West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 6 | July 11 - 17, 2007


Can Silver get us to promised land on congestion?

By Charles Komanoff

I’m not a Zionist, but if I were, I’d be giving thanks that Sheldon Silver wasn’t running the United Nations in 1947 when it voted to ratify the creation of Israel. Judging from his dithering over Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, Silver — who represents much of Lower Manhattan in the New York State Assembly and is in his 14th year as speaker — probably would have tabled the vote on Israeli nationhood until 1957, if not 2047.

O.K., maybe it’s sacrilegious to liken establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine to enactment of congestion pricing in New York City. But health- and economy-minded New Yorkers have been campaigning for traffic relief for about as long as the Zionists agitated for a Jewish homeland. And just as Zionism was founded on a passionately held belief, so too have campaigners for traffic sanity coalesced around this single conclusion: congestion pricing is indispensable for remaking our streets as functional arteries, not highways of hell.

None of this seems to move Shelly Silver, however. Oracular to a fault, the speaker has kept his objections to the mayor’s proposal to himself, even as he has subjected it to his customary drip-torture treatment. He has let others brand the proposed $8 charging-zone entry fee as elitist, an invasion of privacy or a recipe for gridlock at the zone’s 86th St. border. And Silver has ignored the rebuttals of advocates who point out that most car commuters into Manhattan are more affluent than transit riders, and that few drivers from Westchester or the Bronx will opt to pay the “time cost” of cruising for scarce free parking in northern Manhattan.

As for privacy, most New Yorkers would agree that anonymously driving 2-ton and larger vehicles into the center of North America’s most populous metropolis is a privilege no longer worth defending.

The more salient objections to congestion pricing are those urging different traffic-busting measures, such as carving out exclusive “bus rapid transit” lanes, running more subway trains and, once and for all, ending “placard parking” abuse by city and state workers.

These are all worthy steps. Indeed, I’ve advocated for them for years, beginning with my stint as president of Transportation Alternatives in the 1980s and 1990s. What needs to be understood, however — and this is the heart of the matter — is that taking these steps without also instituting the congestion charge wouldn’t reduce traffic jams one whit. For, in a matter of weeks, the newly free road space would once again be filled, this time by cars whose owners now leave them home only because the streets and highways are too gridlocked.

It’s a hard truth, but here it is: Only a system that treats road space as the finite and coveted commodity it is and charges a stiff price for it can curb traffic congestion efficiently and permanently. Mayor John Lindsay, in whose administration I worked, understood this, as did Ed Koch — but technology to seamlessly record vehicle entries into the charging zone didn’t exist in their day. Nor did the example of London, where congestion charging, now in its fifth year, has improved traffic flow by 30 percent and sparked a 50 percent increase in bus ridership and a near doubling of bicycle commuting.

Mayor Bloomberg grasps this, not surprisingly, given his business background, and he is staking much of his political capital, and perhaps his political future, on making congestion pricing the lever to emancipate us from gridlock. Does Shelly Silver get it, and does he care that the clock is ticking on a promise of $500 million in federal funds to finance a three-year trial of congestion pricing? No one knows, but what matters is that we, his constituents, make our support for a tryout loud and clear.

Sheldon Silver and the rest of the permanent government have had decades to fashion a remedy for New York’s traffic plague. In that time, they have produced nothing. Now that a solution is ready to take flight, it’s time for the speaker to get out of the way. The deadline is July 16 for the governor and the Legislature to agree. Our health, our safety and our sanity are at stake. Tell Silver.

Komanoff, a Tribeca resident, is an economist who has conducted studies on tolling in New York City.

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