How New York's Congestion Plan Collapsed

07/03/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

For advocates of mass transit, congestion pricing is much more than just a way to reduce traffic or increase the efficiency of our roadways. It is a battle over the future of our cities - a way to improve air quality, reclaim street space, and raise revenue for public transportation. At a well-attended community board hearing in lower Manhattan in January, Wylie Norvelle of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders, described congestion pricing as the "holy grail of transportation reforms." A holy grail that remains out of reach, at least for New Yorkers.

On Earth Day 2007, Mayor Bloomberg put forth a 30-year redevelopment plan (PlaNYC) for the city that included congestion pricing as "part of an overall commitment to increase investment in mass transit." Although it was one of only 127 environmental initiatives, such as boosting street-side tree planting and protecting wetlands, congestion pricing received a disproportionate amount of attention, and led to a lively and often fractious debate among city and state lawmakers, local residents, and urban planners. A 17-member ad hoc committee was formed to hone the mayor's plan, and dozens of community meetings were held across the city to solicit residents' views. Bloomberg made the issue a top priority, and invested a large amount of his political capital in passing the measure. But the idea ran into stiff resistance. Opponents, particularly city council members and state assembly members who represent the outer boroughs, decried the legislation as a tax on the poor and middle class, one that would turn Manhattan into a golden ghetto. It was an effective populist appeal, an argument that everyone has the right to drive, and that right should not be infringed upon even if, in the case of NYC, the vast majority of commuters do not drive.

Ultimately, Bloomberg's plan, which narrowly made it through the city council, was scrapped by the state legislature in Albany.

The demise of Bloomberg's plan means that New York City will lose $354 million in federal transportation aid, in addition to $500 million in projected annual revenue from the traffic fees. It is unclear when and if the idea will be revived.

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