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Congestion Pricing: Bloomberg Needs to Sweeten the Deal

Webster Avenue and Fordham Road, the Bronx

Congestion pricing is in trouble. With just weeks to go before the Traffic Mitigation Commission makes its recommendations to the City Council and State Legislature, public support is waning and opponents appear to have the upper hand. The one sales pitch that scored high in public opinion polls, using pricing revenue to hold down transit fares, was discarded this week when the Mayor decided to support the governor's fare hike.

Congestion pricing is struggling for two reasons. First, it has been framed as a revenue issue instead of a traffic-busting, quality-of-life-improving, environmental measure. Second, City Hall has not made a politically compelling case for how pricing revenue will be used. Politics demands that congestion pricing be about more than extending the 7 train and building part of the Second Avenue subway and LIRR connector -- projects that won't be completed for many years and overwhelmingly serve Manhattan.

In contrast to these mega-projects, the congestion fee is immediate and specific. This clash between specific, immediate costs and diffuse, long-term, benefit has produced a public discussion focused on who will pay the congestion fee and how, rather than what the benefits will be and for whom. Fortunately, there is still time for Mayor Bloomberg to turn things around by combining congestion pricing's broad social and environmental benefits with a package of short-term, highly visible, specific transportation and quality of life benefits that excite the public imagination.

Flatbush Avenue and Fulton Street, Downtown Brooklyn.

By January 31, the Traffic Mitigation Committee will present a new congestion pricing plan that will likely suggest tolls on East River Bridges and a fee to cross 60th Street. Once the Committee issues its new recommendations, City Hall should relaunch congestion pricing by proposing two major new benefits. First, the rapid implementation of neighborhood streetscape and pedestrian improvements on the city's busiest commercial corridors, especially outside of Manhattan. Second, a Paris-style, bus service expansion including the launch of new bus rapid transit lines and major improvements in local service accompanied by aggressive promotion targeted at bus riders and transit unions.

Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, Flushing, Queens.

The Commission's new congestion pricing proposal is expected to raise an estimated $500 million a year. The boroughs would be buzzing if City Hall dedicated $150 million a year of this new revenue to highly visible, streetscape and pedestrian improvements on the city's busiest commercial corridors, especially in fast-growing Queens. The Mayor would utterly transform the congestion pricing debate if he traveled the boroughs like a Livable Streets Johny Appleseed sprinkling new buses, wider sidewalks, greenery, street furniture and truck traffic-reducing bulb-outs in his wake. In doing so, the Mayor would re-frame congestion pricing as an economic development and quality of life project rather than a "tax on the working class." The Mayor, rather than suburban Assembly member Richard Brodsky, would dominate media coverage as he met with local business and civic leaders and offered speedy, attractive plans to revitalize neighborhood centers using congestion pricing revenue.

London Mayor Ken Livingstone's staff say they used three words to generate public support for congestion pricing in London: "Buses, buses and buses." City Hall should hammer the message that bus riders are the big-time beneficiaries of pricing. Local TV news networks, daily commuter papers and weekly community papers should be filled with stories about the new bus services that pricing will create in neighborhoods throughout the city. Bus riders should be made aware of exactly how many new buses, fewer delays and increased service they get on their own routes.

Roosevelt Avenue and 76th Street, Jackson Heights, Queens.

Mayor Bloomberg's 2030 Plan already includes a massive boost in bus service. With $258 million in one-time federal congestion pricing aid the MTA will roll out 367 new buses on 36 routes in 22 neighborhoods and ten new Bus Rapid Transit lines. But buses need even more. Paris, which is about one-third the size of New York City, is building 17 new BRT lines. With the additional revenue from the Commission's expected bridge tolling proposal, Mayor Bloomberg could double the number of planned BRT lines to 20 for an additional $120 million per year. This would still leave $230 million per year for MTA capital expenses -- substantial new revenue to bond for big subway and rail expansion.

Initially, Mayor Bloomberg presented congestion pricing as part of a grand vision for a greener, more sustainable New York City. Cynical opponents diluted that vision by re-characterizing congestion pricing as just another bad tax on New York City's working families. Yet, the Mayor's original vision had the support of 40 percent of New Yorkers without even mention of a specific benefit. Mayor Bloomberg is a great salesman. He can win congestion pricing if he revisits the idealism of his original vision and adds to it local, visible and immediate benefits that the average New Yorker can understand and appreciate.

Flickr Photos: Betty Blade, Threecee, Haikiba, Pete Biggs.

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