By: Joel Epstein
Last week’s Regional Plan Association (RPA) Assembly was a victory lap for congestion pricing. Sure, the Assembly featured RPA’s typically thoughtful variety of breakout sessions, ranging from Confronting the Climate Crisis to Fixing Public Housing, Creating Jobs and Building Healthy Communities. But at the end of the day, the annual event was all about the Benjamins.
With the MTA searching under every railroad tie for desperately needed cash to fix the subway, congestion pricing’s recent win in Albany was what a lot of us wanted to hear about and why we filled the Tolling for Transit breakout room to overcrowding. What about the carveouts on the Henry Hudson Bridge for Bronxites, and on other bridges for other outer borough residents? What about breaks for New Jersey and Connecticut and Long Island commuters? The knowledgeable panel took it all on, and answered as best they could, to the extent that there are answers at this point about the future of the estimated $15 billion in bonding that will be generated by congestion pricing.
The MTA’s Midori Valdivia, Chief of Staff to newly elevated Chairman & CEO Pat Foye, reminded us that what Albany approved was a new stream of funding for the agency through “Central Business District Tolling.” NYC DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg and State Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez underscored the opportunity congestion pricing presents to improve the City’s air quality and change the streetscape. In Stockholm after congestion pricing was implemented asthma rates dropped 50 percent. Assemblyman Rodriguez got the biggest chuckle of the morning when he said, “It always helps when the governor and mayor agree on something.”
The well-moderated panel which also included a newly elected Connecticut State Senator and a representative of the transit-killing ride hailing industry, seemed to agree that congestion pricing needs to deliver something for residents of the City’s transit deserts and outer borough residents. The MTA will need to ask, what do these people need to leave their cars at home in places like the East Bronx. In Coop City in the East Bronx, residents have been waiting over 50 years for a subway or Metro North station (the latter is said to be coming, soonish).
For Assemblyman Rodriguez, being able to measure the environmental benefit of congestion pricing is key. East Harlem which he represents currently has the highest asthma rates in the City.
Meanwhile, DOT Commissioner Trottenberg focused on the opportunity we have to pedestrianize downtown streets, the need for a bus turnaround, as bus ridership continues to decline, and better bus lane enforcement including front facing cameras on the buses. As someone who explored the need for traffic enforcement cameras on the buses back in 2011 with then Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, I am tired of holding my breath waiting for this effective means of keeping the bus lanes clear to be deployed.
Other ideas the panel explored included better bus service from areas far from the city, subway station accessibility improvements and the DOT’s tripling of the number of docked and dockless bikes in places like Fordham and in the Rockaways for better first last mile transit access. Assemblyman Rodriguez characterized MTA President Byford as focused full bore on fixing the system and called the transit desert issue second only to fixing the signals in the subway.
How do we balance our regional needs and who pays and what are the externalities including air quality, wear and tear on infrastructure mused DOT Commissioner Trottenberg. To be fair, NJ Transit needs investment too, conceded the panel sheepishly.
The Assembly’s transit theme continued at lunch with a keynote address by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. A skilled leader and forceful advocate for infrastructure investment, equity and green jobs, the mayor put his political life on the line traversing the massive County of Los Angeles to make the case for Measure M, a county-wide transportation sales tax approved by voters in November 2016. Measure M is an inspired, no-sunset, “forever” tax that gives Los Angeles Metro, the County transportation agency, an estimated $120 Billion over the first forty years to build the transit system the region has long required.
While my admiration for Mayor Garcetti is hardly a secret, it is fair to say that Garcetti killed it as well with the rest of the RPA crowd. Still, it was Janette Sadik-Khan who had the best line of the day during a Q&A with the Mayor, observing that Garcetti and LA were “eating our lunch.”
Sadik-Khan’s quip was both a reference to LA eating New York’s lunch on transit expansion and the Mayor eating the RPA lunch. As the former transportation commissioner explained, New York has added just 10 new subway stations in 50 years while LA has added 100 stations in just the last 30, and through passage of Measure M is now investing to make Los Angeles even more transit oriented.
The LA Mayor who may very well make a great president someday, isn’t only about transit. Coining a new term, he talked about replacing “diversity” and “inclusion” with “belonging.” People of all stripes and status belong in our cities and country, Garcetti told the Assembly.
New York has come a long way in passing congestion pricing. Now let’s not let the politicians kill it with carveouts. Or, as The Daily News put it in Monday’s editorial:
Having bravely been approved by Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature, the huge victory cannot now be sent to its death by a thousand exemptions and exceptions. If you take a private vehicle into the zone south of 60th St., you pay. Period.
Yours in transit,
Joel Epstein is a New York- and Los Angeles-based communications strategist and writer focused on transportation, public space, workforce development and other critical urban issues.