By Stephen Stirling
If congestion pricing, which would charge cars $8 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, is not approved by both the city and state legislatures by March 31, the city will become ineligible for more than $350 million in federal funding earmarked for city transit improvements.The plan, introduced by Bloomberg nearly a year ago, has been widely unpopular among Queens politicians, many of whom argue that the $8 charge is an unfair tax on middle-class residents in the borough who are currently underserved by mass transit.But the plan picked up a key supporter last week in newly sworn-in Gov. David Patterson, who introduced legislation approved Friday by the New York City Traffic Mitigation Commission, which calls for the implementation of a congestion pricing pilot plan.”Congestion pricing addresses two urgent concerns of the residents of New York City and its suburbs: the need to reduce congestion on our streets and roads, and thereby reduce pollution and global warming, and the need to raise significant revenue for mass transit improvements,” Paterson said.Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Saratoga Springs) introduced the legislation in the state Senate Monday, an action that drew praise from Bloomberg.”Together with the governor, we will continue to work to address the concerns of our partners in the state Legislature and the City Council – including concerns about the impact on lower-income drivers and making sure we receive revenue from commuters who use Port Authority crossings,” Bloomberg said. “This is another step in the right direction.”City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan spoke in support of congestion pricing at the final City Council public hearing on the topic at City Hall Monday. Sadik-Khan emphasized the need for the city and state to pass the bill so the city could receive $354 million from the U.S. Transportation Department, which she said would go toward short-term transit improvements across the city designed to accommodate the additional onslaught of commuters on the city's mass transit system once congestion pricing was implemented.The planned short-term improvements include the creation of seven new bus routes in Queens and additional buses on 13 existing bus routes headed toward Manhattan.”The choice is clear: We can accept increasing congestion and the damage it will inflict on our economy and quality of life, and begin to fall back in the worldwide competition for global leadership,” Sadik-Khan said. “Or we can act to reshape our transportation network and ensure that New York maintains its position as the world's premier city.”City Councilwoman Melinda Katz (D-Forest Hills), however, blasted the plan, questioning Sadik-Khan on where the $120 million needed to implement the infrastructure for congestion pricing would come from if all of the federal funding went to transit improvements.”The city would pay for it up front and be repaid through the income generated from congestion pricing,” Sadik-Khan said.”So essentially we're getting $354 million just to get permission to tax ourselves,” Katz shot back. Queens City Councilmen David Weprin (D-Hollis), Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) and Leroy Comrie (D-Jamaica) also detailed their reservations on the plan at the hearing, held by the City Council's State and Federal Legislation Committee.City Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing), one of just two Queens Council members – the other being Councilman Hiram Monserrate (D-East Elmhurst) – to publicly support the plan, said congestion pricing will benefit the city, but only if the city's transit system is improved swiftly and money generated from the plan is quickly used toward further improvements.”This is crunch time,” he said. “I would suggest that you stick to your time lines.”Reach reporter Stephen Stirling by e-mail at Sstirling@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.