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Panel: NYC Electeds Need to Get Serious About Funding Infrastructure

From right, Jonathan Bowles of Center for an Urban Future, Chris Hamel of RBC Capital Markets, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Chris Ward of Dragados, Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association of New York and "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz at this morning's panel. Photo: Stephen Miller

From left, Jonathan Bowles of Center for an Urban Future, Chris Hamel of RBC Capital Markets, Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, Chris Ward of Dragados, Denise Richardson of the General Contractors Association of New York, and “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz at this morning’s panel. Photo: Stephen Miller

This morning, the Association for a Better New York, a business group, hosted a discussion on the city’s infrastructure. The focus was squarely on transportation, and the message wasn’t pretty. Panelists warned of dire consequences if elected officials don’t act on the precarious state of transportation funding.

Calling himself “the ghost of infrastructure past,” former traffic commissioner “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz reminded the audience of the sorry state of New York’s infrastructure in the 1980s, when major bridges had to be closed because they were in such poor condition. While things are in better shape today, without attention to maintenance, history could repeat itself. ”We can very well have those problems again tomorrow,” said Schwartz.

“Back when we rebuilt all those bridges, there was an enormous federal contribution,” said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg. Since the 1980s, federal transportation funds have flatlined as the gas tax has stagnated, she said, and “city and state coffers aren’t flowing either.”

“Forget about the federal government. Local areas have to fix their problems,” Schwartz said, citing Los Angeles as a region where voters have backed major transportation funding measures. “The biggest amount of transit spending in the country is happening in Los Angeles, not in New York.”

But Trottenberg cautioned against using Los Angeles as a model. “[Voters] usually tax themselves to build new things. They rarely tax themselves to keep up the old stuff,” she said. “At New York City DOT, almost our entire budget is keeping up the old.”

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Congestion Pricing Foes Sit Down at the Table With Fair Toll Advocates


After years of meetings and tweaks, the Move NY fair toll campaign launched this morning with a simple message: With AAA and trucking interests at the table beside transit advocates, reforming New York’s broken toll system actually has a shot. It’s a different beast than the congestion pricing plan that Mayor Bloomberg pushed for six years ago, with more obvious benefits for New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan.

The coalitions are shaping up differently this time, backers noted during a series of panel discussions this morning. ”Last time around there was a feeling that this was being shoved down people’s throats,” said Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen. “We have staunch opponents of previous pricing plans with us.”

“It’s a pleasure working with the other side here for a change, instead of being in our own corners,” said AAA New York’s Jon Corlett. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, compared sitting down with AAA to Nixon visiting China.

Why are these groups willing to work together? The Move NY plan, developed by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, has some big carrots for motorists while still reducing congestion and funding transit. The plan would charge everyone driving into Manhattan below 60th Street, while outer-borough crossings with few transit options nearby would see a toll cut. It also asks Manhattanites to pay up by removing the borough’s parking tax rebate and adding a surcharge to taxi trips. The plan would raise almost $1.5 billion annually, with a quarter of it going to road and bridge maintenance. The rest would go to transit in the form of both capital funds and operating assistance.

The exact mix of projects that would benefit remains to be determined, but Move NY advocates say they would like to focus on filling outer-borough transit gaps through a mix of bus and rail expansion, funding things like a new transit route on Staten Island’s north shore, additional Bus Rapid Transit lines, and new Metro-North service in the eastern Bronx to Penn Station.

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Tony Avella and David Weprin Launch Preemptive Attack on NYC Toll Reform

Remember these guys? This morning, State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin stood at traffic-choked Queensboro Plaza to say they don’t care if the Move NY toll reform plan reduces tolls on bridges near their eastern Queens districts — they refuse to support any proposal that adds tolls to East River crossings. In a bid to preempt any forthcoming effort to fix the region’s dysfunctional road pricing system, they’re introducing legislation in Albany to prohibit charging drivers on city-owned bridges. The gesture is pure theatrics, since NYC already can’t put a price on those bridges without approval from the state.

