Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 4

DOT’s Dani Simons and City Hall’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, Rohit Aggarwala, at a joint hearing of Manhattan Community Boards 4, 5 and 6 on July 9; one of many public hearings where Bloomberg Administration officials have met with communities to discuss congestion pricing. Tonight, Brooklyn Community Board 6 hosts a similar public forum.

Here is the fourth and final installment of Streetsblog’s congestion pricing Q&A with Rohit Aggarwala, New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Click these links to find Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Add your questions to the comments section and we’ll see if we can get Aggarwala or someone else in city government to try and answer them for you.

Aaron Naparstek: Should the mayor’s congestion pricing plan be submitted to an Environmental Impact Statement process?

Rohit Aggarwala: I don’t think so. And the reason is simply that an EIS would be no more valuable for the decision of whether or not to go forward with congestion pricing, and what to do to mitigate its impacts, than the analysis that we’ve already done, and the analysis that the commission will be doing. The problem with traffic congestion is that it is so difficult to model.

That’s why we’ve proposed a three year pilot. The pilot itself effectively will be the Environmental Impact Statement. Keep in mind congestion pricing is very different from building something you can’t tear down. We can turn this system off whenever we want. If it turns out that the environmental impacts are negative, then by all means we’ll want to turn it off. We’re pretty convinced that the impacts will be wildly positive, and any specific impacts that might take place that are negative are things that we would be able to adjust.

AN: What exemptions do you foresee or would you like to have or not have?

RA: The mayor’s plan has a few exemptions. First of all, yellow cabs and radio cars. Second, handicapped license plates. Third, mass transit and emergency vehicles. The reason for the third is kind of obvious, As for the handicapped, although we have Access-a-Ride, if you have a disability but you can still drive, there are large parts of the transit system that don’t really work that well for you.

The reason for yellow cabs and radio cars is that we believe those pretty much function as an extension of the transit system. If you take a subway into Manhattan and you’re going to the far west side, you may want to take a taxi or you may want to have the option to take a taxi home at the end of the night if you work late or something like that. Similarly, because it can be difficult to find a yellow cab, particularly parts of the outer boroughs, we want to keep the ability for people to use radio cars. I don’t think we want to force people out of taxi cabs. A taxi is actually very efficient use of the street. It never circles for parking and, particularly at rush hour, you have very high utilization of taxis, as we all know since it’s hard to find one that’s unoccupied.

Black cars and limousines would be charged in the mayor’s plan. Frankly, those are corporate trips that, number one, can bear the cost, and number two, we want those people to think, "Well, couldn’t I just take the subway it would be faster and cheaper?"

AN: Would you be open to adding more exemptions if that comes up during the commission discussion?

RA: I think the real challenge with exemptions is that they are a slippery slope. You don’t want government to be in the business of making the decision over who is driving for a good reason who is driving for an unacceptable reason. If you get into that business you wind up with all sorts of problems about how you judge. If it’s not based on, say, a handicapped license plate or some pre-existing handicapped permit, does that mean we have to establish a whole new bureaucracy for assessing who’s really in need of driving or not?

I know there was a proposal to exempt Rockland County residents because the transit options from Rockland County aren’t as good as other parts of the region. But if you do that, well, there are also parts of Brooklyn where the transit options aren’t as good. You wind up almost having to go down to the individual level to measure how long it takes someone to walk to the subway and take the subway into Manhattan. I don’t know how you do that.

AN: How will it work inside the pricing zone when people need to move their cars on street cleaning day?

RA: We will want to talk to technology vendors about the specific metrics or the specific decision rules and the billing system for how you’d do that. But there are any number of ways you could do it. Since we know by neighborhood, in fact, we know block by block when people are likely to have to move their cars to deal with alternate side parking, you could build that into the billing system.

Likewise, you could do something where you have to drive a certain number of blocks before you get charged. There are any number of ways you could do that using camera placement or billing logic. We don’t have a good proposal yet, but we have enough different ideas that we’re pretty confident we can make it work.

AN: If you keep a car inside the pricing zone and want to move the car either within or outside of the zone, how does the charging work?

RA: They pay. The rules are that if you are only moving within the zone during the 6:00 am to 6:00 pm period, you’re only going to pay $4 not $8. And that’s true wherever you live. If, for example, you drive in from Brooklyn or New Jersey at 5:30 in the morning and you’re driving around in the zone at 7:00 and you keep your car parked until 6:00 pm when pricing turns off, you’re only going to pay $4. You’re not going to pay $8 because you were only driving within the zone during the charging period.

So, a resident who lives in Hells Kitchen, say, and owns a car and decides for whatever reason that he’s going to drive down to City Hall during the day is only going to pay $4. But if that person drives out of the zone between 6:00 am and 6:00 pm, our proposal is they pay $8. The reason for that is that if they choose to drive out at 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon when everybody else is also driving out, they’re making a significant contribution to congestion.

AN: I promised this interview would be about the policy not the politics but what do you think is the key to moving congestion pricing forward?

RA: Educating people about what congestion pricing really is, and what it isn’t. There are a lot of myths out there, some of which have been perpetuated by the opposition. We need to make sure people are aware of what the proceeds could be used for and what the benefits would be. We need to ask New Yorkers to start thinking about what alternatives we have for reducing congestion and improving transit. The answer is we don’t really have any good alternatives. The 17 member Congestion Mitigation Commission and the timetable that we’ve agreed to with the legislatures and the governor allows us a little more time to make our case and explain this to people.

AN: Speaking of timetables, I see we’re out of time. Thanks for doing this. Are you sick of answering these same questions over and over again?

RA: I’m kind of used to it at this point.