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Tell Cornell — and Electeds — How You Want to Fix NYC Congestion

Want to tell elected officials what you think should be done about New York City traffic? Here’s a way to pool your policy suggestions with other New Yorkers and reach elected officials beyond your district.


Image via SmartParticipation

The Cornell eRulemaking Initiative, or CeRI, hosts a moderated forum called “SmartParticipation,” developed to make it easier for people to weigh in on obscure federal rules. Now researchers want to see if the platform can help shape broader public policy initiatives, and the first issue they decided to tackle is “how to solve NY’s congestion problem.”

The hook is a little off-putting — the experts have had their say, now let’s hear from real New Yorkers! — but the discussion so far is largely on-point. The moderators respond to individual commenters with facts and data, and the site features a good bit of background info, including a Move NY video explainer.

Cornell’s Joshua Brooks told WNBC the comments will be collected in a report and sent “to every lawmaker in New York.” With the window of opportunity still open for Move NY as Governor Cuomo searches for ways to make good on his MTA funding pledge, it wouldn’t hurt for Streetsblog readers to get in a word or two.

You can comment on the site through December 1.


NYC Toll Reform Makes Too Much Sense to Fade Away

Don’t count out Move New York just yet.

Cuomo’s budget promises become much easier to keep if he also adopts the Move New York plan.

When Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio hashed out their deal to fill the gap in the MTA capital program, it seemed like a window of opportunity was closing on the plan to cut congestion and fund transit by reforming the city’s dysfunctional toll system. The governor would borrow $8.3 billion and pay it back with general fund revenues to cover the state’s end, and that would be that (at least for the next five years).

As it happens, the window might still be open.

Cuomo has repeatedly rejected Move NY as a political non-starter, but the number of elected officials signing on to the plan — which would put a price on driving in the most gridlocked parts of town while lowering tolls on outlying crossings — keeps growing. The latest endorser is City Council Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer, who reps western Queens and came out for the plan yesterday.

Van Bramer’s district includes the approaches to the Queensboro Bridge. With no price on that crossing, local streets jam up with drivers hunting for a bargain. For western Queens and similar districts, like northwest Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan, a big part of the appeal of Move New York is its promise of relief from the road-clogging, horn-honking mess. For electeds like James Vacca, whose district includes the Throggs Neck and Whitestone bridges, it’s the discounts on less-traveled crossings that sweeten the deal.

So what would be the appeal for Cuomo, who’s given no indication that he cares about fixing New York City’s pestilential traffic? In a thrilling twist, it might come down to the imperatives of budget math.

Read more…


It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Broadway, New York, NY. Photo: Clarence Eckerson

Quick thought experiment…

Imagine for a moment that New York City has a toll system where there are no free rides. No reason for drivers to toll shop, clogging up the routes to free bridges. There is, effectively, a uniform fare for every car trip into the incredibly crowded center of town, revenue from which is plowed into the transit system.

Now imagine scrambling the tolls so some crossings are free and others are not, bringing about all this horrible stuff:

  • Massive traffic jams every morning and evening in some of the city’s most densely-populated neighborhoods
  • Heavy trucks barreling through neighborhood streets, killing several people every year, to avoid paying the one-way toll on the Verrazano
  • Severe and immediate slowdowns on dozens of bus lines, with hundreds of thousands of passengers losing time stewing in traffic
  • Transit fares backed by tens of billions of dollars in debt, guaranteeing future fare hikes and constraining the capacity to operate more service
  • Pressure to design streets to handle peak-hour car volumes, to the detriment of safe walking and biking

No governor in his right mind would choose to switch to this completely messed up arrangement.

End of thought experiment, back to reality: It looks like Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature are not going to plug the gap in the MTA capital plan, and by extension, they’re going to condemn New York to at least a few more years of epic traffic dysfunction.


Q Poll: Move NY’s Toll Swap Jacks Up Public Support for Road Pricing

A new poll released by Quinnipiac today reveals how much New Yorkers warm to the idea of tolling the East River bridges when the policy is paired with lower tolls on outlying crossings. A lot: Support for putting a price on the free bridges rises from 27 percent to 44 percent if accompanied by toll reductions and using the revenue “for mass transit.”

