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Testimony of Hope Cohen before the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission
January 16, 2008



I am Hope Cohen, Deputy Director of the Center for Rethinking Development at the Manhattan Institute. Among other participation in this debate, we issued a study in late 2006 on the public acceptability of pricing programs. I would like to note in passing that there was virtually universal agreement among participants of focus groups assembled for that study that taxis are a form of public transportation in New York City. (In other words, mitigation approaches that include taxi surcharges would be using pricing to discourage a mode of public transportation.)

Thank you, commissioners, for this opportunity to comment on your interim report and the alternative approaches to congestion mitigation discussed in it.

The overall concept of the Bloomberg administration's original proposal is elegant—reduce traffic congestion in Manhattan's central business district, while raising revenue for underfunded and much needed transit improvements. Qualify for federal funding for up-front transit improvements to entice drivers out of their cars, benefit the economy, the environment, and the infrastructure that enables New York to be the most environmentally efficient place in the nation. However, the specifics were always much too complex, with different prices for driving into (or out of) the charging zone vs. driving within it, along with a very expensive—and potentially intrusive—network of E-Z Pass readers and cameras throughout the zone, from the Battery to 86th Street.

Eliminating the charge for driving within the zone would remove much cost and confusion. The East and Hudson rivers define all but one side of Manhattan's business district, so adding a northern boundary and simply charging people to enter the zone would be fairly straightforward. The most efficient and sensible approach is for the commission is to build a mitigation program around reinstating tolls on the so-called free East River Bridges.

Toll revenue helped finance the construction of the Brooklyn and Williamsburg bridges. The tolls were discontinued—along with those on the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges—in 1911 by Mayor William J. Gaynor, who saw "no more reason for toll gates on the bridges than for toll gates on Fifth Avenue or Broadway" and proposed making up the lost revenue through an annual tax levy. Since that time, tolling the East River bridges has been the third rail of New York City transportation politics. Mayors who tried to bring up the subject quickly dropped it again under intense interborough pressure. Thanks to his innovative proposal for a congestion fee in Manhattan's central business district, Mayor Bloomberg has made it safe at last to discuss traffic solutions that were previously off limits.

The lack of tolls has put the bridges in competition for funding with the entire array of municipal budget priorities. This has cost the bridges dearly. The absence of a dedicated funding stream resulted in deferred maintenance and, ultimately, dangerous disrepair. (Just last month, a state task force issued multiple "flags"—both "yellow" and "safety"—to the Brooklyn Bridge for problems including decaying beams.)

Meanwhile, all of the tolled East River crossings (the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Triborough Bridge, Queens-Midtown Tunnel and Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel) and the Hudson River crossings (the Port Authority's George Washington Bridge and Holland and Lincoln tunnels), which also charge tolls, are in exemplary condition. Tolls yield enough revenue not only to maintain the facilities to the highest standards, but also to subsidize the public transit operations of Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Port Authority.

The participation of the MTA and Port Authority executive directors on this commission also offers an opportunity to develop a unified approach to pricing all the crossings—and thus to rationalizing traffic patterns. Pricing influences driver behavior. The free bridges, as well as their feeder roads, are generally more clogged than the tolled tunnels and their approaches.

Some have argued that a toll-based program would not meet the criteria for award of federal funds (some $354 million, mainly to be used to provide new transit options for city neighborhoods now underserved and thus the disproportionate source of car commutation). While it may be true that the tolling alternative as presented in the interim report as Option #3 would not qualify, it is easy enough to design a slightly different version that would qualify—for example imposing tolls in different directions depending on time of day, or even turning off toll collection during particularly uncongested hours.

The tolling alternative would generate more revenue and less traffic than the mayor's approach. It is simpler to understand and to implement. It acknowledges the geographic reality that Manhattan is an island whose access routes are difficult to build and expensive to maintain. It has only one apparent drawback: It would allow Manhattanites to add to pollution and congestion by moving their cars inside the central business district without constraint. But the city does not need costly cameras and sophisticated software to solve this problem.

First, a 60th Street boundary would capture entry fees from Manhattan's most significant source of automobile commuters, the Upper East Side. Second, since availability of free parking near the workplace is the single best indicator of whether someone will drive to work in Manhattan, the panel should recommend an array of measures to charge more for parking. Possible actions include modifying metering policies, charging people to park at currently free curb space and revoking residents' tax exemption for garage parking. City Hall's recent announcement about reducing official parking placards is a much needed first step on the road to parking rationality.

Finally I'd like to note that transportation subsidies already exist. What we're discussing here is rearranging them—from free bridges and cheap parking to strengthened infrastructure and expanded capacity.

 


Center for Rethinking Development.

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