Congestion Pricing, Hashed Out Over Pints

It wasn’t your typical congestion pricing forum, but last night about 50 people got to hear the pros and cons of the Bloomberg plan debated in a relaxed, informal setting, with instructions from the moderators to keep drinking.

The event, sponsored by the London-based Institution of Civil Engineers, brought together two proponents and two critics of pricing at Manhattan’s 11th Street Bar, in Alphabet City. Amidst the academic banter, kind lighting and cold pints, it was hard to imagine things would get all that heated. They didn’t.

Not that the dialogue was short on substance. Critic Dr. John Falcocchio, Professor of Transportation Planning at Polytechnic University of New York, for instance, didn’t seem to be against pricing as a concept as much as he was skeptical of the plan as proposed. According to Falcocchio, a variable pricing scheme based on the Stockholm program, rather than London’s flat-rate model, would be a better fit for New York. Falcocchio said charging more during peak congestion times would speed traffic flow more effectively than a flat fee, which he believes will fail to reduce congestion "in a measurable way." Falcocchio acknowledged the transit benefit from pricing revenues, yet advocated for improved enforcement of traffic laws before a possible "gradual" implementation of pricing.

NYC DOT Director of Studies Thomas Maguire replied that enforcement is built into the plan, and that the city would like to have more red light cameras (which depend on approval by suspicious state lawmakers). Maguire also pointed out that there is no neighborhood in the city where a majority of commuters don’t already take transit, but noted that some of the worst congestion is in "asthma alley" neighborhoods leading into Manhattan and the central business district. Driving, Maguire said, is a choice, and pricing uses a "carrot and stick" approach to encourage motorists to choose transit.

Representing the anti-pricing Queens Chamber of Commerce Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free, attorney Corey Bearak claimed that population projections cited by PlaNYC are "dead wrong" (talking point alert!), and are an "excuse" to squeeze the middle-class "schlump" who has to drive into Manhattan. Bearak said neighborhoods with asthma-stricken populations are located "nowhere near" the congestion pricing zone, and that too much of the anticipated pricing revenue would be devoted to administrative costs. Instead of pricing, Bearak said, the city should work on reviving the commuter tax.

After a round of queries from the audience to both sides — including one about the city’s "schizophrenia" when it comes to clipping bikes (out of DOT’s hands, responded Maguire) and bike parking (no definitive answer here, other than possible isolated zoning adjustments) — ICE moderator David Caiden called the question. "Congestion Pricing, as proposed in PlaNYC 2030, Solves Manhattan’s Transport Problems," yea or nay?

Twenty-six audience members were polled in favor, with "not even 15" against.

As moderator, I don’t believe Caiden was counted among the 26, but he could have been. "I think it should be $50," he said earlier in the evening, referring to charging "those evil-doers coming in by car."

"But I’m not at all biased," he added.

Photo: Brad Aaron

  • Mayor Bluto

    Nice portrait of Steve Faust!

  • First, a correction. I represented Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free, not the Queens Chamber. A subsequent ICE flyer which reflected my participation did not connect me to the Chamber.

    Second, in my presentation I spoke of a non-resident tax — using that phrase to distinguish it from the commuter tax that Governor Pataki and the legislature abolished almost a decade ago. Unlike that measure, this proposal of the Queens Civic Congress would raise net, $1 billion for NYC and additional monies would be used for the benefit of the suburban counties. Essentially, NYC would keep the money from the out of state workers and the suburban counties would keep what their residents generate. This is a more efficient revenue measure since its involves virtually 100% of revenues raised going towards projects (or operations). The congestion tax, at best, involves $2 of every $5 collected going to the cost of the program; that makes no sense.
    And in terms of the population estimates, it is important to share the context; that remark followed my point – during the opportunity to make a point of information in the context of the debate format that the planners who developed the 1961 City Zoning Resolution envisioned a New York City of 14 million people. In fact the population declined to almost 1/2 that number.
    Finally, the question posed did not speak to the merits of the congestion scheme, so its proponents have nothing to spin.
    -Corey Bearak

  • JF

    Thanks for stopping by, Corey. While you’re here, maybe you can comment on a problem I have with one of the anti-pricing arguments you use.

