LIVE FROM ALBANY: Our Congestion Pricing Live Blog [UPDATED]

##http://www.flickr.com/photos/dougtone/5475667519/##Doug Kerr/Flickr##

THE STATE CAPITOL — Streetsblog’s David Meyer and Gersh Kuntzman are inside the belly of the beast (the statehouse) to get the lay of the land on a central issue for the livable streets community: congestion pricing. We’ll post what we get as a live blog, so check back early and often to see the latest (thread starts from the bottom).

Editor’s note: A new poll released on Monday by Siena Research shows that support for congestion pricing is increasing, but as Streetsblog conducts interviews in Albany, we keep discovering that our lawmakers remain one step behind the public. And that’s why we’re here: to put supporters and stragglers on the record so that the larger community can hear what lawmakers are saying and focus their attention accordingly.

Assembly Member David Weprin thinks there are better ways to pay for transit

Monday, 3 p.m. — David Weprin is one of the main opponents to congestion pricing. We had a nice chat.

You know that most of the people in your district don’t drive regularly into the congestion pricing zone — it’s about 4.2 percent, according to the studies. So why are you opposed?

They do drive when they have to go into the city because most of my district is a transit desert. Usually, you have to take two buses to a subway, so it can take, from eastern Queens, two hours to get into Midtown. Even with traffic, you can make it in within an hour. But I support more buses and more options for public transportation. I’m not looking to encourage people to drive into Manhattan. I’m just trying to say there should be a free way to drive into Manhattan.

That “free way” is exactly what encourages people to drive into Manhattan, which you said you didn’t want to do.

There are some people who have no other option — for medical appointments, or people with disability.

But that’s a tiny number of people.

Right, which is why congestion pricing wouldn’t reduce congestion or create a revenue stream that people think it will produce. So the answer is a real revenue stream. Congestion pricing is not a panacea. If you want to reduce congestion, crack down on Uber and Lyft. Everywhere is a TLC plate. That’s causing the congestion. People who drive to work are not causing congestion in Manhattan because they’re not driving around once they get to their destination.

I personally think bringing back the commuter tax with a dedicated revenue stream is a better option. It’s a fairer tax. If marijuana is legalized, and we can create a revenue stream from the taxes, that’s a better idea. It’s a new product so no one will complain about a new tax.

Assembly Member Helene Weinstein cares more about drivers

Monday, 2:53 p.m. — We caught up with the Brooklyn Democrat outside the Assembly chamber and asked, “Where are you on congestion pricing?”

“Depends on what the bill looks like,” she said.

Is it a concept you can support? Very few people from outer Brooklyn drive regularly to Manhattan.

“Well, I want to make sure we have funding for accessible subways and buses,” she said. “I don’t have a single subway stop in my district. … We have a lot of people who drive.”

Drive regularly into the city?

“Drive in. Pass through. Use their cars to go beyond the city, so I have concerns about some of the plans. Concerns for the people who drive.”

But those people are a tiny minority, aren’t they? (Fact check: They are the tiny minority.)

“If we’re talking about raising money for mass transit, congestion pricing is not the only solution,” she said, ignoring our point that only 3.2 percent of her constituents would pay the congestion fee vs. the vast majority of District 41 commuters who take public transit. “There are ways to raise funds without penalizing drivers from the outer boroughs.”

But that’s the point we keep asking people: Why not penalize drivers?

“We have a lot of elderly people and lower-income people who drive in and this would be an imposition for them,” she said. “People are willing to wait in traffic to take the Brooklyn Bridge rather than the tunnel because they don’t have the extra money — so that tells me there are people who simply can’t afford the tolls. If the goal is to reduce congestion, and not to raise money, there are ways to fight congestion, such as with restrictions on trucks or double-parking.”

State Senator Liz Krueger is being very cautious

State Senator Liz KruegerMonday, 1:50 p.m. — The last we checked (granted, it was 2007, but also more recently), the senator from Manhattan was a strong supporter of congestion pricing, calling it a strong way “to fundamentally change the transportation practices of the entire region.”

Now, push has come to shove. Here’s what Krueger, who chairs the key Finance Committee, told us:

“The devil’s in the details. People say ‘Congestion pricing,’ and then they say, ‘a $1-billion plan’ or ‘a $400-million plan.’ I’m just a dumb legislator. Let me look at a bill and tell you what I think of it rather than tissues vs. Kleenex. The governor is supposedly rolling out something tomorrow.”

But you have supported it in the past, no?

I have, but I want to be very careful. I want to see what we’re talking about.

