Profiles in Discouragement: Pols Defend Traffic Status Quo

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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."

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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."

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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. 

  • Larry Littlefield

    “Millman, whose district is, literally, the tip of Long Island’s traffic funnel into Lower Manhattan.”

    Remind me not to feel guilty when I bypass a direct route to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and drive to the free bridge through her neighborhood.

    New York City Transit surveyed riders some years back, and its estimate of the share of subway riders who had cars was identical to the share of all city households who had cars. What if we all decided to assert our equal right to use them one day?

  • Mark

    I hope streetsblog publishes a voter’s guide around election time. An ongoing scorecard would be even better.

  • Dave H.

    This is turning into a catastrophe: no matter how many times some of these arguments are refuted, they keep coming up again and again. Many people (citizens) may just not be hearing the arguments but others (politicians) seem to be just ignoring them because it’s easier to play the role of populist.

    Obviously, something needs to change. My suggestions 1) More emphasis on this being a pilot program and 2) more emphasis on how this will help the poor by making buses go faster.

    Right now congestion pricing is being framed negatively: take cars off the streets. When it is thought of this way, people think immediately of the negative consequences (it’s harder to drive) and only secondarily of the positive ones (faster buses, cleaner air, safer city). It’s too late now to rename congestion pricing, but maybe calling it the “Clean Air and Safe Transportation Initiative” would have linked it more closely with what it will bring, rather than take away?

  • Dave H.

    But perhaps it’s a good sign these meetings are not at capacity. The silent majority (of non-drivers) has not really looked into congestion pricing. When polled, they express suspicion, but they aren’t concerned enough to show up at meetings. If the pilot program goes into effect, I imagine they will see the benefits and become strong supporters.

  • mf

    I’m so frustrated with Millman, who “represents” my traffic clogged neighborhood. TA should put together transit scorecards for all local candidates, so we’re not surprised when they actually come to power.

  • gecko

    Good point Dave H, Most people don’t normally deal with automobile congestion in this city since they don’t drive and a much more aggressive public education initiative would be highly beneficial.

    No question that once congestion pricing is implemented its considerable and immediate benefits will allow it to continue unabated as elsewhere.

  • Jason A

    How is anyone at any level of NY government able to get away with bashing the state of NYC transit without accepting any responsibilty for the MTA’s troubles?

    “The G Train Sucks?!?”

    Yeah, no thanks to you, councilman!

    If mass transit is such a huge problem in the city, stop underfunding the MTA, get to work and do something about it!

  • Dave

    Gecko…even those who don’t drive are impacted by congestion if they are in a taxi, or a bus, or are trying to cross the street when it is gridlocked.

    The one issue that I have raised before is emergency response time. When you see an ambulance stuck in gridlock there has to be a cost to those inside. Why has that not been raised as a pro-CP issue?

  • The city doesn’t need to go with a congestion tax, it needs to better use the resources we have.

    Get police officers to direct traffic, rather than standing around in groups watching the traffic pile up. Where does this happen in Manhattan? Everyday it happens in the Village and at the entrances to the Lincoln Tunnel and the bridge.

  • mike

    Queen (12): Your solution offers no funding mechanism, and relies on human-based enforcement, which is unsustainable. Furthermore, increased traffic enforcement, by reducing congestion, will likely induce further INCREASES of traffic. Finally, I am sure that you will be the first one to scream bogus claims of class warfare when TEA agents start handing out $115 tickets like candy.

  • Even with a fairly low turnout, this meeting lasted more than 4 hours and had a small share of cranks. The guy from Transportation Alternatives was thwarted from speaking by a crank towards the bitter end.

    And for the record, that is me in the blue shirt on the far right side of the first picture. I’m reading through my prepared remarks.

    While Fidler’s “9 Carat Stone” plan is wrong inb it’s conclusions, it’s not without a few gems.

    First, building the Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, burying the Gowanus Expressway, and extending the R train to Staten Island.

    Second, his proposal for taxi stands and off-street loading zones also make good sense.

  • A few more words on the subject: I was not as discouraged by the Brooklyn pols, with the exception of the one guy with the crutches, whose name I forget.

    One has to recognize that the outer boroughs, under the current plan, are not getting a fair tradeoff for congestion pricing. The mitigation that is currently on the table is woefully inadequate. I am all for pricing, but it has to be done right or it will be a debacle.

    My suggestions to the Committee (in addition to what is already proposed) were:

    1. Enhanced F/V/G service on the Culver line.

    2. Create authority for residential permit parking in the neighborhoods adjacent to the congestion zone . . . proceeds from violations of RPP rules would flow into the same fund as congestion pricing fees, thus complementing CP.

