GRIDLOCK CITY

Traffic congestion in New York City has been a problem for decades.  According to an annual study by Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the New York metro area now ranks number one in the entire country when it comes to traffic – surpassing even Los Angeles for the first time in almost 40 years.  In 2019, after decades of political obstruction, state lawmakers finally passed congestion pricing legislation affecting Manhattan below 60th street, but that plan is now on hold.  What exactly is happening with congestion pricing?  Is there a solution to easing the city’s gridlock problem?  Joining us tonight to discuss the issue is Sam Schwartz, also known as “Gridlock Sam”, who is a former New York City Traffic Commissioner and an expert in traffic and infrastructure.

Aired on July 28, 2022

TRANSCRIPT

> GOOD EVENING, AND WELCOME TO 'METROFOCUS.'

I'M RAFAEL PI ROMAN.

TRAFFIC IN NEW YORK CITY HAS BEEN AN INTRACTABLE PROBLEM FOR DECADES AND DESPITE THE CITY WAS LOCKED DOWN FOR A YEAR, GIVING US EERIE IMAGES OF EMPTY STREETS IN TIMES SQUARE, CONGESTION IS BACK.

IN FACT, IF ANYTHING, IT SEEMS TO PANDEMIC HAS MADE THE PROBLEM WORSE.

ACCORDING TO AN ANNUAL STUDY BY TEXAS A&M, THE NEW YORK METRO AREA NOW RANKS NUMBER ONE IN THE ENTIRE COUNTRY WHEN IT COMES TO TRAFFIC, SURPASSING EVEN LOS ANGELES FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ALMOST 40 YEARS.

IN 2019, AFTER DECADES OF POLITICAL OBSTRUCTION, STATE LAWMAKERS FINALLY PASSED CONGESTION PRICING LEGISLATION BELOW 50th STREET, BUT THAT PLAN IS ON HOLD.

TO JOIN US TO TALK ABOUT CONGESTION PRICING AND TALK ABOUT THE GATEWAY PROJECT IS SAM SCHWARTZ, OTHERWISE KNOWN AS GRIDLOCK SAM.

SAM IS A FORMER NEW YORK CITY TRAFFIC COMMISSIONER, EXPERT IN NEW YORK INFRASTRUCTURE AND ONE OF THE EARLIEST AND GLOBAL PROPONENTS OF CONGESTION PRICING.

GOOD TO BE HERE.

FOR PEOPLE WHO DON'T KNOW WHY YOU'RE GRIDLOCK SAM, YOU COINED THAT TERM.

I WAS READING A SPANISH ARTICLE THAT USED THAT TERM.

YOU ARE INTERNATIONAL.

ANY WAY, SAM, FIRST OF ALL, COULD YOU GIVE US A QUICK CONGESTION OF CONGESTION PRICING?

WHAT IS IT AND WHY DO YOU BELIEVE, AS UP FOR DECADES, THAT NEW YORK CITY NEEDS IT?

A CONGESTION PRICING PLAN THAT WAS PASSED BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE INVOLVES THE AREA OF MANHATTAN SOUTH OF 60th STREET.

THERE ARE VERY FEW DETAILS.

IT JUST MEANS ANY MOTOR VEHICLE ENTERING THAT AREA OF MANHATTAN SOUTH OF 60th STREET WILL BE CHARGED.

HOW MUCH, WE DON'T KNOW.

WE'RE WAITING FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT.

WE KNOW IF YOU COME ACROSS SOME OF THE BRIDGES YOU ALREADY PAY A TOLL.

WILL YOU GET THAT BACK OR GET SOME KIND OF REBATE?

WE DON'T KNOW THAT.

WE ALSO KNOW THAT IF YOU'RE TAKING THE FDR DRIVE OR THE WESTSIDE HIGHWAY YOU WILL BE EXCLUDED IF IT'S USED AS A THROUGH TRIP, MEANING YOU'RE COMING DOWN THE HENRY HUDSON PARKWAY AND TAKING THE WEST SIDE HIGHWAY TOWARD THE BATTERY TO HOME.

YOU WON'T BE CHARGED.

FOR THOSE PEOPLE WITH INCOME OF $60,000 OR LESS, THEY WON'T BE CHARGED IF THEY HAVE TRIPS WITHIN THE CONGESTION ZONE.

AND THERE MAY BE SOME OTHER FEATURES SUCH AS TIME OF DAY, DAY OF WEEK, THAT GET ADD.

ONCE WE KNOW THE DETAILS.

BUT WE DON'T HAVE VERY MANY DETAILS BEYOND THAT.