State Senator Velmanette Montgomery literally ran away from us

Monday, 1:45 p.m. — We realize we never got the longtime Brooklyn backbencher on the record, so we asked her, “Do you support congestion pricing.” Her answer: I’m thinking seriously about it. I did not make a final decision on that issue because there are many ramifications.”

Ramifications?

“Many ramifications. I’m not prepared to tell you now.” And then she rushed away.

State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky: Congestion Pricing is a ‘Tax on the Middle Class’

staviskyMonday, 12:43 p.m. — Queens State Senator Toby Ann Stavisky opposed Mayor Bloomberg’s push for congestion pricing. Speaking to Streetsblog, she said she’s now “open” to it — before rattling off a list of reasons she isn’t: that it’s a tax on the middle class, that it won’t actually reduce congestion, and that her constituents won’t get any transit improvements in return.

“Constituents, particularly business people, have spoken to me in opposition,” she said. “I have not seen the mayor or the governor or any other elected official try to persuade the non-Manhattan residents, and I think that has to be done.”

“My mind is open. I opposed it in the past, but if there’s a compelling reason that will not hurt my constituents…”

Is there a more compelling reason now than there was a decade ago?

Yes — the subway system is in serious trouble. But we have no guarantee that the money is going to be used for the subways. It happens all the time, where we assume that the money allocated for the MTA will wind up in the MTA — and it doesn’t happen.

Does the “transit lockbox” bill that was just signed give you more confidence?

You bet, but the lock may be picked. I have misgivings about [congestion pricing]. True misgivings.

I represent a district of small businesses, mainly Asian. They’re not happy with it. They have misgivings because their trucks are going to have to pay extra. It’s the trucks. Plus, their folks may be coming in into the city. We have to take a look at other ways rather than taxing the middle class.

You think congestion pricing is a tax on the middle class?

I think it’s a tax on the lower middle class, yes. When I went to college and I took economics, one of the things I remembered was that the tax should be based on the ability to pay. This is not. This is based on owning a car.

Which is cost-prohibitive, right?

These are not fancy cars, these are old cars. These are not wealthy people. So that’s my concern. But it doesn’t mean I’m not going to support the final bill.

So what will it take for pricing to have your vote?

That my constituents are not going to be hurt, pure and simple. I don’t see the benefits of this. Frankly, I haven’t seen how this is going to reduce congestion.

State Senator Jen Metzger says the Hudson Valley can benefit from congestion pricing

jen metzgerMonday, 12:29 p.m. — I do support  [congestion pricing]. I think it’s important from an environmental standpoint. It’s important from a fiscal standpoint, you know, to have the resources to pay for it.

We do want to make sure that the Hudson Valley gets the value that it puts into that. We need investments in our line, the Port Jervis line. We need to add trains. It’s important for our residents to be able to get to work, and to have a functioning public transportation system. So it’s not just within the city, it’s also those coming into the city.

It’s been shown, in other places it’s been enacted, to reduce smog and pollution. It has these benefits. I just want to make sure that we’re doing it in a way that’s mindful of the other communities in the MTA region outside of New York.

You represent only a small sliver of the MTA region. Does that mean you take a step back in the congestion pricing debate?

No. We’re all part of this conversation because the budget is all of ours. It affects all of us — upstate and downstate. And public transportation is very important to everybody, the Hudson Valley as well as Upstate.

State Senator Brad Hoylman: Cuomo’s push for city funding ‘unnecessarily complicates the politics on congestion pricing’

State Senator Brad Hoylman

Monday, 12:01 p.m. — It’s gotta happen. You know, we need money for the MTA, we need to reduce traffic crashes, we need to ease congestion. It is an existential crisis in our subway system. I don’t see how we can leave without having passed congestion pricing — and considered other sources of revenue for the MTA. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Congestion pricing doesn’t pay for all of the Fast Forward plan, so we have to continue to press.

Is congestion pricing an uphill battle here?

I think members want to see details before they commit to it. I’m a champion [of congestion pricing] because I live in Manhattan, where the bus times are the slowest in the entire city and where a man was crushed by a truck while he rode a Citi Bike directly outside my office. A colleague who may not even have a subway in her district probably wants to see the details as to what’s in it for them, and that’s understandable. Details matter in this conversation.

Should congestion pricing supporters be concerned if it’s not in the governor preliminary budget?

I think it would make sense for it to be in the budget. It’s certainly a revenue enhancer. But, look, the days of having to cram things in the budget because you had to get Republican and Democratic support are over. So I think this is an issue that can be decided outside of the budget as well as within it.

