Congestion pricing, or charging drivers for entering — or sometimes even leaving — Manhattan south of 60th Street, appears to be gaining traction as a means of securing a new stream of revenue for mass transit.
And well over 100 people gathered in St. Albans on Tuesday night to discuss how the proposed new fees, tolls and promised upgrades to transit and highway infrastructure would help or Eastern and Southeast Queens.
The panel, put together by Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens) at the Robert Ross Johnson Family Life Center had speakers both pro and con, and those who said many concerns have to be addressed before putting any plan into place. Hyndman was succinct in her opening remarks.
“I want to know what you all think,” she told the residents in the room.
Supporters of the plan say similar models in places like London and Stockholm have led to reduced traffic congestion and pollution, and in some cases reduced rates of illness such as asthma — all while raising dedicated funding for mass transit.
Opponents and those at least questioning the wisdom said residents and business owners in vehicle-dependent Queens — “Most of Eastern Queens is not on the subway map,” Councilman Barry Grodenchik (D-Oakland Gardens) said — cannot be made to pick up the entire costs for services that traditionally have been lacking or non-existent for them.
Alex Matthiessen, a longtime advocate for congestion pricing, said newer proposals being talked up are vastly different from the failed proposal forwarded by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg a decade ago.
“That was very Manhattan-centric plan,” Matthiessen said. He said current proposals would reduce congestion Midtown and Downtown; reduce vehicle emissions; and raise money for mass transit.
He also said Queens residents would benefit from improved mass transit, while drivers would benefit from money dedicated to bridge and highway maintenance.
He said new tolls on structures like the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge would be offset by reductions in existing tolls on the Whitestone, Throgs Neck and other bridges.
Kate Slevin, senior vice president of the Regional Plan Association, said her group’s research determined that only about 4 percent of outerborough residents would wind up paying the new fees.
All on the panel said the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is in need of massive infusions of cash from multiple sources.
Tom Grech, president and CEO of the Queens Chamber of Commerce, told the audience he has reservations.
“I’m thinking about Tom Cat Bakery in Long Island City, and Donnelly Mechanical in Queens Village, businesses that have to go back and forth to Manhattan multiple times a day,” he said, saying it could cost businesses thousands of dollars per year.
He also pointed to the mass transit rescue plan put forward by NYC Transit President Andy Byford — “If anyone can get this done, he can,” Grech said — which could cost $40 billion or more.
“If you say congestion pricing can raise $1 billion per year, and you can leverage that to bond another $15 billion, where does the other $15 to $25 billion come from?” Grech asked. “I don’t want this borne on the backs of businesses and residents. How many times can you ask them for more?”
Lauren Paterno, a government affairs representative with AAA Northeast, said drivers already pay into the MTA through gas taxes, registration fees, tolls and other ways. She said any plan must provide for drivers’ concerns.
Matthiessen said the fairest way would be to cap such vehicles to one toll per day. He said not only would that not let costs pile up during a workday, it also would let drivers get more work done if they can do so in less traffic congestion.
Matthiessen also admitted that the plan would not be enough by itself.
“The answer to that isn’t to do nothing,” he said.
Natasha Saunders, a businesswoman on the dais representing the Riders Alliance, agreed, saying the city and state are running out of time, and soon may not be in the position to catch up to decades of neglect and underfunding.
“You can’t fix this with a midsized plan,” she said. “This is the equivalent of a stage 4 illness. This is a state of emergency.”
The elected officials in attendance kept their remarks brief, but to the point.
State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St Albans) and Councilman Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans) both said residents of Southeast Queens have little reason after decades of poor service and delayed projects to take anything the MTA has to say on faith alone.
Assemblyman David Weperin (D-Fresh Meadows), who opposes congestion pricing, believes that no reduction of tolls being offered up front will stay in place.
“Ask the people of Staten Island, who were told once the bonds on the Verrezzano Bridge were paid off that they’d have free tolls, what they think,” he said. Weprin favors a 1 percent commuters’ tax that would be divided evenly between the city and the MTA.
Several people spoke during a question-and-answer session, some favoring congestion pricing and others opposed.
Resident Amir Abbrady of Jamaica called on politicians and advocates in the room to do far more.
“You have to think bigger,” he said. “We’re being offered something that’s not going to fix our problem. Please think bigger.”