Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission Opens for Business

Westchester Assembly member Richard Brodsky on Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal: "My problem is that I don’t understand what you’ve proposed."

"This is going to be interesting," Straphangers Campaign Senior Staff Attorney Gene Russianoff said as he waited for the start of yesterday’s inaugural Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission meeting. "Usually with these things, the fix is in before you start but I really don’t know what’s going to happen."

Commission chairman Marc Shaw, a former Bloomberg Administration deputy mayor, opened up the meeting saying, "I’d like the Commission to operate as informally as possible." It was a not-so-subtle suggestion that the presence of the press and public weren’t necessarily going to help the 17-member group come to a deal any more quickly, and that the real discussion would be taking place offline. When someone in the crowd complained that Shaw’s microphone wasn’t working and no one could hear what he was saying, Shaw joked, "Good."

After a unanimous vote ratifying him as chairman, Shaw took a few minutes to describe the context in which they’d be working. "The most important thing is the economic backdrop," Shaw said. "We’ll be talking about slower economic growth in the next 12 to 18 months. As we look for ways to provide resources for the MTA in its capital plan, we’re not going to have any new state or city resources."

As for the city’s gridlock, Shaw said, "At end of the day there are only two ways to deal with traffic congestion in this town. One way is to have less economic activity take place in midtown and downtown, a choice that no one wants. The only other way to deal with congestion is to find ways to improve mass transit."

Noting that the Commission would need "a fairly aggressive work plan" in order to come up with an agreed upon plan within the four month time frame laid out in the deal made with the US Department of Transportation, Shaw offered a set of criteria by which various traffic reduction proposals might be measured consistently. The criteria were:

  • Reduction of vehicle miles traveled
  • Peripheral parking and traffic impacts to neighborhoods
  • Privacy issues
  • Air quality and environmental concerns.
  • Impact on various economic classes
  • Revenues for mass transit
  • Cost of implementation
  • Best practices
  • Overall economic impact of any proposal

Following Shaw’s introduction, Rohit Aggarwala, City Hall’s Long Term Planning and Sustainability Director presented Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a three year congestion pricing pilot program and some of the thinking and data behind it (see Aggarwala’s presentation here)

Aggarwala noted that about 30 percent of travelers into Manhattan’s Central Business District go by car or truck and that despite significant improvements in subway and bus service, that "modal share" hasn’t changed since 1975. That "leads us to believe that transit improvements and incentives alone would be insufficient" to reduce traffic congestion," Aggarwala said.

A slide from Rohit Aggarwala’s presentation to the Commission.

Aggarwala also noted that "only a small percentage of New York City residents," 4.6 percent, "drive in every day as their main way to get to work." Even among Staten Island residents, the percentage of commuters regularly driving in to the CBD doesn’t reach 10 percent. If you looked at what causes traffic, one of Aggarwala’s slides showed that 59.5 percent of the vehicles in Manhattan’s CBD are private autos. About 30 percent are taxis and for-hire cars.

At the end of Aggarwala’s presentation, Shaw opened up the floor for questions, most of which came from two of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s three appointees, Northern Manhattan Assembly member Denny Farrell and Westchester Assembly member Richard Brodsky.

"Is it a tax or is it to lower the amount of vehicles coming in?" Farrell asked.

"The reason why congestion pricing is such a compelling tool," Aggarwala said, "is because it’s the kind of solution that does all these things at once. It raises money, it gets people out of their cars, it cleans the air…"

Farrell, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1974, around the time that Aggarwala was likely starting nursery school, raised his voice, "You didn’t answer the question."

Northern Manhattan Assembly member Herman "Denny" Farrell

They went back and forth a bit on traffic modeling and mode share numbers until Farrell zeroed in what on what seemed to be his issue. "Pricing will not effect anyone coming from New Jersey," Farrell said. "I live right next to the George Washington Bridge. Come visit us on a Friday afternoon. Starting about 100th Street traffic is jammed, stopped dead. Nothing you’re doing here will effect that."

Brodksy was next.

"I don’t think this is the time to argue," he said. "My problem is that I don’t understand what you’ve proposed."

Unlike the Commission’s other two Assembly members, who seemed most passionately concerned with issues immediate to their own districts, Brodsky posed broader questions about the Commission’s mandate, how traffic reduction and air quality claims were being measured, and revenue.

In what may very well be the set up for a legal challenge to push for an Environmental Impact Study, Brodsky repeatedly pressed the point that the Commission didn’t have enough information to approve the Mayor’s congestion pricing pilot program.

"What are you asking us to consider?" he asked Aggarwala. "What are we statutorily bound to consider? How do you measure the health and air quality impacts in your plan? How do we know the air quality impacts of this plan on Jackson Heights, Queens?"

Aggarwala took a stab at answering some of his questions but Brodsky still felt he didn’t have the information he needed.

"I don’t get it," he said.

"We have four months to use this Commission for this very purpose," Shaw replied.

