Campaign Seeks to Ease New York’s Traffic, Build Transit With New Tolling Structure

New York City traffic. (Courtesy Flickr / Gregg Sloan)

New York City traffic. (Courtesy Flickr / Gregg Sloan)

Manhattan has a traffic problem. But, as of now, New York City has only taken marginal steps to fix it. To some, charging tolls on certain bridges and tunnels leading to the island, but not on others is uneven or unfair. To former New York traffic commissioner, “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, however, it’s “a cockamamie system of charging people that makes absolutely no sense.” And today, Schwartz and Move NY are launching a campaign against that “cockamamie system” as they call for new strategies to ease congestion.

Congestion map. (Courtesy Mark Byrnes, The Atlantic Cities)

Congestion map. (Courtesy Mark Byrnes, The Atlantic Cities)

Ahead of today’s event, The Atlantic Cities is out with a great profile on the troubled past, and uncertain future, of passing congesting pricing in New York City. After former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s pricing plan failed in 2008, it’s not clear if de Blasio will even take-up the fight. Considering the current way the city handles traffic, though, it’s blatantly clear that something has to be done.

“[New York’s] current system of handling commuter traffic is completely busted,” wrote The Atlantic’s Eric Jaffe. “Case in point: the four city-owned bridges over the East River are free, but the two MTA-owned tunnels beside them cost commuters $15 cash round trip, leading to rampant ‘bridge shopping.’”

The plan advocated by Schwartz and Move NY would change that. They call for lowering fees on already expensive bridges and tunnels, and raising—or adding—fees on others. The plan could hypothetically pay huge dividends for the city: a 20 percent improvement in traffic flow, easier commutes into and around Manhattan, and up to $1.5 billion a year in revenue. Despite its benefits, congestion pricing will still be a tough sell. Jaffe noted that Schwartz isn’t even calling his plan “congestion pricing.”

Whatever it’s called, the plan will likely face strong opposition from drivers who are currently getting a free pass on their commute. Convincing them that new fees are worth it won’t be an easy sell. That’s why Schwartz and Move NY are setting out on the age-old “listening tour.”

The main focus of the tour is to hear from New Yorkers about where they want to see all that additional revenue spent. Most of the money is reportedly planned to go toward “maintaining current service and expanding into transit deserts.” This type of long-term investment would be necessary to provide transportation alternatives to those who could be priced off bridges and tunnels. In the short-term, though, this won’t quell the backlash because these projects would take years to complete. Still, Schwartz and his team say this type of investment is vital to New York’s long-term viability and the revenue raised from congestion pricing could help catalyze new transit projects.

While this type of plan is widely regarded as the best way to ease congestion, its impact on low-income individuals cannot be overlooked; those with the smallest voice will most profoundly feel its effects. “Pricing a low-income driver off the road from a 40-minute car commute might be a win for traffic; but it’s a loss for society if that person now rides two hours to work,” wrote Jaffe.

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