Saturday, July 21, 2007

Uncertain Future for Mayor's Traffic Plan

In today's NY Times, the paper does its own post mortem on the recently concluded "deal" that was struck on the mayor's traffic tax. The tag line in the headline says it all: "Hardest Part Lies Ahead." Not only for the mayor, we might add, but for all of the legislators-particularly those in the outer boroughs and suburban districts-whose constituents aren't going to look favorably on any new version of a commuter tax.

Of course, a challenge lies ahead for opponents as well; faced with the mayor's willingness-along with his real estate allies-to spend unlimited funds on astroturf efforts in the environmental community and among certain civics. Which is why Liz Benjamin, in her Daily Politics blog, is right to give Walter McCaffrey and myself "mixed" props because, while we "manged to drum up a heck of a lot of press operating on a much smaller budget than Bloomberg and the coalition of his supporters...They didn't manage to wholly block congestion pricing, but they have time yet."

That's the key here: time. We now have an eight month window to demonstrate just why the mayor's traffic tax is such an anathema to average New Yorkers. Which is why one of Liz's commenters gave us such a kick when he said that the the opposition to the mayor consisted of "this incredibly small group of parochial interests." The only people behind McCaffrey and Lipsky, said the commenter, were the Queens Chamber of Commerce, the Automobile Club of NY, and the Municipal Parking Association.

Ah yes, but let's not forget the 68% of the city outside of Manhattan that has told poll after poll that this idea stinks. The hundreds of civics is Queens that have come on board do to the hard work of Corey Bearak, plus the scores of similar groups in Brooklyn that we have been working with Steve Barrison to bring in to the coalition is just the beginning. All of the fence-sitting council members-and some who support the mayor but should know better just where their constituents stand-are going to be hearing from the grass roots voices in their districts. As will the state representatives as well.

What we have been saying all along, in somewhat of an ironic tone, is that everyone supports the mayor's plan-except for the people. The letters that have come in to the tabloids from the neighborhoods gives a good flavor of the grass roots appeal of the mayor's plan. In today's DN, under the heading "Congestion Indigestion," we hear the following lament: "While I absolutely agree that we need a plan to lessen traffic, taxing those who already live here and pay some of the highest taxes in the country is absurd...Charging city residents to drive in their own hometown is overkill."

All of the neighborhood discontent is only going to get stronger as the mayor's plan-and what it doesn't address-gets fully exposed to comprehensive review. Mayor Mike needs to try to avoid having his traffic tax plan become, as Rory Lancman tells the NY Sun, his "Moby Dick." He's been fortunate so far, in not getting tarred by other unpopular initiatives he's put forth-but he shouldn't push his luck..

And when the public gets wind of all of the presumptuous planning that the DN reports the mayor has done-haughtily anticipating his plan's approval ("But uncertainty isn't stopping City Hall.")-their support for the congestion tax will diminish further. As will the legislature. Remember Shelly Silver's advice to the mayor-use the money to buy express buses, not congestion cameras.

This is the regal arrogance that the mayor has consistently displayed at certain key junctures in his mayoralty; last seen when, as Alicia Colon points out, he called being trapped in the subway for 48 minutes in the July heat "a minor inconvenience." So if the mayor forges ahead too quickly before legislative reviews are conducted he runs the risk of courting disaster (Or, in his own words, it will be "a very sad day for the city").

And for the national agenda of Mayor Mike; no Robert Moses hole digging is going to work in today's political climate. Already the mayor, according to AMNY, is saying that the city will have to give back all of the fed's money (assuming it gets the grant in the first place) if it doesn't implement his tax. Yet, how does this square with the possibility that an alternative plan may have a bigger impact on congestion relief? Another example of attempted strong-arming and bad faith?

We're going to see a real battle ahead, as the mayor's money (will the Times and DN critique the corrupting power of money in this battle?) is pitted against the will of the people; and New Yorkers' fatigue of living in the highest taxed milieu in the country. Every elected official in the city will be forced to take a stand-a good thing for democracy.