Trucks at Work

Will it work?

So New York City is gearing up to be one of the first U.S. cities (I think - if anyone knows different, please correct me!) to try out “congestion pricing.” It‘s not a done deal yet - the plan is in limbo for now and must be approved by March 31 or disappear, probably for good - but I‘m betting it will eventually get the green light.

Here‘s why: based on the proposed $8 charge for entering Manhattan south of 86th Street every day during peak traffic hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday), annual revenue should roughly add up to $400 million in the first year and up to $900 million by 2030, according to rough figures compiled by public policy group Transport Alternatives.

The group notes that most delivery vehicles will be charged a flat $8 per day, regardless of how often they enter and exit this “congestion zone” in lower Manhattan, but it points out NYC has not yet defined the term “trucks.” So far, the definition does NOT include delivery vans and other two-axle vehicles with a maximum gross weight under 7,000 lbs -- meaning trucks with a GVW of over 7,000 lbs. and more than two axles will get charged more than $8 a day. What fun.

I am sure truckers are getting pretty steamed about the whole idea by now, but they're not alone: many local politicians, representing NYC boroughs that lack adequate access to bus routes and the subway, are none too happy with it, either. They see this as a burdensome tax on low-income workers that must commute downtown every day.

However, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg takes issue with that view. For one, he thinks reduced traffic congestion will significantly lower the amount of time trucks spend stuck in traffic, so the productivity increase will make up for (and in many cases, exceed) the congestion charge. A $1 fee added to taxi fares is also being considered, to provde an "offset subsidy" for commuters with jobs below a certain income level.

Mayor Bloomberg anticipates that this congestion pricing plan - dubbed “PlaNYC” - should foment a 6.5% reduction in the number of vehicles entering Manhattan south of 86th Street overall, with an 11% traffic reduction during peak hours - resulting in a 20% to 40% reduction in time loss to traffic delays.

So, here's the big question: how will the congestion fees be collected? Is NYC going to ring its streets with tollbooths? Well, no - at least that‘s the hope. The plan calls for using a combination of EZ Pass technology, combined with a camera system that‘ll scan license plate numbers, so cars and trucks don‘t have to slow down. The congestion fee then either gets assessed to a driver‘s EZ Pass account, or can be paid electronically, by mail, or at designated retailers -- based on that snashopt of your license plate, just like with red light cameras. (Probably not a comparison many like.)

Sounds crazy on the outside, I know, but London implemented a similar system a few years ago with few ill effects (so the news wires tell me) and at a higher cost -- $13 instead of $8. A 2006 Partnership for NYC study forecast traffic reductiosn similar to what London experienced by using congestion pricing. According to that study's estimates, traffic would drop in downtown Brooklyn (by 29%), Williamsburg/Greenpoint (by 24%), Long Island City (by 7%), Harlem (by 14%), the South Bronx (by 5%) and Flushing (by 3%).

Why NYC is doing this is no surprise. According to Environmental Defense, a national non-profit organization, even though only 5% of commuters drive into Manhattan‘s central business district (CBD) to work, the city suffers from some of the worst traffic congestion rates in the country, costing workers and businesses billions a year in lost time and heavily contributing to poor air quality.

Andy Darrell, regional director for Environmental Defense, said the congestion fees should guarantee that nearly half a billion dollars in annual revenue will be invested in mass transit expansion - helping cut a $30 billion backlog in capital investment needs. It‘s interesting to note that this is also an environmental group calling for the creation of a transit “lockbox” that guarantees revenue from these fees only goes to new transit expansion (wish some of these “green” folks would call for a similar lockbox for highway funding!)

But for now, we wait: the clock is ticking to see if all the vested interests in NYC can be wooed by the mayor to sign off on this plan. If it works, we may start to see similar efforts take root in other major metropolitan efforts. Yet ‘if‘ is a big word, despite it‘s small size - we‘ll have to see how it all plays out.