‘They’re All Adults’ — But Did The Traffic Mobility Review Board Do The Reading?
Meet the six people who will decide the future of New York City's congestion pricing program. Great news if you want to serve on a panel in your future: You don't have to pay much attention before you get there.
12:01 AM EDT on July 21, 2023
Great news if you want to serve on a panel in your future: You don't have to pay much attention before you get there.
Congestion pricing took another wobbling, unsure step forward on Wednesday with the inaugural meeting of the Traffic Mobility Review Board — whose chairman could not guarantee to Streetsblog that his panelists had even bothered to read the massive two-year environmental analysis of the toll program.
"I assume they all looked at it. You know, it's a huge document," TMRB Chairman Carl Weisbrod said after a mind-numbing hour-plus meeting, after Streetsblog asked him if he though his fellow panelists had done their homework.
"I assume they all did. I did," Weisbrod said. "I think they're all adults. I assume they all looked at it and probably read it, but I can't speak for them."
A review of comments made Wednesday by members of the six-person group tasked with recommending toll prices and exemptions tells a different story — one in which the panel's members appeared loathe to say no to the endless list of constituencies asking to be exempt from the tolls, and repeatedly demonstrated a lack of familiarity with the program's basics.
The much-anticipated gathering was supposed to be a chance for TMRB members — leading lights of the city's business, labor, real estate and panel-sitting class — to get to figuring out how to actually implement congestion pricing, after years of delays kept the program from either cutting traffic or raising sorely needed transit funding. Unfortunately, TMRB members instead asked a series of questions that left us wondering if they had read a single page of the admittedly very large environmental assessment on congestion pricing.
Here's what the folks tasked with recommending New York City's first ever Central Business District congestion pricing program had to say:
John Durso, the president of the Long Island Federation of Labor, just joined the TMRB last month after real estate executive Scott Rechler quit out of nowhere, so perhaps he can be forgiven for doing not doing his reading.
But does Durso read the news at all? His first two questions were, "How does the MTA plan to use the money specifically that they're raising through congestion pricing?" and "How would that translate into increased trains, buses, subways?"
The first has been answered over and over again — most notably in the run-up the state's passage of congestion pricing in 2019, when MTA leaders and transit advocates made clear the tolls were necessary to fund sorely needed maintenance.
But had Durso tried to read the environmental review he'd have found comprehensive answers. Page 7 of the report's executive summary says that a goal of congestion pricing is to "create a funding source for capital improvement and generate annual net revenues to fund $15 billion for capital projects for the MTA Capital Program." Maybe Durso missed that. Maybe he also missed every story ever written about the 2020-2024 capital plan and the things it's supposed to fund — things like accessibility upgrades across the subway and commuter rail system, new subway signals, new subway cars, new commuter rail cars and state of good repair work on the LIRR to name a few things.
Maybe he also missed MTA Chairman and CEO Janno Lieber's comments after the feds approved the tolls last month: "What is going to be funded by [congestion pricing]?" Lieber said, before answering his own question: "The … Second Avenue subway. It's a lot of ADA [accessibility improvements to] stations. It's a lot of zero emissions buses. It's a lot of state-of-good-repair to make sure our system continues to function well and doesn't fall apart."
Durso's comments echoed those of fellow John in labor, TWU International Preisdent John Samuelsen, the panel's only appointee of Mayor Adams.
Both men seemed to miss who actually drives into lower Manhattan for work, with Durso telling MTA Chief Operating Officer Allison de Cerreño that, "If you didn't live it, you can't understand what it does to you when you're pinching pennies," as he railed against the idea of tolling someone who makes $50,000 per year or less.
Leaving aside de Cerreño's personally financial history, Durso again didn't seem familiar with what the EA said. Samuelsen, meanwhile, used his time at the mic to suggest people who drove into lower Manhattan were a put-upon class — contradicting the MTA's studies showing more working class people use transit, not cars, to get into and around the tolling zone, which encompasses all of Manhattan below 60th Street.
