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GCA Backed Congestion Pricing — Why Not Bridge Toll Reform?

4:51 PM EDT on April 30, 2015

The General Contractors Association of New York, which represents heavy construction contractors, says it wants a funding solution to the $14 billion gap in the MTA's capital plan -- just not the Move NY toll reform plan that's being shopped around Albany. It's a shift in tone from the group's interest when the plan was being developed a few years ago, and a stark contrast from eight years ago, when the group was one of the biggest backers of congestion pricing.

Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association of New York. Photo: GCA
General Contractors Association of New York executive director Denise Richardson. Photo: GCA
Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association of New York. Photo: GCA

“I think the Move NY plan has merit," GCA executive director Denise Richardson said after an event her group hosted this morning in Midtown. But her praise, like the governor's, stopped after the word "merit."

"However, I am extremely concerned that the revenue that the Move NY plan is forecast to generate, number one, is optimistic," Richardson said, "and number two, is being promised in too many directions and so the MTA will not end up with the amount of revenue that it needs to fund its plan.”

She also cast doubt on Move NY's ability to reduce overall traffic. "If your issue is reducing congestion, why are we talking about lowering tolls on the Throgs Neck and the Whitestone bridges while we’re putting them on the East River bridges?" Richardson asked. "So the whole toll reduction thing as a way to gain public support... I’m not into buying off groups of the population in order to get something done."

Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen responded:

New York’s most acute congestion problem is in the city’s core, not fringes. But Move NY’s aim is less on congestion busting and more on using fair tolling to generate new revenue for both the city’s transit system and road and bridge network. Right now, we have a tolling system such that many drivers who rely on the city’s outer bridges pay excessively high tolls to subsidize a transit system they get relatively little benefit from. That’s inherently unfair which is why we believe the right solution is to provide them some overdue toll relief while asking those who pay nothing to use the city's bridges to pay their fair share.

As to Move NY’s revenue projections, the model they’re based on has been vetted by the multiple agencies and civic groups as well as the economic consulting firm HNTB. No one who’s looked at it closely questions the revenue projections. They’re solid. If we are going to get the Move NY plan actually enacted into law, we need it to be a plan that everyone, including the non-Manhattan boroughs and suburbs can get behind. That means it has to distribute the costs and benefits equitably, which it does... Fairness is the name of the game. Without it, the plan goes nowhere. Without the Move NY plan or a plan that raises as much revenue, the city and region are facing a certain future of declining transit service, lousy roads, and skyrocketing fares and tolls imposed on those already paying too much.

If GCA doesn't back Move NY, what does it support? "Whatever combination of funding sources the legislature wants to come up with, you know, is fine with us," Richardson said. "Ultimately, it’s the legislature that passes funding legislation."

"I would hope that the legislative leaders and the governor would be sitting down saying, in the downstate region, the MTA is a critical asset. It drives the economy. We need to fund the MTA capital program," Richardson said. "I don’t think that it’s acceptable to kick the can down the road and continue to say that the MTA can continue to bond its program without additional revenue sources [or] that the MTA capital program should be scaled back."

Why isn't GCA backing a particular funding solution? "How people choose to fund it, I mean, we’re not elected officials," Richardson said. "We’re not making policy decisions."

That's a different position than the one GCA took in 2007, when it "came out strongly in favor" of congestion pricing and even paid for advertisements backing the plan. Four years after the plan was defeated, Richardson said GCA continued to support congestion pricing. As the Move NY plan was being developed around the same time, Richardson seemed interested, with Crain's reporting in 2012 that "she was behind the plan as long as revenues are dedicated to transit projects."

Now, a key member of the city's construction industry, once integral to the coalition behind congestion pricing, has taken to casting doubt on toll reform.

Update 5:10 p.m.: "The New York Building Congress is an early and robust booster of the Move NY Fair Plan and has put its muscle where its mouth is in helping to build support for it," Matthiessen said in an email. "Why these two leading construction association groups are on opposite sides of the fight is a complete mystery to many people following this campaign."

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