Gridlock Sam’s Strategy to Ease Traffic Congestion

July 26, 2012 at 4:00 am

The man who coined the term “gridlock” visited the MetroFocus studio to talk with host Rafael Pi Roman about his radical plan for tolls on the East River Bridges, among other traffic-related issues.

Sam Schwartz has been working on transportation issues in the city ever since the Lindsay Administration. (And even before that, as a New York City cab driver.) In early March, Schwartz, a traffic engineer and former New York City Department of Transportation traffic commissioner, released his most unconventional idea yet, a blueprint of sorts for the future of New York City’s transportation infrastructure. He called his plan the More Equitable Transportation Formula for NY Metro Area.”

Schwartz’s plan proposes “fair pricing,” which adds tolls to the East River bridges (which are currently free) while also lowering the tolls on the bridges that do not enter Manhattan, such as the Throgs Neck and the Verrazano-Narrows. The goal is to discourage people from driving into “the central business district,” a.k.a. Manhattan.

“We can’t have more people in our central business district…the congestion is so severe,” Schwartz told Pi Roman. “The mayor projects another million people coming into New York City, how are we going to get them here? The trains are already filled up. You need to have more money for transit. You need to have fewer cars.”

Schwartz says his plan came about as a result of studying congestion pricing for 40 years.

Sam Schwartz has been thinking about traffic in NYC for more than 40 years. Photo courtesy of Sam Schwartz Engineering.

“Under the Lindsay administration we tried it, during the Koch administration that I worked for we tried it, Bloomberg tried it, and it always failed,” Schwartz told Pi Roman.

Congestion pricing reduces traffic by increasing the cost of driving into the most popular and overcrowded areas in a city. Singapore and London both have congestion pricing, but the idea has never been tried in the United States.

In 2007, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a congestion pricing plan that would have charged car drivers $8 to enter Manhattan south of 86th Street and $4 for trips within that zone. Those fees would have gone toward improvements in mass transit, and the city would also have had access to $354 million in federal grants for mass transit improvements, had congestion pricing been approved.

Schwartz’s plan also proposes a 50-cent toll for cyclists both entering and leaving Manhattan. He projects this will bring in $1.2 billion annually.

MetroFocus also spoke with Schwartz specifically about the three new cycling and pedestrian-only bridges, which The Wall Street Journal referred to as “fanciful initiatives,” back in March when his proposal was first unveiled.

He told us thenm that in order to make his dream a reality, he needed “a champion, a titan of industry.” So far that person has not stepped up. But we have a feeling Gridlock Sam won’t be giving up anytime soon.

“I am very optimistic,” he told Pi Roman. “Hey, I’ve only been at this for 45 years, why give up now?”

“MetroFocus: Transforming Transportation” premieres on Tuesday, July 24 at 10:30 p.m. on WLIW21; Wednesday, July 25 at 10:30 p.m. on NJTV; and Thursday, July 26 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.