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

Mayor in race to ram traffic plan through Assembly jam

By Josh Rogers

Despite many Assembly Democrats opposing the mayor’s traffic pricing plan, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said Tuesday he was optimistic about the prospects of it passing Albany on July 16.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and his aides did not comment on the mayor’s plan Monday or Tuesday, giving Bloomberg a glimmer of hope that he could persuade the Assembly to pass his plan to charge drivers $8 to drive into much of Manhattan on weekdays during the daytime. But Silver’s office circulated the outline of a competing plan in the last few days. And some of the speaker’s staunchest supporters in the Assembly attacked the mayor’s congestion pricing plan this week, saying there was no chance it will pass by Monday, the date the mayor and the U.S. Department of Transportation insist is the hard deadline to receive up to $500 million in federal start-up money.

Dan Weiller, a Silver spokesperson, said “no date has been set.” He did not rule out the possibility of a special Assembly session on Mon., July 16, but Assemblymember Deborah Glick said in a telephone interview this week that there is no chance anything close to the mayor’s plan will be passed next week.

“I think people are dreaming if they think we are going to be back here [in Albany] on Monday voting on this,” she said. Glick represents Downtown Manhattan neighborhoods that are presumably more receptive to the mayor’s plan — the West Village, Soho, Tribeca and Battery Park City. But she said the plan is being rushed through and there are better ways to reduce traffic, such as encouraging businesses to make nighttime deliveries, building off-street loading docks in new office buildings and enforcing limits on black-car limos.

Glick accused the mayor of characterizing his opponents as being “pro-asthma,” which she said was an example of “Roveian manipulation” — a reference to President Bush’s chief political advisor.

Glick said reaction to Bloomberg’s plan in her district has been split evenly, but that supporters’ feedback tends to be formulaic, whereas opponents have individual, specific criticisms and suggestions.

One of Glick’s constituents who favors the plan, former Mayor Ed Koch, said it’s too early to count the mayor out.

“It doesn’t look good now, but Bloomberg is capable of pulling a rabbit out of a hat,” he told The Villager.

Seven years ago, Koch blasted Silver for backing the elimination of the commuter tax, but on Tuesday, Koch was effusive in his praise. Koch said the speaker’s silence is an indication that Silver is considering backing the mayor’s plan and is just maximizing his advantage.

“Shelly’s one of the smartest people in politics,” Koch said.

Two views of the plan are emerging, though, that are worlds apart.

In the Assembly opponents’ world, it amounts to a regressive tax on middle-class drivers in Brooklyn and Queens who will have a steeper increase in fees compared to their wealthier suburban counterparts; the additional cameras are a threat to privacy; the money raised is not guaranteed to go for transportation projects or reduce the pressure on subway fare hikes; the plan would overwhelm an already overcrowded subway system; it would be implemented without an environmental impact statement; and is not really an experimental program, because it will be up to the city’s next mayor to continue it in three years.

In Bloomberg’s world, adding more surveillance cameras in public places does not represent a public policy change; the plan benefits subway and bus riders, who generally make substantially less money than drivers; includes short-term transit improvements that will be in place before the fees would start at the end of next year; is the only way to pay for $30 billion in needed mass transit projects; would reduce asthma and pollution; and would save businesses time and money.

Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer and Republican State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno have endorsed Bloomberg’s general plan, if not all of the specifics, including setting up a new public authority to oversee the transportation money.

After meeting with federal transportation officials Tuesday, Bloomberg told reporters in Washington, D.C., that he had not given up hope for passage on Monday.

“I’m always optimistic,” the mayor said. “I think we have to make the case to the speaker and to everybody else.”

The mayor blasted the competing proposal by Assemblymember Rory Lancman of Fresh Meadows, Queens, pointing out that it gives New York businesses incentives to have their out-of-state employees stay out of the city.

The mayor called Lancman’s plan “a worthless piece of paper.” Silver’s spokesperson, Weiller, said he circulated the Lancman bill proposal on Silver’s behalf because he thought it was useful to the debate, but he said Silver has not taken a position on that bill either.

In addition to providing benefits to businesses with telecommuters, Lancman’s plan would also offer incentives for carpooling and for making nighttime deliveries; would set aside $500 million for new express bus service; and set up a commission to study various other traffic-reduction ideas, including the mayor’s plan. In a telephone interview, Lancman said monitoring the incentive plan would have no additional costs since the Port Authority and Metropolitan Transportation Authority could set up car-pool-only E-ZPass booths, and businesses making nighttime deliveries would have their E-ZPass records to show as proof.

Bloomberg said Lancman’s bill “assumes we have $500 million sitting around Albany doing nothing. … We are talking about the future of this city. We are talking about the air our children will breathe,” the mayor said.

Another opponent, Assemblymember Richard Brodsky, released a report Monday criticizing the mayor’s plan on many grounds, including the fact that drivers would have their bridge and tunnel tolls deducted from the $8. He said the plan would be worse on city drivers than his wealthier constituents in Westchester.

“My people will average $2 to $3 [in additional costs],” he said. “People in Brooklyn and Queens will average 8 — that’s not fair,” he said.

Brodsky said his opposition to congestion pricing dates back to 1995, when he first proposed a law prohibiting it. He said he had philosophical problems with the idea because the next step would be for government to start charging for schools, parks and libraries when they are too crowded.

When asked if a subway fare hike on poorer people amounted to a regressive tax, Brodsky said regardless of how the money is used, the fees are regressive if every driver pays the same amount regardless of income. Brodsky and other critics also claim the mayor’s plan will not reduce the pressure to raise subway fares, but an M.T.A. spokesperson told the Daily News that the plan would begin to help keep fares low starting in 2009 or 2010.

Paul Steely White, executive director of Transportation Alternatives, agreed, saying, historically, fare hikes are made to cover needed capital expenses and it will be easier for the M.T.A. to keep the subway fares affordable if there is a dedicated fund.

John Gallagher, a Bloomberg spokesperson, said in a prepared statement that the mayor’s plan is “not regressive, because those who drive to work make 33 percent more than those who take the subway to work from the four boroughs outside of Manhattan. … None of the other potential plans provides a revenue stream to fund $30 billion in mass transit improvements over the next two decades.”

Gallagher did not respond to Glick’s criticisms or to the one about whether or not it is a true experiment.

Glick said even if an expiration date was added to the plan, as a practical matter, it would still represent a permanent change because it is unlikely to ever end after the large initial investment.

“There is no way this would be implemented as a pilot and be discontinued,” she said.

But not all of her colleagues are against it or think a law being passed Monday is impossible. Assemblymember Richard Gottfried of Chelsea said he favors the overall plan with changes, including discounts for lower-income drivers.

“Today’s technology enables us to charge on a sliding scale, so that people of lower incomes are not charged disproportionately,” Gottfried said Monday at a joint forum of Community Boards 4, 5 and 6, covering several neighborhoods, including Chelsea, Union Square and Murray Hill. “But these are details that can easily be resolved.”

Judging by the applause throughout the evening, the crowd of about 100 people at the forum was roughly split on congestion pricing. Gottfried said it was essential to pass a bill soon to qualify for the federal money, which the mayor estimates would be between $400 million and $500 million.

Brian Turmail, a spokesperson of the U.S. Department of Transportation, said New York is competing with other cities for the money and has no chance if a bill is not passed Monday. When told of Albany’s history of late-night negotiations, he said legislators had until midnight.

“We work pretty late,” Turmail said. “If someone wants to send us something at the very end of the day July 16 — that’s fine.”

With reporting by Lincoln Anderson and Chris Lombardi

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