The clash sparked a debate about the merits of a new plan proposed by the Fix NYC panel, convened by Governor Andrew Cuomo, that recommended charging private cars $11.52 and trucks $25.34 for entering Manhattan south of 60th Street.
The panel also suggested a $2 to $5 surcharge for every every cab, Uber and other for-hire vehicle driving up to 96th Street. If enacted, the plan would generate more than $1 billion annually to fund fixes for the MTA.
Chanting and holding signs calling on elected officials to pass the plan, advocates from the advocacy group Riders Alliance said the congestion pricing proposal is a smart and progressive solution to the growing public transit crisis.
“We are sick and tired of grandstanding elected officials who are defending wealthy New Yorkers instead of working New Yorkers,” said Rebecca Bailin, a campaign manager with the Riders Alliance.
According to Bailin, delays on the subway systems have tripled in the last five years, with on-time performance down to less than 65 percent. Much of that is attributed to the decades-old signal system that needs modernization.
Bus ridership, hampered by congested streets, has dropped 16 percent between 2002 and 2015, advocates said. The result of unreliable, slow mass transit is hourly workers losing wages, families paying extra for childcare, and some commuters losing jobs.
Citing an October 2017 study by the Community Service Society (CSS), Riders Alliance pointed out that only four percent of the city’s outer-borough residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by car, and would be affected by the proposed toll.
Meanwhile, 56 percent of outer-borough residents use mass transit to get to Manhattan.
CSS also concluded that of the 4 percent of commuters who drive into Manhattan, more than half are considered high-income earners. Approximately 2 percent who are considered “working poor” would have to pay that fee.
“The numbers speak the truth,” Bailin said. “Are we privileging 4 percent of wealthy New Yorkers, or are we helping millions of transit riders?”
But opponents of the congestion pricing proposal, including business and civic leaders from Queens, slammed the plan as harmful to both residents and small businesses.
Assemblyman David Weprin, a longtime critic of congestion pricing, said his eastern Queens district is not accessible by public transportation, forcing residents to drive to Manhattan’s core business district.
While the assemblyman said he likes some ideas in the plan that would reduce congestion and that he supports fixing the subway, adding more tolls isn’t the way to go.
“We can discuss at another time many ways to have a funding stream for the MTA, there are many ways to do it,” he said. “But the way to do it is not on the backs of middle-class New Yorkers mostly from Queens and Brooklyn and the suburbs, as well as small businesses, which would be devastated by this proposal.”
For example, Weprin said he would support a “non-resident income tax,” which would charge people living outside New York City who commute to Manhattan for work.
Councilman Barry Grodenchik contended that the proposal won’t reduce congestion in Manhattan.
“If you think this is going to reduce congestion, I have a better idea for you, go wait for the Titanic to show up at New York Harbor,” he said.
The councilman, who represents neighborhoods that share a border with Long Island, said there is no subway or Long Island Railroad stop in his district. He has asked the MTA to add express bus service on the Q46, resurrect the Q75 from Oakland Gardens, and run LIRR trains to Belmont Park.
The MTA has not complied with his requests, Grodenchik said.
“In 1969, the MTA proposed building a subway to Queens College and out to Springfield Boulevard, I’m still waiting,” he said. “There is a level of distrust in eastern Queens and other part of New York City about the MTA that is on an Olympic level.
“I don’t believe them,” he added. “They don’t seem to be able to deliver, to want to expand services.”
State Senator Leroy Comrie, who represents southeast Queens, said the plan would also hurt the wallets of his constituents, who already have “the worst commute times” in the city. He noted that the five-year MTA plan doesn’t provide support for Queens residents.
“This congestion pricing is only going to be double taxation on Queens residents,” he said. “I’m against this plan as it stands.”
The proposal would need the approval of the state legislature in Albany. Comrie said he doesn’t believe it has a good chance in the State Senate at the moment, considering that Republicans have traditionally opposed these types of plans.
While some Democrats in Manhattan may support it, some outer-borough Democrats like Comrie are opposed to the plan.
Weprin said the Assembly will discuss the issue, and will try to convince his colleagues to side with him. Past congestion pricing plans, like the one former Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced a decade ago, never passed in the chamber.
“I think it’s worse than the original plan,” Weprin said. “The original plan was less money and didn’t have such a large zone. It only went to 14th Street and west of 6th Avenue.”
Thomas Grech, executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, said the Fix NYC panel didn’t have a small business representative from the outer boroughs, which was “hard to understand.”
“This is going to continue the exodus of companies out of New York and the area around the region,” he said. “It’s just unconscionable for it to be $25 per truck.”
But Toby Sheppard Bloch, a Riders Alliance member and member of Community Board 5 in Queens, said congestion pricing could actually help some businesses.
The Glendale resident operated a general contracting company for 15 years, and said crushing traffic was a “drag” on his business operations.
“When I really had a business requirement to be operating a vehicle in the city, I would have gladly paid $25 a day to not have wasted so much time and energy in traffic and not have such unexpectable travel times across the city,” he said. “My experience as a small business owner was that the unpredictability of transit time across the city was a real impediment on how I allocated vehicles and staff.”
In Glendale, which is considered a transit desert with no subway, Bloch said most of his neighbors don’t drive into the city. He said no matter what mode of transportation commuters use, what’s important is achieving convenient and affordable mobility around the city.
Bloch said he decided to counter-protest on Sunday because he’s frustrated with elected officials who are speaking for a small portion of their constituents who drive to work. According to a study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, 43 percent of residents in Weprin’s district take mass transit. Only 4.2 percent take their cars into Manhattan for work.
“We’ve reached the breaking point,” Bloch said. “The crisis has arrived, and there’s no more time for dithering over details and approaches. It’s time for elected leaders to act, and to act with the emergency that this crisis demands.”