Will Silver Defer to City Council on Congestion Pricing?

While we weren’t looking, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver apparently had a change of heart on congestion pricing, and is reportedly now willing to go along with some version of the plan, as long as it is supported by City Council Democrats.

silver.jpgThis little bombshell comes courtesy of the Sun:

The good news for Mayor Bloomberg is that he’s likely to win some sort of "congestion pricing" plan by the spring now that the Assembly speaker, Sheldon Silver, is on board with developing a plan to reduce Manhattan traffic by charging a fee to drivers. This is noteworthy because Mr. Silver has played the recurring role of obstructionist to some of Mr. Bloomberg’s boldest ideas during the past six years.

We won’t know what congestion pricing really means until much closer to the March 31 deadline for final approval from the City Council and state Legislature. We do know there’s no chance the ultimate agreement will look much like the original proposal for using hundreds of cameras to charge $8 a car for all cars below 86th Street — with a rebate for any tolls drivers paid to enter Manhattan.

That initial idea actually gives a free ride to drivers who enter Manhattan via the Triborough Bridge, Midtown Tunnel or Battery Tunnel (already exactly $8 round-trip with E-Z Pass) and a big discount to New Jersey drivers (who pay $5 round-trip) with E-Z Pass. The big losers under the original plan are those drivers from Westchester, Brooklyn and Queens who currently travel free on bridges.

The final deal will likely put a bigger burden on New Jersey drivers while adding some fee for drivers who currently pay nothing to enter Manhattan. The city council is the biggest obstacle, because 30 of the 51 members hail from Brooklyn and Queens. They understand clearly how the initial "congestion pricing" plan targets their constituents.

"Congestion pricing could be three blocks with some cameras around them," quipped one person involved in the process who doesn’t particularly like any of the ideas currently being floated. "But there will be something the mayor can call ‘congestion pricing’ by the time this is done."

Despite vocal opposition from Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and City Council Member David Weprin, Congestion Mitigation Commission Chair Marc Shaw has insisted that East River bridge tolls remain on the table, with Assembly Member Richard Brodsky applauding them as "a step in the right direction". What remains to be seen, tolls or no tolls, is whether the plan that emerges from the commission (now meeting as of this writing) will pick up or lose support in the council, where 20 members (plus one) were warm to the original concept back in August. Then there is the $354 million dollar question of whether the federal government can also call the final version "congestion pricing."

And, of course, what of the payoff for Silver? The Sun speculates:

Mr. Bloomberg’s determination to do something about the unacceptable traffic that frustrates everyone trying to move around Manhattan is benefiting from a combination of technology and timing. Cameras can now easily read license plates to ensure drivers pay up, far different from just a few years ago when actual toll booths were needed. And there are genuine environmental benefits, making the general concept difficult to oppose in the year that green has gone mainstream.

In congestion pricing, Mr. Bloomberg seems finally to have stumbled upon a bold idea Mr. Silver will embrace. As a shrewd negotiator who’s mastered the patience of waiting until the last minute, Mr. Silver will surely extract some concessions — such as more cops on the street to prevent double parking and crack down on drivers who created gridlock by blocking the box.