With an upcoming mayoral election, it's time to shift the conversation from candidates personal behavior which has dominated the news, to something more important to NYC voters. In this spirit I wanted to present an idea that is worth bringing up and discussing this election season.
Fundamentally good policy is about making tools and this idea should be seen as a tool to achieve a strategic goal that is aligned with both the ground breaking work of the Bloomberg administrations PlanNYC and a transformed DOT under commissioner Janette Sadik Kahn.
While the achievements of the Bloomberg administration are remarkable, congestion pricing was a setback. Despite anyone's issue with the failed plan, the funding mechanism for mass transit that was built into it was unassailable. The need for additional funding sources for the MTA hasn't changed. This is one part of the idea that I am proposing.
The other part is based on the observation that Detroit, Tokyo and Stuttgart have been choosing what type of cars are driven in NYC and this needs to change. This is why until recently our taxi's and police cars were the same vehicle with a different color paint and why wealthy residents are driven around the city in 8,000 lb. SUV's that are so high off the ground a driver can't see kids walking in front of their windshields when they are stopped in crosswalks.
If you think about it, of course it makes sense for NYC to have a say in the types of vehicles that inhabit public space called roads in order to privilege smaller and more efficient vehicles through intelligent policy.
The idea that I am proposing propose combines both of these goals.
1. To make the city's private automobiles more efficient
2. To provide a funding source for mass transit.
There is a false misconception that East River bridges are free to cross for New York residents. This of course is not true as when you cross a bridge in a subway or a bus as most people do, the ride is not free. Seen this way, the idea of charging cars to use bridges where they have previously not been charged starts to seem equitable.
Public policy experts may dismiss this idea as a political non starter, but that would be a mistake. The storyline that they adhere to goes something like this. All attempts in the past to enact tolls on bridges have failed. Here's the thing, I have not been able to confirm that there have been previous attempts to toll East River Bridges that they claim have failed. In fact, I can't recall one serious attempt to toll bridges since Koch was mayor. The more interesting question to ask, is how many attempts to toll city bridges have there been since the introduction of E-ZPass in 1989? Electronic collection, eliminates lines of idling cars and waits -- which would be a legitimate argument against enactment. The answer is none.
Charging cars to cross the East River bridges is not a new idea. In fact, I first wrote about this in an opinion piece published in 2002 as a response to the City's projected 5 billion dollar budget shortfall.
What is new and what changes everything is an elegant mechanism that would allow for the greening of the city's automobiles and for it to exist within the existing frame work of electronic toll collection.
I think there is one and I am calling it "Green E-ZPass".
The current E-ZPass charges a set fee for cars and trucks. Green E-ZPass, privileges vehicles based on transportation sustainability metrics that will be determined but that will most probably include the most efficient vehicles, zero emission vehicles and smaller vehicles that are more appropriate to be driven in an urban environment, by charging reduced or perhaps even no rates.
Today's E-ZPass makes no differentiation between a Nissan Leaf whose lack of a tail pipe makes it radical and a Hummer H1 which makes no sense to drive into Manhattan unless you are invading it, but the Green E-ZPass does.
Currently, E-ZPass does not differentiate between a smart car that can almost fit in the trunk of a Cadillac Escalade. The Green E-ZPass will make this distinction.
If you think there is a need to combine Green E-ZPass with a mechanism to reduce single occupancy drivers which is about 70 percent of vehicles, I agree with you and plan to discuss this in a future piece -- please stay tuned.
If you think about it, it really doesn't make sense that the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel is tolled and the East River Bridges aren't. This causes extra automobile congestion in Brooklyn Heights and in Downtown Brooklyn by drivers who want to avoid the tunnel toll.
The same situation exists at the Midtown Tunnel where parts of Long Island City are overrun by cars who opt for the un-tolled 59th street bridge instead of the tolled Midtown tunnel. This will bring much needed traffic relief to many neighborhoods.
What also makes sense is that during the discussion of congestion pricing. The electronic tolls were to be put around an area south of 60th Street referred to as the CBD (Central Business District). I'm of the planning school that believes any policy or plan should reflect the topology of the area it is going to be enacted in and not let a modeling construct define physical space. Since Manhattan is an Island, the most appropriate place to charge people entering it are at its bridges and tunnels.
What the city needs to be sensitive to, are the needs and uses of Manhattan by residents living in the boroughs with specific attention to the issue of divided urban landscapes with a goal to keep the city psychologically unified.
I have theorized ways address this in a very New Yorky way, if any candidate is reading this and wants to find out more, call me.
Bridges will remain free for walkers bikers, and some Green E-Z Pass users.
Speaking of bridges, to avoid creating the same problems of neighborhood congestion, that we are trying to solve, we are speaking of all the bridges that connect Manhattan to the boroughs, including the ones over the Harlem River.
If we implement a Green E-Z Pass at all Manhattan crossings the conversation is not about "road pricing " and "tolling bridges" its about an innovative policy tool that can help us green our automobiles and benefit the city.
Considering the billions in bonds we can write by enacting such a plan to be used to fund mass transit, I think this is an idea that is worthy of discussion in an election year.