Fight not over for traffic fee

Foes plan summer battle

by patrick arden / metro new york

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JUN 25, 2007

CITY HALL. While the state Legislature closed its scheduled session last week without approving Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, opponents of the proposal know their victory may be short-lived.

A group of Queens residents joined their City Councilman here yesterday to try to drive a stake through the heart of the scheme before it’s resurrected in a special summer session in Albany.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno may have traded insults on Thursday, but both agreed the Legislature will reconvene to consider congestion pricing before July 16, the deadline set by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation for the project to be in the running for a possible $500 million grant.

“But there is no guarantee about this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow,” said David Weprin, D-Hollis, chair of the Council’s Finance Committee, who noted that New York was just one of nine finalists for the money. He called the business-day toll on drivers entering Manhattan a “tax” on the outer boroughs.

“I represent a district in eastern Queens that for most people is four or five miles from the nearest subway,” he said. “It is also not accessible to buses. You can’t tell me that they’re going to start building subways and changing bus lines in time if they’re going to adopt this congestion tax now.”

Yet that is the stated intention of the Bloomberg administration, which hopes to first increase bus service to areas that lack subway access before implementing congestion pricing. More than half of the projected $500 million federal grant would supposedly go for transportation improvements. For example, one neighborhood in Weprin’s district — Bayside — is already slated to get new and expanded bus service under the mayor’s long-term sustainability plan, dubbed PlaNYC.

Weprin, though, remains unconvinced.

“The mayor is asking Albany to act now on the congestion tax and to worry about the public transportation improvements later,” he said. “That’s backwards.”

He also insisted the July 16 deadline is “artificial,” pointing out that Transportation Secretary Mary Peters had previously changed the due date for application materials. But in the closing days of the Legislature’s session, Spitzer received a letter from U.S. DOT saying that if state approval came after July 16 “it is unlikely that New York City would be selected.”

Congestion-pricing opponents are gearing up for a showdown, explained Corey Bearak of the Queens Civic Congress, a coalition of 100 community groups. He vowed that every group in the Congress would ask its members to contact their state legislators.

“We’re talking in the tens of thousand of folks,” Bearak said. “We don’t want them to go back into session to deal with this tax.”

Helping the MTA

Revenue from congestion pricing is meant to benefit mass transit, helping the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority to improve service and keep fares low. Weprin said the city could be chipping in more without the traffic fee.

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