Gridlock Sam’s Compromise Plan

As if we didn’t already know it, last week’s Traffic Mitigation Commission hearings revealed that opposition to Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan among outer borough and suburban legislators may very well be intractable. Even in traffic-crushed districts where one would almost certainly find a majority in favor of some form of congestion pricing, we didn’t see a single state legislator willing to stand up for the Mayor’s plan. While support for congestion pricing was surprisingly strong among citizens and civic groups that showed up to testify, elected representatives’ timidity was no surprise. As a Transport for London spokesman told me a while back, "If congestion pricing had to go through a legislative process it probably wouldn’t have happened."

Enter Sam Schwartz to break the political gridlock. New York City traffic guru, consultant and former DOT Traffic Commissioner calls himself a "strong proponent" of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing efforts. Schwartz is quietly shopping around a variation on City Hall’s traffic plan that he believes could generate "broad-based support" and serve as the basis for a "good potential compromise" between congestion pricing advocates and their outer borough and suburban opponents.

Schwartz’s plan, which you can download here, is based on the premise that New York City’s overall road pricing scheme is irrational, dysfunctional and makes very little sense from a traffic management perspective:

Adding to the dysfunction, Schwartz notes, is the fact that four separate agencies manage the city’s traffic and control the region’s transportation funds: The Port Authority, MTA Bridge & Tunnel, and the City and State Departments of Transportation.


And don’t forget the federal government! Senator Alfonse D’Amato helped to create one of New York City’s most egregiously senseless road pricing policies when, in 1986, he pushed to eliminate the inbound tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as a gift to Staten Island Republicans. The "New Jersey Trucker’s Special," as Schwartz calls it, "encourages truckers to barrel down the rickety BQE and downtown Brooklyn’s neighborhood streets, bounce across the creaky Manhattan Bridge, thunder over choked Canal Street, and leave the city via the Holland Tunnel," which is also free going westbound. Using this circuitous route, New Jersey and Staten Island truckers and commuters can save as much as $58 per trip in tolls.


Schwartz’s plan proposes wiping the slate clean and redesigning New York City’s entire road pricing system. The new system would seek to impose fees on drivers only "where there is serious congestion and where there are good transit options." He would remove or reduce tolls on every inter-borough crossing except the ones that lead directly into Manhattan’s Central Business District and he would set Manhattan’s 60th Street as the pricing zone’s northern boundary.

"Give something back to the boroughs by eliminating some of the tolls," Schwartz says. "Reduce the Verrazano toll. Lower or eliminate the Throgs Neck, Whitestone and Henry Hudson tolls. Let the people in Rockaway go grocery shopping without having to pay $4.50. Only apply pricing where you have heavy congestion and good transit."


Schwartz’s plan includes a number of other suggestions: Set traffic reduction targets and if they are exceeded the congestion fee will be reduced, thru-trucks would "get socked" with a $100 charge, bus fares would be reduced in neighborhoods with no subway access (like the ones that Council member Lew Fidler represents), the the Staten Island Expressway would be widened and the Goethals Bridge double-decked.

While Schwartz is pretty non-specific when it comes to costs, revenues and traffic impacts, he argues that a bridge-oriented pricing system would be significantly cheaper to set up and run than the system being proposed by the Mayor. As for the political feasibility of the plan, you can’t help but notice the word "FREE!" stamped across many of the districts that are currently most opposed to Mayor Bloomberg’s pricing plan, on the map above.

With the Traffic Mitigation Commission working away and $354.5 million in federal transportation funds dangling in front of New York City, this may be the best opportunity in decades to bring together New York City’s balkanized
transportation agencies and hash out a new, regional transportation
policy. Clearly, that’s not likely to happen if outer borough and suburban politicians aren’t on board. Which is why it sure would be interesting to see Gridlock Sam’s compromise plan in the hands of an ambitious outer borough politician with mayoral ambitions

Here is Schwartz’s entire presentation:

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I’m confused by Slides 30-33. They give negative percentages for various areas, but negative percentages of what? They can’t be discounts, because the most congested areas would then have the highest discounts.

    I understand the principle, though: instead of a single congestion zone, have multiple ones, with different rates depending on the level of congestion. In that case, I’d like my neighborhood – Sunnyside/Woodside – to be in a zone. There’s a halfway decent barrier running through Brooklyn and Queens – our friend, the New York Connecting Railroad. In the Bronx, the Bronx River roughly separates the more-congested areas from the less-congested ones, and in Staten Island it’s the Cross Island Parkway. Similarly, in New Jersey the towns and cities of Hudson County are much more congested than those to the north and west.