State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin oppose a plan that would bring lower tolls to the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges in eastern Queens. Photo: Stephen Miller

State Senator Tony Avella and Assembly Member David Weprin are back promising to keep NYC streets choked with traffic. Photo: Stephen Miller

It’s also a return to form for two of the most outspoken opponents of the 2008 congestion pricing proposal. At that time, Avella and Weprin were in the minority of City Council members who voted against congestion pricing. Now they’re in Albany, and they still don’t want to do anything to fix a tolling system that’s free in the most congested parts of the city and more expensive in outlying areas with worse transit options.

“I’m puzzled as to why they would oppose a plan that would lower by nearly half the tolls on five out of six Queens bridges,” said Alex Matthiessen of Move NY. The Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges, which would see lower tolls under the Move NY plan, are within Avella’s district.

The Move NY plan, put together by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, works like this: All drivers that enter the Manhattan’s congested core by crossing either the East River or 60th Street would pay a toll, while drivers on bridges linking the other boroughs, where there are fewer transit options, would see their tolls go down. The net result: More funds dedicated to transportation in the region, with the majority of it going to improved transit service.

The argument from Avella and Weprin, who were joined by the Queens Chamber of Commerce and Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free (yes, it still exists), is basically that the Move NY plan is too good to be true. “It sounds nice,” Avella said. “But the proposal will never work in reality.” He claimed that funds generated by the plan could be shifted to non-transportation uses, and that the state could simply revert tolls on the outer-borough crossings to their previous levels without consequence.

Matthiessen called this “a cynical and paranoid viewpoint,” adding that “it would be political suicide for the governor, which controls the MTA, to allow the MTA to simply restore the old high tolls.”

Opponents of the Move NY plan also said that it would have a disproportionate impact on many small businesses that make multiple trips each day between the outer boroughs and Manhattan. ”We want this plan to have as minimal an impact on businesses as possible,” Matthiessen said. “We don’t want to penalize those people,” he said, adding that the plan would use E-ZPass information and license plate scanners to only charge commercial drivers once per day, instead of each time they make a crossing.

Sounding an old and discredited theme, Weprin called bridge tolls a regressive tax. In reality, car commuters to Manhattan — including those in Weprin’s and Avella’s own districts — are wealthier than most city residents.

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Instead of More Fare Hikes, How About Bridge Tolls That Make Sense?

In one fell swoop, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature could drastically reduce NYC's traffic dysfunction while rescuing New Yorkers from the fourth fare hike in five years. Image: Sam Schwartz

Since the beginning of 2008 — right around the time that Albany legislators failed to enact congestion pricing — NYC subway and bus fares have been hiked three times. Now the fourth fare hike in five years is on the horizon, and with Albany lawmakers sitting on their hands as MTA revenues fail to keep up with costs, there’s no relief in sight for millions of transit-riding New Yorkers.

Today MTA Chair Joe Lhota announced four options under consideration for the 2013 fare hike. The scenarios are weighted so that the fare hike will either fall primarily on riders who buy unlimited Metrocards or on those who mainly buy pay-per-ride cards. Monthly unlimiteds could cost $21 more, or single fares could go up to $2.50 from $2.25. (The Straphangers Campaign has produced a handy chart [PDF] to see how each option would affect your expenses.)

Either way, this string of hikes puts the fare on pace to triple the rate of inflation, according to a recent report from Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. While working families in New York City end up paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars more out of pocket to cover higher fares, Governor Cuomo and the state legislature haven’t shown any intention of stepping in to help. In fact, they’ve made the situation more precarious by raiding the MTA’s budget and weakening the agency’s dedicated funding.

It doesn’t have to be this way. At any point, Albany could help to lessen the burden on working New Yorkers while simultaneously eliminating a source of enormous dysfunction in the region’s transportation system: the discrepancy between the free East River bridges and the MTA’s tolled crossings, which produces debilitating traffic jams and will only get worse as fares and tolls rise under the status quo.

