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Wednesday, April 9, 2008

CONGESTION PRICING PLAN IS DEAD

ALBANY, NY -- State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver today that the
congestion pricing plan for New York City would not come to the floor
of the Assembly for a vote.

NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's ambitious dream to remake New York
with an elaborate plan for congestion pricing appeared to die today in
a private conference room on the third floor of the State Capitol.

It was there that Democratic members of the State Assembly, who
control the chamber, held one final meeting to debate the merits of
Mr. Bloomberg's plan, ultimately conferring, before Sheldon Silver,
the speaker, emerged to announce the outcome. The opposition was so
overwhelming, he said, that he would not hold an open vote of the full
Assembly, though many Republicans were supportive of Mr. Bloomberg.

"The congestion pricing bill did not have anywhere near a majority of
the Democratic conference, and will not be on the floor of the
Assembly," Mr. Silver, who represents the Lower East Side of
Manhattan, said after his meeting with fellow Democrats.

Today was the deadline for the Legislature to approve a congestion
pricing plan, a device that has been used in many cities worldwide,
like London, so that the city could qualify for $354 million in
federal grants for traffic mitigation and mass transit aid.

The collapse of the plan, which would have charged drivers $8 to enter
parts of Manhattan during peak hours, was a huge blow to Mr.
Bloomberg's environmental agenda and political legacy, and his second
major defeat at the hands of Mr. Silver and the state Assembly, which
in 2005 blocked the mayor's plan to redevelop the West Side railyards
and allow a big sports stadium to be built there.

"The word `elitist' came up a number of times," said Assemblyman Mark
Weprin, a Queens Democrat, who said his constituents overwhelmingly
opposed the measure. "The members who oppose it did so because their
constituents opposed it," Mr. Weprin said. He estimated that opinion
among Assembly Democrats ran four to one against the plan.

Assemblyman Ruben Diaz Jr., a Bronx Democrat, said it was "morally
reprehensible and unconscionable to subject the 1.4 million residents
of the Bronx to a potential double whammy consisting of a congestion
pricing tax with absolutely no guarantee that they will not be subject
to yet another transit fare hike in the near future and without
addressing traffic congestion concerns in any of the four boroughs
outside of Manhattan."

The mayor had furiously advocated the plan to state and city officials
for nearly a year and worked to assemble a coalition of business,
transportation, environmental and labor groups to support it. The
Legislature's approval was needed for the city to enforce the plan and
collect revenues and fines, money from which would have gone to the
Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital budget.

In recent weeks, the plan had seemed to gain momentum, as the mayor
managed to secure support from Governor Paterson and from the City
Council, which on March 31 voted, 30 to 20, to endorse it. But up
through this afternoon the fate of the plan had seemed uncertain. The
leader of the Republican majority in the State Senate, Joseph L.
Bruno, gave his support the plan, and even Mr. Silver, the Assembly
speaker, voiced partial support for it, while warning that he did not
believe the members of the Assembly's Democratic majority were convinced.

It was on April 22 last year, Earth Day, that the mayor unveiled his
plan for the traffic fees. Opposition quickly emerged, particularly
from residents and businesses outside Manhattan, but the plan won
support from Eliot Spitzer, the governor at the time, and from the
Bush administration. Mr. Silver was never really convinced, even
questioning the mayor's claim that his plan would reduce rates of
asthma and other respiratory ailments.

After weeks of keeping Albany guessing, on July 16, 2007, lawmakers
shelved the plan, for the time being. However, hope was kept alive,
and advocates of congestion pricing did not give up, as Albany agreed
to create a 17-member commission to study the issue and report back to
the Legislature.

The members of the commission held months of meetings, starting on
Sept. 25. The panel considered ideas like raising parking meter rates
and creating taxi stands, as well as imposing tolls on East River
bridges and also more fanciful ideas like license plate rationing,
under which cars would be barred from the area below 86th Street on
certain days, depending on their license plate.

On Jan. 31 of this year, the commission formally recommended a
congestion pricing plan substantially similar to what the mayor had
proposed nine months earlier. As he continued to lobby Albany before
today's deadline, the mayor offered sweeteners like a residential
parking permit program, but also encountered criticism from New Jersey
officials who feared that suburban commuters would bear a
disproportionate burden on the traffic fees.

Congestion Pricing: REST IN ETERNAL PEACE!
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