Congestion Pricing Questions the Mayor Will Need to Answer

glick.jpgNew York State Assembly Member Deborah Glick represents Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Tribeca and a good piece of Chinatown and Lower Manhattan. Encompassing the Holland Tunnel, Canal Street and a section of the Westside Highway, her district suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion in all of New York City. Transit-rich and offering some of the city's most walkable and bike-friendly streets (Jane Jacobs lived and worked in this Assembly district) Glick's constituents would likely be among the greatest beneficiaries of any traffic reduction plan.

Glick, however, isn't a fan of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan. In the 1,300 word letter below she lays out her concerns and explains to a constituent why she and her colleagues opted to create a 17-member traffic mitigation commission rather than approve the Mayor's plan.

While many of Glick's questions and concerns have been answered repeatedly in public forums, through local studies and by examples in other cities, there is a certain thoughtfulness and sincerity to her letter that you tend not to hear in the arguments of congestion pricing opponents like Richard Lipsky and Walter McCaffrey who, one suspects, are doing little more than representing the deeply regressive interests of the parking garage / Automobile Club / Queens Chamber of Commerce cabal.

Glick calls herself a "responsible legislator" who "has long been concerned with traffic congestion" problems in her district. The questions that she raises are questions that will need to be answered again and again and again in the coming months.

Fundamentally, Glick believes "there is no consensus" on whether Mayor Bloomberg's pricing plan "would reduce congestion, or simply raise revenue." She "had too many unanswered questions and found too many flaws in the congestion pricing legislation to be supportive of it in the form that was presented to the Legislature by Mayor Bloomberg." And she seems to have resented the intense lobbying and the feeling that New York City's Republican Mayor was trying "to stampede the Legislature into a vote" on his plan. Glick raises the following as an example of the kind of question that she feels was not answered:

The proposal purported to reduce asthma, especially for children. However, many communities just outside of the congestion pricing zone have significant asthma rates and it is possible that those communities might have to contend with increased vehicular traffic as commuters driving into the city attempt to park in these neighborhoods outside of the zone.

Other questions that Glick felt were not properly answered by the Mayor:

  • Why create a new authority?
  • Will the money raised be used strictly for mass transit improvements?
  • Why aren't there exemptions for people who drive into the designated area for serious medical treatment?
  • How will residents of the congestion zone be charged for moving their cars for alternate side parking or for leaving the city for the day?

Finally, Glick isn't convinced that the Bloomberg Administration has suddenly gotten religion on traffic reduction. The Administration, she writes, "has in fact been irresponsible and disingenuous, because, after years of ignoring more simple congestion mitigation efforts, they are trying to rush through congestion pricing legislation with almost no study or debate." She wonders why the Mayor isn't doing more to control parking permit abuse among government employees, a problem that plagues her Lower Manhattan district.

You can read Glick's letter, in its entirety, after the jump...

From: NY State Assembly Member Deborah Glick
To: A Constituent Who Supports Congestion Pricing
Subject: Re: Support a Cleaner New York City
Date: Fri, 03 Aug 2007

Dear constituent,

Thank you for contacting my office regarding congestion pricing. I have long been concerned with traffic congestion in my district (which is among the worst in the city) and have been involved with a number of efforts to mitigate congestion. I have also been concerned with growing asthma rates in the city and well aware of how traffic and other environmental factors have exacerbated the problem.

For the past two months, there has been a general discussion of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing proposal in the press. There have also been direct mail appeals urging New Yorkers to contact their state legislators, resulting in calls to my office advocating for "clean air," as well as calls against "congestion pricing." These disparate messages reflect the lack of clarity and specificity with which congestion pricing has been discussed.

Unfortunately, I have also been confronted with a dearth of information regarding the Mayor's proposal, as have my colleagues who were looking closely at the proposal and trying to get answers to very specific concerns about how the program would be implemented. Regrettably, there were too few answers from the City Administration about our legitimate concerns. It was because of the numerous questions that were raised, but not sufficiently answered, that the Assembly did not vote on congestion pricing. In fact, even the State Senate did not vote on the issue when they convened in Albany on July 16th supposedly with the understanding that a vote could be taken.

Though I am fully supportive of the need to reduce traffic congestion and improve our air quality, I cannot vote on legislation without a sufficient understanding of its impacts, particularly when it will substantially impact neighborhoods throughout New York City as well as the entire tri-state region. As a responsible legislator, I must look beyond press releases and public relations campaigns and vote on the merits of the actual legislation. Often, legislation purportedly aims to address an important issue, but the legislation as crafted is not the best way of doing so. I had too many unanswered questions and found too many flaws in the congestion pricing legislation to be supportive of it in the form that was presented to the Legislature by Mayor Bloomberg. While I appreciate
the goals of congestion pricing, I do not appreciate the Mayor's effort to stampede the Legislature into a vote on congestion pricing without an appropriate vetting of the myriad issues generated by the proposal itself.

