From a Sea of Green, Bloomberg Works a Tough Room

Flanked by dozens, if not hundreds, of citizen spectators in bright green "I Breathe and I Vote" t-shirts, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city staffers this morning made the case for a three-year congestion pricing pilot program to a largely hostile cadre of state Assembly members.

070608_040.jpgSeated alongside ten colleagues in the auditorium of the New York City Bar building in Midtown, Herman "Denny" Farrell, Jr. (D-New York), set the tone right away. In opening remarks, Farrell complained that legislators had been chastized in the media for not acting on PlaNYC before "a single public hearing" could be held, and pledged that the hearings would uncover the facts — and "just the facts" — about congestion pricing.

"Clearly, something must be done" about congestion, Farrell said. "However, we must be sure that the cure is not worse than the disease."

Farrell disagreed with Bloomberg over whether a possible $500 million federal grant for city transportation projects hinged on the approval of congestion pricing by state lawmakers, insisting that other initiatives could attract the funds. Bloomberg told Assembly members that almost half of the $500 million would cover pricing start-up costs, while the remaining funds would be invested in immediate transit improvements in the run-up to implementation. The mayor, having met with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters yesterday, said the feds will steer the half-billion dollars to another city if congestion pricing doesn’t clear the legislature.

Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said pricing is expected to net $380 million in revenues in its first year, all of which would be spent on further transit upgrades. Farrell was unimpressed, wondering what effect a congestion charge would have on "working folks," and predicting that cars kept off Midtown streets by pricing would be replaced by trucks. When Doctoroff reminded Farrell that large commercial trucks would be subject to a $21 fee, Farrell was dismissive: "It’s a write-off, though."

At times Farrell seemed to be arguing for the sake of arguing. In discussing the E-ZPass technology that would be used for billing and collections, the Assembly member declared "I don’t give E-ZPass my money." When Bloomberg and company explained that congestion charges could be paid online, by phone and at retail locations throughout the city, Farrell responded with "I don’t have a computer."

A bit more thoughtful but no less confrontational, Assembly Member Richard Brodsky (D-Westchester) dominated the questioners’ time, first thanking Mayor Bloomberg for bringing big ideas to the table, then congratulating him on "stampeding the political class." As if it wasn’t clear where he stood from the outset, Brodsky then referred to congestion pricing as "a 600 million dollar tax increase."

Brodsky said he conceded the "wider benefit" of pricing, but asked why the same effect couldn’t be achieved by new taxes on wealthy New Yorkers. When Bloomberg replied that the point of congestion pricing is to discourage driving by making it more expensive, Brodsky likened it to "gentrifying the roads."

Brodsky and others spent a good bit of the morning dwelling on the erosion of civil liberties they fear would be inherent in the photographing of license plates for billing purposes, with Brodsky himself going so far as to condemn traffic cameras as "Un-American."

"I don’t even like your red light cameras," he said.

Instead of pricing, Brodsky has presented the city with a proposal involving congestion rationing — which limits certain cars on certain days based on plate numbers or other identifiers (and is presumably enforced without the use of cameras). But such a plan, Doctoroff pointed out, would do nothing to raise much needed transit funds.

"I’m prepared to vote for a tax increase for mass transit," Brodsky vowed — indicating, in so many words, that Bloomberg has shamed the Assembly into action of some sort.

Not all legislators were as churlish. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst) told the mayor he is "glad [Bloomberg] did not adopt a more timid approach" to the city’s environmental ills. And James Brennan, (D-Brooklyn) assured Bloomberg is he "generally sympathetic" to the pricing plan. (Even so, Brennan eventually asked how it could be "fair" to force "mom" to pay for ferrying the kids across town for a play date.)

Other queries followed regarding the discredited edge effect, "serious" penalties for late payment, and the "extremely problematical" ramifications for those who aren’t among the Manhattan "elite." On many of these points, Bloomberg and staffers — Doctoroff, PlaNYC Director Rohit Aggarwala, and new DOT Deputy Commissioner Bruce Schaller — indicated a willingness to provide further clarification and an openness to negotiation. The key, Bloomberg said in his concluding remarks, is to act now.

And if we don’t, "Shame on us."