What’s your take on the Cuomo administration’s assertion yesterday that the city must cover half of the MTA’s debt?

I’m concerned that it unnecessarily complicates the politics here on congestion pricing. That said, look, leadership in the MTA is sorely lacking. I hope that we don’t get side-tracked by some sort of political conversation when congestion pricing is really the issue that needs to be addressed, not nitpicking about control and percentage payments.

State Senator Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx/Westchester) has some concerns about congestion pricing

Senator Jamaal BaileyMonday, 11:44 a.m. — I understand the need for additional funding for the MTA and we have to be creative on funding. I can agree to the framework. My concern is that it will charge people, but it won’t get what we want, which is an improved MTA, with better subways and buses, don’t forget the buses. In London, they initiated congestion pricing, and it worked amazingly for a period, but then the effectiveness became reduced. So I’m concerned about things like that, but conceptually, I support the concept. … I just want to see more data.

What data?

Everything. What would the rates be? Who would pay? How would it affect the northeast Bronx and Westchester County. Some of my constituents may want to drive in from Westchester County or from Co-op City because it’s a transit desert up there. So if there is a benefit to my constituents in Co-op City to get an improved bus system so they wouldn’t have to drive, cool. But you’re charging people money for services they’re not getting. So they drive because transit is not up to par.

But most people who drive into Manhattan are wealthier.

I wouldn’t say that. It’s geography. We have more space here, so there are places to park. … So it’s understanding the needs of my constituents. Some of them do drive to the city. I don’t want pollution, either. We want less congestion and less pollution, of course, but I want to see how the mechanics of that works. We need buses. Surface transit needs to be fixed. Our buses are the slowest nationwide. Try to go across town in the Bronx.

State Senator Kevin Thomas (D-Nassau) supports it

Senator Kevin ThomasMonday, 11:33 a.m. — I’m in favor of it. I don’t know [the opinion of other lawmakers], but I think a fair number support it.

But what about suburban drivers who don’t support it?

Not a lot of people drive into the city from Long Island, and if the money from congestion pricing is used to support the LIRR, Long Islanders are all for it. … The MTA does need to be held accountable for waste and other things.

State Senator Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island) on congestion pricing

Senator Andrew Lanza
Senator Andrew Lanza

Monday, 10;29 a.m. — In its current iteration, congestion pricing is a bad idea because they want to punish Staten island again. I have a bill that recognizes the fact that we have cars on Staten Island as a right and because the city in 100 years has refused to invest in the transportation infrastructure on Staten Island. It’s based on bias. It’s the same reason they created the worst environmental disaster this side of Love Canal on Staten Island. … My bill tries to bring balance. It says toll all the bridges like you toll the Verrazzano Bridge — now, when they want to raise the Verrazzano Bridge, no one outside Staten Island cares. … My bill also ensures that a chunk of money would go to each borough, not to the general fund to be spent all in Manhattan or somewhere else. That would address the inequity. … I don’t trust the MTA to put a penny in Staten Island. For me to support it, if people from the outer boroughs will be asked to pay for the privilege to go to another part of their city in a way that they’ve been forced to do that then there should be some benefit — in the form of investment in the transportation infrastructure in those places. … We don’t have enough trains. We don’t have a subway. We don’t have enough buses, bus routes, express buses. … If we’re going to do some kind of plan to make it nice for the people who live in Manhattan who don’t want any of those trolls from the outer boroughs to clog up their wonderful pristine lifestyle, we should at least get money back to improve our infrastructure. … And even when I describe it that way, it’s still a 50-50 chance. … I know people don’t trust the MTA. … These authorities really aren’t responsible to anyone. … For me, congestion pricing smacks of elitism. It’s, “Well, I live in Manhattan and I don’t want you peasants coming here and ruining my day.”

But there’s another form of elitism: Most drivers from the outer boroughs are wealthier and can afford cars, which undermine public transportation

I don’t see that on Staten Island. … My commute to Albany by car 175 miles is easier than my commute from Staten Island to NYU when I was a student. … So on top of all that, they don’t even want us coming in.

They’re charging you to drive in, not to just come in

They ought to be able to drive in. Why not? The roads belong to everyone, not just rich people in penthouses. Car ownership is lower in Manhattan because there is a subway station on every corner. I’d love to be able to go down the block on Staten Island and get in a subway and go to Manhattan. Let’s get the money and make some investments in Staten Island.

What about city control of the subways and buses?

I think Corey Johnson is onto something. We need to move away from an unaccountable authority. … There is no accountability now.

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