SO, YOU KNOW, THE TEXAS A&M STUDY, I MEAN, I KNEW IT BEFORE IT CAME OUT.

I LIVE IN BROOKLYN.

THE CONGESTION IS EVERYWHERE, NOT JUST IN MANHATTAN.

LET ME ASK YOU, TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU BELIEVE THE DELIVERY TRUCKS, CARS AND BIKES THAT PROLIFERATED AT THE HEIGHT OF THE PANDEMIC AND APPEAR TO HAVE BECOME A PERMANENT FEATURE AND THE OUTDOOR DINING THAT HAS ALSO APPEARED TO HAVE BECOME A PERMANENT FEATURE, TO WHAT EXTENT DO YOU THINK THEY'VE CONTRIBUTED TO THIS CONGESTION?

EVERYTHING HAS CONTRIBUTED TO THE CONGESTION.

IT'S ALSO THIS UNFOUNDED FEAR OF RIDING TRANSIT, THAT YOU'RE MORE LIKELY TO CONTRACT THE VIRUS, EVEN THOUGH STUDIES HAVE SHOWN THAT THERE'S NO EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT THAT.

AND MANY CAR COMMUNITIES, WITH NO TRANSIT, HAVE SUFFERED GREATLY.

SO WE ALSO HAVE THIS SITUATION WHERE PEOPLE AREN'T TAKING TRANSIT AND DRIVING, SO CAR DRIVING, AUTOMOBILE DRIVING IS AT 100% NOW.

BUT TRUCKS ARE AT 110% TO 113% OF WHAT THEY WERE PREPANDEMIC, AND EACH TRUCK, FROM A TRAFFIC ENGINEER'S POINT OF VIEW, COUNTS AS TWO TO THREE TIMES ITS IMPACT OF A PASSENGER CAR ON TRAFFIC.

SO 10% MORE TRUCKS COULD BE 20% TO 30% MORE TRAFFIC IN EQUIVALENCY.

IF YOU THINK TRAFFIC IS WORSE THAN EVER, YOU'RE RIGHT, IT IS WORSE THAN EVER.

A LOT HAS TO DO WITH OUR HABITS.

WE THINK WE HAVE ROOM SERVICE NOW, AND EVERY DWELLING IN NEW YORK CITY.

WE CAN JUST GO ONLINE, ORDER FOOD, ORDER GOODS, NOT HAVING TO GO TO THE STORE, AND A TRUCK WILL COME AND DELIVER THAT.

SO WE'RE PART OF THE PROBLEM.

SO, YOU KNOW, AS I SAID IN THE INTRODUCTION, YOU HAVE BEEN ADVOCATING FOR SOME SORT OF CONGESTION PRICING SINCE THE LINDSEY ADMINISTRATION, BUT ALL ATTEMPTS TO IMPLEMENT CONGESTION PRICING OVER THE PAST 50 YEARS FAILED UNTIL-PASSED IN ALBANY IN APRIL OF 2019.

BUT OBVIOUSLY HAS NOT BEEN IMPLEMENTED YET.

DURING THE GUBERNATORIAL DEBATE, GOVERNOR HOCHUL SAID, QUOTE, NOW IS NOT THE RIGHT TIME FOR CONGESTION PRICING AND, QUOTE, IT'S NOT GOING TO HAPPEN IN THE EX YEAR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

WHY?

WHY THE HOLD UP?

RAFAEL, AS YOU POINT OUT, I HAVE BEEN INVOLVED WITH CONGESTION PRICING SINCE THE LINDSEY ADMINISTRATION, AND WE THOUGHT WE HAD IT BACK THEN AND AN ACT OF CONGRESS STOPPED IT.

EVERY TIME OVER THE PAST 50 YEARS, PEOPLE HAVE SAID, NOW IS NOT THE RIGHT TIME.

PEOPLE ARE SUFFERING IN CONGESTION, OUR TRANSIT SYSTEM NEEDS STABLE FORM OF REVENUE, AND CONGESTION PRICING ADDRESSES BOTH OF THEM.

I THINK THE GOVERNOR IS IN AN ELECTION BATTLE.

THIS IS AN ELECTION YEAR.

AND I BELIEVE POLITICS ARE BEHIND STATEMENTS LIKE THAT BECAUSE IT'S VERY EASY TO ATTACK CONGESTION PRICING AS A POPULIST ISSUE, AND SAYING, WHO WANTS TO PAY MORE AS OPPOSED TO, WHAT ARE THE BENEFIT OF CONGESTION PRICE?