Citywide, the poll of 969 NYC voters (margin of error: 3.2 percent) found opposition to the Move NY-esque toll swap idea below an absolute majority, but at 49 percent, it had a slight plurality.

In the Bronx and Manhattan, pluralities do support toll reform, and in Staten Island it enjoys a solid 61 percent majority. Most voters in Brooklyn and Queens were opposed, but only in Brooklyn did the margin of opposition reach double digit percentage points. The results are broadly similar to recent polling conducted by Move NY.

Pricing the East River bridges out-polled raising the city sales tax as a means to pay for transportation infrastructure, 24 to 13 percent. Raising the gas tax statewide was, not surprisingly, more popular with city voters, though not by much, with 29 percent choosing that option. That question didn’t mention reducing outlying tolls, so it probably underestimates where toll reform stands relative to the other options.

Read more…


How Much Will Fares Rise Without Closing the MTA Capital Plan Gap? Try 25%

When the MTA’s chief financial officer warned last month that the likely price for failing to fund the authority’s capital plan was a 15 percent fare hike, the response was swift. Just 24 hours later, according to Newsday, MTA chief Tom Prendergast “backed away” from that scenario, calling it “unconscionable.”

Evidently the one thing worse than jacking the price of a Metrocard is letting the public know it’s in the works. But if a 15 percent boost would be unconscionable, what should we call a 25 percent increase?

That’s no idle question. I’ve made a careful calculation of the rise in subway and bus fares required to pay for NYC Transit’s share of the unfunded part of the authority’s 2015-2019 capital plan — assuming no other funding source comes along. My result: subway and bus passengers will see their fares go up 25 percent. Monthly unlimited Metrocards will shoot up by $29, nearly a dollar a day. Averaged across every fare medium — 30-day and 7-day unlimiteds, bonus pay-per-rides, and one-ride tickets — the price to ride a bus or train, which now averages $1.92 (taking into account unlimiteds, free transfers, senior discounts, etc.), will rise by 45 to 50 cents.

And that would be on top of the 7-8 percent biennial fare hikes the MTA has programmed indefinitely to cover rising operations costs.

The minimum wage in New York is set to reach $9.00 an hour at the start of 2016 (it’s now $8.75), so the $29 rise in the 30-day unlimited would eat up a half-day’s wages after taxes. In addition to that new burden on millions of low-income New Yorkers, a 25 percent increase in the transit fare would be projected to have these consequences:

  • A 3-4 percent drop in subway use;
  • A 4 percent deterioration in travel speeds in Manhattan’s Central Business District as some of those dropped subway trips switch to cars;
  • Nearly a billion dollars a year in costs from increased pollution, more traffic deaths and injuries, and more time lost sitting in traffic.

Read more…


Margaret Chin: Toll Reform Will Protect New Yorkers From Truck Traffic

Photo: Brad Aaron

Photo: Brad Aaron

City Council Member Margaret Chin today introduced legislation to require the city to examine the effects of New York City’s dysfunctional bridge toll system on traffic safety. The bill would also mandate regular DOT safety audits for all city truck routes.

Trucks account for 3.6 percent of vehicles on city streets but are involved in 32 percent and 12 percent of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities, respectively, according to city data cited by Chin. At a press conference outside City Hall this morning, Chin said her bill “should be welcomed by the [de Blasio] administration as a component of Vision Zero.”

Chin cited the un-tolled Manhattan Bridge as a major cause of traffic chaos on Canal Street, which cuts through her district. Drivers have killed at least four pedestrians on Canal Street since 2012, according to crash data compiled by Streetsblog.

Chin’s bill would have DOT conduct studies at five-year intervals to “examine the impact of tolling policies on the city’s network of truck routes,” according to a press release. Crashes and traffic violations would be measured, with information collected on whatever street safety measures are implemented on each route. DOT’s last comprehensive truck route study dates to 2007, the press release said.

