Both supporters and opponents of congestion pricing doubt that Mayor Michael Bloomberg will be able to reach anything like a consensus among elected officials by the time the State Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on June 21.
In interviews over the past week with about two dozen people involved in the debate over whether to impose a fee on cars and trucks entering or driving around Manhattan south of 86th Street, The Observer found that many officials who described themselves as neutral on the issue said that Mr. Bloomberg might eventually win them over.
But they said that so many details needed to be worked out that it was virtually impossible to meet the Mayor’s self-imposed deadline of June 21. (The plan needs the Legislature’s approval.)
“No, not by the end of the legislative session,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, a former state legislator who has praised the Mayor’s plan but stopped short of a full endorsement. “First, you need a plan; then you need to have a plan that’s enhanced by input from the communities that are being affected by it.”
“I would be surprised if we got it done by the end of the session,” said State Senator Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat who represents the Upper West Side and Washington Heights. “The essence of the Mayor’s vision is fantastic, and I think this is the kind of big-picture, transformative stuff we need to see from the government. But I am concerned about some of the details.”
All in all, though, even opponents concede that the Mayor’s rollout of the plan has been a great show to watch.
It started with orchestrated leaks, followed by an extravagant sound-and-light show at the Museum of Natural History, and was capped off last week by having New York host the C40 summit on climate change—a conference of mayors and governors from around the world attended by former President Bill Clinton, who endorsed congestion pricing.
Indeed, by wrapping a traffic-control program into the clothing of an environmental program, Mr. Bloomberg and his allies will ever be able to cast their opponents as small-minded curmudgeons oblivious to the polar ice caps melting.
More significantly, the Mayor is seeing that many of his arguments are getting through to the people that matter most: the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. On May 18, two officials who one would think would be natural opponents of congestion pricing took the stage at a Drum Major Institute breakfast and offered warm words for the Mayor’s plan: Eric Gioia and John Liu, two City Council members from Queens.
Mr. Gioia said his father, a florist, no longer makes deliveries into Manhattan because of the “time tax” that he had to pay when his trucks got stuck in traffic. Mr. Liu said he supported congestion pricing because of the economic costs of not doing anything.
Ed Ott, the executive director of the New York City Central Labor Council, a coalition of A.F.L.-C.I.O. labor unions, also appeared at the panel and was largely sympathetic to congestion pricing. Mr. Ott’s words demonstrated, if not a change of opinion, then at least a change of heart from last December, when he sat on another panel and defended working people who drove in from the Poconos because they might not be able to find affordable housing closer to the city.
“The need for mass transit among the working class is real; the working class of this city is on the subways at 6 a.m.,” Mr. Ott said, garnering applause from the liberal audience. “I believe if there are real transportation alternatives, I think the massive number of people in this city will support a real mass-transit system paid for in part by a congesting-pricing fee.”
Still, Mr. Gioia and Mr. Liu are exceptions rather than the rule for outer-borough officials. They have spoken of the need to make sure that neighborhoods right outside the fee zone do not become parking lots for people who dump their cars there and that improvements in mass transit go into effect before congestion pricing, particularly for areas of the city that are now virtually inaccessible except by car. Mr. Liu, for instance, said that New Yorkers should not have to spend more than 45 minutes commuting.
“John Liu—he did surprise me, but that’s one whale of a condition,” City Council member Lew Fidler, a Democrat from the far southern reaches of Brooklyn, said about the 45-minute rule. “I don’t have a single subway stop in my district. The express bus service is pitiful. I don’t see how they are going to do that. I don’t see how they are going to build mass transit to such an extent to meet that goal.”
In Albany, where Mayor Bloomberg gave briefings on his broader PlaNYC program on May 14, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno has given out welcoming signals—but then again, his caucus is the beneficiary of the Mayor’s campaign contributions. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, has showed a cautious openness toward the plan, but has made no commitment to address it by the end of this session.
“The Speaker has said that he plans to hold at least one public hearing on it and he has not announced when that will be,” his spokesman, Charles (Skip) Carrier, told The Observer. “I think you can look forward to us taking an appropriate amount of time to do this.”
Lee Sander, the chief executive and executive director of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said that he has had several discussions with Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff about congestion pricing, but they have been on a very introductory level.
“We have not taken a formal position on whether we support it or oppose it,” Mr. Sander told The Observer. “Our course at this point has been to analyze the proposal from a technical standpoint. If the Legislature were to respond to it to a greater degree than they have already, then we would have to take a closer look.”
The Mayor has a powerful economic argument to getting the endorsements he needs soon: the deadline for a federal grant program that could potentially cover the estimated $224 million cost of setting up the system and even some preliminary transit improvements was on April 30, and winners will likely be announced by the end of the summer at the latest.
In meetings with legislators and other leaders, the Mayor’s aides have signaled their willingness to compromise on key points to make the plan for work.
Mr. Bloomberg, for instance, has suggested that he would support a residential-permit parking program for the inner tier of outer-borough neighborhoods to prevent outsiders from parking there and jumping on the subway; that’s a shift for an administration that until now has opposed such policies. That and other adjustments have made the whole system, to one Queens legislator, look jury-rigged.
“I think these attempts to fill the holes in the plan are being done on the fly,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order not to anger the Mayor. “I would be open to exploring continued study and exploration of the idea. I would not be comfortable casting a vote on it tomorrow.”
Missing the June 21 deadline would not doom congestion pricing, according to the wide array of transportation, business and environmental advocates who support the idea. For one, the federal government may continue the grant program next year.
Paul White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, a transit advocacy group and also an early proponent of congestion pricing, said that getting early momentum for the proposal would benefit the cause even if it spills over into next year.
Kathryn Wylde, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for New York City, an association of business executives that supported congestion pricing long before the Mayor did, said that eventual passage of a congestion-pricing scheme for New York was “inevitable.”
“By the end of June? I think it’s a challenge,” Ms. Wylde said, “because the Mayor’s plan didn’t come out until April 22 and both houses of the State Legislature had a laundry list of their own priorities before the session ends.”
But more time, while giving the Mayor a chance to sort out the details to gain support from more public officials, is also giving opponents time to organize.
Over the past few days, the main group that has formed against it, Keep N.Y.C. Congestion Tax Free, has sent out a report laying out its arguments (among them, it says that operating the system would cost $240 million a year). And, on May 23, the group plans to stage a rally against congestion pricing; more than a dozen representatives from unions, wholesalers and grocery-store owners particularly incensed about the proposed $21 fee on trucks are expected to turn out on East 59th Street.
There has been just one other press event by congestion-pricing foes since the Mayor’s April 22 announcement, in Elmhurst, Queens. It went largely unnoticed and unattended by Manhattan-based reporters because, well, you pretty much needed a car to get there.