THE OTHER IS THAT THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT DID NOT TELL THE MTA, UNTIL THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION, WHAT TYPE OF ENVIRONMENTAL STUDY IT WOULD LIKE TO SEE OR REQUIRE.

SO THE -- FINALLY THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION SAID, IT'S AN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT, WHICH IS LESS ONEROUS THAN AN ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENT, BUT THE FEDERAL HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION,S THAT NEVER SEEN CONGESTION PRICING BEFORE, HAD OVER 400 QUESTIONS POSED TO THE MTA.

SO WHAT IS HOLDING UP THAT PROJECT THAT OFFERS $15 MILLION TO THE TRANSIT SYSTEM?

A LOT OF BUREAUCRACY, A LOT OF PAPER WORK, A LOT OF NEEDLESS CALCULATIONS OF HOW THIS MIGHT AFFECT SOMEBODY 50 MILES AWAY FROM NEW YORK CITY.

THIS IS AN ENVIRONMENTALLY SOUND PROGRAM.

IT'S WHAT THE EPA WAS SET UP TO DO, AND YET THE FEDERAL HIGHWAY ADMINISTRATION IS TAKING A DIFFERENT TACT.

BUT SAM, AS YOU SAID, IT'S JUST POLITICS AND IT'S AN ELECTION YEAR, AND THAT WOULDN'T MATTER IF IT WAS WILDLY POPULAR, BUT IT ISN'T WILDLY POPULAR, AT LEAST AMONG ALL NEW YORKERS, AND THAT IS BECAUSE OF THE CRITICISM, THE MOST STRIKING CRITICISM THAT'S LASTED FOR ALL THESE DECADES, WHICH IS THAT IN EFFECT CONGESTION PRICING IS A REGRESSIVE TAX HITTING THE OUTER BOROUGH WORKERS WHO HAVE TO DRIVE TO NEW YORK TO MAKE THEIR LIVING HARDEST.

HOW DO YOU RESPOND TO THAT?

A LOT OF PEOPLE ARE ALREADY PAYING IT.

WE HAVE FORMS OF CONGESTION PRICING.

EVERY SINGLE MOTOR VEHICLE ENTRY FROM NEW JERSEY, PEOPLE ARE CHARGE.

THEY HAVE BEEN CHARGED FOR NEARLY 100 YEARS THEY WERE CHARGED A TOLL.

BRIDGES WERE ALL BUILT WITH TOLES IN MAYOR GAYNOR IN 191 REMOVED THEM.

EVERY ENTRY POINT INTO STATEN ISLAND ALREADY HAS TOLES.

AS FAR AS I'M CONCERNED SOME OF THE TOLLS ARE IN THE WRONG PLACE.

THE MANHATTAN CENTRAL BUSINESS DISTRICT IS SUFFERING.

IF YOU'RE A DRIVER, YOUR HEALTH IS BEING IMPAIRED BY THE FUMES, BY THE TIME IT'S TAKING YOU.

YOU'RE LOSING MONEY BECAUSE DELIVERIES TAKE A LOT LONGER FOR YOU TO GET TO YOUR DESTINATION TAKES LONGER.

SO IT'S IN EVERYONE'S INTEREST TO TRY TO RESOLVE CONGESTION, AND ONE OF THE BEST WAYS TO RESOLVE CONGESTION IS GET MORE PEOPLE UNDERGROUND, AND THAT'S WHAT CONGESTION PRICING DOES.

LET'S TALK ABOUT THAT.

YOU KNOW, YOU SAID THAT IT'S NOT ACCURATE, IT'S NOT REAL FOR PEOPLE TO FEAR THE SUBWAY BECAUSE OF COVID, BUT I THINK THAT THE REASON PEOPLE ARE FEARING THE SUBWAY IS LESS TO DO WITH COVID AND MORE TO DO WITH CRIME.

CAN YOU, REGARDLESS OF THE CONGESTION ABOVE GROUND, CAN YOU REALLY GET RIDERSHIP BACK, WHICH IS STILL ABOUT 60% OF WHAT IT WAS, AT LEAST IN THE DISTRICT AREAS OF MANHATTAN.

CAN YOU GET IT BACK TO PRECOVID LEVELS WITHOUT THE CITY TAKING CONTROL OF CRIME BELOW GROUND?

YEAH, OBVIOUSLY THE CITY HAS TO ADDRESS CRIME, BUT I'M A LONG-TERM NEW YORKER, STARTING OUT IN BROWNSVILLE, BROOKLYN, IN THE '40s, AND I SAW THE CITY GOING DOWNHILL FOR MANY YEARS.

