U.S. Offers New York $354 Million for Congestion Pricing
By Sewell Chan
Updated, 11:20 a.m. | The secretary of transportation announced this morning that the federal government will provide New York City with $354 million to implement congestion pricing, if the State Legislature acts by March 2008 to put in effect Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal for charging traffic fees in Manhattan.
The announcement is a major step forward for Mayor Bloomberg’s plan, but it does not guarantee that the congestion fees will pass muster with Albany and the City Council. Ms. Peters singled out the mayor for praise at a 10 a.m. news conference in Washington:
The average New York commuter now spends 49 hours stuck in traffic every year, up from 18 hours in 1982. While some may be content to accept growing gridlock as a way of life, Mayor Bloomberg is not going to let traffic rob the Big Apple. He has stepped forward with a plan as brass and bold as New York City itself. New Yorkers must understand that we must stop relying on yesterday’s ideas to fight today’s traffic jams.
As Ms. Peters noted, the congestion pricing proposal still faces several hurdles. The State Legislature has created a 17-member commission to evaluate, by March 2008, a host of traffic mitigation measures, including congestion pricing, and come up with recommendations. That commission must give assent to the mayor’s plan — and the State Legislature and the City Council must act as well — before the proposal can go forward.
Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal has attracted the broad support of business, labor, environmental and transportation groups, but he has been less successful at swaying state and city lawmakers representing the boroughs outside of Manhattan. Public opinion polls suggest that most Manhattan residents support the proposal but that residents of the other boroughs — Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx — do not.
Nonetheless, the substantial federal support for the project gives enormous leverage to the mayor as he continues to press for his proposal.
The mayor’s plan, unveiled in April, proposes to charge drivers $8 and trucks $21 a day to enter or leave Manhattan below 86th Street on weekdays during the workday. Those who drive only within the congestion zone would pay $4 a day for cars, $5.50 for trucks.
To receive the $354 million, Ms. Peters said, the commission must agree to a traffic plan that meets the “same performance goals” as Mayor Bloomberg’s plan. Ms. Peters made it clear that she believed congestion pricing was an essential element of that plan, saying “it would be difficult for them to meet those performance objectives” if the commission arrives at a plan that is “substantially different” from the mayor’s.
The $354 million is considerably less than the $536 million the Bloomberg administration had requested from the federal government, but it is well over the $200 million minimum federal commitment that the Legislature had set as a precondition for the 17-member commission to move forward.
Ms. Peters said the New York City program would be the country’s “first-ever” congestion pricing initiative and “unlike anything we have ever tried before.”
Ms. Peters announced the completion of an eight-month process to dole out more than $1 billion in federal traffic-mitigation grants. New York City was one of 26 communities around the country that submitted the proposals for Urban Partnership Agreements, part of a National Strategy to Reduce Congestion. Five communities were chosen. Ms. Peters said she would announce the four other recipients of the money later today.
Ms. Peters said that Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal differed from any previous proposals for curbing traffic because “the emphasis is on results.” She added:
Unlike building new roads, this plan can be implemented quickly and will have almost an immediate impact on traffic. That’s something our current approach has failed to deliver. It seems the only thing growing faster than transportation spending – which has doubled since 1991 – is traffic congestion along our cities and highways. Mayor Bloomberg is that rare politician willing to take on taboo topics like congestion pricing, because he knows that commuters need solutions that work, not promises that do not.
Ms. Peters said the city would receive $1.6 million initially. The balance of the money would be made available to New York City, she said, “as soon as the proposal has been made and legislation is in place that would allow that proposal to proceed, but that must occur not later than 90 days after the 2008 legislative session convenes in New York.” Effectively, that date is the end of March 2008.
Supporters and opponents of congestion pricing immediately began to react to the federal announcement.
Walter McCaffrey, a former city councilman from Queens who has been coordinating opposition to the mayor’s plan, said in a statement:
If the goal truly is to reduce traffic, the city has a moral and legal obligation to seek any and all alternatives before adding a new tax scheme to overburdened New Yorkers. Further, the plan foresees less than an 8 percent improvement in traffic density, with the bulk of the federal funding earmarked for the city to spend on other priorities. The fact remains that the overall congestion tax and vehicle surveillance plan still can — and should — be derailed by the various legislatures if its proponents fail to prove the plan will not cause our citizens, especially those so vigorously opposed in the outer boroughs, an onerous expense and disruption. At all times, the public’s best interest should be in the driver’s seat, and we will keep our hazard lights on to continue warning all New Yorkers to the problems ahead.
Kathryn S. Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, the city’s leading business group, which supports the mayor’s plan, said in a statement:
In selecting New York City for the Urban Partners Program, the federal Department of Transportation has allowed us to meet the threshold criteria established by recent state legislation for implementation of a comprehensive program to reduce traffic congestion and improve mass transit in the region. The Partnership has documented the high cost of excess traffic, which results in losses of more than $13 billion and 50,000 jobs each year from our regional economy. Federal funding provides the carrot that will help pay for new buses, faster subways and the other measures required to incentivize people to get out of their cars and on to public transportation. This is a tremendous breakthrough in the struggle to achieve a more efficient, mobile city.
Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters, said in a statement:
This is great news for anyone who breathes in New York City and the metro area. Today’s vote of confidence from the federal government is proof-positive that PlaNYC is the best way to clean our air, reduce traffic and improve mass transit. The next step is for all sides to come together and craft the best implementation plan possible.
Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting from Washington, and William Neuman from New York.