Other Commissioners — you can find their bios here — laid some of their issues on the table as well.

Russianoff said he wanted more guidance from the city on residential parking permits and how the proposed MTA toll and fare hikes might impact the traffic reduction and mode shift projections made in the Mayor’s plan.

Tom Egan wanted to know why there were no new bus routes proposed for Southeastern Queens.

Ed Ott wondered what would happen to the city’s mass transit system if congestion pricing revenue didn’t materialize.

Richard Bivone asked whether the MTA could handle the additional riders.

Elizabeth Yeampierre wanted more specific information about how the Mayor’s plan would improve the environmental and health problems in Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods that "are host to the city’s highway infrastructure and environmental burdens."

And with arms crossed, head cocked and a tone of skepticism in her voice, Assembly member Vivian Cook made it clear that "that Queens County and Long Island City aren’t going to become a parking lot for the region."

The meeting closed with Brodsky peppering Sander and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, also a Commissioner, with revenue-related questions. Brodsky wanted clarity on whether congestion pricing revenues would be used to pay for MTA capital projects or MTA operating expenses. He also asserted that New York City’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t "contain any commitment of funds" and "gives the feds the right to give us nothing even if we pass congestion pricing."

Sander, hinting that the public forum might not be the ideal "context" for he and Brodsky to hash out some of these issues, said, "We do not anticipate use of any congestion pricing funds for operating assistance. Zero. Our position is that if we were to approve congestion pricing, that funds should be used for our capital program." Specifically, Sander said, if he had his "druthers," congestion pricing revenues would go towards building the Second Avenue subway, updating the Authority’s 19th century signal system, improving transit service in the outer boroughs and a variety of other projects.

As for the $354.5 million commitment from the federal government, Sadik-Khan told Brodsky, "We do have a commitment from the US DOT and from DOT Secretary Mary Peters and I’d be happy to sit with you and clarify that."

Shaw said that the Commission will be meeting approximately once a month between now and February and will host a number of public hearings along the way as well.

  • steve

    Denny Farrell is a complete hack. I remember when he entered the mayoral race in 1985 over the protests of progressive black community to split the anti-Koch vote with Herman Badillo. He doesn’t give a damn about his consituents, he’s spent the last 30 years in the Assembly cozying up with the banks he’s supposedly in charge of regulating. Why doesn’t he do what the bankers want this time and support congestion pricing?

  • Budrick

    “Is it a tax or is it to lower the amount of vehicles coming in?”

    For anyone who has taken at least one high school or college class on Economics, this is an extremely frustrating question, and a scary one coming from a politician who’s been in the business of making taxes and encouraging/discouraging behaviors through public policy for decades.

    The BEST taxes are taxes that discourage behavior that has a detrimental impact on society. ANY tax on a behavior–be it smoking, buying luxury goods, earning income, or driving–will discourage that behavior. This means that it’s not either-or. It’s BOTH. And that’s exactly what Mr. Aggarwala responded–“it does all these things”–and our dim-witted assemplyman retorts that “both” is not an answer.

    Why can’t we have educated people running our government instead of demagogues, hacks, and assorted ideologues?


  • Sander made very clear that the MTA plans to tap the congestion tax revenue to pay for operating costs –“in the tens of millions” he stated yesterday at the meeting — for the additional local, express and bus rapid transit buses.

  • drosejr

    I would like to see all of Brodsky’s comments, but surprisingly (for me) I wouldn’t immediately dismiss them out of hand. I think he is trying to anticipate many of the issues that his fellow assembly members will focus on, and get the Mayor, his staff and the other pro-congestion forces to answer them as best they can. He will raise plenty of issues, but I think he is trying to be constructive, possibly because he sees the direction the committee is leaning in, and he does want to achieve the consensus that Marc Shaw is aiming for. If I were the mayor, I would focus on winning as much support on the plan from Brodsky as possible. Not so sure about Farrell; agree with the previous commenters that he may be difficult to sway for one reason or another.

  • Dave H.

    Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free –

    If this is true, what conclusion are we supposed to draw from it? (Put more bluntly: so what?). You may well have a point, but I don’t think it’s clear.

  • momos

    Brodsky is such a blowhard. Farrell is willfully obtuse. I witnessed both of them perform their political theater at the hearing in June on congestion pricing. My fear is that no matter how comprehensive the information Aggarwala provides, Brodksy will continue to “not get it” and Farrell will continue to insist it’s not enough.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Note the difference between two statisitics — the small share of people who commute to work in Manhattan by auto, and the much higher share of all trips to Manhattan by auto. So much for the idea that people “have to” go drive to Manhattan because their job requires it.

    So one question is how much economic activity would be lost if people choose to engage in non-work activities closer to home, in places where they can drive, where will that activity be shifted, and how much is being lost now because of how unpleasant all the traffic makes Midtown.

