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Congestion Pricing Supporters Speak Up in Queens

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Meghan Goth reports:

With city buses slogging their way past double-parked cars on Archer Avenue just outside, Queens community members and elected officials testified on Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposal for a three-year congestion pricing pilot program at York College Performing Arts Center last night.

The Traffic Congestion Mitigation hearing, one of seven being held around the city, gave community leaders the chance to voice their opinion before the 17-member commission and a packed house.

As expected, a majority spoke against the mayor's plan. Many, like the Queens Civic Congress, offered suggestions for how to solve New York City's traffic problems without making it more expensive to drive private automobiles into Manhattan's transit-rich Central Business District.

Though they were clearly in the minority, a surprising number of Queens residents spoke up in favor of Bloomberg's plan. Just about everyone who stood up to testify agreed that traffic congestion is a serious and growing problem and the city needs to come up with solutions now.

"I might have to pay to go to Manhattan, but I support congestion pricing unequivocally," said Marc Scott, a Jackson Heights, Queens resident. "The Mayor's plan is a step in the right direction."

The plan, Scott said, would keep Queens streets safer and would help his son, who is asthmatic.

"If we reduced idling on my street, that would help him breathe better," Scott said. "I've lived in New York City for more than 20 years, and the man has a vision to make New York City better."

The audience clapped and cheered in response.

Despite the fact that only 4.5 percent of Queens workers drive into Manhattan to work in the proposed pricing zone (download TSTC.org's Queens fact-sheet), many who spoke felt strongly that the Mayor's proposals would be unfair to lower- and middle-income families.

"Queens residents drive to Manhattan more than any other borough because they have little mass transit options," said Helen Marshall, Queens borough president. "We must not be punished by those who have not offered mass transit options in Queens."

In fact, the Mayor's congestion pricing proposal comes with a plan to create 36 new bus routes and bus rapid transit lines and Queens in which most of them will run.

Marshall proposed ideas echoed in others' testimony, such as, increasing Long Island railroad stops to include some areas in Queens, creating a ferry service to the Rockaways and retiring non-clean air buses. Another strongly voiced sentiment was concern for elderly people who must travel into Manhattan, and thus pay a fee, for medical services that are only available there.

Veronica Vanterpool, who spoke on behalf of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, was the first in long line of congestion supporters at the meeting. She pointed out that 95 percent of Queens residents would not be affected by congestion pricing because either they don't commute outside of the borough or because they use mass transit.

Another supporter of the pricing plan was Joseph Hartigan, a Rockaway resident who posed a question to the audience.

"Why is it that Staten Island gets to commute for free?" he said, referring to the Staten Island ferry, which does not charge a fee. "No one in this room except from Staten Island gets to commute for free."

The night went on in similar debate with a majority of dissenters and a surprising number of supporters to the mayor's plan.

At the close of the meeting, buses were still bunching up along Archer Avenue, slogging their way past double-parked vehicles. Politicians and community members filtered out of the Performing Arts center, the Commission adjourned only until tonight's forum in the Bronx.

Reporting and photo by Meghan Goth

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