC knows that they do not satisfy the spirit of soliciting public input. They were presentations. This mayor is unfortunately as obsessed with mayoral control as another executive branch is.

  • jmc

    It is a bit ridiculous to compare the mayor to that other administration.

    What is the value of an EIS? Isn’t it an environmental impact statement and not an economic impact statement? Then why does it matter who pays the tolls? The initial CP program is only a test, anyway.

    What sort of negative environmental impact could CP have exactly?

  • Hilary

    An EIS requires an analysis of alternatives and their impacts. It would show their disparate expected environmental benefits as well. This would let the public see the relative cost-benefit of different approaches. JMC – why on earth would you not want the benefit of this information??

    While the environmental impact is paramount, an EIS also documents impact on historic resources. Others on this blog have mentioned alternatives technologies that require vastly different infrastructure. Don’t we want to know about them??

  • Chris H

    Had some more discussion about Environmental Impact Statements on this thread.

    http://www.streetsblog.org/2007/09/18/how-meade-esposito-could-steal-tomorrows-transit-dollars/

    I don’t think that its required. Other similar studies are fine, but an EIS takes a LONG time to complete.

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