THE SUBWAY SYSTEM OF THE '70s WAS IN AWFUL SHAPE, AND THERE WAS PLENTY OF CRIME, AND NEW YORKERS ULTIMATELY CAME BACK TO THE TRANSIT SYSTEM.

THEY WILL.

THERE WILL BE A LASTING EFFECT FROM BOTH THE CRIME, WHICH IS NOT JUST BELOW GROUND.

IT'S ABOVE GROUND.

BUT WHEN SOMETHING HAPPENS ON THE 'A' TRAIN, IT COULD BE IN THE ROCKAWAYS.

PEOPLE IN BROOKLYN WILL SAY, THAT'S MY TRAIN.

IN THE BRONX, IT'S MY TRAIN.

SO IT'S DIFFERENT THAN IF AN ABOVE GROUND INCIDENT OCCURRED.

HE'S SAYING WE'VE GOT TO GET A HANDLE ON CRIME.

WE HAVE ABOUT THREE MINUTES LEFT.

I'VE GOT TO TURN TO THE GATEWAY PROJECT.

FIRST OF ALL, REALLY QUICKLY, TELL US WHAT THE GATEWAY PROJECT IS.

AS I SAID IN THE INTRODUCTION, IT'S MAKING HEADLINES LATELY.

WHAT HEADLINES?

THE GATEWAY PROJECT DEALS WITH THE TWO TUNNELS THAT WE HAVE FOR TRANSIT COMING IN FROM NEW JERSEY TO NEW YORK, AND THAT MEANS GOING UP AND DOWN THE EAST COAST, THE AMTRAK LINES.

THOSE TUNNELS ARE OVER 110 YEARS OLD.

BY THE TIME WE GET ANY IMPROVEMENT THEY'LL BE 130 YEARS OLD, AND THEY'RE SINGLE TRACK TUNNELS, AND WE'RE RELYING ON THEM TO TAKE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE INTO MANHATTAN DAILY.

THIS WOULD DOUBLE THE TUNNEL CAPACITY.

IT WOULD ADD TRACKS AT PENN STATION.

IT WOULD MAKE CONNECTIONS TO PENN STATION COULD CONNECT TO METRO NORTH AND BEYOND.

THE HEADLINES THAT IT MADE WERE THE GOVERNOR OF NEW JERSEY AND GOVERNOR HOCHUL AGREED THEY WOULD SPLIT THE COST FOR THE PRELIMINARY STEPS OF THE PLAN.

BUT A LOT OF PEOPLE SAYING, WAIT A MINUTE, THIS SERVES THE COMMUTERS OF NEW JERSEY.

WHY SHOULD WE PAY HALF?

FIRST OF ALL, IT SERVES AMTRAK.

ALL OF US, EVEN IF WE'RE NEW YORKERS, WE BENEFIT BY HAVING AN AMTRAK THAT WILL TAKE US TO WASHINGTON, D.C. AND OTHER POINTS SOUTH -- PHILADELPHIA.

WE ALSO BENEFIT FROM PEOPLE THAT COME INTO THE AREA FROM NEW JERSEY.

WE'RE A REGION, AND WE SHOULDN'T LOOK AT THESE ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES OF THE FIVE BOROUGHS AND SAY, LET'S ONLY CARE ABOUT THE PEOPLE IN THE FIVE BOROUGHS.

WE NEW YORKERS BENEFIT BY HAVING THOSE PEOPLE IN NEW JERSEY GET HERE BY TRANSIT AS OPPOSED TO DRIVING --

RIGHT, IT WILL HELP CONGESTION, OF COURSE.

SO FINAL QUESTION, GIVE ME PREDICTIONS -- WILL CONGESTION PRICING BE IMPLEMENTED NEXT YEAR?

IF NOT, WHEN?

AND WILL THE GATEWAY PROJECT GET OFF THE GROUND IN QUICKLY.

CONGESTION PRICING WILL HAVE TO BE IMPLEMENT IN THE 2023, BECAUSE 2024 IS ANOTHER STATE ELECTION YEAR.

AND GATEWAY IS OFF AND RUNNING.

IF WE HAVE A CHANGE IN ADMINISTRATION IN WASHINGTON IT COULD BE HELD UP AGAIN.

OKAY.

WELL, SAM, WE'RE GOING TO HAVE TO END IT THERE.

THANK YOU SO MUCH AS ALWAYS.

GREAT TO TALK TO YOU.

THANKS FOR JOINING US TODAY.

YOU'RE QUITE WELCOME, RAFAEL.

GOOD TO BE HERE.

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