"I'm curious whether there's cross-referencing on low-income New Yorkers and where they're coming from and if they're coming from anything that could be described as a transit desert?" the TWU leader asked.
"Because if they are there's no way to change driver behavior, especially if there's no transit capacity to get them into the city. Even if someone wanted to comply and involve themselves in 'greening New York City' and get on to public transit, if there's no capacity they can't do it."
Low-income drivers, who the MTA's review defined as drivers coming from a household that makes under $50,000 per year, overwhelmingly use transit to get to jobs in lower Manhattan. Of the 219,000 low-income workers who commute to the Central Business District, only 7 percent drive. On the other hand, 79 percent take transit, the environmental review found.
Maybe next meeting Durso and Samuelsen can show some fire for retail workers and nurses who are relying on century-old train signals and 50-year-old subway cars.
The Johns had an unexpected ally on Wednesday: Kathy Wylde — a Gov. Hochul appointee, the president and CEO of business lobbying organization the Partnership for New York City and constant panelist in general — who also suggested the MTA didn't know how many people in the city lived in transit deserts.
"Is there going to be a serious look at where the concentrations of people that would be affected most, lower-income people that would be affected most by being in a transit desert?" Wylde said, possibly revealing her own lack of advanced preparation for the meeting. "Is there a consideration of using some of the toll money to address those specific situations?"
Leaving aside, again, that the huge majority of low-income commuters to lower Manhattan do not drive there, the MTA did actually look at the issue of transit deserts and city residents and — stop us if you've heard this before — wrote about it in the EA. Streetsblog also wrote about the analysis.
To rehash it: Out of the 440,000 people who live in transit deserts in New York City (defined as anywhere more than half a mile from commuter rail, subway, Select Bus Service or an express bus route), just 33,900 people commute for work to lower Manhattan. Out of those 33,900 people, only 5,200 people drive.
Yes, there are three Johns on the TMRB. No, none of them did great on Wednesday.
John Banks, who was appointed by the governor and serves as the president emeritus of the Real Estate Board of New York, also seemed confused about the goals of congestion pricing and unaware of the MTA's recent history. Officials passed the program in part to pay for signal upgrades, which have been delayed by Covid-19.
"Within the capital plan, are we finished with signal replacement yet?" Banks asked, unaware of all that. "And if not will funds be available to address the signal issues and positive train control?"
As for positive train control, a computerized safety control system for commuter trains, the MTA finished installing it across its system three years ago.
The one exception on the day was Hochul appointee Elizabeth Velez, a construction exec and MTA board members who managed to ask about something that's been dominating recent congestion pricing discussions: How TMRB can best approach what to do about charging FHV and taxi drivers.
Velez specifically asked: "The proposed once a day charge as conceived in the congestion pricing scenario, could that charge be borne by the passengers or the companies?"
The question allowed Assistant Commissioner for Policy Will Carry of the city Department of Transportation to mention a policy that that numerous congestion pricing advocates have asked for as a way to truly price the impact of taxi and FHV trips in lower Manhattan.
"An easier way to make sure it is the passengers who pay is to do a fee structure similar to what was put in place in 2019," Carry told the board, an idea that's recently surfaced in multiple proposals to raise the already existing congestion surcharge on FHV trips south of 96th Street and south of 60th Street instead of charging those drivers once per day.
But short of Velez, it appeared — distressingly — multiple members of the TMRB didn't read the actual document explaining how we got to this point in the congestion pricing process.
It's just the future of the mass transit system at stake, no worries.
Dave Colon is a reporter from Long Beach, a barrier island off of the coast of Long Island that you can bike to from the city. It’s a real nice ride. He’s previously been the editor of Brokelyn, a reporter at Gothamist, a freelance reporter and delivered freshly baked bread by bike. Dave is on Twitter as @davecolon. Email Dave Colon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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