The solution? Cuomo and the legislature could enact “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz’s “Fair Plan” [PDF], as Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign noted in a statement today:

Blocking or reducing the fare increase is possible, if we get more help from Albany. One promising plan is to generate new revenue by both raising and lowering tolls on city bridges and tunnels in line with where there is the most and least congestion. Under this plan – developed by a former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, known as Gridlock Sam ­– tolls would go down on some facilities (like the Throgs Neck and Verrazano-Narrow Bridges) and be instituted on others (Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges.) The State would need to authorize some of the tolls.

So far, Transportation Alternatives has collected more than 15,000 signatures asking Albany to stop the next fare hike. If you sign on, I suggest adding a note about the Fair Plan.

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Why Gridlock Sam’s Traffic Plan Could Go the Distance

Saturday will mark two months of non-stop acclaim for Gridlock Sam’s traffic-pricing plan. The accolades kicked off on March 5 with a gushing op-ed, “Meet Sam Schwartz,” by New York Times emeritus editor Bill Keller, and they haven’t let up. The Wall Street Journal, Transportation Nation, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, Channel 13, and Crain’s New York (a profile plus an editorial) have extolled Sam’s plan to overhaul New York’s tolling network and generate $15 billion over the next decade to improve roads, bridges, subways and buses across the city. By now, any New Yorker who professes ignorance of the plan has either been hiding under the proverbial rock or is flummoxed by its political implications.

Such an outpouring of support is unprecedented for congestion pricing proposals anywhere, and is virtually unheard of for any serious policy proposal in New York. I’ve spent a good deal of time pondering it from my vantage point as a long-time traffic-pricing proponent; as an exponent of rival but complementary pricing plans, first with Ted Kheel and more recently with the Move NY coalition; and currently as a modeler helping Sam quantify his plan’s traffic and revenue benefits. (That work is supported not by Sam but by the Kheel family’s Nurture Nature Foundation.)

So how do I explain the overwhelmingly positive press reactions to Gridlock Sam’s Fair Plan, as he calls it?

First, the plan feels inclusive, far more so than any prior traffic-pricing plan.

Consider what it offers residents of Queens, the city’s most car-dependent borough after Staten Island: dollar fares on MTA buses in subway-less areas; Bus Rapid Transit service on the Long Island Expressway; and, most spectacularly, a halving of current tolls on the borough’s five MTA bridges, from the Throgs Neck in northern Queens to the Gil Hodges and Cross Bay Blvd. Bridges in the Rockaways. These benefits are palpable — the MTA bridge discounts alone will save Queens residents $100 million a year — and they are integral to the plan, in accordance with the precept of charging premium tolls to drive into the congested heart of the city. Other boroughs are slated to get similar discounts and benefits including BRT on the Belt Parkway and the Bruckner Expressway, a widened Staten Island Expressway, and highway expansions intended to take trucks off Brooklyn streets.

Second, Sam’s plan feels egalitarian.

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Gridlock Sam on Traffic, Tolls, and Big Ideas for NYC Transpo Policy

Gridlock Sam's plan chops $5 off the roundtrip E-ZPass price of major MTA bridges and sets the E-ZPass price for East River crossings at a uniform $5 each way.

New York City is coming up on the four year anniversary of a moment that will live in infamy for transit riders and sustainable transportation advocates: the demise of congestion pricing, which was put down in the state Assembly without a vote on April 7, 2008. The city lost a great opportunity that day to fund its transit system while relieving the city’s most congestion-choked streets from suffocating traffic.

Road pricing has been hibernating since a plan to toll crossings into Manhattan was narrowly defeated in the State Senate in 2009. But last Sunday former New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller put it squarely in the public eye again, featuring the latest plan from the city’s best-known transportation engineer, ”Gridlock” Sam Schwartz.

The basic bargain in Schwartz’s plan boils down to this: Motorists pay more to enter the most congested part of the region, and pay less to travel between the boroughs outside Manhattan. He’s also added a slate of fees so Manhattanites pay more into the system, and a menu of infrastructure projects ranging from widening the Staten Island Expressway to building three new bike and pedestrian bridges into Manhattan.

