IMAGE: BLOOMBERG
Tina Fineberg  /  AP
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sunday announces his proposals for a greener city.
updated 4/24/2007 9:52:34 AM ET 2007-04-24T13:52:34

Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself has said the idea of charging motorists extra to drive into Manhattan's busiest areas is so politically thorny that it could never happen.

The state legislature in Albany, which must approve of the plan, "will never let us do it," Bloomberg said not long ago.

But Bloomberg's administration is charging ahead anyway: First thing Monday morning, its lobbying campaign began with a rally on the steps of City Hall, and it will continue this week in meetings with every legislator in Albany, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff said.

The administration faces considerable opposition that includes driver advocates such as AAA New York, national trucking industry leaders and elected officials, including those who represent the neighborhoods of commuters who drive into Manhattan each day and would have to pay the proposed $8 fee.

Some opponents complain that Manhattan will get the benefit of reduced congestion, while drivers who still commute from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island, New Jersey and upstate New York will shoulder the financial burden. And outer borough businesses that make deliveries face an even higher charge of $21 for trucks entering the zone, which extends south from 86th Street. The zone includes the city's main business, financial and shopping districts and many of its most famous landmarks and tourist attractions, such as Wall Street, Broadway and Central Park.

State Sen. John Sabini, a Queens Democrat who sits on the transportation committee, said support for the mayor's plan "begins to evaporate outside the boundaries" of Manhattan.

Them vs. us mentality
In the early stages of the battle, it is beginning to take shape as the age-old struggle between an out of touch Manhattan-centric mayor and the working people in the outer boroughs. Some say that gap widened last week, when Bloomberg shrugged off the fee by comparing it to the price of a movie.

"It sounds like a lot of money, but you go to the movies, it's 12 bucks, so let's put some of this stuff in perspective here," he said. "People that drive into the city generally — you have to be careful to not say everybody — but if you look at the statistics, tend to be people that can afford it, because otherwise they'll take mass transit."

Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, who represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is running for mayor in 2009, opposes congestion pricing and said those comments show a misunderstanding of middle-class concerns.

"This proposal is not only something that divides us geographically, but it does create class conflict," he said. "There are people who would gladly pay $8 or even $80 to get around town, but for a lot of people I represent, they're going to be forced to pay this because they don't have any choice."

The Bloomberg administration, along with environmentalists and alternative transportation enthusiasts, say everyone will benefit from less traffic and the transit projects that will be funded by hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues. The city also promises congestion pricing won't happen without upgrades to other transit options such as rapid buses in underserved areas, giving commuters another choice if they elect not to drive.

TV ads possible
Bloomberg promised last week he would "fight like heck" to make his case. The city has already begun lobbying, and legislation will be formally drawn up shortly, Doctoroff said. Aides say the campaign could possibly include television advertising.

Meanwhile, the administration is applying for federal funding to finance the three-year pilot program, with a startup cost estimated at $225 million.

Officials say the timeline depends on Albany, but the written plan put together by the mayor's Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability proposes to have the system up and running by spring of 2009.

So if congestion pricing is such a heavy lift _ and many say long shot _ why would the second-term mayor take it on now, with fewer than 1,000 days left in office? Perhaps to get the credit down the road, observers say.

"He's at least starting the conversation, he's putting it on the table to debate," said Douglas Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. "Now, maybe it's dead on arrival, but there will be a lot of talking about it before it's pronounced dead."

Bloomberg, who has his legacy to keep in mind, enjoys the idea of being portrayed as a maverick leader unafraid to make unpopular decisions, such as banning smoking from clubs and bars and removing artificial trans fats from restaurant menus.

During a speech on Sunday, he compared himself to leaders who had the vision to propose a sprawling Central Park in the 1850s, when much of Manhattan was still undeveloped, or those who said before the turn of the century that the subway system should extend into what was then still the countryside.

"This is our opportunity to make the type of history that future generations will recognize and that future mayors will invoke on Earth Day," he said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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