    Brad quotes you as saying that ‘neighborhoods with asthma-stricken populations are located “nowhere near” the congestion pricing zone.’ We’ve heard similar arguments from Jeff Dinowitz and Ruben Diaz, among others.

    This argument fails to take into account that a neighborhood doesn’t have to be near a pricing zone, it just has to be on the way to a pricing zone. The “asthma alleys” of Western Queens and the South Bronx are most definitely on the way to Midtown Manhattan. A big factor in the bad air here is all the cars passing through.

    There are people driving from, say, Bellerose to Manhattan, right past my apartment in Woodside, and polluting my air. If congestion pricing encourages some of those people to take the LIRR instead, why wouldn’t you expect my air to be cleaner?

  • Brad Aaron

    Mr. Bearak,

    Thank you for your comments. I have made a correction regarding your affiliation. I was not aware of the change in the program prior to the event, and took it for granted that you were filling in for the Queens COC rep.

    As far as “commuter tax” vs. “non-resident tax,” thank you for making the distinction. My notes, however, indicate that you said “commuter tax.”

  • NixIllegalPermitAbuse_Then let’s talk

    How much congestion in Manhattan do you think is caused by 150,000 commuting parking permit holders in the government sector? NYC has lost $300-million already in the last 6 years from parking meter revenue alone. How many times have you circled your block because all the street parking is taken by government sector commuters parking illegally? Doesn’t anyone know about Department of Transportation No Permit Areas? Yes, they really do exist. It’s called – All of lower Manhattan below Canal Street. Don’t talk to me about a congestion scheme until you change your mentality about “free” parking for 150,000 government sector employees in the NYC area who can come into Manhattan and park illegally.

  • We’ve actually been talking about that issue for quite some time:

    The answer to your question is 19,200.

    That is how many fewer vehicle would enter Manhattan daily if government sector employees commuted by auto at the same rate as their private sector counterparts, according to Bruce Schaller’s analysis.

    Cleaning up the government employee parking permit problem is important but not a show-stopper for congestion pricing. In fact, an automated, camera-based congestion charging system would be a great tool for solving the problem. As you’ve probably noticed, the cops don’t like giving themselves parking tickets. Cameras and software will be happy to do it.

  • JK

    Aaron put his finger on a key point: does NYC have the political will to significantly reduce on-street parking by government workers by reducing the issuance of placards, eliminating placard zones and enforcing existing placard rules? The short answer is “No.”

    Even a hard headed mayor with 70% approval ratings has shied away from this.

    This is yet another reason why the automated enforcement offered by a congestion pricing zone is essential.

    (Incidentally, it’s not apparent why a $1billion commuter/non-resident tax would win the approval of Senate Republicans from LI and the Mid-Hudson. It seems even more of a non-starter than congestion pricing.)

  • Sam Lowry

    “[d]oes NYC have the political will to significantly reduce on-street parking by government workers by reducing the issuance of placards, eliminating placard zones and enforcing existing placard rules?”

    Can we please stop talking about “government workers” abusing placards? The problem is cops, corrections officers, judges, and court workers. The vast majority of vehicles with official plates and placards a) obey the rules, and b)receive (and pay) tickets when they park illegally. It’s really not fair to tar them with this brush. Cops don’t write cops (or judges, or court officers, or corrections officers), but they sure as hell do write everybody else.

  • SPer

    Sam, the problem with placard parkers isn’t just that some fail to obey the rules. It’s that placard holders drive in far greater numbers that other people because they don’t have to pay for parking. This creates a huge incentive to drive, and it’s the reason why government workers drive into Manhattan at such a high rate. Eliminate placard parking = encourging the use of mass transit.

  • Camera Kwestioner

    re “cameras (which depend on approval by suspicious state lawmakers).”

    Can we get the cameras to take pictures of whoever keeps putting up those $15 / $ 19 per hour moving signs?

    (see for more about these)


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