Crain’s: Congestion Pricing Approval is a “Near Certainty”

Contrary to some of the more pessimistic analyses that appeared after last week’s congestion pricing deal (like ours, theirs and this one too), Crain’s Erik Engquist writes that "details of the deal make approval of Manhattan driving fees a near certainty next year."
The article is for subscribers only on the Crain’s web site:

7.23.07 Crain’s NY Business page 3

Agreement gives supporters clout
to undercut foes and
win over public. Foes’ main
gripe has been
lack of time to
digest the plan


The agreement reached in Albany last week appears to set up a legislative gantlet through which Mayor Michael Bloomberg must run his congestion pricing plan. But details of the deal make approval of Manhattan driving fees a near certainty next year.

The reasons are both technical and political. The commission to consider the proposal and alternatives must approve a plan by Jan. 31, 2008, that reduces traffic by 6.3%, as the mayor’s plan would. Analysts say only fees can accomplish that.

"We’ve looked around the world," says Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City. "Congestion pricing was the only thing that made a significant impact on traffic."

The political deck is likewise stacked in favor of congestion fees. The 17-member commission will recommend a plan by majority vote. Fourteen members will be appointed by pricing supporters: three each by Mr. Bloomberg, Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and one each by Senate Minority Leader Malcolm Smith and Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco.

The three named by Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who remains dubious about fees, will be vastly outnumbered. Mr. Silver himself will have reasons to join the bandwagon, even though many Assembly Democrats have criticized the proposal to charge cars $8 and trucks $21 for entering Manhattan south of 86th Street. The fees will help fund the Second Avenue subway, which will serve the speaker’s district.

The mayor unveiled his proposal three months ago, and foes’ biggest gripe has been the lack of time to digest or amend it. The agreement’s timetable, which requires a vote in the Legislature by next March, nullifies that objection.

Moreover, Assembly Democrats rely on those who endorse congestion pricing-unions, environmentalists, and transportation and goodgovernment groups-for campaign funding and volunteers. It will be difficult for members to break with their traditional supporters.

The agreement also gives backers time to build public enthusiasm and undercut Democratic Assemblyman Richard Brodsky’s argument that charging people to drive on public streets is regressive and fundamentally unfair.

But those trying to block the plan claim that time is on their side.

"There are enough concerns that the Legislature has raised on this to question whether the mayor’s plan will go forward," says Richard Lipsky, lobbyist for the Coalition to Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free. "We’re hopeful that when the plan is reviewed, the reservations will increase."

Feds must give $200 million Their first hope lies with the U.S. Department of Transportation: If it doesn’t give the city at least $200 million to help implement the plan, the agreement will collapse.

If the money comes through, it is unclear where Mr. Lipsky would find the allies he needs. The mayor can count on Republican support from the Bush administration and Mr. Bruno, and on Democratic backing from Mr. Spitzer, organized labor and progressive activists.

A broad, well-funded coalition of advocates will also keep pushing for fees to ease the congestion that the Partnership for New York City says drains $13 billion from the economy each year-a figure projected to increase with the population.

On Mr. Silver’s insistence, the City Council must sign off on the plan for it to move to the Legislature. Only a few councilmembers have been highly critical, and Ms. Quinn has the clout to pull fence-sitters onto congestion pricing’s side.

The deal’s mass transit improvements- always popular with the electorate-will provide political cover to those who fear being the first elected officials in America to vote for fees to drive on city streets.

"Our arguments are the most forceful and will lead to congestion pricing," asserts Richard Schrader, state legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It is the key piece."