“We have a lot of quirks in how we price transportation, and these aren’t quirks because someone really gave it a lot of thought,” said Sam Schwartz, former Chief Engineer/Chief Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Transportation and one of the principal architects of the plan. “It’s happenstance how we charge for transportation. Just being fair can release a lot of money and make the streets safer.
Critics say the MoveNY plan is much the same as Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, a bill the then-mayor campaigned for vigorously but which failed to garner wide support. It died after Democrats in the Assembly refused to put it up for vote.
“I believe that city residents are savvy enough to understand that this is the fatally flawed congestion pricing proposal redone under a different name,” said Queens State Senator Joseph Addabo, Jr. in a statement. “I didn't support it back in 2008 as a City Councilman and I don't support it now as a state senator.”
However, MoveNY advocates pointed to differences between the two, including the current plan’s price decrease of outer borough tolls, and said implementing the plan would help alleviate Manhattan’s heavy traffic congestion above 60th Street, make streets safer in the outer boroughs, and have positiveenvironmental impacts, among other benefits.
“I don’t see this one as a carbon copy of the [2008 plan],” said Councilman Stephen Levin at Thursday’s town hall. “It’s a new plan with a different take that’s well thought out and well developed.”
Mayor bill de Blasio has yet to make a strong statement on the plan, but said to reporters on Thursday that it should be “taken seriously.” Governor Andrew Cuomo has said he doesn’t believe it will garner wide enough support to pass.
“We have seen 16 toll increases since I started to drive in the 60s,” said Schwartz. “And yet one traveler hasn’t seen an increase at all. That’s the traveler in the car going over the Manhattan, Queensborough, Brooklyn or Williamsburg bridge.”
Under the plan, tolls would be imposed on vehicles making trips into Manhattan’s Central Business District via the four East River bridges, while tolls on bridges like the Verrazano and RFK, which charge $8 with an EZPass, would be decreased by 39 to 48 percent, a shift from Bloomberg’s 2008 plan.
Drivers on the East River bridges and crossing 60th Street would be subject to a $5.54 EZPass toll, while tolls already in place on major MTA bridges would drop by $2.50 each way with an EZPass, and minor bridge tolls would drop by $1 each way.
Schwartz and Alex Mathiessen, campaign director of MoveNY, said having steep tolls on only select bridges creates an effect called “bridge shopping,” wherein drivers exit highways for city street detours that allow them to bypass bridges with tolls.
Having these additional drivers on city streets, they argued, makes for inherently more dangerous traffic conditions in communities. They also said that eliminating a free commercial driving option into the city would lead to increased public transit use.
“I’ve always had a problem with the fairness aspect,” said Ian Dutton, a Park Slope resident in attendance at the meeting, who is in favor of implementing the plan. “The person who’s driving, polluting, adding to congestion, they get a free ride. We’re encouraging people to do the wrong thing.”
The overhaul would require a re-tooling of current agency purviews, Schwartz and Mathiessen said. Under the plan, the city would make an estimated $1.5 billion in annual revenue, which would be managed by a new subsidiary authority of the MTA Bridges & Tunnels, solely dedicated to collecting and disbursing funds generated by the MoveNY plan.
On Thursday, Schwartz said 25 percent of the revenue would go towards rehabilitating roads and bridges, while the remainder would go towards projects the MTA had already identified, such as investing in service expansion.
This point raised questions for some attendees and other legislative opponents of the bill, who questioned whether a revenue-based model would conflict with a principal goal of getting more cars off the road, and if the authority could ensure revenue would be allocated as outlined.
“There is no guarantee that the money raised will go toward MTA capital funding or infrastructure projects,” said Queens State Senator Tony Avella in a statement.
In their plan, MoveNY states that the new finance authority would not need appropriation from the state legislature to allocate and distribute the funds. Another safeguard Schwartz and Mathiessen cited on Thursday was the fact that much of the new revenue would be bonded to current MTA bondholders.
Despite nods of confidence from de Blasio and local legislators, Schwartz contended the scope of the legislation was somewhat of a political novelty.
“Let’s do something we never do in government,” said Schwartz. “Never, ever, ever. Let’s wipe the slate clean.”