    If Schwartz is suggesting that people driving along the FDR should pay 20% less than those driving to the center of Midtown, I’d like to see those driving to Sunnyside pay 30% less – but still pay. You could have another zone further out that includes Flushing, Forest Hills, Jamaica, Ozone Park, East New York, New Lots and Bay Ridge – and in the Bronx, everything near the 2 train.

  • Jonathan

    I have the same question about slides 30-33. What I gather is that there is some kind of zone-within-zone with different costs to enter at different times of day and week, but I don’t see any prices (or numbers with dollar signs).

    Angus, the Cross Island Parkway goes through Queens, not Staten Island. Do you mean the Staten Island Expressway, I-278?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Yes, that’s what I meant, Jonathan. Thanks for the correction.

  • I don’t see anything in the slideshow about whether this will increase the amount that cars pay overall to raise money for better transit, and I see very little about reducing VMT.

    It is possible that making crossings free in the outer boroughs will increase traffic there as much as the higher prices will decrease traffic in Manhattan.

    I am not encouraged by the bullet that says: “Widen Staten Island Expressway. Twin Goethals Bridge.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    I more or less agree, except that the “free” bridges ought to have a lower charge that represents the cost of maintaining the bridges and the connecting highway system. There is no need for those bridges to carry the transit system.

    The only problem — you could have an empty FDR and a packed BQE during mid-days.

  • Niccolo Macchiavelli

    Don’t forget to thank Sam for removing the HOV requirement on the “free” bridges after 911 when there was still a political will for congestion relief. And, don’t forget to point out his self-interested behavior in that regard. Maybe even pick up some of the self-interest stones we have been throwing at Brodsky and Weprin.

  • Davis

    Indeed. Sam’s work on behalf of the parking garage industry to kill the post-9/11 carpool rule was less than impressive. The report he published was just a joke. I think this was TA and Straphanger’s debunking of Sam’s report….

  • Niccolo Macchiavelli

    And now he puts forth this thing that sort of throws all the cards up in the air and serves to disrupt the TBTA-MTA connection. It really threatens the only road to transit transfer of dedicated money. And it does it at a time when CP is at least on the table. He pitched this on WNYC just after PlaNYC was announced.

  • ln

    Absolutely get the trucks out of manhattan, those guys are dangerous that have no business being on city streets and they have no idea how to drive on them. They simply do not fit here. Charge em per axle to come in the city very BIG bucks or ban them altogether…

  • Annie

    Charles, in response to your comment which said, “I am not encouraged by the bullet that says: ‘Widen Staten Island Expressway. Twin Goethals Bridge.’,” I agree and am one of the first people to oppose road widening projects. However, realistically, if you are going to reroute traffic which currently travels from Brooklyn to NJ via Manhattan to now use Staten Island, some additional road capacity will be needed. Sure, a grand vision of transit and from Brooklyn to NJ is beautiful but the second best is to at least keep all of the unnecessary thru-trips now traveling on Canal St and other already-congested Manhattan streets, away from Manhattan.

  • AlexB

    This is a much more comprehensive and thought out version of congestion pricing in my view. Makes a lot more sense in terms of getting into the CBD. New Yorkers shouldn’t be charged for driving from neighborhood to neighborhood where the transit options are poor or non-existent (SI-BK, Qns-BX). The only problem is that ALL the bridges and highways are congested in the NYC region, not just the ones into the CBD. The FDR in lower Manhattan is one of the least crowded expressways in the city during rush hour, for example.

    Another element that could be added to this plan would be to take one lane from every major highway and bridge that is otherwise toll-less and make it a toll lane for about $5. This way, people could pay to cross the Verrazano or the Throgs Neck or ride on the Cross Bronx or BQE quickly. Imagine paying $15 to go from Queens to Jersey ($5 for the Throgs Neck, $5 for the Cross Bronx and &5 for the GWB) and being able to go 60 mph the whole time.

  • Hilary

    Can someone please explain why the Shore Parkway in Brooklyn has to become a truck route? Is this an essential part of the plan, or just an add-on that Sam has been pushing for years?

  • I am no pro on NYC, but just because people live within the greater city, that shouldn’t discourage them from driving. Didn’t I read something within the NYT, maybe the results of a study by Bruce Shaller pre-DOT, that had surprising results about how many trips were generated by Manhattan residents, and NYC residents overall? I don’t see how it makes sense to drop all inter-borough tolls? The point is to reduce induced driving, not to somewhat encourage New Yorkers to drive.

