Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission Opens for Business

Westchester Assembly member Richard Brodsky on Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal: "My problem is that I don’t understand what you’ve proposed."

"This is going to be interesting," Straphangers Campaign Senior Staff Attorney Gene Russianoff said as he waited for the start of yesterday’s inaugural Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission meeting. "Usually with these things, the fix is in before you start but I really don’t know what’s going to happen."

Commission chairman Marc Shaw, a former Bloomberg Administration deputy mayor, opened up the meeting saying, "I’d like the Commission to operate as informally as possible." It was a not-so-subtle suggestion that the presence of the press and public weren’t necessarily going to help the 17-member group come to a deal any more quickly, and that the real discussion would be taking place offline. When someone in the crowd complained that Shaw’s microphone wasn’t working and no one could hear what he was saying, Shaw joked, "Good."

After a unanimous vote ratifying him as chairman, Shaw took a few minutes to describe the context in which they’d be working. "The most important thing is the economic backdrop," Shaw said. "We’ll be talking about slower economic growth in the next 12 to 18 months. As we look for ways to provide resources for the MTA in its capital plan, we’re not going to have any new state or city resources."

As for the city’s gridlock, Shaw said, "At end of the day there are only two ways to deal with traffic congestion in this town. One way is to have less economic activity take place in midtown and downtown, a choice that no one wants. The only other way to deal with congestion is to find ways to improve mass transit."

Noting that the Commission would need "a fairly aggressive work plan" in order to come up with an agreed upon plan within the four month time frame laid out in the deal made with the US Department of Transportation, Shaw offered a set of criteria by which various traffic reduction proposals might be measured consistently. The criteria were:

  • Reduction of vehicle miles traveled
  • Peripheral parking and traffic impacts to neighborhoods
  • Privacy issues
  • Air quality and environmental concerns.
  • Impact on various economic classes
  • Revenues for mass transit
  • Cost of implementation
  • Best practices
  • Overall economic impact of any proposal

Following Shaw’s introduction, Rohit Aggarwala, City Hall’s Long Term Planning and Sustainability Director presented Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a three year congestion pricing pilot program and some of the thinking and data behind it (see Aggarwala’s presentation here)

Aggarwala noted that about 30 percent of travelers into Manhattan’s Central Business District go by car or truck and that despite significant improvements in subway and bus service, that "modal share" hasn’t changed since 1975. That "leads us to believe that transit improvements and incentives alone would be insufficient" to reduce traffic congestion," Aggarwala said.

A slide from Rohit Aggarwala’s presentation to the Commission.

Aggarwala also noted that "only a small percentage of New York City residents," 4.6 percent, "drive in every day as their main way to get to work." Even among Staten Island residents, the percentage of commuters regularly driving in to the CBD doesn’t reach 10 percent. If you looked at what causes traffic, one of Aggarwala’s slides showed that 59.5 percent of the vehicles in Manhattan’s CBD are private autos. About 30 percent are taxis and for-hire cars.

At the end of Aggarwala’s presentation, Shaw opened up the floor for questions, most of which came from two of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver’s three appointees, Northern Manhattan Assembly member Denny Farrell and Westchester Assembly member Richard Brodsky.

"Is it a tax or is it to lower the amount of vehicles coming in?" Farrell asked.

"The reason why congestion pricing is such a compelling tool," Aggarwala said, "is because it’s the kind of solution that does all these things at once. It raises money, it gets people out of their cars, it cleans the air…"

Farrell, who was first elected to the Assembly in 1974, around the time that Aggarwala was likely starting nursery school, raised his voice, "You didn’t answer the question."

Northern Manhattan Assembly member Herman "Denny" Farrell

They went back and forth a bit on traffic modeling and mode share numbers until Farrell zeroed in what on what seemed to be his issue. "Pricing will not effect anyone coming from New Jersey," Farrell said. "I live right next to the George Washington Bridge. Come visit us on a Friday afternoon. Starting about 100th Street traffic is jammed, stopped dead. Nothing you’re doing here will effect that."

Brodksy was next.

"I don’t think this is the time to argue," he said. "My problem is that I don’t understand what you’ve proposed."

Unlike the Commission’s other two Assembly members, who seemed most passionately concerned with issues immediate to their own districts, Brodsky posed broader questions about the Commission’s mandate, how traffic reduction and air quality claims were being measured, and revenue.

In what may very well be the set up for a legal challenge to push for an Environmental Impact Study, Brodsky repeatedly pressed the point that the Commission didn’t have enough information to approve the Mayor’s congestion pricing pilot program.

"What are you asking us to consider?" he asked Aggarwala. "What are we statutorily bound to consider? How do you measure the health and air quality impacts in your plan? How do we know the air quality impacts of this plan on Jackson Heights, Queens?"

Aggarwala took a stab at answering some of his questions but Brodsky still felt he didn’t have the information he needed.

"I don’t get it," he said.

"We have four months to use this Commission for this very purpose," Shaw replied.

Other Commissioners — you can find their bios here — laid some of their issues on the table as well.

Russianoff said he wanted more guidance from the city on residential parking permits and how the proposed MTA toll and fare hikes might impact the traffic reduction and mode shift projections made in the Mayor’s plan.

Tom Egan wanted to know why there were no new bus routes proposed for Southeastern Queens.

Ed Ott wondered what would happen to the city’s mass transit system if congestion pricing revenue didn’t materialize.

Richard Bivone asked whether the MTA could handle the additional riders.

Elizabeth Yeampierre wanted more specific information about how the Mayor’s plan would improve the environmental and health problems in Bronx and Brooklyn neighborhoods that "are host to the city’s highway infrastructure and environmental burdens."

And with arms crossed, head cocked and a tone of skepticism in her voice, Assembly member Vivian Cook made it clear that "that Queens County and Long Island City aren’t going to become a parking lot for the region."

The meeting closed with Brodsky peppering Sander and DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, also a Commissioner, with revenue-related questions. Brodsky wanted clarity on whether congestion pricing revenues would be used to pay for MTA capital projects or MTA operating expenses. He also asserted that New York City’s agreement with the U.S. Department of Transportation doesn’t "contain any commitment of funds" and "gives the feds the right to give us nothing even if we pass congestion pricing."

Sander, hinting that the public forum might not be the ideal "context" for he and Brodsky to hash out some of these issues, said, "We do not anticipate use of any congestion pricing funds for operating assistance. Zero. Our position is that if we were to approve congestion pricing, that funds should be used for our capital program." Specifically, Sander said, if he had his "druthers," congestion pricing revenues would go towards building the Second Avenue subway, updating the Authority’s 19th century signal system, improving transit service in the outer boroughs and a variety of other projects.

As for the $354.5 million commitment from the federal government, Sadik-Khan told Brodsky, "We do have a commitment from the US DOT and from DOT Secretary Mary Peters and I’d be happy to sit with you and clarify that."

Shaw said that the Commission will be meeting approximately once a month between now and February and will host a number of public hearings along the way as well.