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N.Y. city driving tax looks more likely

New York City, where tolls are $6 and putting your car in a parking garage for just an hour can run you $20, is already an expensive place to drive. Now the mayor wants to make it so costly some people won't even bother driving and will take mass transit instead.
Congested traffic fills New York's Park Avenue on Thursday. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to ease Manhattan traffic through congestion pricing got a boost Thursday from the U.S. Transportation Departent.Richard Drew / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

New York City, where tolls are $6 and putting your car in a parking garage for just an hour can run you $20, is already an expensive place to drive. Now the mayor wants to make it so costly some people won't even bother driving and will take mass transit instead.

The idea got a boost Thursday from U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who announced that New York is one of nine semifinalists to receive federal funds to fight traffic.

"This plan would keep the city that never sleeps from becoming the city that never moves," Peters said of the congestion pricing plan.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg is proposing to reduce traffic and pollution by charging cars $8 and trucks $21 to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan.

New York would become the first U.S. city to adopt a "congestion pricing" plan of this magnitude. The proposal is similar to a system that London has used since 2003, and officials there say it has significantly reduced congestion.

It is part of an ambitious series of environmental measures that Bloomberg has been announcing in recent months. The city is converting all taxis to hybrid vehicles, and the Republican billionaire businessman is proposing to replace conventional light bulbs with more efficient ones, and cut New York's carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030.

Under the traffic plan, motorists would be charged extra to drive into Manhattan below 86th Street. That would include the Broadway theater district, most of Central Park, the midtown shopping area, Madison Square Garden, Times Square, the Empire State Building, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Chinatown, Wall Street and ground zero.

$400m in first year estimated
Backers say the plan would get cut traffic jams and pollution by discouraging driving, and would also generate nearly $400 million in just its first year — money that could go toward buses, subways and other mass transit.

The mayor's office projects that traffic in the restricted zone would decrease 6.3 percent.

Environmentalists have embraced the plan, but it would need approval from state Legislature, and many lawmakers from the city's outer boroughs and bedroom communities are against it.

"This is a tax on middle-class people," said state Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Democrat from suburban Westchester County who is chairman of one of the committees that will hold a hearing on the plan Friday. "This will stop the Chevrolets from coming in, not the BMWs."

But the plan appears to be gaining momentum among influential state leaders in Albany, where Bloomberg's package of environmental legislation was introduced Thursday. And Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer said he will urge lawmakers to support the plan so that New York will qualify for the money offered by Washington.

The other cities competing for a total of $1.1 billion in federal funds are Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Peters said up to five cities will split the money, and the winners will be announced by mid-August. Spitzer said New York will ask for $500 million — almost half the amount available.

State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, commended Bloomberg "for putting together a very creative plan to address what everyone recognizes is a very serious problem."

"Now that a bill has been introduced, we can review the facts and specifics and conduct an analysis of the costs and benefits to the public and to the environment," he added.

Cameras, not toll booths
There would be no toll booths under the plan, just a network of cameras that capture license plate numbers and either charge a driver's existing account or generate a bill to be paid each time. Trucks would be charged $21 a day and cars would pay $8 to enter the restricted zone on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Commuters who already pay a toll to come into Manhattan via tunnels and bridges could apply that against the new fee. For example, a person already paying a $6 toll to go through the Lincoln Tunnel would be charged an extra $2 under the plan.

Several bridges connecting Queens and Brooklyn to Manhattan have no tolls, so the hit for those drivers would be especially hard.

Bill Hickey, a TV cameraman from Westwood, N.J., who drives into the city, said he was "torn" about the plan. "I understand that the city has a problem with traffic and parking," he said. "But there's got to be a different solution."

Senior citizens who oppose the plan held a news conference at a Manhattan hospital, one of the places they said they must sometimes drive to.

"I had a friend I had to take in for radiation every day," said Robert Goldberg of Brooklyn. "There was no way he could take the subway."