For example, the proposal purported to reduce asthma, especially for children. However, many communities just outside of the congestion pricing zone have significant asthma rates and it is possible that those communities might have to contend with increased vehicular traffic as commuters driving into the city attempt to park in these neighborhoods outside of the zone. So far, no environmental impact statement has been prepared to address this and other concerns. By embarking on such a dramatic change without this important review, the Legislature would set a very questionable and dangerous precedent. For many of us in the environmental and preservation movements, we rely heavily on the legal requirement for environmental impact statements. I will not act to undermine this critical tool used by communities to defend themselves against inappropriate actions and development threats. While I am not surprised that the City Administration has not been concerned with ensuring a proper environmental review, I have been disappointed that so many in the environmental movement were willing to abandon this essential process.

Furthermore, there are numerous issues raised but left unanswered by the Mayor's proposal, such as: Why create a new authority to receive the increased fines and new fees for entering the designated zone when we already have a mass transit authority? Will the money raised be used strictly for mass transit improvements? If there are exemptions from fees for taxis and the black car services, why aren't there exemptions for people who drive into the designated area specifically for chemotherapy or other regular serious medical treatment since they are unable to use mass transit? How will residents of the congestion zone be charged for moving their cars for alternate side parking or for leaving the city for the day?

While we all agree that traffic has become impossible and that the additional construction of so many buildings will only bring more people and congestion into Manhattan, there is no consensus on whether the proposal would reduce the congestion, or simply raise revenue. One aspect of the plan would allow for auto commuters who paid a toll to have that toll deducted from the congestion fee. For example, a New Jersey driver who pays a $6.00 toll to enter New York City would have that toll deducted from the $8.00 congestion fee, making the additional cost to New Jersey drivers $2.00 a day. Many legislators do not believe that this will discourage any drivers from driving their cars into the city or encourage them to take mass transit.

These are just a few of the issues for which there were no clear answers. In my humble opinion, it would be irresponsible to vote for any legislation that generated so many significant questions without getting any answers. The City Administration has in fact been irresponsible and disingenuous, because, after years of ignoring
more simple congestion mitigation efforts, they are trying to rush through congestion pricing legislation with almost no study or debate. Among the non-legislative changes the City could have implemented are dramatically reducing the number and the abuse of City issued parking permits, enforcing existing laws about blocking the traffic box, and enforcing no standing restrictions, which, when violated, force trucks to double park in order to make deliveries. To illustrate, the estimated number of City parking permits is between 10,000 and 20,000. While there are many legitimate uses for these permits, many are misused at times and greater enforcement and perhaps a significant reduction in the number issued may be appropriate. The City has also just recently started to focus on promoting alternative modes of transportation, such as bike riding, and they have largely not been involved in efforts to promote mass transit.

While none of these strategies alone would solve New York's congestion problems, a comprehensive, broad-based review of all the strategies that New York City could employ to reduce congestion is sorely needed. Since many parts of our transit system are at capacity, we need to be certain that the facilities necessary for a shift to mass transportation are either in place, or substantially on their way to being a reality. For example, it is crucial that there be adequate parking near commuter rail stations and certain subway stations outside of Manhattan where there are few or no bus connections.

Instead of rushing through congestion pricing, a commission on congestion mitigation must be convened to examine all the possible options and combinations of options to best address New York City's congestion challenge. Accordingly, I believe that the Legislature was wise to pass a statute creating this commission and enabling us to draw down any funds that the federal government might award New York City. Interestingly, while the City Administration insisted that the Legislature must act immediately in order for us to receive $500 million in federal funds, it always seemed more than optimistic to assume that we would get this amount- the federal government had only a $1.2 billion funding pot from which it would give funding to 5 selected cities. While I wish we could get the lion's share of federal funds to address congestion, there is no evidence that the Bush administration planned to depart from their standard practice of awarding New York City much less than our deserved share of funds.

In closing, I wish to thank you once again for contacting me on this critical issue of concern to all of us. Improving the health and quality of life for people living in neighborhoods plagued by congestion, ensuring better mass transit, and improving the environment have and will continue to be priorities for me. However, I believe we are on our way to determining the best possible strategies for addressing these challenges. If you would like to receive further legislative and policy updates regarding health and environmental issues such as congestion pricing, please respond accordingly to this email and we will email you periodic updates about these issues.

Sincerely,
Deborah J. Glick
Assemblymember