The plan aims to produce both broad-based benefits and broad-based sacrifice. While the package would be a huge improvement over New York’s dysfunctional road pricing system and result in a major infusion of revenue for the financially troubled MTA, the grab bag of spending is hit or miss. Unlike the 2008 congestion pricing plan, which was supposed to be paired with surface transit improvements and shift trips away from driving all over the city, Schwartz’s plan would induce traffic in some areas outside Manhattan.

Schwartz is constantly refining the plan as he takes it to different constituencies. Here’s a look at the major pieces in the current version of the plan, which is up on the Sam Schwartz Engineering website [PDF] (note: it’s a little different than the summary we posted on Wednesday):

  • $5 E-ZPass/$7 cash fee to drive into and out of the congested heart of Manhattan
  • $5 roundtrip reduction in tolls on the Verrazano, Triborough, Throgs Neck, and Whitestone bridges
  • $2 roundtrip reduction in tolls on the Cross Bay and Marine Parkway bridges, which connect the Rockaway peninsula to the mainland.
  • End the parking tax rebate for Manhattan residents, who currently pay about half the tax rate on car storage compared to residents of other boroughs.
  • $1 drop fee on yellow cab trips in the Manhattan CBD, with cabbies keeping part of the revenue.
  • Reduced express bus fares for residents far from Manhattan.
  • New elevated busways built over the median, Airtrain-style, on the Bruckner, the Long Island Expressway, and the Belt Parkway.
  • Widening the Staten Island Expressway and the Van Wyck approach to JFK.
  • Widening the Belt Parkway and allowing commercial traffic so fewer trucks are on local streets.
  • Building three new bike and pedestrian bridges into the Manhattan CBD, one from Hoboken/Jersey City, one from Red Hook via Governor’s Island, and one from Greenpoint/Long Island City.
  • Investment in MTA maintenance and capital improvements (specific dollar amount TBD, but it would be more than the amount spent on road projects).

According to Charles Komanoff’s Balanced Transportation Analyzer, Schwartz’s plan would raise a net of $1.26 billion annually, reducing the number of vehicles entering the Manhattan CBD each weekday by 21 percent, while increasing the number of people entering by 3.3 percent. The revenue would be bonded, allowing for up to $15 billion in borrowing that would be spent on transit investment, the roadway projects in Schwartz’s plan, and infrastructure maintenance.

I spoke to Schwartz this morning about how he’s been adjusting his plan over the last four years. Below are edited highlights from the interview.

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Details of Sam Schwartz’s “Fair Plan” and Other Orcutt+Komanoff Highlights

NYU students got a sweeping overview of NYC transpo and traffic issues from two of the city’s top thinkers this afternoon, as DOT Policy Director Jon Orcutt and independent analyst/congestion pricing advocate Charles Komanoff took turns on the mic at a forum moderated by NYU Law School professor Roderick Hills. I got so caught up in the moment that I completely forgot to snap a photo of Orcutt and Komanoff sharing the stage.

The tolls are higher now than they were when Gridlock Sam started showing this slide in 2007, and the dysfunction remains.

With the MTA budget all over the headlines and “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz’s plan to rationalize NYC bridge tolls nabbing a full-throated endorsement from former Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller, the juiciest info to come out of the forum were the road pricing plans that Komanoff outlined. He went over the basics of the current Sam Schwartz plan and his own “Move NY” package, both of which now mix fees on driving into the Manhattan CBD with toll discounts on crossings in the other boroughs.

