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Plowing thru congestion - Forum looks at modifying ‘pricing’

Members of the New York City Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, the state body charged with considering Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal and other ways to reduce traffic in Manhattan, heard testimony at Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights recently during a public hearing. The Brooklyn hearing occurred simultaneously with six other hearings on the matter throughout the region and was the last until the 17-member Commission issued its final report on January 31. The estimated $500 million a year raised from congestion pricing would go toward expanding and modernizing mass transit. Most of the discussion at the hearing revolved around the Commission’s modified proposal of Mayor Bloomberg’s original plan, which the Commission put forward on January 11 based on what it has gleaned from its public hearings. According to published reports before press time, the Commission was expected to submit this modified plan as its final recommendation. This modified plan calls for the “congestion zone” – in which drivers would be charged $8 to enter during weekdays – to be moved south from 86th Street in Bloomberg’s original plan to 60th Street. Under the modified plan, drivers would not be charged for trips within the congestion zone. Supporters of the modified plan hope to make up these revenues by charging those who enter the congestion zone from points north of 60th Street. Another financial advantage of the modified zone would be that the city would not have to create and pay for a complex network of E-Z pass readers and cameras necessary for tracking intra-zone trips. The modified plan also includes provisions to allow for residential parking permits, something many outer-borough residents and politicians – particularly in downtown Brooklyn – insist is a must before they support congestion pricing. These cautious supporters of the proposal fear that neighborhoods in downtown Brooklyn with access to good public transportation will be swarmed by drivers looking to park before they access public transportation. “Neighborhoods in downtown Brooklyn are at-risk of becoming ‘park and ride’ lots,” said Councilmember Letitia James, who represents the area that includes the Atlantic Avenue subway hub, the largest transit hub in Brooklyn. “Many drivers will seek to evade tolls by driving their vehicles, parking in our neighborhoods, and taking a short subway trip into Manhattan,” James continued. James and other residents are also fearful about a plan to create 7.5 acres of temporary parking near Atlantic Yards that would accommodate some 1,400 cars. “This is temporary, but temporary means 10 years,” said Gib Veconi, Chairman of the Prospect Heights Development Council. Residents near the future Atlantic Yards also fear plans that would rezone an area to the south and east of the site to allow for construction of indoor parking facilities. “There is a distinct possibility that parking will become a major industry in our neighborhood,” said Veconi. “[These potential parking lots] will draw a lot of cars to the neighborhood. We want the Commission to address this specifically. Even though it’s a localized impact, it’s very significant. The Commission needs to consider the possibility of rezoning so we don’t develop a major parking industry in this part of Brooklyn,” Veconi continued. Along with addressing the impact of the new parking in the area, residents of the area near Atlantic Yards, along with many other downtown Brooklyn residents, want the Commission to combat a potential “park and ride” problem is by creating a system of residential permit parking. “Residential parking permits are an absolute necessity for any fair congestion pricing plan,” James said. But Councilmember Lew Fidler, a staunch opponent of the congestion pricing who represents neighborhoods in outer Brooklyn, assailed the idea of parking permits. “Residential parking permits – to create neighborhoods where one may have them and one may not – is the most divisive thing that we can possibly do in the city of New York,” he said. As of press time, the it was not expected that the report would address the specifics of parking permits. In addition to addressing the issue of residential permits, Fidler spoke for many in the opponents in the audience when he called congestion pricing in general “objectionable on a moral and philosophical basis.” “By its very premise, the plan is meant to deter access to the heart of our city based on who can and who cannot afford to pay,” he said. With the exception of Assemblymember Vito Lopez, most downtown and northern Brooklyn residents in attendance supported the plan, albeit only if it were modified to include residential permit parking. Most outer Brooklyn residents in attendance opposed the plan. More than one downtown Brooklynite who testified at the hearing cited that over 40 percent of the vehicle traffic in the area is “cut-through” traffic. “Downtown Brooklyn is intrinsically linked to Manhattan when it comes to transportation. More than 40 percent of downtown Brooklyn’s traffic is just pass-through traffic. This results in the fact that almost all our intersections are unacceptably congested,” said Doug Giuliano of the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership. After the Commission makes its recommendation, the matter will next be sent to Mayor Bloomberg for his approval. After that, it will go before the City Council. Although the Council is divided on the measure, proponents hope that the support of both Speaker Christine Quinn and Transportation Committee Chair will drum up the necessary support. “It’s definitely a legislative hurdle, but we think the support is there,” said Wiley Norvell of Transportation Alternatives, which enthusiastically supports the Commission’s modified proposal. After that, the measure will then come before the State Legislature in Albany. The Federal Government has promised the city an immediate payment of $354 million to be used for transportation improvements if the Legislature passes the measure by March 31.

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