  • vnm

    Tolls collected on the Throgs Neck, Whitestone, Triborough, Henry Hudson, Cross Bay, Gil Hodges and Verrazano Narrows Bridges provide hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the MTA, which it uses to provide mass transit. Sam’s plan would make each and every one of those bridges free. That would result in fare hikes and/or service cuts just when everyone agrees that encouraging mass transit ridership is the way to go. Some plan . . .

  • mkultra

    vnm, i think the idea is to have the added east river bridge charges & manhattan CBD congestion pricing make up for whatever tolls are removed elsewhere. look at it.

  • glennQ

    “Reduce number of Taxis” -How come nobody else is proposing that? Sounds like an easy way to get a lot of vehicles off the road to me…

    “Charge thru-trucking $100” -Sounds fair enough… But how do you enforce it?

    “Curtail privileged parking” -Great idea.

    The “Vehicles in Motion in Midtown Core By Time of Day” graph supports the arguement that most of the congestion is by people doing business by vehicle (and usually don’t have a mass-transit option), not people traveling to work.

    Whay a “50% discount for people within [CP] zone?” There are so many mass-transit option within the zone there is little need for a discount to travel within a zone.

  • Eric

    Reducing taxis vs. reducing the number of private vehicles makes little sense, since taxis are effectively shared vehicles that help eliminate a need for redundant private vehicles. Granted, it’s better to get more people on mass transit, but taxis rank above private vehicles in the hierarchy of traffic-reducing elements.

    Of course, if Sam were working for the taxi industry, he might have spun that one differently. While his plan has some good elements, I think it’s more about “Sam, Inc.” than anything else.

  • glennQ

    I don’t see how a taxi is any closer to a “shared vehicle” than a private vehicle, but most taxi trips could be made in some sort of mass transit. Many drivers (doing business and such) don’t have a mass transit option. Besides, how often are private vehicles just trolling around Manhattan like a taxi looking for a fare?
    I’d think a taxi rider should at least pay a congestion tax, if we are supposed to be trying to change citizens habits through fees…

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    GlennQ, if we want to change taxi riders’ habits through fees, we can just raise the taxi fares.

  • Eric


    A taxi is like a shared vehicle in that any individual taxi is used by dozens of people in a day, versus a private vehicle that is at curbside 98% of the time. Granted, when the two are in use, there’s no difference in terms of clogging the streets, so you have a point. But all that curb space that would be freed up (cabs vs. privately owned cars) could be put to other uses.

    Angus makes a good point, too – raise the taxi fare and devote the increase to transit improvements.

  • gecko

    just go to the carbon tax.

  • Jonathan

    Eric, Angus, glennQ: I would like to put my two cents in on taxis. In my Upper Manhattan neighborhood, we are deluged by livery cabs, which have a $6 base rate for short trips. That makes it more convenient and just about as economical to take two kids to school than the bus.

    The key stat to taxi congestion, as I see it, is not Eric’s “dozens of people in a day” but the fact that between seven and nine a.m. taxis clog the streets in my neighborhood. I doubt that the taxi riders are private car owners, so if there were no taxis, they would take the bus (or walk, or maybe cycle). Now, if you took the taxis off the streets, the buses would go a lot faster, obviating the need for taking the kids to school in a taxi in the first place.

  • Annie

    In addition to everything Jonathan said about taxis (and I agree with him), if you reduce the number of taxis on the streets, you will effectively reduce congestion, thus allowing each taxi to pick up more fares. This actually balances out with the number of fares that are picked up today using a greater number of taxis. If we go below that number then yes, people will probably begin using alternative modes but at the very least there’s no reason why we shouldn’t try to hit that optimal number.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I sympathize with Jonathan’s problem, but it’s basically one of regulation. Some of your neighbors may have called the livery cabs ahead of time, but most probably hailed them on the street – which is illegal anyway.

    As I understand it, the city has licensed so many livery cabs in part because the medallion cabs prefer to cluster in Manhattan (and not Upper Manhattan). Allowing the livery cabs ensures that residents of your neighborhood can get a cab at all.

    So: the city has not been able to ensure the availability of cabs outside of Manhattan below 96th Street, and they haven’t been able to prevent livery cabs from responding to street hails. I’m not sure what they could do about your current situation – although I’ve heard of them doing sting operations and fining drivers for picking people up off the street.

    Full disclosure: one of my customers is a livery cab company.


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