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Undecided Council Members Speak Up at Pricing Hearing

3:07 PM EDT on March 24, 2008

Janette Sadik-Khan and Rohit Aggarwala (left table) fielded questions this morning from City Council members, including Lew Fidler and Larry Seabrook.

At the first part of today's congestion pricing hearings, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan and Rohit Aggarwala, director of the Office for Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, fielded questions from the City Council's nine-member State and Federal Legislation Committee. Several other Council members, including Speaker Christine Quinn, were also there to ask questions, and the chamber was packed with supporters of both pro- and anti-pricing groups.

The hearing followed word this morning that State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno has introduced a congestion pricing bill in Albany -- the same legislation that Governor Paterson announced on Friday, which is based on the recommendations of the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission. Quinn began the proceedings with a short but full-throated speech in support of pricing, saying, "The benefits so far outweigh any of the negatives, the concept of
inaction is simply, in my opinion, not an option. We have to seize this moment to
create a sustainable revenue source for mass transit." Then, after Sadik-Khan delivered her comments (which got big applause), the Council members started popping questions.

Two Council members who have not declared a position on pricing took part in the Q&A during the time I was there to observe. One was Larry Seabrook, a Bronx Democrat who has been identified as a possible swing vote on the committee. "How
are we going to say these projects won't stay on the drawing board for
another 30 years?" he asked, referring to projects in the MTA capital plan targeted for the Bronx.

Sadik-Khan assured him about the lock box language in the current bill, adding, "I
don't see any other way to fund the projects that your district so
desperately needs without the revenues from the congestion pricing program." Seabrook repeated his position that the lock box must be ironclad, but appeared satisfied that his concerns had been addressed, wrapping up by thanking the commissioner for considering his district.

The other undecided Council member was Tish James, who represents Fort Greene and Clinton Hill. James first asked if low-income New Yorkers, especially those who have to make trips to Manhattan hospitals, would receive any discount under the current plan. Aggarwala responded by pointing out that most New Yorkers rely on transit or for-hire vehicles to make hospital trips. The transit riders will receive better service, he said, and cab fare will be lower as a result of reduced travel times, yielding a de facto drop in the cost of hospital trips.

James also reiterated Anthony Weiner's claim that pricing will give the federal government an excuse to reduce transit funding for New York, but seemed to back down from that position after Sadik-Khan and Aggarwala rebutted it. "What gave me consolation is that [the Bush] administration is a lame duck and their days are numbered," James said.

Stay tuned for more highlights, and don't forget tonight's hearing, when the council will receive public testimony.

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