“Kheel Plan II” to Revive Free Transit Proposal for ’09 Races

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“In for a penny, in for a pound” is how the Brits express what we Americans less elegantly call “the whole hog”: why do something halfway when you might as well go all the way?

That’s the thinking behind Ted Kheel’s free-transit proposal. If an $8 congestion fee, as unsuccessfully proposed recently by Mayor Bloomberg, infuriated drivers, Kheel reasons, then let’s go the whole hog and charge $16 to drive into Manhattan. Drivers are already as mad as they’re going to get about any congestion charge. With $16, we won’t stir up twice as many hornets, but we’ll raise twice the revenue — enough to finance universal free transit throughout the five boroughs and disarm the faux-populists who sank Mayor Bloomberg’s more modest plan.

In retrospect, it seems clear that Bloomberg's plan appeared to too many people to be “all stick.” There wasn’t enough direct and concrete payoff, for anybody, to attract wide public support. The Kheel Plan remedies this defect with the very considerable, tangible, obvious "carrot" of free transit.

I was lead analyst and author of Kheel’s January report that first proposed this idea. As renowned environmental writer Bill McKibben tells it in an article in the current Plenty magazine, I initially thought Kheel’s idea of zeroing out farebox revenues was nutty. I quickly came around, however, drawn not just by visions of free transit and much less traffic but by the plan’s gorgeous synergies, such as this one for free buses: making bus-boarding fare-free speeds bus service which expands bus patronage which reduces driving which speeds bus service even more which further reduces driving.

Alas, the Kheel Plan surfaced too late to figure in the congestion pricing debate. But Kheel is unwavering. With an eye on next year’s municipal elections, he has commissioned me and programmer Michael Smith to upgrade the labyrinthine spreadsheet I created for his free-transit plan — the Balanced Transportation Analyzer.

The new computer model, BTA 2.0, will enable us — and everyone with a PC or Mac — to examine pricing scenarios that lay beyond the reach of the original spreadsheet, to wit:

  • Time-variable congestion fees: instead of being locked into a straight $16 fee 24-7, we'll assess higher peak-periods fees along with offsetting, lower fees when traffic is light.
  • Time-variable subway fares: we’ll test retaining the fare during the a.m. peak as a possible transition strategy to ease subway crowding and improve system efficiencies (buses will be free 24-7, regardless).
  • Closer integration of parking pricing with road pricing.
  • Possible differential tolls into the Central Business District by “portal” (New Jersey vs. Long Island vs. Bronx/Westchester).
  • Intra-Manhattan congestion charging: according to some GPS developers, it may soon be possible to charge per-mile or per-minute for driving within the CBD; this would open the door to even more revenue and less traffic and further dispel the rap on congestion pricing as a giveaway to Manhattan.

Our plan is to roll out BTA 2.0 in early fall and offer a new and irresistible free transit + congestion pricing proposal, “Kheel Plan 2,” that can become a central issue in the 2009 mayoral and City Council races.

I’ll be discussing the old and new versions of the BTA on Tuesday at the monthly NYMTC brown bag lunch. NYMTC is the regional transportation planning agency, and my appearance Tuesday is a sign of both the BTA’s potential value as a public planning tool and of NYMTC’s evolving openness to new ideas. The focus will be on analysis rather than politics, but anyone who’d like to peer under the hood of this exciting work-in-progress is encouraged to attend.

Photo: gothamistllc / Flickr