Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Gridlock Alert
By Paul Moses
The annual proposal to charge motorists for driving into Manhattan has arrived once again, as surely as the appearance of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Supporters call the concept “congestion pricing.” To opponents, it’s just a new tax.

I have to admit that I drive to work at Brooklyn College from my home in Marine Park. Occasionally, I drive into Manhattan on an evening or weekend to go to dinner or see a play or movie. That may give me a certain bias on this issue, but no greater than that of the Manhattan-centric proponents of this idea.

The key supporters remain the Partnership for New York City, a Manhattan business advocacy group, and the editorial page of The New York Times. The Partnership fumbled last year when, just after Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s re-election, it floated the idea to Times reporters. That produced a November 11, 2005 story with this lead:

“It is an idea that has been successful in London, and is now being whispered in the ears of City Hall officials after months of behind-the-scenes work by the Partnership for New York City, the city's major business association: congestion pricing.”

For a few minutes, the story created the illusion that this was a viable proposal. In actuality, it was dead on arrival. Bloomberg shot it down right away. Nonetheless, The Times followed up with an editorial that floated the idea anew, telling Bloomberg, “there's no time like the present to begin thinking about it.”

This year’s effort was much slicker. First of all, the Partnership relied on the well honed skills of Dan Klores Associates, a public relations firm that spins with the best. There was an odd alliance of convenience with environmental groups. Then there was the much-promoted release of a study with some startling numbers. And, of course, the Partnership released that study during prime gridlock season to influence public opinion on the issue.

As sometimes happens in these cases, the report uses data with great dexterity to create a scenario that is then further exaggerated in news reports. For example, The Times editorial on Dec. 10 said: “The argument for considering congestion pricing got a further boost last week with a study from the Partnership for New York City showing that clogged streets cost New York $13 billion a year.”

Well, actually that $13 billion figure in the report isn’t for New York City. It is for the entire metropolitan area, which includes all the traffic congestion in 13 counties in New Jersey and elsewhere. A headline in the Post – “Choked Streets Cost City $13B a year: Report” – reflected a similar error. The Partnership worded its news release more carefully, saying the study “identified more than $13 billion a year in losses to the New York Metropolitan Region’s economy.”

But a lot of that loss is, to put the best face on it, conceptual. For example, the report tallies up $2.8 billion for the excess cost of commuting to work, which it prices at up to $30 an hour. Do the Partnership’s corporate members now plan to reimburse employees $30 an hour for sitting in traffic on the way to work? That would certainly ease some of the stress.

The report lists a $2 billion cost in vehicle maintenance stemming from traffic congestion. Again, that cost to commuters in fuel and wear and tear on a car adds up – but for the commuter, not for a company based in Manhattan. Imposing an additional charge on that driver through congestion pricing won’t ease that burden.

The report also comes up with a figure in jobs lost due to excess traffic congestion – 52,000 – that was quoted in many news accounts. But a stretch is needed to arrive at that number. “The starting assumption of this calculation is that workers who must commute through congested areas, and lose time in doing so, will require higher pay,” the report says. Try that on the boss when you ask for your next raise.

My favorite part of the report is that it makes the claim that “The Partnership has not yet taken a position on how to solve the congestion problem.” Funny, but just a year ago, The Times reported that congestion pricing “was being whispered in the ears of City Hall officials after months of behind-the-scenes work” by the Partnership. What was being whispered, anyway?

One notion not raised in the report or the ensuing news coverage is that the real estate development advocated by Manhattan’s business community over the last three decades contributed enormously to the congestion now being lamented. Variances were granted for one office tower after another to be built higher than the zoning permitted. There were always environmental studies done concerning the projects’ impact – sometimes by the same consulting firm that worked on the Partnership’s new study. But only now is an alarm being raised that this density led to congestion with ominous prospects for both jobs and health (since traffic-induced air pollution leads to cancer, according to the new study).

The cumulative impact of so many zoning changes on the entire city needs to be considered in the future. The guy who owns a car in, say, Marine Park, needs to be aware that allowing greater density in developments in Manhattan – or downtown Brooklyn and Atlantic Yards –could lead to a new tax and other restrictions on driving. Coming on top of the already excessive cost of car insurance in Brooklyn, that’s asking a lot from drivers.

The problem, though – and this goes back to an issue we’ve raised at the Center for the Study of Brooklyn – is that a Manhattan-centric news media will give short shrift to those who look at this issue from that perspective. Last year, the Queens Chamber of Commerce issued a study opposing congestion pricing, which it said was bad for residents and businesses in Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx. There was one article about it in a major city paper – veteran Daily News political reporter Frank Lombardi covered it in a piece that appeared in the suburban edition in March – but for the most part, the Manhattan-based Partnership has dominated the conversation.
Paul Moses is a journalism professor at Brooklyn College and director of the Center for the Study of Brooklyn.