A proposed "congestion pricing" toll system to reduce traffic and pollution will be too expensive, its array of cameras for enforcement will threaten civil liberties, and downtown businesses will shrivel.
New York City, 2007?
Try London — 2002.
Those were the dire predictions a half-decade ago when the British city pioneered what New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hopes to repeat now. In London, the results include a drop in traffic congestion by 20 percent and a similar decrease in carbon emissions in London's central zone since 2003.
But the plan to help fight global warming, in which cars would be charged $8 and trucks $21 to drive into Manhattan south of 86th Street, will first have to get through state lawmakers in Albany on Monday. It faces some strong opposition and bad timing.
In London, where the fees were about double what Bloomberg proposes, "there was enormous opposition, both politically and from business owners and ultimately it was approved through a long and arduous political process, much like we have here," said Steven Polan, a Manhattan lawyer who worked for London's government on its congestion pricing plan after working for New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"The difference was," he said, "they don't have a state government there that stands between the federal government that wants to give out money and the city that wants to get it."
The U.S. Department of Transportation plans to choose up to three cities for pilot programs to combat traffic and pollution, providing up to $500 million for each winner to implement the plan. In May, organizers of the C40 Large Cities Climate Summit in Manhattan said cities generate 80 percent of heat-trapping greenhouse gases yet cover less than 1 percent of the Earth's surface.
New York state Senate leader Joseph Bruno, a Republican, says Monday is the federal government's "drop-dead date" for New York to commit itself to Bloomberg's proposal.
But that commitment could take many forms. A letter signed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver might be enough. That wouldn't require a vote by the Democrat-led Assembly on Monday, which hasn't yet planned to reconvene to consider the measure. Silver, however, could raise the issue in a closed-door conference he called for Monday in Manhattan.
Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, hasn't publicly come out for or against the concept but has said incentives such as fare reductions and other measures might work better than tolls. He also believes a commission could be created after the state commits to congestion pricing to find the best way to implement any plan.
Supporters of Bloomberg's plan argue that hard choices are required for New York City's future. They also cite the immediate benefits: Clearing the air in "hot spots" that threaten children's health; reducing traffic congestion in a choked Manhattan striving to remain the world's financial epicenter; and the lure of up to $500 million in federal funds. The Bloomberg administration predicts that street traffic would decrease by 6 percent in lower Manhattan during the three-year pilot project as more people use public transit.
But approval of Bloomberg's plan in Albany will likely require deft diplomacy, bipartisan cooperation and a thick skin in a Legislature long criticized as slow, dysfunctional and ruled absolutely by each chamber's majority party: Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly.
It's also not the best time for quick agreement. In recent weeks Bruno has called Spitzer a spoiled brat and the governor has gone to Senate districts to trash Bruno and his senators as lazy and self-serving. Each has called for investigations of the other over charges of improper travel and political espionage.
Both, though, support congestion pricing.
"This is a time when they can show the bickering isn't carrying over to the policy arena; or conversely, that it is," said Lee Miringoff of the Marist College poll that tracks New York politics. "But regardless, it's a tough sell to the public."
A WNBC/Marist Poll released last week Wednesday found 61 percent of residents in New York City and its surrounding suburbs oppose Bloomberg's plan. Within Manhattan, 48 percent support the plan and 46 percent oppose it.
The plan has also created rare alliances between Republican senators in the suburbs who see a dreaded commuter tax and Democratic Assembly members in the city who worry about the cost to outer borough residents and civil liberties with all those cameras.
For Bloomberg, the Republican-turned-independent, congestion pricing could be a global warming victory in any presidential bid next year as well as an important piece of his legacy as mayor. He'll set up shop Monday in Albany to push for approval.
The issue is also important for the Senate's Republican majority. Billionaire Bloomberg's significant campaign contributions have helped the Senate Republicans cling to a slim and shrinking majority and the popular mayor's endorsements in the 2008 legislative campaigns could be critical in some New York City districts targeted by Democrats looking to take control of the chamber.