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Profiles in Discouragement: Pols Defend Traffic Status Quo

3:16 PM EDT on November 2, 2007

Council member Lew Fidler delivers his Tax & Tunnel plan to the Commission.

Spencer Wilking reports:

The city's traveling road show of community advocates, local politicians and concerned residents, otherwise known as New York City's Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, stopped in Brooklyn Thursday night as part of its whirlwind seven county tour.

At the hearing Brooklyn politicians delivered a resounding rejection of Mayor Bloomberg's plan for congestion pricing. From the Assembly (Joan Millman and Hakeem Jefferies) to the State Senate (Velmanette Montgomery and Carl Kruger) to the City Council (Vincent Gentile and Lew Fidler), to a candidate for Borough President (Bill de Blasio) they strode to the podium and railed against the plan calling it "Manhattan-centric" and bad for Brooklyn. Except for Councilmember David Yassky (who with great dexterity managed to support congestion pricing AND agree with his fellow Brooklyn politicos), endorsements for congestion pricing were left to residents and advocates. Council member Leticia James came close to supporting it but just couldn't do it, "at this time."

Brooklyn politicians voiced concern that their borough would become a "park and ride" community for those headed across the East River, clogging already crowded streets. They demanded the inclusion of residential parking permits to spurn this practice. Likewise, the usual argument that congestion pricing is an unfair tax on poor and working class families was cited more than once.

"I don't want to be known as an Assembly person from the largest parking lot in New York City," said Assembly member Joan Millman. "This will punish hardworking New Yorkers who live in the outer boroughs."

Millman, whose district is, literally, the tip of Long Island's traffic funnel into Lower Manhattan, crushed on a daily basis by regional through-traffic, went on to say that buildings, not vehicles were the true culprits of air pollution.

Instead of the current congestion pricing plan, politicians demanded better bus routes, more water taxis, advancements in the hybrid car, HOV lanes and a harbor freight tunnel for trucks. The need for improved subway service was a common lament, summed up by Council member Tish James, "For the record: The G train sucks."

Specific funding for these ventures was left mostly ambiguous, or as Council member Vincent Gentile put it: "The State legislature can find some options."

Unlike Commission members Vivian Cook and Denny Farrell, Richard Robbins' daughter was at the hearing.

Councilmember Bill de Blasio, like Millman, represents a district heavily burdened by regional traffic congestion. But he has his sights set on Brooklyn Borough Hall these days. So, after complimenting fellow Brooklyn Council member Lew Fidler's "bold" plan to raise payroll taxes, build three new tunnels, and wait for General Motors to sell hydrogen cars, De Blasio noted that Bloomberg's plan lacked guarantees and was executed in the last throes of its administration. "I appreciate the goals of congestion pricing, but there are too many unanswerable questions to move forward," De Blasio said.

As a departure from the Brooklyn party line, David Yassky pledged his support for the Bloomberg plan, but on the condition that improvements to mass transit be implemented beforehand.

Long Island Assembly member Michelle Schimel was a surprising voice in favor of congestion pricing and more livable streets. "New York must be more human, more walkable, more bikeable," she said. Schimel added that she took the LIRR and subway to reach the hearing.

The most persuasive plea for congestion pricing came from a group of young people with the United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park (UPROSE), a community group who say that the Gowanus Expressway is poisoning the neighborhood. Jennifer Casamayor, 21, who works for UPROSE and lives in Manhattan, said, "many children are currently suffering from respiratory issues as their bodies are still developing."

A member of UPROSE watches testimony along with members of the Commission.

Another member of UPROSE, Joaquin Brito, 16, of Bayridge, delivered the best line of the night, "If you can afford the $8 for a tall latte and cookie from Starbucks you can afford congestion pricing."

Other residents took the pulpit to advocate for congestion pricing. Many cited the problems of air quality and the opportunity New York City has to be a leader against global warming.

Richard Robbins, who works for AT&T and lives in Manhattan, held his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter as he spoke at the podium (he insists she wasn't a prop, Mom was merely working late). "The system is broke," he said. "When she grows up they'll be a better system in place, we have the opportunity to do that now."

This was the second to last of seven public hearings on the issue. The crowd at Brooklyn's New York City Tech numbered at around a 100, leaving plenty of room in the Klitgord Auditorium.

Reporting by Spencer Wilking. Photos by Aaron Naparstek. 

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