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NYC Mayor Pushes Traffic Fee Proposal

Associated Press | June 9, 2007
Verena Dobnik

Traffic congestion and devastating pollution are among the "inconvenient truths" of our age and could be eased by imposing pay-to-drive fees on Manhattan motorists, Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a legislative panel Friday.

Bloomberg, who normally takes the subway to work, told the lawmakers he got stuck in traffic three times on his way to the special hearing.

His remarks were greeted by a roaring ovation from supporters who included environmentalists in bright green T-shirts handing out fresh green apples before the hearing.

"The threats to our city, and our planet, are inconvenient truths that we can no longer avoid facing, and that we can no longer wait for Washington to confront," Bloomberg said, referring to the title of Al Gore's Oscar-winning global warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."

Under Bloomberg's proposal, cars entering Manhattan south of 86th Street would be charged $8 per day, and trucks $21. Under a three-year pilot program, the fees would be collected only during the worst traffic hours, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Two major roadways flanking the east and west sides of Manhattan, FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, would be exempt.

Some lawmakers in the city's outer boroughs and bedroom communities do not support the so-called "congestion pricing," saying it would punish many drivers.

"This is a tax on middle-class people," said state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat who chairs one of the committees that held the joint hearing. "This will stop the Chevrolets from coming in, not the BMWs."

The mayor's plan got a boost Thursday from Gov. Eliot Spitzer and U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who announced that New York is one of nine semifinalists to receive federal funds to fight traffic jams.

"This plan would keep the city that never sleeps from becoming the city that never moves," Peters said of the proposed fees.

The city would become the first in the nation to adopt a congestion pricing plan of this magnitude. The proposal is similar to a system that London has used since 2003, and government officials there say it has significantly reduced congestion.

It is part of an ambitious series of environmental proposals from Bloomberg in recent months, including converting the entire taxi fleet to hybrid vehicles, replacing light bulbs with more efficient ones and a goal of a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

Backers say the fee plan would cut traffic jams and pollution while generating money for mass transit projects -- nearly $400 million in its first year alone.

Environmentalists have applauded the plan, but it would have to be enacted by the state Legislature, making the support of lawmakers from outer boroughs and bedroom communities around New York critical to its success.

The mayor pointed out that on Friday, like many warm-weather, high traffic workdays in New York, a state air-stagnation advisory was in effect not only for Manhattan, but also for surrounding counties on Long Island and Westchester County.

In addition, Bloomberg said, four times as many New Yorkers are hospitalized for asthma as the national average.

He said such facts are "a reminder that when idling cars and trucks stack up on our roads and at our tunnels and bridges, they produce more than just ulcers and hair-trigger tempers," Bloomberg said. "They pump deadly pollution into the air that we and our children breathe."

In addition, he said, the hours lost in traffic rob the economy of work hours.

Bloomberg said the plan has the support of more than 80 civic, labor and political groups. The plan also appears to be gaining momentum from influential state leaders in Albany.

Spitzer said he would urge lawmakers to support the plan so that New York would qualify for the federal funds outlined by Peters on Thursday.

The other cities competing for a total of $1.1 billion in federal funds are Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Peters said that up to five cities will split the money, and the winners will be announced by mid-August.

Spitzer said New York would ask for $500 million -- almost half the federal money that will be available under the Department of Transportation's Urban Partnership program. Under the plan, a network of cameras would capture license plate numbers and either charge a driver's existing commuter account or generate a bill to be paid each time.

Commuters who already pay a toll to come into Manhattan via tunnels and bridges could apply that against the new fee. For example, a person already paying a $6 toll to go through the Lincoln Tunnel would be charged an extra $2 under the plan.

Senior citizens who oppose the plan held a news conference at a Manhattan hospital, one of the places they said they must sometimes drive to.

"I had a friend I had to take in for radiation every day," said Robert Goldberg, of Brooklyn. "There was no way he could take the subway."

 

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