By Sam Anderson
Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
When state Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez took up a microphone last Thursday and introduced the Move NY Fair Plan from beneath the 125th Street train station in Harlem, his voice echoed that of past politicians, former mayors and city activists who, for decades, have been seeking a solution to the city’s myriad transit problems. But past failures to reform may come as an advantage to advocates, who say this particular plan has the best fighting chance so far.
Rodriguez, who introduced bill A09633 into the state Assembly last week, decried the city’s crumbling infrastructure, the dangerous and exhaust-choked side streets of residential neighborhoods and the frustration of trying to reform the world’s most complicated public transit system. “This city is bulging at the seams,” he said.
One simply needed to glance around to understand what he meant. As the Metro North rattled above, chips of cement rained down to dust the shoulders of politicians, while the incessant honking of cars and a steady stream of pedestrians jaywalking through the intersection ensured that the press conference was a lively one.
The Move NY Fair Plan, co-designed by the Move NY organization and traffic engineer “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, attempts to address two major problems faced by the city: reduce traffic congestion (especially in Manhattan’s central business district, or CBD) and create a dedicated source of funding for the MTA and city transit, which relies on Albany for a budget and continues to be notoriously underfunded.
The nuts and bolts of the plan are fairly simple. The plan will reduce the cost of tolls on outer-borough crossings, like the Triboro, Whitestone, Throg’s Neck, Verrazano, Gil Hodges, Cross-Bay and Henry Hudson bridges, by up to 48 percent; and tolls on East River bridges will be the same as the Midtown and Brooklyn Battery tunnels. Many of these tolls currently cost between $8 and $16, a price that to many commuters is exorbitant. And according to Alex Mathiessen, campaign director of Move NY, it contributes to a phenomenon called “bridge shopping,” in which drivers opt to battle their way through Midtown Manhattan to access the free crossings at the Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges.
If the new legislation becomes law, those free crossings will no longer be free — an
E-ZPass-style toll system will be installed to harmonize tolls around the city and incentivize motorists to stick to the highways.
Interestingly enough, at least one of those East River crossings was tolled in the past. According to historian John Manbeck, when the Brooklyn Bridge first opened in 1883, it operated on a step toll, meaning New Yorkers paid different amounts depending on whether they crossed the bridge on horseback, in a wagon or on foot. That toll, which Manbeck says was around a penny for pedestrians, was removed just a few years later.
To Schwartz, Matthisessen and other transportation experts and advocates, the reorganization of the tolls is a no-brainer. But to elected officials, the more exciting part of the plan is the establishment of a $4.5 billion Transit Gap Investment Fund. According to the media release, if enacted, the bill will “raise $1.3 billion in new, annual revenue and, when bonded, will generate over $12 billion for upgrading our transit system and road and bridge network.” Roughly 25 percent of this will go toward the construction and maintenance of roads and bridges, with 75 percent dedicated to transit.
Advocates say that the plan will also be a boon to taxi drivers in the city. According to Move NY, leaders of the for-hire vehicles industry support the plan because most cabbies recognize that traffic is their biggest obstacle to increasing profit. The Move NY Fair Plan exempts for-hire vehicles from CBD tolls and establishes a surcharge zone in the area of Manhattan south of 96th street on the east side and 110th street on the west. So when traveling through Central and Downtown Manhattan, passengers will be required to pay an additional estimated $1.40 for every three-mile (or 60 block) trip, within the surcharge zone. According to advocates, this additional surcharge will be mitigated by the shortened travel times experienced by passengers, due to the projected decrease in congestion in Manhattan’s CBD. Taxi drivers are projected to see an increase of three or four trips per day under the plan.
Another interesting aspect of the plan is a section that allocates $1 billion of the $4.5 billion to borough and community boards. Essentially, this will give local neighborhoods a piece of the pie, allowing them to respond to their own individual transportation needs.
“Say you have a broken elevator at a Coney Island subway station,” said Matthiessen, “community boards used to have to petition the MTA to fund these projects. But with Move NY, they’ll have money to address the problem directly.”
This section of the legislation responds to a major criticism that congestion-based toll plans have faced in the past: that they favor transit-rich neighborhoods and penalize the so-called “transit deserts,” whose drivers pay the price in tolls but don’t reap any benefits. This was one of the biggest obstacles faced by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Congestion Toll plan, which was defeated in Albany in 2008. At the time, assemblymembers from Queens vehemently opposed the bill, and they still do.
But Matthiessen argues that the plan will actually benefit those who do not live near the train, because now those local community boards will have funding to address their lack of transit. “They should welcome this process because we’re raising money to help them fund their priorities,” he says.
Of the bill’s 14 co-sponsors, only one assemblymember from Queens supports the bill, Andrew Hevesi of the 28th District. The remaining co-sponsors are distributed evenly across the Bronx (five co-sponsors), Brooklyn (four) and Manhattan (four).
This is one of the more unique aspects of the Move NY Fair Plan. It enjoys a fairly unprecedented level of support from elected city officials, compared to Bloomberg’s plan. Sheldon Silver, who helped defeat that bill, said at that time, “The congestion pricing bill did not have anywhere near a majority of the Democratic conference.”
Bloomberg’s plan was defeated despite the offer of a $350 million federal transportation grant that the city would have been awarded, had the measure passed. This time around, there is no such incentive.
Schwartz, who has been in the business of transportation for half a century, including his time as a cabbie, was the final speaker at the press conference last Thursday, and was visibly excited to announce that, “Never in 50 years have we seen local officials taking the initiative to correct the problems in our transportation system. These are the brave men and women standing up for our infrastructure.”
Paul Steely White of Transportation Alternatives, who rode his bike from the Financial Distrcit to Harlem for the event, was enthusiastic as well. “This is a transformative new effort unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” he said.
It is yet to be seen whether the plan will make it through Albany, but what is clear is that the Move NY Fair Plan represents the most concerted effort to date.
“I think we’ve opened a new chapter in this campaign to bring a rational, equitable, fair tolling system and transit investment program to New York,” said Matthiessen. “We’ve done that by finally converting a great idea into a great piece of legislation. And by introducing a bill, we’re demonstrating to elected officials, the public and the press that we’re here to stay, and we intend to fight until state legislature enacts the plan.”