Sadik-Khan and Congestion Pricing: Ready for Prime Time

Janette Sadik-Khan has one week to go before taking over as the city's new transportation commissioner. Not surprisingly, a public appearance Friday found her well prepared to push Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC congestion pricing program.

Pressed into service for the Regional Plan Association's day-long 17th Annual Regional Assembly, held at the swank Waldorf-Astoria, Sadik-Khan served as a panelist alongside other congestion pricing supporters and critics. Moderated by WNYC's Brian Lehrer, the panel also featured Julia Vitullo-Martin of the Manhattan Institute (undecided); Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of Partnership for New York City (pro); Walter McCaffrey of Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free (con); and Council Member John Liu, who chairs the council's transportation committee (skeptical).

McCaffrey led the attack on pricing, calling it a divisive policy that will pit the city against the suburbs. McCaffrey said two-thirds of car trips from Queens to Manhattan are for medical appointments, and that the sick will "bear the burden" of a congestion charge. While crediting the mayor for trying to solve the congestion problem, "There has to be a human face to public policy too," McCaffrey said.

Pointing out that just five percent of New Yorkers regularly drive into Manhattan's central business district, Sadik-Khan noted the resulting health burden already borne by city residents due to air pollution. While transit improvements are needed, and are planned, for underserved areas, 80 percent of Manhattan-bound motorists currently have a transit option available, Sadik-Khan said.

Liu, at times appearing to struggle with his own thoughts, said he finds it difficult to oppose congestion pricing ("It even sounds like a cold medicine"). To win wider support, he said, Bloomberg should set "a clear objective" for beefing up transit in the short term. He cited ferry service to the Rockaways and inner-city access to commuter trains as two relatively simple improvements.

McCaffrey -- who at one point (wrongly) declared himself outnumbered on the dais and therefore deserving of more mic time -- wondered if the city was "about to go to war with Long Island," and accused pricing backers of ignoring regional commuters. Sadik-Khan countered that congestion pricing is, in reality, designed as a regional transportation revenue source, while Lehrer chimed in to say that Nassau County Chief Executive Tom Suozzi is in favor of pricing, and that tolls would be deducted from the congestion charge.

McCaffrey then warned that the proposed $8 fee for private autos is "nonsensical," "delusional," and would be raised "instantly." Again acknowledging that congestion is an issue, he suggested alternative solutions, including enforcement of box-blocking laws at intersections and the "significant problem" posed by those who are not driving. "We have to do something about the pedestrians," McCaffrey said.

While Liu said he is concerned about the creation of another bureaucracy -- i.e. the SMART board that would allocate revenues generated by congestion pricing -- he admitted he does not know how else the city can afford needed transit improvements. However, Liu said the city should be willing to ensure that all New Yorkers have a 30-minute transit commute with or without congestion revenues. People aren't going to care about cleaner air "if it hurts them" financially, he said, adding: "I think we have to get down to earth."

The congestion pricing panel followed a speech by Mayor Bloomberg, who received a standing ovation after urging New Yorkers to use their political clout to see the proposal past state lawmakers during the remaining weeks of the current legislative session. "The time to do it is right now," Bloomberg said. "The stars are aligned."

Also during the speech, the mayor jokingly threatened the incoming DOT commissioner -- and, indeed, the entire city -- by reminding her that newly-retired Iris Weinshall is still close by should Sadik-Khan "screw it up."

"He says that to all new department heads," Sadik-Khan said afterward.

Janette Sadik-Khan photo: Brad Aaron