Saturday, March 22, 2008

Paterson Supports Congestion Pricing

Published: March 22, 2008

Gov. David A. Paterson added his support on Friday to the idea of charging drivers to enter the busiest sections of Manhattan, rescuing the controversial program from the brink of death by submitting a bill to the State Legislature to establish it.The turnaround came after an impassioned pitch to the governor from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg behind closed doors at City Hall on Wednesday, when Mr. Paterson privately expressed support for the proposal, city officials said. He warned the mayor that he first had to tell Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who has shown little inclination to approve it, the officials said.

Mr. Paterson’s blessing, which came as Bloomberg aides have been furiously lobbying the city and state lawmakers whose approval is needed for the program, could prove crucial in making the proposal to charge most drivers $8 to enter the zone below 61st Street on weekdays a reality.

Congestion pricing addresses two urgent concerns of the residents of New York City and its suburbs: the need to reduce congestion on our streets and roads, and thereby reduce pollution, and the need to raise significant revenue for mass transit improvement,” Mr. Paterson said in a statement.

Winning the support of Mr. Paterson, who has far more experience and good will among state lawmakers than his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, represents something of a coup for Mr. Bloomberg, who has made congestion pricing an important element of his second-term agenda.

But it by no means guarantees that any form of the bill will ultimately pass. Even though Mr. Bloomberg, who also has the support of Joseph L. Bruno, the Senate majority leader, can now count on two of the so-called three men in the room who run Albany, it is the third, Mr. Silver, whose approval has often slipped through the mayor’s grasp.

Still, the final stages of budget negotiations in Albany, which run up to the end of the state’s fiscal year — March 31 — are notorious for yielding deals linking unrelated priorities supported by each of the three men. Mr. Silver has many priorities of his own to bargain for and is believed to be less strident in his opposition than other Assembly members. Drivers already in the zone south of 61st Street, which includes Mr. Silver’s Lower East Side district, would not have to pay a fee.

As usual, Mr. Silver gave no real indication of which way he was leaning, and a spokesman, Dan Weiller, said, “Many of the concerns that have been expressed about this plan still exist.” He added that Mr. Silver continued to be concerned that there was not enough money to pay for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority capital plan and that “it’s not clear what transit improvements will be in place that will enable and encourage people to leave their cars at home.”

The proposal outlined in the draft legislation would charge drivers with an E-ZPass tag $8 a day to enter the zone on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., less any bridge or tunnel tolls they paid on the same day. Drivers without E-ZPass would pay $9 and would not receive credit for tolls.

The city stands to receive more than $350 million in federal funds for mass transit improvements if the congestion-pricing plan is approved by March 31, a timetable Mr. Bloomberg has been using to pressure lawmakers into approving it. The mayor and his allies have been working hard behind the scenes, wining and dining lawmakers and showing them the service improvements planned for their districts that the program could help finance.

But a few major issues need to be resolved before lawmakers will agree to vote for the proposal, said Jeff Kay, director of the mayor’s office of operations. He said that mayoral aides were considering creating a credit for low-income drivers and were looking to address the fact that city residents who now enter Manhattan via one of the toll-free bridges would have to pay $8, while those from areas like New Jersey would pay nothing because of $8 bridge or tunnel credits.

“Even we believe we won’t be able to do this unless that’s solved,” Mr. Kay said.

Given the wiles of Albany, it is unclear how strong Mr. Paterson’s support is and how it will alter the outcome. Some lawmakers took the fact that he quietly released a statement just before a holiday weekend rather than trumpeting his position at a news conference as a sign that he did not plan to muscle it through.

“Just the fact that the issue was alive for a year and earlier this week he had no position on it tells me he wasn’t overwhelmingly inclined to support it,” said David I. Weprin, a city councilman from Queens who is a candidate for city comptroller and opposes the proposal. “Even though he’s giving token support at this point, I can’t imagine him exerting real political capital to get this passed.”

But Errol Cockfield, a spokesman for the governor, dismissed that theory. “The governor clearly supports congestion pricing and has indicated that support by putting forward this bill,” he said. Others who had been critical of the proposal expressed a new optimism in the wake of Mr. Paterson’s endorsement.

“If the mayor and the governor listen to us and amend it as such I think there’ll be support for it,” said Micah Z. Kellner, an assemblyman representing the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island. “They see that this is just an opening volley, that this isn’t just a final finished document.”

Danny Hakim, in Albany, and William Neuman, in New York City, contributed reporting.

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