The “final” federal deadline of April 7 is approaching for the federal subsidy of $354 million to set up a congestion-pricing system for Manhattan’s Central Business District.
In these tough budget times the plan would produce an estimated $4.5 billion over the next five years for improved mass transit. It is the only source of funds available to reduce the M.T.A.’s dependence on fares and debt to improve transit. Even if the amount of funding ends up lower, it is still critical, found money.
It’s also money coming from the right place. People and goods coming into Manhattan during the work day should pay more for the right to come here. That money is an appropriate source of subsidy for mass transit. Mass transit is the most energy-efficient and socially responsible way to move around this region. People who choose to drive should and already do pay tolls to make mass transit better and cheaper. Those that come to Manhattan’s Central Business District should pay this fee in addition to tolls.
This is a critical moment for the city and its potential for long-term growth. New York City needs better subways and buses—faster, more frequent and more comfortable trains and buses. Congestion and the price of gas and parking makes mass transit the only option for most New Yorkers. But we all know that mass transit in New York City is a crummy ride. Delays, crowding, and grime can make you question your sanity during rush hour in the City. This is the only chance for the funds needed to improve mass transit.
If the fee is high enough, and I think it will be raised over time, it will improve the time it takes to move around on the surface, and generate even more money for mass transit. The Mayor’s bill can use improvement and I assume it will be improved by:
- Raising the fee for those coming over Port Authority crossings from New Jersey- otherwise they pay nothing.
- Allowing low income drivers to get a rebate on their taxes.
- Ensuring that the lock box on these funds is truly politico-proof: this money should only spent on incremental mass transit capital improvements. Not to replace other funds promised—but to provide new funding.
- Providing residents of New York State with five free passes a year to the congestion zone.
- Allowing medical patients in the congestion zone with exemptions during their treatment.
In the end, we are in the shaky hands of our elected leaders. Michael Bloomberg, Christine Quinn, David Paterson and Joe Bruno have provided leadership on this critical issue. Even out-of-town guests like Barack Obama have expressed support for congestion charges.
Anthony Weiner has disappointed us with his lack of foresight and blatant political posturing. Shelly Silver, knowing his members are nervous about voting for this charge is characteristically holding out for the best possible deal. Will New York seize this opportunity or lose this once in a generation chance to make things better?
Modern economies are built on mobility. While it’s true we use e-mail and cell phones to communicate more than ever, human beings like hanging out together. It’s why people will fly all day for a two-hour business meeting. We simply get more done and communicate better when we are in the same room, sharing a meal and catching all the nonverbal expressions you can’t see unless a person is sitting right next to you.
New York City is the most international place in the world. In the 2000 census, about 40% of the people who lived here said they were born in other countries. That does not include the people who are here illegally and tourists from all over the world. New York is the world’s capital and town square. We remain the world’s capital because people like to come here. We won’t stay that way if it takes two hours for those ubiquitous double-decker busses to get from Times Square to So Ho. People won’t come if we don’t improve the quality of mass transit and reduce travel time on the surface.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg has provided real leadership on this issue, and as he has correctly observed—this is a survival issue for New York City. It’s time for the City Council and the State Legislature to do the right thing and enact this innovative program. It maybe out of character, but maybe courage is contagious….