May the Schwartz Be With You: Gridlock Sam Wants to Turn New York Traffic On Its Head—the Same Thing He’s Done for 40 Years

screen shot 2012 05 09 at 9 03 03 am May the Schwartz Be With You: Gridlock Sam Wants to Turn New York Traffic On Its Head—the Same Thing Hes Done for 40 Years

The Fair Plan. (SSE)

If anyone knows about tolling the East River bridges, it’s Sam Schwartz. “We’ve tried this four other times, so we obviously know it’s something that has to be done,” Mr. Schwartz said. He has been there for almost every effort, back to the Clean Air Act effort to curb emissions in the early 1970s and dealing with the 1980 transit strike. “Koch, Dinkins, Bloomberg, they’ve all tried it,” Mr. Schwartz explained.

In a March 4th New York Times column, Bill Keller sketched Mr. Schwartz’s new plan, the public unveiling of a project two years in the works, called “A More Equitable Transportation Formula for the New York Metro Area.” The Fair Plan, for short.

“I’m not surprised, when people call it congestion pricing, that it’s dead on arrival,” Mr. Schwartz said. “This is really about revising and strengthening our tolling system. Right now, the tolls are all in the wrong places.”

To garner support, Sam Schwartz first went to those most affected and disaffected by past tolling plans. “As I made the rounds, people that would normally be opposed, each of them gave me something,” he recounted. “One said, ‘The day I’ll support this is when you put a toll on the bikes.’ Another said they wanted to see support for the local buses. Another said, ‘What about the drivers in Manhattan? The idea is to have a plan that works for everyone.”

Mr. Schwartz’s plan calls for $5 tolls on the East River bridges (more for those paying without EZ Pass) as well as for vehicles traveling south of 60th Street into the central business district. This is nothing new, but what is is a simultaneous reduction in the price of almost every outer-borough bridge―the Henry Hudson and all the Jersey crossings are left at current rates.

“Everybody has to pay to get into Staten Island, not Manhattan,” Mr. Schwartz pointed out. “There are so many things wrong with that, and with the rest of the system.” One of his favorite examples is that, to avoid a toll of up to $70 on the Verazano, truckers will get off the BQE, drive on local streets, onto the Manhattan Bridge, and across Canal Street to the Holland Tunnel, which scores do every day.

It would also solve a relative injustice within the system now. The Queens-Bronx bridges alone generate $600 million a year in revenue for the MTA. “But try traveling between the Bronx and Queens by mass transit,” Mr. Schwartz said. “It stinks.” His plan would do two things to appease outer-borough constituents, reducing their bus fares by a dollar while also spending about a third of the $1.2 billion a year raised by the new tolls on road improvements, making life better for drivers.

One of his preferred projects is widening the Belt Parkway and letting trucks on it. “Robert Moses came up with this idea of pleasure driving,” Mr. Schwartz said. “The Belt Parkway was built for pleasure driving, with trucks forbidden, and here it is the most direct route for them to take to JFK. Meanwhile the 18 wheelers are plowing through the surface roads of Brooklyn, and every year, a few kids die because of it.”

To further even things out between boroughs inner, outer and outer-outer, cabs and limos see an added fee, and no more tax credits for permit parking, a big boon for Manhattanites. And those bike tolls, of course, pegged at 50 cents a crossing. Money not spent on roads could go toward expanding transit in the outer lying areas as well as the core.

Easily the most novel component is a series of pedestrian bridges connecting Red Hook to Governors Island and Lower Manhattan, Greenpoint to Long Island City to Midtown, and Hoboken to Chelsea. “Look at the Millenium Bridge in London,” Mr. Schwartz said, referring to a new, popular pedestrian bridge across the Thames. “It’s hugely popular, and these would be, too. And they would only cost a few million dollars each.” In light of the billions being spent on the Second Avenue subway or East Side Access, the project becomes rather attractive.

“Sam’s plan is a transportation plan, pure and simple,” Charles Komanoff, a transportation economist, said. “It is not masquerading as an environmental plan, like congestion pricing was, and for that reason it just might work.”