It's free

Trucker’s special: It’s free to drive over the East River, barrel across local Manhattan streets, and take a tunnel under the Hudson, but sticking to the highway and going over the Verrazano will cost a five-axle truck $80. Map: MoveNY

DOT would also be required to “develop new strategies” to improve pedestrian and cyclist safety along the city’s 1,000-plus miles of truck routes. Council Member Brad Lander pointed out that current truck route design — speed-inducing expanses of asphalt — leads to reckless driving regardless of vehicle type. Chin emphasized that the reports should lead to physical street safety improvements. 

City Council transportation chair Ydanis Rodriguez joined Chin to announce the legislation, along with Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer. Representatives from Transportation Alternatives, Families For Safe Streets, Move NY, the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, and Manhattan Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 also appeared in support of the bill.

Read more…


You Know What’s Fundamentally Regressive? NYC’s Current Toll System


You can drive into the center of town and clog up the streets without paying a dime, but you’ve got to pay a fare to ride the bus.

Well, a few words from Andrew Cuomo made clear that fixing NYC’s broken road pricing system won’t be on the table before next year’s statewide elections. But some opponents of congestion pricing — notably, Eastern Queens City Council Member Mark Weprin — are warming to Sam Schwartz’s toll reform plan, which calls for a uniform price on entry points into the Manhattan core, including the East River bridges and 60th Street, paired with lower prices on less congested, outlying bridges.

And so, the Times turned to former Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for a dash of his trademark fake populism:

Among former critics of ideas to toll the East River bridges, reactions to this one have been mixed. Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and a senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said Mr. Schwartz’s plan was “a fundamentally regressive tax,” even if equity problems among the boroughs were “addressed to an extent,” at least compared with the 2008 plan.

“It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” Mr. Brodsky said, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.”

It’s telling that Brodsky imagines his working-class stiff as “the guy driving the ’97 Chevy.” It’s not “the guy riding the R train” or “the gal transferring from the Q60 to the M15.” Transit commuters far outnumber car commuters in NYC and earn, on average, far less, but they never figured into his message.

Brodsky, who hasn’t held office since a failed run for attorney general in 2010, represented the wealthiest Manhattan-bound car commuters in the NYC region. He wasn’t looking out for regular Joes — he was defending free driving privileges for white collar elites earning, on average, $176,231 per year.

He also managed to obscure a core truth about NYC’s current toll system: It doesn’t work for the little guy. We are right now at this very moment living under the burden of a “fundamentally regressive” toll plan — it’s the status quo we’ve had for decades. It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses. It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.

Reforming NYC’s road pricing system will make the regional transportation network more equitable in profound ways. It will speed up the surface transit that less affluent New Yorkers rely on, improving access to jobs. And by injecting funds into the MTA Capital Program, it will help improve the transit system without fares eating up a bigger chunk of household budgets.

Read more…


IBO: MTA Fares on Pace to Rise 50 Percent Over Next Decade

The 2009 MTA funding package passed by Albany included a plan to increase fares and tolls every other year. The most recent of those fare hikes, implemented in March, increased fares 8.4 percent, with the MTA anticipating another increase in 2015. If this pattern continued for the next decade, fares would rise 50 percent, to $3.75 per ride, according to an analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office requested by NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign [PDF]. Unless city and state leadership act, fares will drastically outpace the inflation rate, even as crossing the East River bridges and driving to the most congested, transit-rich part of the city remains toll-free.

Under the MTA’s current funding model, fares are set to outpace inflation, according to the city’s IBO. Photo: Darny/Flickr

After the introduction of the MetroCard, which brought free bus-to-subway transfers in 1997 and unlimited ride passes in 1998, the average fare paid by riders, adjusted for inflation, fell by more than a third between 1996 and 2002. But since then, “increases in the average fare have outpaced inflation,” IBO says, and the initial gain for straphangers is set to be wiped out by 2027.

If fares kept pace with inflation, the base fare would be $3.25 in a decade — 50 cents less than the IBO projection, which forecasts fares rising 15 percent faster than inflation.

Burdened by debt-financed capital spending and rising health care and pension costs, the MTA’s expenses keep rising, and it has fallen mainly on straphangers to foot the bill.

“Constant fare hikes will overburden riders, discourage use of mass transit, and cannot be sustained over time,” Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign said in a statement, calling on Governor Cuomo and the legislature to find a solution.

