The city is a week away from finding out how government officials plan to reduce traffic and at the same time raise money for mass transit by charging drivers to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan. Congestion pricing makes sense, but only as part of a broader plan to combat gridlock and keep cars, trucks, and buses moving at a reasonable clip in the nation's most crowded business district. There are four ideas now on the table:
• The mayor's original plan claims it would reduce traffic by 6.3% by charging $8 a car and $21 a truck for those entering Manhattan below 86th Street between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Drivers who start and end their trips entirely below 86th Street or leave the zone and don't return would pay $4 ($5.50 for trucks).
This plan would require thousands of cameras to record license plates — a complicated, costly, and cumbersome system to maintain. This idea also divides the Upper East Side residential zone in an arbitrary spot. Think of this idea more as City Hall's opening gambit than as a real proposal.
• A modified version of the original plan puts the congestion zone's boundary at 60th Street and eliminates the charge for driving within the zone. This version also imposes a $1 taxi ride fee and increases parking meter fees.
This boundary makes more sense from a historical standpoint — the city's "central business district" has generally been defined as south of the 60s — but the explosion of residential housing throughout Manhattan means there's no longer an exclusive "business" zone. Allowing drivers who live downtown to cruise around for free while penalizing those who live uptown isn't all that fair.
• The most unrealistic plan would allow drivers to travel below 86th Street only on specified days, based on the last number of their license plates — the traffic version of 1970s gasoline rationing. This doesn't generate any new revenue to accommodate the commuters who are no longer driving by expanding mass transit.
• An old idea would impose tolls on the free bridges spanning the East and Harlem rivers. This is the simplest plan from a practical standpoint (requiring the fewest cameras) but quite complicated from a political standpoint. State and city lawmakers from Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Long Island, and Westchester are poised to oppose the loss of free travel for their constituents.
Commuters who use the free bridges and drivers who travel solely within Manhattan are the only drivers who would pay the full congestion-pricing fee under any plan. Those who already pay bridge or tunnel tolls would face only a small fee increase (if any) because those tolls would be deducted from any congestion fee. There's no reason why some drivers should have a free pass into Manhattan while others pay. There's also no reason why drivers who travel during off hours should pay the same fee as those who travel during the peak of rush hour.
A sensible congestion-pricing plan would combine various elements of the existing proposals and also add some other traffic mitigation tools. Here's a starting point for the commission:
• Add tolls to the free bridges, but stagger the tolls dramatically based on time of day. Crossing at midnight might cost only $1, while crossing at rush hour could cost as much as the tolled bridges and tunnels.
• Give all drivers with New York State plates one free crossing a month. Also allow drivers who show proof of hospital or doctor visits free travel in the congestion zone.
• Equip traffic agents at busy intersections with digital cameras to record license plates of drivers who block the box. Make the fine for blocking the box $500 for the first offense and increase it an additional $250 for each offense in any year.
• Increase the fines for double-parking. Shipping companies currently factor in the $115 fines as a cost of doing business. The city should impose fines at an amount that actually achieves the purpose of fines: deterrence.
• Expand the zone prohibiting daytime double-parking for commercial vehicles making deliveries and service calls (currently 14th Street to 60th Street, between First and Eighth avenues).
• Provide a substantial tax credit to businesses that agree to accept deliveries only at night.
This is as good a time as any to make travel fees more rational as part of a comprehensive plan to reduce traffic, keep traffic moving, and raise revenue to expand subway, bus, and commuter train service.