  • Smith

    Brodsky, it seems to me, is bucking for an EIS to slow down and derail the project until, he hopes, the Anthony Weiner administration rolls in to City Hall and just kills the thing. I don’t think any amount of information will help Brodsky “get it.” Obviously, the best way to collect the information that Brodsky needs is to try the pilot project for a time and see how it works, just like Stockholm did.

    Farrell and Cook — I don’t even know what to make of these two. One thing that was immediately clear at the meeting on Wednesday was that they are completely oblivious to the notion that they have to represent citywide and regional interests on this Commission. Both of these ancient, crusted-over, New York State pols seemed unable to get beyond the immediate traffic concerns of their own districts.

    Farrell was the only Commissioner to bring up the traffic problems in his own neighborhood. It was a telling moment. At least Brodsky seemed to understand that he has a bigger role to play on the Commission than just representing Westchester commuters. Still, you get the sense that Brodsky just wants to kill the thing.

  • Spud Spudly

    Considering the scope of the proposal and the widespread impact it’s likely to have, it’s not unreasonable to require an Environmental Impact Statement. Certainly smaller project have been required to have one.

  • Dan Icolari


    As someone you might dismiss as ancient, I’d like you to consider the possibility that the reason Denny Farrell is a hack is because he’s a hack and always has been, not because he’s 75.

    Many New Yorkers my age and older support congestion pricing for the same reasons we have allied ourselves over the years with progressive policy reform in human rights, social justice, peace, livable neighborhoods, and a livable planet.

    I ask you to remember that some of your most ardent, active and vocal allies are ancients like me.

  • lee

    I prefer to write it like this:
    Keep NYC Congestion, Tax-Free

  • Chris H

    Keep NYC yada-yada-yada,
    That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is going to operating. It really depends on the context. Bus rolling stock is considered capital.

  • Mike F

    Brodsky is a totally negative person, and its hard to believe he still can’t understand the plan. Maybe he should do some reading.

  • Joe Lawes

    Is there a schedule or calendar of commission activities (hearings, deadlines, etc.) published anywhere? Or do we just read their results on Jan. 31?

  • I would like to present to the commission about ‘flexible carpooling’. (See Does anyone know how to go about getting to make a presentation?

  • Norman6

    I’m sure that this will be the main topic of public questions when Mayor Bloomberg appears at his upcoming public forum with his commissioners on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 30th at PS 24 in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. The meeting, at West 235th St. near Independence Ave., is hosted by the Northwest Bronx Democratic Alliance and the Riverdale Community Association. It will start at 7:45 p.m.

  • Bedraj Tripathy

    I think it is sad that the assembly members do not see the advantages of congestion pricing. It is even more sad that they do not know what is congestion pricing about.

    The issue raised, “is it a tax or is it to lower vehicles coming in” is a question that a junior school student should be asking. In a way, I beleive what Agarwalla has told is a justified answer! This is one tool / program that will give you both income and reduction of traffic. And lowering of pollution for a better living comes in free. Ask those staying in the Zone and they will tell you!!!

  • Bedraj Tripathy

    “I think it is sad that the assembly members do not see the advantages of congestion pricing. It is even more sad that they do not know what congestion pricing is all about.

    The issue raised, “is it a tax or is it to lower vehicles coming in” is a question that a junior school student should be asking. In a way, I believe what Agarwalla said is a justified answer! This is one tool / program that will give you both income and reduction of traffic. And lowering of pollution for a better living comes in free. Ask those staying in the Zone and they will tell you!!!”

  • ytien

    To know about the traffic, you have to go to the street and find out where the traffic comes from.

    In Manhattan, the congestion comes from 4 ways. Double park, Construction, Pedestrians and Blockbusters.

    Double park is very easy to solve, 50% of the double park truck owned by UPS, FedEx, DHL, Soda delivery and police cars. Only if the city stop offering huge discount to this company’s ticket and ask their management to regulate the driver. This can be done in a week and reduce 30%+ congestion.

    Blockbusters was 2 point plus fine ticket before Bloomberg. But today no one seems care about that at all. If our police officer and brownies start to issue ticket to those drivers (especially city bus) who block the cross after light change again, this will solve in maybe a month.

    Construction maybe harder, but most of the work can be done in one lane, but they closed two lanes, the new buildings usually close lanes for years while they can really working inside their own property.

    Pedestrians is the biggest problem but still can be solved. If we can build a underground street under the regular street, and make all the Pedestrians cross from underground, then we will have no Pedestrians on the street. The under-street should be combined with all the utility pipe and the rent collect from the utility company can pay for the cost to build it. It’s also good for those utility company because they don’t have to dig the street anymore, all repair can be done from the under-street which save them big money.
    This will also solve the remaining problem from construction.

  • Dan

    That’s an intriguing theory, Ytien. Traffic is the fault of everyone and everything except for you, in your car, stuck in traffic. Have you thought about applying for a job as a traffic engineer? You’ve clearly got what it takes. I’m surprised bicyclists, buses and delivery trucks didn’t make your list of biggest causes of traffic.


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