NYC
Photo: Tom Twigg

Albany strikes again: congestion pricing — the smartest urban-transportation idea since the subway — has been buried by the professional morticians of the New York State legislature, led by Chief Ghoul Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

As previously reported, the pricing plan, proposed a year ago by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and subsequently improved by a 17-member state-mandated commission, would have charged an $8 entry fee on cars driven into Manhattan’s central business district (CBD) during 6 a.m. – 6 p.m. on weekdays. Benefits included an annual $500 million revenue stream for mass transit (sufficient to bond at least $5 billion in capital improvements), a solid if unspectacular drop in traffic gridlock and pollution, and, perhaps most significantly, a first step toward knocking the automobile off its privileged perch atop the New York street pyramid. Not to mention establishing the principle that safeguarding "the commons" — our air, water and public space — requires that we exact from ourselves a commensurate price for uses that damage or deplete it.

Congestion pricing was backed by an unusually broad coalition of labor, business, enviros (the full spectrum from EJ to Big Green) and civic associations. Yet neither this broad-spectrum support nor the plan’s extraordinary vetting over the past 12 months deterred legislators from both parties from citing “unanswered questions” and assailing bogus inequities.

Calling today “a sad day for New Yorkers and New York City” and noting federal support for congestion pricing, Mayor Bloomberg blasted the legislature, stating that, “Even Washington, which most Americans agree is completely dysfunctional, is more willing to try new approaches to longstanding problems than our elected officials in the State Assembly.”

With so much going for it, what killed the plan? There will be time later for sober postmortems, but for now, here’s my shoot-from-the-hip Top 10 list of what felled congestion pricing in NYC:

10. Misplaced emphasis on climate: Hitching congestion pricing to climate protection, even in part, was disingenuous. The anticipated traffic reductions would have eliminated no more than 1% of NYC’s CO2. The emphasis should have been on cutting the scourge of traffic, whose theft of time, sanity, and safety from New Yorkers outweighs the climate damage from CBD-bound tailpipes by a couple of orders of magnitude.

9. Brodsky: The stream of counterfactual arguments from Richard Brodsky, a glib but savvy Democratic Assemblymember from suburban Westchester, was almost farcical. But his faux-populist screeds had an impact on public opinion. Bloomberg should have sat down with Brodsky, if only to be able to say afterwards that congestion pricing’s opponents were impervious to reason.

8. Spitzer fiasco: The stunning demise of “Client 9″ last month didn’t just sabotage Bloomberg’s Albany strategy. It sucked huge amounts of oxygen out of the legislative room just when the debate needed to begin in earnest.

7. Tepid Manhattan: Many city and state reps from Manhattan — where fewer than one-quarter of households own a car — tendered only lukewarm support, if that. Their fence-straddling made it harder to win support in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx.

6. Crane collapse: A spectacular construction accident in mid-March destroyed a townhouse and killed seven people on Manhattan’s East Side, focusing public attention — and outrage — over unbridled development, and reinforcing the rap on congestion pricing as a Bloombergian tool to remove the poor and weak from the city.

5. Jersey blues: Supporters never fielded a convincing answer to the exaggerated complaint that the toll rate structure would let drivers crossing the Hudson River into Manhattan get off scot-free. A last-minute deal to invest bi-state Port Authority tolls in NYC transit provoked threats of a lawsuit, undermining the pricing bill’s credibility in the crucial final days.

4. Misplaced emphasis on Manhattan: Most of the reduction in traffic from congestion pricing would have taken place “upstream” of the charging zone. Inexplicably, City Hall underplayed this, feeding the perception that the benefits would be confined to Manhattan, and making it harder for outer-borough reps to line up in support.

3. Bloomberg: The mayor gets credit for a visionary idea but a failing grade for execution. The truism that New York politics demands personal engagement applied in spades to this mayor and this plan, both of which have their imperious sides. A groundswell of support to pull along a majority of legislators would have required far more engagement than Mayor Bloomberg offered.

2. Too few benefits: The plan’s promised benefits seemed surprisingly diffuse. Perhaps paradoxically, a steeper congestion fee, say $12, used to pay for free transit buses citywide, would have generated more grassroots support without inciting much more opposition.

1. Machiavelli’s dictum: “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand,” Machiavelli wrote in The Prince, “than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things … the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.” When pricing advocates return with a new plan — perhaps a variant of the Kheel Plan — we will do well to take this dictum to heart.