Gridlock Sam’s Compromise Plan

As if we didn't already know it, last week's Traffic Mitigation Commission hearings revealed that opposition to Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan among outer borough and suburban legislators may very well be intractable. Even in traffic-crushed districts where one would almost certainly find a majority in favor of some form of congestion pricing, we didn't see a single state legislator willing to stand up for the Mayor's plan. While support for congestion pricing was surprisingly strong among citizens and civic groups that showed up to testify, elected representatives' timidity was no surprise. As a Transport for London spokesman told me a while back, "If congestion pricing had to go through a legislative process it probably wouldn't have happened."

Enter Sam Schwartz to break the political gridlock. New York City traffic guru, consultant and former DOT Traffic Commissioner calls himself a "strong proponent" of Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing efforts. Schwartz is quietly shopping around a variation on City Hall's traffic plan that he believes could generate "broad-based support" and serve as the basis for a "good potential compromise" between congestion pricing advocates and their outer borough and suburban opponents.

Schwartz's plan, which you can download here, is based on the premise that New York City's overall road pricing scheme is irrational, dysfunctional and makes very little sense from a traffic management perspective:

Adding to the dysfunction, Schwartz notes, is the fact that four separate agencies manage the city's traffic and control the region's transportation funds: The Port Authority, MTA Bridge & Tunnel, and the City and State Departments of Transportation.

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And don't forget the federal government! Senator Alfonse D'Amato helped to create one of New York City's most egregiously senseless road pricing policies when, in 1986, he pushed to eliminate the inbound tolls on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge as a gift to Staten Island Republicans. The "New Jersey Trucker's Special," as Schwartz calls it, "encourages truckers to barrel down the rickety BQE and downtown Brooklyn's neighborhood streets, bounce across the creaky Manhattan Bridge, thunder over choked Canal Street, and leave the city via the Holland Tunnel," which is also free going westbound. Using this circuitous route, New Jersey and Staten Island truckers and commuters can save as much as $58 per trip in tolls.

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Schwartz's plan proposes wiping the slate clean and redesigning New York City's entire road pricing system. The new system would seek to impose fees on drivers only "where there is serious congestion and where there are good transit options." He would remove or reduce tolls on every inter-borough crossing except the ones that lead directly into Manhattan's Central Business District and he would set Manhattan's 60th Street as the pricing zone's northern boundary.

"Give something back to the boroughs by eliminating some of the tolls," Schwartz says. "Reduce the Verrazano toll. Lower or eliminate the Throgs Neck, Whitestone and Henry Hudson tolls. Let the people in Rockaway go grocery shopping without having to pay $4.50. Only apply pricing where you have heavy congestion and good transit."

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Schwartz's plan includes a number of other suggestions: Set traffic reduction targets and if they are exceeded the congestion fee will be reduced, thru-trucks would "get socked" with a $100 charge, bus fares would be reduced in neighborhoods with no subway access (like the ones that Council member Lew Fidler represents), the the Staten Island Expressway would be widened and the Goethals Bridge double-decked.

While Schwartz is pretty non-specific when it comes to costs, revenues and traffic impacts, he argues that a bridge-oriented pricing system would be significantly cheaper to set up and run than the system being proposed by the Mayor. As for the political feasibility of the plan, you can't help but notice the word "FREE!" stamped across many of the districts that are currently most opposed to Mayor Bloomberg's pricing plan, on the map above.

With the Traffic Mitigation Commission working away and $354.5 million in federal transportation funds dangling in front of New York City, this may be the best opportunity in decades to bring together New York City's balkanized transportation agencies and hash out a new, regional transportation policy. Clearly, that's not likely to happen if outer borough and suburban politicians aren't on board. Which is why it sure would be interesting to see Gridlock Sam's compromise plan in the hands of an ambitious outer borough politician with mayoral ambitions

Here is Schwartz's entire presentation: