New York, NY — For years, the concept of charging motorists to drive into Manhattan’s busiest areas has been batted around as a way to reduce congestion and pollution, but many said it would never happen because of significant opposition.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has argued both sides of the issue, saying just months ago: “I don’t know that I’m a fan.” But after studying the idea and weighing the perceived benefits _ less traffic and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue _ the mayor has proposed that the city give it a try.
On Sunday, Bloomberg suggested the city implement a three-year pilot of the scheme, known as congestion pricing. The plan faces substantial opposition from some elected officials, driver advocates and trucking industry groups.
Trucks would be charged $21 a day, while cars would pay $8, to enter the zone of Manhattan below 86th Street on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
“It will be a real problem for operations for trucking companies and shippers, including all the retailers in Manhattan, which is substantial,” said Clayton Boyce, spokesman for the American Trucking Association, a nationwide organization that counts major shipping companies among its members. “And all the people who get FedEx and UPS deliveries will have problems and will bear extra expense, so we definitely see problems with it.”
There would be no tollbooths, just a network of cameras that would capture license plate numbers and either charge a driver’s existing commuter account or generate a bill to be paid each time.
The major thruways along Manhattan’s east and west sides would not be included, so one could go from Brooklyn to Harlem along the FDR Drive, for example, without entering the zone. Also, commuters who already pay a toll to come into Manhattan via bridges and tunnels would pay the price of the new fee minus that previous toll.
By studying traffic patterns, officials estimate that non-city residents would account for about half the fees. It is similar to a system that London has used since 2003, and government officials there say it has significantly reduced congestion.
Congestion pricing has long been viewed as a heavy political lift in New York City because it would have to be enacted by the state Legislature, and many lawmakers from outer boroughs and bedroom communities around New York would not support it. Other opponents include driver advocacy groups, such as AAA New York, and parking garage owners in Manhattan.
Even if it passes, it is not likely to be in place for some time. City officials say they need a year or so to upgrade some mass transit options such as rapid buses, because in many cases, New Yorkers drive into Manhattan from the outer boroughs because they have no viable public transportation in those areas.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democratic congressman who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is running to be elected mayor in 2009, calls congestion pricing a “tax on working middle class families.”
Bloomberg acknowledged the opposition on Sunday, admitting his own hesitation.
“I was a skeptic myself, but I looked at the facts, and that’s what I’m asking New Yorkers to do,” he said. “And the fact is in cities like London and Singapore, fees succeeded in reducing congestion and improving air quality _ the question is: Do we want that?”
Congestion pricing is one of many initiatives Bloomberg unveiled Sunday as part of his Earth Day plan to make New York City sustainable in the long term. The population of 8.2 million is expected to keep booming, adding another 1 million by 2030, straining the already stressed infrastructure and further damaging the environment.
Some of the ideas were vague, such as a suggestion that the city build more clean power plants, with no specifics as to where that should happen. Others can begin right away, such as a promise to open up hundreds of schoolyards citywide on weekends and evenings, giving more New Yorkers access to parks and open space.
Many of the proposals are geared toward achieving the mayor’s goal of a 30 percent reduction in the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030.
Carbon dioxide, the most common of the greenhouse gases, is emitted from vehicles, power plants and boilers that burn fossil fuel. It and other gases essentially trap energy from the sun, warming the Earth’s surface and lower atmosphere.
A recent study of the city’s emissions found that the majority come from the operation of its hundreds of thousands of buildings, which consume electricity, natural gas, fuel oil and steam.
The plan includes a number of energy-related proposals, including the idea of encouraging efficiency upgrades _ first through incentives, such as property tax rebates for the installation of solar panels, and in later years, through mandates. It also proposes retiring the city’s most inefficient power plants, and updating some with cleaner technology.
Other clean-air plans include a promise to waive the city’s portion of sales tax when New Yorkers purchase fuel-efficient vehicles.
Some yellow cabs are already being tested as hybrids, and if they are successful, the entire fleet could be green in eight to 10 years. Officials are also planning to expand the use of biodiesel for the city’s heavy vehicles, such as sanitation trucks. Biodiesel is produced from animal fats or vegetable oils and burns cleaner than traditional diesel.
The mayor’s plan also addresses conserving water and making it cleaner.
Among the initiatives is a pilot program to reintroduce mollusks as natural bio-filters. The city plans to create a habitat of ribbed mussel beds in a tributary to Jamaica Bay. If successful, the program could be expanded to wastewater treatment plants.
Also, to lower water usage in the city, starting in 2008, the city will launch rebate programs encouraging the installment of efficient toilets, urinals and washing machines.
And for that extra 1 million people expected to join the population by 2030, more housing is needed.
The plan calls for creative ways to create additional housing units, such as building platforms over exposed railyards, which connects neighborhoods, and providing hundreds of acres of new space for housing, schools and parks.