Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Spinning At The Traffic Circle

Well, if you read some of the press coverage of the announcement that the federal government will be (maybe) sending the city around $350 million for (maybe) a traffic decongestion plan, you'd think that the skies had opened up and the the long crop-killing drought had ended. Some of the papers, so eager to sing in the Hallelujah chorus, even failed to get any potential critics of the mayor's plan into their panegyrics.

The NY Times and the NY Sun however, was an exception in this regard, and we need to single out William Neuman and Anni Karni for their even-handedness. As the Times story headline said: "New York to Get U.S. Traffic Aid, but With a Catch." One of the biggest catches? The fact that the city needs to find $200 million of its own money to fund the most controversial feature of the mayor's scheme: the plan to charge motorists for entering the CBD. The other? Shelly Silver ("Not So Fast, Silver Says..." is the Sun's caveat heading).

As the Times accurately points out, "The announcement was mixed news for Mr. Bloomberg," since he now has to come up with the lion's share of the money "to install a computerized system to monitor traffic and impose the fee..." The mixed news was greeted with disdain by the opponents of the mayor's plan. The money quote is from Congressman Weiner who sarcastically observed;
"'It's puzzling if you listen to the transportation secretary today about how important congestion pricing was to the plan... But obviously it wasn't important enough to fund it.'"

The money that is actually forthcoming here is for other parts of the plan-the transit infrastructure stuff that should precede any discussion of a new congestion tax. And given the MTA fiascoes of last week we think that it's probably not the best time to experiment with putting tens of thousands of more people on the trains and buses. As Weiner told Newsday, "You have to invest in the mass transit system first, before you penalize people for not using it.."

And then there is a disagreement about what the contingencies in the funding actually mean. Secretary Peters says that an alternative plan would be acceptable, if it matches the supposed 6% reduction in congestion that the mayor claims his plan will achieve. Bloomberg, on the other hand, points to a clause in the agreement that links funding to some variant of congestion pricing and hails the funding decision as a "major victory" for his specific scheme.

Speaker Silver, who alone has played the role of judicious elder statesman, is not buying this particular computer terminal from the mayor. As the NY Post points out: "But Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver...said he believes that there are an array of options that can satisfy the feds, ranging from an altered congestion-pricing plan to lowering of mass transit fees during peak hours to encourage ridership."

As we mentioned yesterday, all this means that there is a long and difficult road ahead, as it should be, since the mayor's scheme is a radical departure from current practice and deserves the fine tooth comb that we're confident Speaker Silver will give it. The misinforming, full-speed-ahead, cheers from the editorial pages should be muted so that the full implications of the mayor's plan can be dissected.