OPINION PRO: At the end of this month, a state commission of transportation and environmental experts and government officials will issue a report on how to solve New York City’s traffic crisis. Never before has New York undertaken such a comprehensive effort to determine what can and should be done about the congestion choking our streets and our residents. But from the commission’s interim report, released two weeks ago (January 10), it is already clear that congestion pricing is the answer to the city’s traffic woes, and that other plans for traffic mitigation fall short.
Congestion pricing - which would charge drivers entering parts of Manhattan on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. - has been successfully chosen by major cities such as London, Milan and Stockholm to reduce traffic and encourage commuters to use more environmentally friendly mass transit. This month, 61 percent of Queens residents polled agreed, saying they would support the proposal if its revenue went to improving the transit system as planned.
If we are truly going to fix our traffic problem, there must be three essential elements of any solution. The plan must: 1) reduce traffic significantly; 2) earn the revenue we need to improve our buses and subways; and 3) balance the cost of reducing congestion fairly so that the plan helps - and does not hurt - working families. According to the commission’s exhaustive research, only congestion pricing would achieve all three goals.
Queens would be one of the biggest beneficiaries of congestion pricing, since there would be fewer cars on the road. Western Queens alone would see up to 39 percent less traffic congestion and the borough as a whole would see a 9 percent drop. Meanwhile, congestion pricing will generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year to improve mass transit - paid for by suburban commuters who currently get a free ride and pollute Queens’ air on the way into the city.
Other options researched by the commission include East River bridge tolls, a license plate rationing scheme and various taxes and charges that could be combined to limit traffic and earn enough revenue to sustain and improve mass transit. These proposals have variously been rejected by the public, the federal government, the business community and labor unions. Most importantly, not one of these plans reduces traffic significantly and earns revenue for mass transit while distributing the burden of the cost fairly. Only congestion pricing passes the test.
Some have asserted - such as members of an anti-congestion pricing lobbying group funded by the American Automobile Association and parking garage companies, and the politicians that are funded by them - that congestion pricing is unfair to Queens’ working families. That could not be further from the truth. Less than FIVE percent of Queens residents drive to work in Manhattan’s central business district. If congestion pricing is approved, the other 95 percent - who cannot afford the car payments, gas and insurance to drive into Manhattan every day - will benefit. Best of all, congestion pricing means more trains, buses and better service in areas that are poorly served now, like Bayside, College Point and Southeast Queens.
After the public hearings wrap up this week, the commission should endorse congestion if it follows the logic of its own research. Then, the city council and state legislature will have to weigh in, and decide how to solve our congestion crisis. They, too, should endorse congestion pricing if we are going to solve our traffic problem the right way - by saving working families time and money in a way that is fair to all.
Marcia Bystryn is the Executive Director for the New York League of Conservation Voters - a non-partisan, policy making and political action organization that works to make environmental protection a top priority with elected officials, decision-makers and the voters.