The MTA is under the governor’s control, but a funding solution also needs support from the city’s political establishment. The city’s contribution to the MTA hasn’t increased since 1993, and the value of that contribution has decreased due to inflation. So far, many of the mayoral candidates have been eager to push the funding burden to people who don’t vote for them, by supporting the unlikely reinstatement of the commuter tax. Even John Liu’s bridge toll proposal would give city residents a free ride.

More realistic funding solutions have only attracted the attention of Democrat Sal Albanese, Independence Party candidate Adolfo Carrión, and Republican George McDonald, who have all endorsed a plan to toll traffic on bridges entering the busiest parts of Manhattan, while lowering tolls on bridges between the outer boroughs.

Given the mounting pressure on straphangers, which has received some attention from the Daily News and Times editorial boards recently, it’s time the other mayoral candidates step forward with some realistic proposals.


John Liu Releases a Bridge Toll Plan That Panders to Motorists

So John Liu has managed to take an excellent idea — tolling the East River bridges — and turn it into a policy disaster.

The key component of Liu’s plan, which he says would raise $410 million annually, isn’t the tolls — it’s the exemption for city residents. Here’s what Liu said at an Association for Better New York event today:

To get that money, we would toll the East River Bridges for non-city residents. It’s something that’s been talked about before, and I think certainly makes sense, and is more realistic than a restoration of the commuter tax — that I would love to see, but I’m not sure how open Albany would be.

Of course, Albany is just going to fall in love with a toll plan where Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester pay, while New York City doesn’t.

Here’s an excerpt from the press release that accompanied the release of the “People’s Budget” — an overall fiscal plan that Liu released in his capacity as comptroller:

Tolling the East River Bridges would mean that membership — or in this case, residency, New York City residency — has its privileges. Non-residents commuting by car can and should contribute to the upkeep of our city’s infrastructure.

By exempting motorists who live in the five boroughs, Liu’s plan would not solve the city’s transit funding problems — the next MTA capital program will still have a gaping hole. (Compare Liu’s $410 million to the $2.8 $1.5 billion projected net revenue from the Sam Schwartz plan.) While Liu suggested devoting revenue to “infrastructure,” he also mentioned that it could be used for “offsetting increased city contributions to the MTA,” which might just lead to tolls that pad other areas of the city budget.

It’s somewhat baffling why Liu would propose a non-starter like this. Exempting millions of motorists negates the value of tolls as a tool to meaningfully reduce congestion, and it undermines the notion that motorists should pay for using roads. Let’s hope this idea doesn’t infect the other campaigns.


This Weekend, NYC’s Traffic Dysfunction Gets Worse

As of this weekend, driving over the free East River bridges will be a bigger bargain for drivers, adding to NYC’s traffic dysfunction. Map: Sam Schwartz

In case you missed it, Crain’s ran a good piece today wherein “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz explained one of the less-publicized effects of the MTA fare and toll hikes slated to take effect this weekend. NYC’s already-dysfunctional road pricing system is about to make even less sense.

With tolls on the MTA’s East River crossings going up in each direction, the incentive for drivers to take the free Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges is about to intensify. Schwartz told Crain’s to expect a lot more toll-shopping drivers on streets that are already choked by traffic:

“Today I would estimate 50,000 cars, trucks and buses [crossing the free bridges]. On Monday, I’m estimating 60,000—another 10,000 will switch, and only aggravate the situation at the free bridges,” Mr. Schwartz said. “They vote not with their feet, they vote with their tires.”

“What we have is a bridge like the Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge sandwiched between two toll crossings—the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge,” he said. “And every time there’s a toll increase, more and more drivers hop off the Long Island Expressway at Van Dam Street to avoid going straight ahead to the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and then they just saturate the streets of Sunnyside and Long Island City, snaking their way to the lower level or the upper level of the Queensboro Bridge.”

To add to the Queensboro Bridge example, in addition to the western Queens neighborhoods that have to put up with all the extra congestion, exhaust, and honking on their streets, bus riders will get the short end of the stick. Every day 16,000 bus passengers ride over the Queensboro Bridge. Their trips are going to get more sluggish and unreliable after this weekend.

Until the governor and other electeds step in to fix NYC’s broken road pricing system, the dysfunction will only get worse.