Congestion pricing debate rages

With only one week left in the scheduled state legislature session, Mayor Michael Bloomberg continues to push his congestion-pricing plan that has dominated the headlines and sparked vigorous debate across the state, city and borough of Queens.
While Governor Eliot Spitzer and State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, who introduced the bill into the legislature on June 7, have endorsed the plan, it cannot become a reality without approval from the Assembly.
That support does not look like it is going to happen as Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver announced on Tuesday, June 12 that there is almost zero chance the Assembly would give its approval before the end of session.
Silver expressed concerns about some aspects of the current plan, and a number of Queens Assemblymembers echoed those trepidations saying they could not support the plan as currently constituted.
“There are still gaping holes in the plan, and until those are filled, I am not comfortable going forward with it,” Queens Assemblymember Michael Gianaris said.
Rory Lancman, who represents parts of northeast Queens in the Assembly, went even further, criticizing the mayor for trying to get the bill passed so quickly.
“It’s somewhat irresponsible to drop this radical, comprehensive, complicated plan on the legislature’s desk two weeks before the end of session,” Lancman told The Courier Sun. “It’s very hard to see how it gets resolved in the next two weeks.”
However, Lancman did not rule out a special session in the summer.
“If it’s not done in the last two weeks, it’s conceivable more work could be done on the issue,” he said. “Legislators could be called back.”
Bloomberg’s plan, which would charge cars $8 and trucks $21 to enter Manhattan south of 86th Street during the week from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., in order to decrease traffic in the central business district as well as curtail environmental problems, also garnered federal support.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters recently endorsed the plan explaining that New York is one of nine cities eligible to receive up to $500 million in funding, which would go towards implementing the plan.
Peters said that the government would likely choose the cities who receive the grants by August, and Bloomberg said that it is important to have the plan approved by then in order to be eligible for the federal funds.
Meanwhile, Lancman said that Bloomberg is tying that deadline to congestion pricing, and that New York is still eligible to receive part of the $1.1 billion federal package if it demonstrates a commitment to improving technology with a focus on environmental issues.
Critics of Bloomberg’s plan say that it discriminates against the outer boroughs, specifically those without easy access to public transportation into Manhattan, as well as having a devastating effect on small businesses that operate vehicles making deliveries into the affected area.
Assemblymember Mark Weprin, who is the chair of the Small Business Committee, said his office recently conducted a poll that included the issue of congestion pricing, and his constituents rejected it by a 2 to 1 margin.
“I’m skeptical whether it will reduce traffic at all or maybe just create a higher class of congestion,” Weprin said. “Congestion pricing has a lot of skepticism, and as of now, my district does not want it. I have to oppose it because my district wants to oppose it.”
However, Congressmember Joseph Crowley, who is also the Chair of the Queens County Democratic organization, is one of the few Queens elected officials who publicly announced support for the plan, saying that $500 million was too much to leave on the table.
“From time to time there come issues of such importance that are bigger than anybody, and I think this is one of them,” Crowley said.
Crowley, who represents parts of Western Queens and the Bronx, also pointed to proposals to create two new Metro North Stations in the Bronx and reopen two Long Island Rail Road Stations in Queens as better alternatives than driving into Manhattan for his constituents.
“Between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. my constituency avoids driving into Manhattan like it’s the plague,” Crowley said. “I don’t think it’s his [Bloomberg’s] intention or my intention to hurt local businesses or put them at a competitive disadvantage,” Crowley said.
Bloomberg has also repeatedly said that revenue from implementing the congestion-pricing plan would go towards improving mass transit throughout the city including increased express bus routes, ferry service from southern Queens and more subway cars. Crowley also said he believed there were elements of the plan Bloomberg could not comment publicly on and acknowledged that there was room for some tweaking and changes.
Meanwhile, Bloomberg plans to testify before State Assemblymembers on June 15, where he will likely face similar questions about the plan that he faced the previous week from Assemblymembers in Manhattan.

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