New York State lawmakers gave a cordial but cool reception yesterday to the congestion pricing plan proposed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, asking whether it amounted to a regressive tax on middle-class drivers and whether its costs were worth the promised benefits.
The plan, which would charge cars and trucks a flat fee to drive in Manhattan below 86th Street, earned crucial support this week when it was endorsed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and by federal transportation officials. The city is under consideration for as much as $500 million in federal grants for a pilot congestion pricing plan, enough to pay for all the start-up costs of the system.
Under the plan, it would cost $8 to drive a car and $21 to drive a truck into the congestion zone between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays, when traffic in Manhattan is worst. But those fees, like many elements of the sweeping city-planning initiative Mr. Bloomberg unveiled last month, would require Albany’s approval.
Speaking at an Assembly hearing in Midtown Manhattan yesterday before a mostly supportive audience of labor leaders and environmental and mass transit advocates, Mr. Bloomberg argued that congestion pricing would bring benefits beyond merely reducing traffic in the city’s central business district, from new revenue for subway improvements to lower asthma rates among city children and reduced carbon dioxide emissions from the city over all.
“When idling cars and trucks stack up on our roads and at our tunnels and bridges, they produce more than just ulcers and hair-trigger tempers,” the mayor said. “They pump deadly pollution into the air that we and our children breathe.”
But Mr. Bloomberg did not appear to make many inroads among the more than a dozen members of the State Assembly who appeared at the hearing yesterday, including many from the boroughs outside of Manhattan and the city’s suburbs. Indeed, rather than resolve any battles, Mr. Bloomberg’s answers seemed only to draw the lines for future ones in Albany.
“There are still a lot of questions that have to be answered and have not been answered,” said Herman D. Farrell Jr., a Manhattan Democrat. “This present bill, as it’s given to us, it’s like the Ragu commercial, ‘It’s in there.’ But it’s not.”
Cities and towns in New York generally must seek state approval to institute new fees and taxes, as well as to create new public authorities, as Mr. Bloomberg has proposed.
The hearing did feature occasional light moments. Richard L. Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat, expressed civil liberties concerns about the cameras that would be installed to track cars as they drive in and out of Manhattan. He asked Mr. Bloomberg what people would think if President Bush proposed a similar plan.
“If George Bush had come out for motherhood and apple pie, everybody would be against it,” Mr. Bloomberg said.
Mr. Bloomberg tried several times to defuse skepticism about the plan by pointing out that it called for only a three-year pilot project, many costs of which could be paid through the federal grants. But several members challenged him on the point, saying that the legislation as proposed left it up to city officials whether or not to keep the system in place at the conclusion of the pilot phase.
“It’s entirely at the mayor’s discretion whether or not to continue the project,” said Rory I. Lancman, a Queens Democrat. Mr. Farrell noted that state officials had already given the mayor broad policy powers in one area — control of the city’s schools — and that “a lot of people are not happy now.”
Some lawmakers also questioned Mr. Bloomberg’s plans to create a new public authority to control the roughly $380 million in revenue the program would obtain each year. Under the legislation, which was introduced in the Senate on Thursday, that authority would also give the city more power over the completion of some major projects, like the Second Avenue subway.
Mr. Spitzer, among others, has said he would prefer that that money remain in the control of existing authorities like the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or the Port Authority.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Mr. Bloomberg was asked if he might be willing to part with the new authority if it would help push through the bill.
“I think we’d be happy to talk about anything,” Mr. Bloomberg said. “There’s nothing that we shouldn’t be willing to talk about.”
Precisely how the proposal will be received more broadly among lawmakers in Albany remains unclear. Only two weeks remain in the legislative session there, and the congestion proposal is only one of several elements of the mayor’s plans that require legislative approval, to say nothing of the governor’s and lawmakers’ own priorities.
But Scott M. Stringer, a former assemblyman who is now Manhattan’s borough president, said he thought the hearing had moved the proposal forward.
“I got a sense that there’s great possibilities here, based on the questions asked and the mayor’s responses, and that there is plenty of time to make something happen,” said Mr. Stringer, who has endorsed Mr. Bloomberg’s plans, along with a broad coalition of businesses, unions and civic groups. “Two weeks is a lifetime in the legislative process.”