Beyond Ravitch: Still Time for a Bolder Plan

As Albany lawmakers ponder which of a half-dozen Ravitch plan variations they might support, the possibility looms that no solution may come in time. New Yorkers could see their fares rise 25 percent while service is cut back — a twin catastrophe in this tough economic time. Yet no big new ideas are being advanced to protect mass transit users, which is why I believe the time has come for consideration of Ted Kheel’s and my traffic plan.

Our plan rests on three powerful attributes: revenue generation, tolling equality, and sheer efficiency. We achieve these with an inclusive pricing model that asks drivers to pay a fee ranging from $2 to $10 upon entering the Central Business District with the price dependent on the time of day, and charges taxi passengers for their contribution to congestion as well.

The basics:

  • Our toll plan generates $1.7 billion a year in revenue; that’s twice as much as the $800 million from Ravitch’s tolls, even though our top toll of $10 matches Ravitch’s $5 (we charge inbound only). As for Sheldon Silver’s $2 toll plan, it nets just $450 million.
  • Our plan has no free riders; oops, make that free drivers. Jersey drivers pay the toll, drivers entering the CBD at 60th Street pay the toll, and Manhattanites pay the lion’s share of a 33 percent taxi fare surcharge that raises a quarter of our total revenue. Under the Ravitch and Silver plans, East River drivers who make only 36 percent of crossings into the CBD would be coughing up 60 percent of new toll revenues.
  • Everyone wins something in our plan. Buses are free (paid for by $800 million of our $1.7 billion revenue pot). Straphangers get deep off-peak discounts (paid for by the rest — though some of the reductions might need to be deferred to help stanch the MTA deficit) and a bit more elbow-room in rush hour due to peak-spreading. Drivers get a 20 percent traffic speed-up in the CBD (faster travel “upstream” too), while the variable toll offers a measure of choice.
  • Free and faster-moving buses will achieve three goals. They’ll lure enough drivers and straphangers out of gridlocked streets and packed trains to ease crowding on both. By stopping drip-torture boarding that halts movement during Metrocard-swiping, they’ll traverse their routes fast enough to handle the influx. And they’ll provide a huge break to riders across the city, a disproportionate percentage of whom live in poorer, non-Manhattan neighborhoods.

Too good to be true? No, it’s real, the numbers have been checked and re-checked, the plan works.

Politically, who knows? It’s easy to shrug and say that if Albany can’t get it together to enact $2 tolls, there’s no chance for an ambitious plan like Kheel-Komanoff.

And yet … unlike the plans on the table, which impose tolls while giving little back (as did Mayor Bloomberg’s failed congestion pricing proposal), our plan is about gain, and freedom, and relief:

  • Gain for the millions of transit riders who will enjoy better service and more spending money.
  • Freedom from recurring fare hikes and service cuts.
  • Significant relief from traffic congestion that frustrates drivers, dehumanizes our city and saps the economy.

Lately I’ve kept a low profile about our plan out of deference to Dick Ravitch and his well thought out plan that recognizes the gravity of the crisis. But Albany is so stuck, and the dialogue so stilted, that it seems time to air a bolder, more ambitious plan.

Since New Year’s, I’ve discussed the Kheel-Komanoff plan with dozens of electeds and advocates. The private response has been uniformly positive.

There may still be time to win a real hearing — or at least infuse elements of our plan into Ravitch’s. Let’s find each other now, before it’s too late.