PART OF THE REASON THE PROPONENTS have grown such deep pockets is that they represent a broad constituency. Congestion pricing is one of those magical political issues that has captured the minds of both the grass roots and the business elite because it has something for pretty much everyone: the Straphangers Campaign has signed on because the fees provide revenue to improve the transit system; business groups believe that congestion is eating up workers’ time in traffic and adding costs onto deliveries.
The environmental and health benefits expected to result from lighter traffic are fairly modest—congestion pricing will reduce pollution between 2 and 4 percent, according to the Mayor’s figures—but PlaNYC includes 126 other initiatives, geared toward reducing greenhouse gases by 30 percent by 2030. Environmental and health groups, then, have also thrown support behind the plan.
Indeed, the issue has attracted such an unusual combination of players that many who opposed the Mayor on the West Side stadium now find themselves supporting him, from West Side Assemblyman Richard Gottfried to John Raskin, a community organizer who was the spokesman for the grass roots during the stadium fight; from Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum to Straphangers Campaign staff attorney Gene Russianoff. (REBNY and the Partnership for New York City, however, supported the Mayor in the stadium fight.)
“The stadium was a model of how to turn off New Yorkers and PlaNYC was a model of how to engage people,” said Mr. Russianoff, of the dozens of meetings the Bloomberg administration held with advocacy organizations during the fall and winter while they were formulating PlaNYC. “They wanted other people to own the process, and that is the genie in the bottle. I think groups have been very active and aggressive in promoting the plan as a result. We have largely dropped most of what we were planning to do in May and June to focus on this.”
In addition to pressing their underpaid staffs into labor on PlaNYC, nonprofit supporters have also dragged in some extra cash: Some eight foundations who had existing ties with transportation and environmental advocacy groups have committed $835,000 so far toward the campaign, according to Chris Jones, vice president for research at the Regional Plan Association, which supports PlaNYC (and which opposed the stadium).
“We gave a $150,000 grant to be used by the R.P.A. to support a public education campaign on the general outlines of the Mayor’s plan and the general desirability of it,” said Conn Nugent, the executive director of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, which in the past has supported the Straphangers Campaign, Transportation Alternatives and a poll, conducted this spring, commissioned by the Partnership for New York City that asked drivers their opinion on congestion pricing and what other transit options they have.
Because of restrictions on foundation grants, these funds cannot be used for lobbying on a particular bill, just an issue in general. But strangely, it is on lobbying that the two sides may be most evenly matched. Environmental Defense is paying Patricia Lynch, a former aide to Assembly Speaker Silver, $30,000 over two months to lobby the State Legislature, according to lobbyist disclosure records online; the partnership has hired Terri Thomson, a former city Board of Education member from Queens, for $5,000 a month.
Meanwhile, lobbyist Brian Meara and Kenneth Riddett, former chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, are each making $10,000 working for the opponents.
However, organizations that already have lobbyists in Albany are pressing them into service in this cause, and for the most part that means more heft on the pro side than on the con.
“I would say that for every dollar we can raise, they have 20 or 25, if not more,” Mr. Lipsky said. “And yet, when we get outside of Manhattan, the poll numbers are extraordinary.”
MR. LIPSKY CONTENDS THAT ALL OF this money—and even all of the supporters’ organizations—are not buying them support. And just as the Mayor learned from the stadium fight that real power resides in unusual places, so too may he be surprised this time around.
At the first Legislative hearing on congestion pricing on June 8, the hearing room, in the stately Association of the Bar of the City of New York building in midtown, was packed with hundreds of supporters of congestion pricing wearing “I Breathe & I Vote” T-shirts. They ride their bikes to work, or eat vegetarian, or strive to leave a zero carbon footprint in their daily lives—in other words, they looked like the future.
By contrast, one of the legislators who kept giving Mayor Bloomberg a hard time seemed pretty old-fashioned: He said he didn’t have a computer and that he did not use an E-ZPass to pay tolls—even though doing so would give him a discount. On the other hand, that legislator, Herman (Denny) Farrell Jr., an Assemblyman from Upper Manhattan, is one of the most powerful Democrats in the state.
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