    3. Bury the Gowanus Expy in a tunnel and include a Bus Rapid Transit lane. The Gowanus is wreaking havoc on the health of South Brooklyn children, a tunnel would have scrubbers that would dramatically improve air quality.

    4. Build the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel.

    Yes, that’s a ton of money. But all of these projects need to get done. The RPP plan would raise money, and soft benefits in time and air quality outweigh the cash costs of building the tunnels.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    De Blasio thinks downzoning is so important to quality of life but traffic congestion, caused by drivers running to the free bridges is nothing. That is the sort of populism you are getting here. These people are smart enough to know the policy value but they are political animals and are finding Weiner’s vote calculations correct. Bloomberg buys his politics and thinks if he pushes out good policy everyone else will buy in. And, when that approach goes nowhere he can always take a shot at Toussaint.

  • NixIllegalPermitAbuse_Then let’s talk

    The 18% garage fees in Manhattan did not help to reduce traffic congestion. The extra fees that Manhattan residents have to be pay to register their cars did not help traffic congestion. Congestion taxing will not help traffic congestion, it will just dip more into people’s pockets. What WILL reduce traffic would be permanent No Permit Parking signs throughout the City, reducing by many thousands each work day the number of government sector commuters who park for “free”. The public needs to be educated on No Permit Areas that are designated by the D.O.T. – go ahead, F.O.I.L. the D.O.T. – I did, and found out that there are many areas where parking permits are not allowed. Ever wonder what’s on the BACK of those permits? The back tells you where you can use the parking permit – this is virtually ignored by 150,000 permit holders – commuters. Enforcement of D.O.T. No Permit Area regulations would nix thousands of government sector commuters who are enticed to drive into Manhattan and park illegally for “free” on NYC’s dime – and, putting up No Permit Parking signs would cost the City practically nothing to implement. NYC has lost about $300-million to government sector commuters parked on meters during Bloomberg’s watch. Let’s clean house before talking about paying extra money to drive and park.

  • This is the second hearing that I attended where I found the coverage to misrepresent the mood. There was no inkling in last week’s coverage of the Manhattan hearing that the dominant issue was the intractable problems and lllogic related to the 86th St boundary or of diligence of the elected officials in seeking constituent views and their many detailed and thoughtful alternative and/or companion measures.

    Both reporters went home early, I guess, because there has been no mention of our breakthrough analysis and proposal. The Nassau Queens Assemblywoman made impassioned and specific plea for tolling the East and Harlem River bridges and there was no outcry from the following pols (except a murmur from Joan Millman, who demurred in a subsequent conversation.

    Moved out of his 6:30-7:-30 slot, around 9:30. Brian Ketcham reported to remaining commission members that numerous studies by congestion pricing advocates show that tolling just the four free East River bridge could reduce congestion delay by 9%(vs. the mayor’s 6.3% goal)on roads across Brooklyn and Queens as well as the Manhattan CBD. Traffic fro all points north of the CBD could be tolled on southbound roads crossing 60th St. The total 19 charging sites is the appropriate scale of a pilot test. No engineer builds a full scale 340 network to test the concept of screening all traffic every few blocks to find the rare internal driver trips who should be charged.

    Use the pilot to gather the missing data to determine if the large neteork is of value. The dual strategy could be installed for the 410.4 million that the feds allocated for the pilot test, 1/25 of the $179 million the City said it needed for the test but didn’t get. Operating the streamlined cordon would consume only 1/10 of the revenues that the City optimistically assumes, and free a reliable $500 million/year for transit. The City’s intent for the large network, to get internal drivers to pay their fair share and cut trips, can be achieved right up front with London-style taxi programs and on-street parking restrictions and pricing.

    With such no-brainer benefits, why the silence?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Just on the face of it social organizing is usually pretty desperate and doomed when the advocates have to fall back on low turnout as a positive indicator.

  • JF

    The 18% garage fees in Manhattan did not help to reduce traffic congestion. The extra fees that Manhattan residents have to be pay to register their cars did not help traffic congestion.

    How do you know that? They didn’t solve the congestion problem, but they may very well have reduced congestion.

    I think Aaron should start deleting your posts if you don’t take out the “then let’s talk” part of your handle. You don’t show any willingness to consider congestion pricing under any circumstances other than that handle.

  • glennQ

    I sure would love to see more press on all the exemptions in the congestion taxing plans…

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