Each plan promises to fund the region’s transit system while curbing traffic on city streets that see the heaviest pounding from motor vehicles. First up, the basics of Gridlock Sam’s “Fair Plan,” as presented by Komanoff:

  • $5 E-ZPass or $7.50 cash fee each way for motorists crossing the Manhattan CBD cordon (assessed at the East River crossings and 60th Street).
  • An average 39 percent toll reduction on the seven MTA bridges that don’t enter the CBD (i.e. the Verrazano, Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Triborough, Henry Hudson, Cross Bay, and Marine Parkway bridges).
  • Truck tolls would be 2.2 times higher than private car tolls.
  • A $1.00 “drop fee” assessed on each cab trip.
  • About one percent of vehicles would be exempt from tolls (not clear how the exemption would be determined).
  • In addition to funding transit with its projected $1.2 billion in net annual revenues, the Fair Plan would set aside funds for regional highway investments and three new bike-ped bridges into Manhattan — one over the Hudson, one from Long Island City, and one from the Brooklyn waterfront that would connect to the Battery via Governors Island.

You can see how Komanoff calculates the benefits of the Gridlock Sam plan in his Balanced Transportation Analyzer spreadsheet.

Komanoff’s Move NY Plan, which is being advanced by the campaign that grew out of Ted Kheel’s advocacy for road pricing combined with lower transit fares, has a time-variable tolling structure, like the 2008 congestion pricing plan. You can also look up the projected benefits and costs in Komanoff’s spreadsheet. It features:

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JSK: Plaza Program Will Expand; Gridlock Sam: Backlash Nothing New

Plans for a plaza at Fulton Street and Marcy Avenue, in the first phase of the plaza program. Image: NYC DOT

Last night’s Municipal Arts Society panel, “Shared Streets: Making It Work,” mainly covered familiar ground for those who have been following the city’s efforts to repurpose its streets over the last four years. Participants touted the improved bus speeds along Select Bus Service routes, the safety gains where protected bike lanes have been installed, and the economic boost of pedestrian plazas in Times and Herald Square. Two things jumped out at as noteworthy, though.

First, DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan announced that the department will be accepting applications for a fourth round of its plaza program. When you include both the plazas constructed through the city’s capital program and those built on a “temporary” basis with paint and planters, the latest round will bring the total number of plazas in the works up to 50.

Then, former Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz offered some perspective on the current media backlash against the DOT and the Prospect Park West lawsuit. “It’s been hard for as long as I can remember,” he said, “and that’s a very long time.” He said that he too got sued, in his case by the parking garage industry over a 1980 plan to charge single-occupant vehicles for entering the Manhattan central business district. He claimed that business leaders were marching on City Hall and taking out full-page ads in the newspapers that read “Commissioner Schwartz, stop fouling up New York.” The word “foul,” added Schwartz, was a replacement on the part of copy editors.

Schwartz also dismissed the particular strain of opposition that has tried to paint improvements to transit and bike and pedestrian infrastructure as elitist. When he was in office, he said, “it was just the opposite argument. It was the poor people that would be coming into the wealthy neighborhoods. So I think this too shall pass.”

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Streetfilms Shorties: The Manhattan Bridge Turns 100

The Manhattan Bridge officially opened on December 31, 1909. While its 100-year anniversary came and went with little fanfare a few months ago, city officials paid respects today.

At the ceremony, Clarence caught up with Gridlock Sam Schwartz, who heads the NYC Bridge Centennial Commission. In this clip Schwartz describes the nearly catastrophic deterioration of the bridge, which prompted a massive rehab that began in the 1980s and is just now concluding.

You'll definitely want to pause and take a close look at the 1:01 mark for a reminder of just how easy motorists have it today compared to 100 years ago.

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Streetfilms: The Queensboro Bridge Turns 100

New York celebrated the 100th birthday of the Queensboro Bridge yesterday, and Clarence Eckerson was on hand to document the occasion for Streetfilms. As pointed out in the vid by "Gridlock" Sam Schwartz, back in 1909 drivers paid 10 cents to cross the Q'boro -- or $4.66 for a round trip in today's dollars. Motorists were accustomed to using the bridge for free by the 1980s, even as it was falling apart, and now pay less than the three pennies it once cost to ride across on horseback.

Even so, with today's bankruptcy filing by General Motors, the Queensboro has held up better than two of the Big Three.