Green Councilman Takes a Long View on Congestion

Congestion pricing, for all practical purposes, died this week. But Councilman David Yassky hasn’t lost faith.

“If you step back, the congestion pricing idea was put forward by Michael Bloomberg a year ago, and it’s a very big idea,” he said on the night of April 7, a few hours after Sheldon Silver’s Democratic Assembly majority snuffed out the proposal in committee. “It’s a complicated idea, it’s an ambitious idea. In some ways, it’s amazing that it’s gotten as far as it has in as short a time.”

Mr. Yassky, whose Brooklyn district includes Greenpoint, Boerum Hill, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope and parts of Williamsburg, publicly announced to his constituents that he supported congestion pricing two months after the mayor first announced it a little less than a year ago, making him one of the first elected officials in New York to come out in favor of it. (He also authored and pushed for years for recently enacted legislation that will require all New York City taxis to be either hybrid or low emission by 2012.)

“I think that ultimately good ideas do prevail,” he said. “So, sooner or later.”

Mr. Yassky, who is running for city comptroller in 2009, distinguished himself from the majority of his Council colleagues by pushing this particular idea enthusiastically. Not surprisingly, he has the pitch down cold.

“There’s three things,” he said, in an earlier interview. “Traffic in midtown and downtown Manhattan is approaching permanent gridlock. If it gets to that, that’s, ‘We can’t stay the economic capital of the world if it takes you an hour to get 10 blocks.’ That’s the sound bite for it, but I think it’s really true.”

He continued: “Two, we want to push people out of cars and into mass transit because it’s better for the environment. The way you deal with the air quality and climate change is bit by bit, and everybody’s got to do their part and you say, you’ve got to reduce emissions from buildings, we’ve started that. You’ve got reduce emissions from vehicles, this is one way to do it.

“And the third is mass-transit money. I don’t see this as entirely a revenue scheme, you know, but that’s an important piece of it. We have the same basic subway system that we had 100 years ago, and we have a very different city and a much bigger one.”

I suggested that the city could use more L trains.

“We need a lot more L trains,” he said. “We need more G trains.”

“By the way,” he added, “one thing we’re going to do if we get congestion pricing is a bus that would go down Kent, and over the Manhattan Bridge. I guess—no, I’m sorry, it will go up Wythe. It will go up something. I guess Kent is two-way.”

Kent is two-way, I confirmed.

“Right, so it will go up Kent and Franklin and over the Pulaski Bridge and through the Midtown Tunnel,” he said. “And ferries from Long Island City to one or two stops in Greenpoint and one or two stops in Williamsburg to Pier A downtown.”

As nerdishly enthusiastic as he is about transportation infrastructure, Mr. Yassky did make an effort, however gingerly, to put some daylight between himself and the environmental and mass-transit activists who had rallied around congestion pricing unreservedly.

“The cost side is, people are going to have to pay, you know, a genuinely stiff tax to drive into Manhattan,” Mr. Yassky said. “And I don’t like that. And I don’t think, I mean, the rhetoric of the [activists], who I love, but you know sometimes it’s like they actively want to punish people for driving, and I certainly don’t feel that way.

“You know, I voted for the smoking ban, I felt bad about it. You know, these people, a lot of people do smoke, and they shouldn’t, for themselves, forget about everybody else, it’s overwhelmingly for themselves. And you know, as it is, they’ve got to be huddled outside in the freezing cold; now there’s one more place they’ve got to do that. I voted for it, as I said. But you drive into Manhattan because you have to.”

In the end, it didn’t matter. The Assembly rendered the idea of congestion pricing academic for the foreseeable future, killing the idea in committee.

Mr. Yassky, ever optimistic, takes the long view.

“This does take some time and we didn’t know,” he said shortly after the news from Albany. “It looked like maybe this would be enough time.”

He maintains that the effort was worth it.

“Let’s just hope this debate, the congestion pricing proposal, has focused the debate on the need for more mass transit and what we have to do to make our mass-transit system commensurate with the need in the 21st century,” he said. “It’s focused debate on that in a way that really, nothing else has in a while. That’s a good product.”

“I’m not just looking for a silver lining,” he added. “I think those are good things.”

Green Councilman Takes a Long View on Congestion