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Mayor Fields Tough Questions From Lawmakers On Congestion Pricing

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The mayor gave nearly two hours of testimony Friday morning at the first in a series of State Assembly hearings in Midtown, going straight to the heart of the matter and urging lawmakers to approve his controversial congestion pricing plan.

"Time is running out on us," he told Assembly members. "We have a unique opportunity for federal money... Now is the time to do this."

Bloomberg's plan to charge cars $8 and trucks $21 to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan during rush hour is a critical part of his overall plan for a more sustained New York and has picked up support from both Governor Eliot Spitzer and the Bush Administration.

Calling those who live within the five boroughs and commute into Manhattan “the great beneficiaries of this plan," the mayor reassured lawmakers that the $225 million required to implement the new system would be entirely covered by federal money, with any leftover funds going toward improvements in mass transportation.

The congestion pricing plan, "not only gives us the money to improve mass transit, but it also discourages people from using cars," Bloomberg told skeptical Assembly members, keeping the focus on the environmental benefits of the scheme.

"Cars and trucks stack up on our roads and at our tunnels and bridges and they produce more than just ulcers and hair-trigger tempers, they pump deadly pollution into the air that we and our children breathe," said Bloomberg. "The greenhouse gases they emit ratchet up the global warming that threatens our environment and endangers our future and the hours lost in transit delays do drain jobs and opportunity out of our economy — something that we can ill afford."

Bloomberg, who kept a green apple next to him during the testimony, said his administration expects $380 million in net revenue the first year of the plan alone, much of which he said would be reinvested in mass transit improvements.

Democrat Richard Brodsky of Westchester was the most vocal in his opposition to congestion pricing, saying it unfairly discriminates against New Yorkers who can't afford the $8 "tax," as he called it, adding to the gentrification of the city.

"Access to things that are traditional New York City are being handed out on a class basis," said Brodsky.

Brodsky also questioned whether the city's cameras would invade the privacy of countless drivers, scanning for license plates to charge motorists who cross into much of Manhattan during rush hour.

"Those who think this is a civil liberties issue aren't being terribly realistic,” responded the mayor.

A similar plan has been in place in central London since 2003, and has been hailed by experts as a success in reducing commuter congestion, but Brodsky called the British city one of the most class-divided in the world, providing further evidence that the pricing scheme would only contribute to the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in New York City.

"Long Island City, Ridgewood, Astoria, we're in the ring," said Queens Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan. "We're in the neighborhoods that unfortunately, I read the DMI blog, in London are called the 'rat run' neighborhoods, because those are the neighborhoods people park in so they can avoid the London congestion price fee. And I really don't want to feel that my neighborhood starts to be called the 'rat run' neighborhood."

Brodsky called on the Bloomberg Administration to at least explore an alternative to the pricing plan, such as a program whereby drivers would be allotted time periods during which they could travel into the city, based on their license plate number, instead of on a pricing plan.

"For me, there are still a great many questions that need to be answered," said Nolan.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters met with the mayor and the governor yesterday and announced New York is one of nine cities eligible for a portion of $500 million in federal funds to help implement the plan.

The federal government will decide in August which city gets the money.

"This plan is bold, it's brave and it's long overdue,” said Peters. “It has a lot of daring, but with a little luck and the support of Albany, this plan just may have what it takes to get New York moving again, something that I think most of us in the Big Apple would have thought was next to impossible, but indeed it is not."

The funding would go towards the purchase of a complex system of cameras and scanners to collect the tolls.

"To produce better mass transit, clean our air, keep our economy strong and help reduce global warming, our pilot program on congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” said Bloomberg.

The mayor added that traffic congestion leads to health and economic problems that have to be addressed and Peters agreed.

"This plan will keep the city that never sleeps from becoming the city that never moves,” said Peters. “It cannot be easy for a politician to propose charging commuters more money to enter Manhattan, but the mayor's plan is sound, and the mayor's plan will work."

The governor also said Thursday that he favors the plan in concept, but congestion pricing still needs to be approved by the full state legislature.

"I am in favor of embracing a model relating to congestion pricing,” said Spitzer. "We are, as the mayor said, going to work together to make this happen and to work with our friends and allies in Albany."

Supporters say the tax will spur mass transit use and help the environment, but opponents worry many New Yorkers will suffer financially.

"It's a way to protect our public health," said Michael O'Loughlin of Campaign for New York's Future. "It's very important. It's a way to generate the revenue to build the mass transit systems that New York needs."

"To folks who end up paying another potentially $5,000 a year as this may well be similar to London, and they only earn $43,000 a year, and they must bring their car in for business purposes, this is a very, very heavy burden on them," said Walter McCaffrey, who is against congestion pricing.

The plan is awaiting approval by the full state legislature.

Debate has already started in Albany where Senate majority Leader Joe Bruno introduced the bill yesterday.

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