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13th July

First Published in The New York Sun, July 13, 2007

By Andrew Wolf

We’re coming down the home stretch on the congestion pricing mini-marathon. If there is anything that characterizes the Bloomberg style of governance, it is his absolute confidence that his vision for the city’s future is the correct, indeed, the only vision.

Since his vision includes congestion pricing, a radical idea that would normally demand extensive debate, anyone opposing it must, at worst, have some sinister motivation, and, at best, be an idiot.

So the usual public hearings, environmental impact statements, health assessments, and traffic studies can be dispensed with. Instead the mayor is telling the legislature to move ahead with his plan, and you’d better do it by Monday, lest the city lose some $500 million in federal aid.

The last such “emergency” requiring instant decision-making was the West side stadium, which would have been a home to professional football teams and bolster the city’s bid for the 2012 Olympics. The decision had to be made right then, or else no games. In hindsight, we weren’t getting the Olympic games anyway, no matter how many stadia we would build. We were saved from that folly by the speaker of the state Assembly, Sheldon Silver.

Once again, the speaker is in the catbird seat, as the Assembly is the only impediment to the mayor’s congestion plan. A report issued Monday by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky raises serious concerns about the mayor’s proposal.

With all due respect to Mr. Brodsky, one of the more thoughtful members of the legislature, he presumably wouldn’t be quite so critical if congestion pricing was something dear to the heart of the speaker. Nor would freshman Assemblyman Rory Lancman be so quick to issue his own recommendations that would put congestion pricing on hold.

The Assembly might consider the Bloomberg plan in any event, the price being a pay raise for legislators and jettisoning efforts for campaign finance reform. If this is the case, it would certainly be a low point in the history of civic discourse. Congestion pricing is a big decision, one that will impact the lives of New Yorkers for generations. It requires careful thought and study, not a quick bidding war.

Imagine if we could turn back the clock to 1950 and hold public hearings on what was then a new proposal — a tiny pilot program that began on the Lower East Side, called alternate-side-of-the-street parking. Knowing what we know now, this might have been a tough sell. The mayor who thought of that one had the foresight to quickly resign and take a new job south of the border — although it was the hint of scandal and not angry motorists that convinced William O’Dwyer to take the job of Ambassador to Mexico.

Alternate-side-of-the-street parking grew and swallowed up most New York neighborhoods, defining the lives of tens of thousands on a daily basis. More significantly, it generates tens of millions in revenue derived from fines and towing fees.

Another initially benign program was the introduction of the parking meter. This gadget was promoted by merchants to ensure that there would be a turnover in parking spots for their customers. The nickels generated were a welcome byproduct to enhance city revenue. No one would have ever imagined penalties for forgetting to deposit your coin to approach $100 in some areas of the city today. No one ever talks of the advantages to local business anymore.

The proponents of congestion pricing are not naive. They know exactly what they are doing. This program is not really about congestion, since the experience in London suggests that the decline in traffic is relatively modest and may prove temporary. It is not about air quality, either. It is shameful that the mayor uses the image of a child with an asthma inhaler to illustrate the result of failure to enact his plan.

There is no evidence that air pollution causes asthma, and the area of Manhattan that will be impacted by the mayor’s plan is hardly the epicenter of the asthma epidemic. Where are the studies and reports to definitively predict exactly what the health and air quality impact on the entire region will be?

The mayor’s plan is nothing more than a new revenue-producing scheme. It is the high-tech way to impose the tolls on the free East River and Harlem River bridges that mayors have desired for decades. We are told that the money raised will pay for better mass transit, and lobbying groups promoting subway and bus ridership are salivating over this prospect. Some already suggest that merely doubling the fees not yet imposed could eliminate subway and bus fares altogether.

It is time to take the advice of my kindergarten teacher, given not long after the first car made its daily journey to the other side of the street. “Slow down. Stop, look, and listen.”

© 2007 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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