Congestion Pricing Is Back...And the NY Times' Former Editor Really Likes It

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Cars heading toward the Holland Tunnel (photo by Kate Hinds)

New York Times columnist Bill Keller (and former editor-in-chief) put congestion pricing squarely back in the public eye today, with his column backing a plan by noted transportation expert Sam Schwartz.

Schwartz -- known to the masses as "Gridlock Sam"-- is a former New York City traffic commissioner who has long advocated congestion pricing.

Schwartz's plan  -- which he's been showing around the city to private groups -- would reduce the costs of some tolls and raise others.  That would make driving outside of Manhattan easier and driving into Manhattan south of 60th Street much more costly.

The East River Bridges -- Brooklyn, Ed Koch/Queensboro, Manhattan, and Williamsburg, would have a $7 cash toll, and an $5 EZPass toll.  Other bridges -- like the Verrazano, the RFK, and the Bronx Whitestone Bridge would be cheaper.

These tolls and other fees (like ending a parking tax rebate for Manhattanites and adding a taxi surcharge on cab rides south of 86th Street) could raise as much as $1.2 billion annually, Schwartz argues  -- money that would then be spent on improving transit and roads.

Schwartz would then target that money to reduce transit fares and to launch new transit lines -- particularly bus rapid transit -- in the outer boroughs where transit service is poor.

Schwartz would also like to see three new pedestrian/bicycle bridges built. One would go from downtown Brooklyn, go through Governors Island and lead to the financial district; another would connect Greenpoint/Long Island City to Manhattan's East Side, and a third would go from Hoboken/Jersey City to Manhattan's West Side.

A rendering of a pedestrian bridge, stretching from Brooklyn to Manhattan (image courtesy of Sam Schwartz Engineering)

It's not clear how much political support a plan like this could garner. City Council member Peter Vallone Jr., who represents Astoria, is blunt: "I don't support tolling the East River Bridges," he says. "There are ways to influence congestion without increasing costs to motorists." He'd like to see tolls increase during peak times, but decrease off-hours.

But Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City says congestion pricing is "something that New York City is going to have to turn to." She adds: "I think that Sam has put forward a very practical approach to mobilizing political support" for it. She says part of the stumbling block in the past has been "you didn’t have any obvious concurrent benefits...that you could point to."  This version of the plan -- with its attendant toll reductions and outer borough transit improvements --  "give people a reason to be for it, not simply to be against it."

It's a parity issue, adds  Transportation Alternatives head Paul Steely White, who's endorsing the plan. "What you have is a situation where some drivers are paying as much as $11 to take a round trip in their own neighborhoods," he says, "whereas other drivers aren't paying a cent."

The fallout from that is evident in places like downtown Brooklyn, which is inundated with drivers seeking to avoid the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and its $6.50 toll (or $4.80 for EZPass users) in favor of the free Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Tolling those bridges, White says, would make  the system "more rational so drivers aren't toll shopping and driving out of their way for a free bridge or tunnel."

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed for congestion pricing in 2007. Although it passed City Council, it died in Albany.

City Hall may like this plan, too.  New York City deputy press secretary Marc LaVorgna says of the Schwartz proposal: “The Mayor put forward a comprehensive and bold transportation vision that would have provided billions to create the mass transit system our city needs. But Albany said no, and the MTA continues to struggle.”

But the biggest kick for the plan comes from today's Times Op-Ed page, one of the loudest megaphones you can have.

"You do not have to be an engineer to appreciate the logic," Keller wrote. "The scheme puts the heaviest onus on the solo driver who has ready access to a train, and lowers the cost for drivers who have no alternative. Unlike earlier plans that amounted to a punishing tax on commuters from outlying communities, the Schwartz plan has more affluent neighborhoods (like the plusher parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) pay a fair share."