Wild end to congestion pricing press event as Queens lawmakers clash with union members

Assemblyman David Weprin and Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte were barely heard above the shout of transit activists who crashed their Sunday press conference.

Sparks flew as advocates of congestion pricing, most notably members of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), chanted to drown out the words of two Queens lawmakers at an anti-congestion pricing event in midtown Manhattan on Sunday.

What started as a press conference at Tramway Plaza for eastern Queens civic leaders to voice opposition to the proposed toll on cars entering lower Manhattan nearly ended in fisticuffs among the participants — and with the legislators being followed back to their cars by the advancing counter-protesters.

“You’re a failure, Weprin,” congestion pricing supporters shouted at Assemblyman David Weprin as he spoke. Others called chanted “transit traitor” and “vote them out!”

“What we should be shouting is ‘Fix MTA,'” Weprin said between chants. “This proposal – this proposal that the governor proposed and put before us has no specifics, there’s no amounts, there’s no restriction on how much the tax will go up, where the zone will be.”

Other eastern Queens lawmakers also supported Weprin’s argument, saying that they do not plan to vote on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing proposal for the lack of specifics in it, such as pricing.

Under the plan, any cars entering Manhattan below 60th Street would pay a toll, including those vehicles entering upon traditionally free East River bridges such as the Queensboro Bridge. A proposal from January 2018 called for an $11 toll and cars and up to $25 for trucks entering Manhattan’s central business district.

Transport Workers Union members shouting over politicians. (Mark Hallum/QNS)

Congestion pricing, which was rejected by the legislature under the Bloomberg administration, is projected to product up to $15 billion for the MTA’s next five-year capital plan. Supporters say this would help provide a necessary funding stream to improve public transit, while also reducing the number of cars traveling into Manhattan.

Grodenchik, who said he is only defending the majority of his constituents who lack all rail options, claims he has the TWU’s support when he ran for office and was shocked to be confronted in such a way by the union.

“This is the very first communication I’ve had from the TWU in 3 1/2 years on congestion pricing. They have not mentioned a word to me since then. They have all my phone numbers. I like them. I have been an advocate of mass transit and they have no better friend in the New York City Council,” Grodenchik said. “This is news to me. I don’t know what to say. I’m speechless.”

A congestion pricing opponent debates with a counter-protestor. (Mark Hallum/QNS)

Beefs between the union members and the Queens representatives, including Steve Behar, Grodenchik’s counsel, heated up as one man angrily told two people to get their signs out of his face. Profanities were exchanged between the protesters and counter-protesters.

According to one person close to the situation, things turned especially heated after one of the counter-protesters loudly rang a cowbell in Behar’s ear and allegedly went to push a Grodenchik staffer who tried to protect the lawmaker as he was interviewed by a reporter.

TWU Local 100 Vice President Lynwood Whichard argued that congestion pricing would, in fact, help to fix the MTA. He said it would force some drivers off the road, increasing MTA ridership, which has been in steep decline in recent years.

“We feel like it’s probably the only way we can look at getting the subway action plan to move forward in a progressive way. We think that a lot of these guys have failed in their position and we support our president in this endeavor,” Whichard said, his voice cracking after at least a half-hour of shouting. “There are many entities within the MTA umbrella … And funding it will only helps us when it comes to our environmental needs and operational needs.”

Transportation Alternatives and Riders Alliance both showed up in force to oppose the messages of the Queens politicians. (Mark Hallum/QNS)

Kevin Forrestall from the Queens Civic Congress, however, believes that passing congestion pricing would be its own worst enemy, as more people would likely forego driving into Manhattan altogether and deprive the borough of business.

Weprin and Grodenchik have led the opposition to congestion pricing since it was proposed over a year ago, claiming in the past that it would also virtually cut Queens off from Manhattan. Weprin said the toll would put a premium charge on outer borough residents going to doctors’ appointments, visiting family members in Manhattan hospitals or just going to see a Broadway show.

The two Queens lawmakers, along with Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte of Brooklyn, were followed back to their cars by transit advocates, namely Wichard, where it was believed they had parked illegally.

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