Advocate offers taste of what congestion pricing might look like

Congestion pricing would do more than reduce traffic in midtown Manhattan and create a steady stream of revenue to fix New York City’s crumbling transit system, according to a leading transportation advocate, who said it would make New Yorkers happier and healthier by reducing their stress.

It would also create an estimated 30,000 jobs in construction, maintenance and operations, said Alex Matthiessen, senior advisor of the organization Fix Our Transit who came to Bay Ridge on Feb. 21 to offer a glimpse of what congestion pricing might look like if the State Legislature adopts it.

Matthiessen spoke at Saint Anselm Catholic Academy at the invitation of Assemblymember Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican who represents parts of Bay Ridge and Staten Island.

Congestion pricing is the subject of discussion in Albany as lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo begin negotiations for the new state budget.

Cuomo included congestion pricing in his executive budget but left out details, preferring to let state senators and assembly members fill in the blanks, Matthiessen said.

Organizations like Fix Our Transit and Move NY have ideas on how it could work.

One proposal calls for electronic, gateless tolls to be used, similar to the EZ-Pass system used for bridges and tunnels. The tolls would be paid by motorists entering Manhattan south of 60th Street. Ideally, the tolls would be the same as those charged in the city’s tunnels, Matthiessen said.

Drivers would pay a higher toll during peak hours, according to Matthiessen, who said the toll could be lowered during non-peak hours.

Under the proposal, commercial drivers would be charged only once a day, meaning that if a truck driver entered Manhattan several times a day, he or she would pay only once. In addition, drivers who exit the bridges or tunnel and proceed straight to the FDR Drive to head north would not be charged a toll because they would not be tying up Manhattan streets.

But Matthiessen, a Carroll Gardens resident and environmentalist who has been looking at transportation issues for more than a decade, cautioned that he was presenting a plan that transit advocates would like to see. It’s too soon to tell how much of the proposal will end up in the final version.

Matthiessen said, however, that it’s looking increasingly likely that some type of congestion pricing plan would be adopted by the legislature. “There is a lot of momentum behind doing this,” he said.
Congestion pricing has been talked about for years. Former mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to enact a plan during his tenure at City Hall but it failed to catch on. The idea of charging drivers to enter Manhattan has been on the wish list of many transportation experts, including Sam Schwartz, the city’s former traffic commissioner who goes by the nickname Gridlock Sam and who has been advocating for a plan for many years.

The city’s traffic situation has reached a point where something has to be done, Matthiessen said.

Traffic in Manhattan currently moves at a snail’s pace, 4.7 miles per hour, he added.

“It affects our quality of life. It affects our health,” Matthiessen said. As an example, he said the city has high asthma rates that could be related to exhaust fumes from vehicles. Heavy traffic brings with it many car crashes. And being stuck in traffic day after day adds stress to the lives of New Yorkers, he said.

The city’s asthma rates might go down and New Yorkers’ stress levels would certainly go down under congestion pricing, he said.

The advocate pointed to other cities where it has been tried. In London, congestion pricing reduced traffic by 15 percent and in Stockholm, asthma rates were reduced by 50 percent.

Congestion pricing would bring in between $1 billion and $1.5 billion a year – money that would be used to make much-needed repairs to the buses and subways, Matthiessen said.

Besides, the transit system is a mess and badly in need of repairs, he said.

The average length of subway delays has gone up a whopping 250 percent since 2012, he said, citing statistics from the Regional Plan Association. In 2017, subway ridership started to go down. Bus ridership has decreased by 16 percent. “There is a direct relationship. People are fleeing the transit system,” he said.

It creates a vicious cycle, Matthiessen said. Fewer riders mean less revenue for the MTA. That translates into less money to maintain the system.

“At a certain point, you hit a wall and the wheels start to come off,” Matthiessen said.

Matthiessen was met with skepticism from Bay Ridge residents who attended his presentation.

“I believe we pay enough taxes. This is like another tax,” said one woman.

A man in the audience told Matthiessen he wasn’t impressed by results in other cities. “This isn’t London and it isn’t Stockholm,” he said.

Even Malliotakis, who invited Matthiessen to speak to her constituents, said she isn’t sold on the idea of congestion pricing just yet.  She would like to see a more detailed plan in which a portion of the funding would go toward repairs on the R subway line, which her constituents use, she said.

Still, the pol pledged to keep an open mind as budget negotiations intensify in Albany. “I’m open to all conversations moving forward,” Malliotakis said.

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