Brian Ketcham Proposes a “Simpler, Cheaper Traffic Fix”

Distribution of vehicles entering Manhattan CBD by direction and pricing status (Zupan & Perrotta, 2003).

In an op/ed piece in Monday’s Daily News, Brooklyn-based transportation consultant Brian Ketcham proposed some changes to Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. Ketcham, who has been pushing for some form of congestion pricing since his time working for the Lindsay Administration more than 30 years ago, argues that New York City should:

  • Put tolls on the free East River Bridges.
  • Move the pricing zone’s northern boundary down to 60th Street.
  • Eliminate all free and long-term street parking and charge hefty garage rates at on-street meters inside the Central Business District.

It is not surprising to see the idea of East River bridge tolls popping up right now. Prior to Mayor Bloomberg’s Long-Term Sustainability announcement in April, virtually everyone who was doing serious thinking about New York City traffic reduction was
focused on the 170,000+ vehicles traveling over the free East River bridges each day.

In July 2003, Ketcham and economist Charles Komanoff published, The Hours, a study that found that tolling the free East River Bridges would "do away with more than 9% of the idle time that motorists, truckers and bus riders now lose in traffic tie-ups throughout New York City" with significant congestion reductions in the outer boroughs, in particular.

Earlier that year, Komanoff also published "Who Will Really Pay," a study that found commuters who drive to work over the East River bridges earn, on average, $14,300/year more than those who don’t drive to work over a free bridge (download it here).

A September 2003 Transportation Alternatives study of East River bridge tolls by Bruce Schaller made similar findings. Schaller also noted the difficult "political realities" of tolling the bridges.

In November of 2003, Jeff Zupan and Alexis Perrotta at the Regional Plan Association published a study that tested four different congestion pricing scenarios, all of which included some form of East River bridge tolls (download it here). One of their models found, "At the East River bridges traffic would drop by about 25 percent, likely leading to the virtual elimination of congestion at those crossings," as well as "relief on local streets" and "less traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway."

With all of that in mind, here is Ketcham’s Daily News editorial, re-printed in full:

Congestion pricing is a terrific and necessary idea, and Mayor Bloomberg deserves great credit for reenergizing the concept. But to have a real chance to work, his plan must be rejiggered – now. It must be simplified in its design and coordinated with proposed fare hikes.

The basics are clear. Across the city, people are fed up with traffic. And they don’t want to pay more for transit until it gets better. That’s why we should immediately halt the MTA fare and toll hike process so we can determine whether a simpler congestion charging plan could net a reliable $500 million a year for fares and capital improvements.

But that’s just the necessary first step to purchase the goodwill of the public. At the same time, Mayor Bloomberg should roll out a much simpler traffic control system that really makes sense to all New Yorkers. The plan that’s currently on the table prescribes a needlessly complex infrastructure and demands costly administration and enforcement.

Here’s how to fix it. First, ditch the elaborate detection grid. For his three-year trial, the mayor has proposed building a full-scale network with 340 charging stations on Manhattan streets south of 86th St. A grid of E-ZPass sensors and cameras would track and charge cars $8 and trucks $21 to drive into the core of Manhattan during the business day. Trips that begin and end in the charging zone would pay $4 a day. Taxis and through-traffic, which are a large part of the traffic, would be exempt from charges, as would residents moving their cars on street-cleaning days.

Charging cars and trucks to get into the central business district makes perfect sense – but the rest of this scheme would be a logistical nightmare. All trips would be screened and photographed, some many times, and payments and locations recorded, producing a database of great concern to the American Civil Liberties Union – but adding little revenue.

The complication, controversy and confusion are not worth the costs – which would be around $169 million more than the federal government has allotted to install the new technology.

There’s an easy alternative that would actually work. New York should capitalize on its bridge and tunnel portals to Manhattan. Close the loophole of the four untolled East River bridges in Brooklyn and Queens – which right now are the source of nearly half the free entries into Manhattan. Install overhead charging monitors on the six inbound bridge spans and set the congestion fee on them so there is no difference with MTA tolls.

Drivers would then no longer clog local streets to find cheaper routes. Research shows that tolls on the four bridges will cut congestion citywide by 9%, which is more than the mayor’s 6.4% traffic reduction goal in his Manhattan target zone.

The bigger challenge is how to charge the more than half of drivers who now enter the central business district free from north of 60th St. This traditional northern boundary of midtown provides an elegant line in the sand – and an ideal site to test charging on Manhattan streets. Tolls would be collected only once on the two highways and on the 11 southbound avenues that cross 60th St. These 19 total stations would cost $7 million to install – well within the $10.4 million in federal funds allotted for the pilot. The low operating cost would leave $500 million a year for public transit improvements.

Supporters of the mayor’s plan might have one reasonable objection to this idea: How can we also discourage people from driving within the central business district? The answer: Eliminate all free and long-term street parking and charge hefty garage rates at on-street meters.

New York needs congestion pricing. But to succeed, congestion pricing itself needs to be transformed into a more sensible version of the mayor’s costly, headache-prone proposal.

Ketcham has more than 30 years of professional experience in traffic engineering. As a New York City official in the early ’70s, he authored the nation’s first transportation control plan to meet clean air standards.