$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Gets Nowhere
Thanks to Todd Edelman for this heads-up
April 8, 2008
$8 Traffic Fee for Manhattan Gets Nowhere
ALBANY — Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s far-reaching plan to ease traffic in Manhattan died here on Monday in a closed conference room on the third floor of the Capitol.
Democratic members of the State Assembly held one final meeting to debate the merits of Mr. Bloomberg’s plan and found overwhelming and persistent opposition. The plan would have charged drivers $8 to enter a congestion zone in Manhattan south of 60th Street during peak hours.
Mr. Bloomberg and his supporters, including civic, labor and environmental organizations, viewed the proposal as a bold and essential step to help manage the city’s inexorable growth.
But the mayor’s plan was strongly opposed by a broad array of politicians from Queens, Brooklyn and New York’s suburbs, who viewed the proposed congestion fee as a regressive measure that overwhelmingly benefited affluent Manhattanites.
“The congestion pricing bill did not have anywhere near a majority of the Democratic conference, and will not be on the floor of the Assembly,” Sheldon Silver, the Assembly speaker, said after the meeting.
The plan’s collapse was a severe blow to Mr. Bloomberg’s environmental agenda and political legacy. The mayor introduced his plan a year ago as the signature proposal of a 127-item program for sustainable city growth that helped raise his national profile. Without approval from Albany, the city now stands to lose about $354 million worth of federal money that would have financed the system for collecting the fee and helped to pay for new bus routes and other traffic mitigation measures.
After Mr. Silver announced the plan’s demise, a statement was released by Mary E. Peters, the federal transportation secretary, indicating that her department would now seek to distribute those funds to traffic-fighting proposals in other cities.
New York also hoped to use revenues from congestion pricing to finance billions of dollars in subway expansion and other improvements by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, money that must now come from somewhere else.
Assemblyman Mark S. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, said that in discussing the issue with his colleagues, “the word ‘elitist’ came up a number of times.” His constituents, Mr. Weprin said, almost uniformly opposed the measure, viewing it as a tax on their ability to move around their own city.
Mr. Weprin estimated that opinion among Assembly Democrats ran four to one against the plan. No formal vote was taken at the closed meeting.
Prospects for the bill returning any time soon appear dim.
It was the latest defeat for Mr. Bloomberg from Albany, which in 2005 dashed the mayor’s dreams of building a football stadium on the West Side and bringing the 2012 Olympics to New York.
The mayor has appeared increasingly frustrated with the situation in Albany in recent days and did not appear publicly after the measure’s defeat. He released an angry statement shortly after the rejection.
“It takes a special type of cowardice for elected officials to refuse to stand up and vote their conscience on an issue that has been debated, and amended significantly to resolve many outstanding issues, for more than a year,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “Every New Yorker has a right to know if the person they send to Albany was for or against better transit and cleaner air.”
But even in the Republican-controlled State Senate, the plan did not receive much consideration. Out of deference to Mr. Bloomberg, who has been an ally and financial patron of Senate Republicans, the Senate majority leader, Joseph L. Bruno, pushed for a floor vote on the legislation Monday afternoon. But Senate Democrats refused to take the floor, forestalling any vote.
That move followed a year’s worth of cajoling and brinkmanship between opponents and supporters of the plan, which evolved significantly — but, it turned out, not significantly enough — from the version Mr. Bloomberg proposed last April.
Supporters ultimately agreed to shrink the zone in which the fees would apply, to the area south of 60th Street in Manhattan, instead of south of 86th Street. They also added a small charge on taxicab and limousine trips through the zone, as well as a tax credit for low-income residents.
But many issues remained unresolved. Critics also objected to the elimination of a sunset provision, which would have required the plan to win approval again after three years. City officials said that such a provision would have precluded long-term bond financing for capital improvement projects.
Mr. Silver, a frequent antagonist of Mr. Bloomberg’s who in 2005 blocked the mayor’s plan to redevelop the West Side railyards, pre-empted criticism that he was personally to blame for the plan’s defeat, saying that he favored some kind of congestion proposal but that the mayor’s plan simply lacked enough support to pass. “Let me be clear: If I were making the decision alone, I might have made a different decision,” Mr. Silver said.
Ultimately, the battle lines over the plan remained almost unchanged during the yearlong debate over the project, despite multiple rounds of public hearings, reams of studies and an aggressive lobbying campaign by Mr. Bloomberg and his allies. Indeed, many opponents said they resented the pressure and threats that they said emanated from Mr. Bloomberg’s side, including hints that the mayor would back primary candidates to run against politicians who opposed congestion pricing.
The mayor’s allies recently formed a political action committee to finance those campaigns.
Those efforts, supporters and opponents agreed, illustrated the gulf between Mr. Bloomberg and lawmakers in Albany, where the mayor sometimes seemed to miscalculate how far his power and prestige could carry him.
Many Democrats in the Legislature felt that the mayor’s demeanor in private meetings was condescending. Some opponents wondered at Mr. Bloomberg’s political strategy, noting that they hardly expected to be punished by their constituents for siding with them.
“I’d be very happy running for re-election letting everybody know that I was an advocate against congestion pricing,” said Assemblyman Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat.
Ultimately, some supporters said privately, the same qualities that liberated Mr. Bloomberg to propose such a far-reaching plan — his independence from established power-brokers and detachment from traditional politicking — are what doomed the plan to failure.
“It doesn’t really work up here, and it didn’t help it at all,” said Assemblyman William F. Boyland, Jr., a Brooklyn Democrat who opposed the plan.
Some Assembly Democrats said that by Monday, even many of the supporters of the plan had significant reservations about it. Debate had veered from the issues of traffic and pollution, they said, to advocates emphasizing the need to finance badly needed mass transit projects. That further alienated suburban officials, whose constituents would have borne much of the cost of the fees but reaped little benefit from those projects.