The looming L train shutdown in 2019 between Williamsburg and Manhattan will inconvenience about 250 thousand riders each weekday. An unpleasant situation to be sure but manageable with increased frequency of connecting subway lines, buses and, perhaps, some help from the private sector in the form of shuttle busses and carpools. But it certainly is not the occasion to incubate unproven pilot programs that may, in fact, make the situation worse. Yet that is what state Senator Daniel Squadron and Transportation Alternatives Director Paul Steely White propose with their mini-Move NY program The New York Daily News October 24, 2016.
The basic Move NY Fair plan, is a re-hashing of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme which would impose tolls on the City-owned East River bridges and tunnels and Manhattan across 60th Street. The revenue collected would be used to secure billions of new borrowing by the MTA to fund a wish list of capital improvements. The underlying theory is that East River tolls will cut traffic to Manhattan’s central business core from the four outer boroughs (no new tolls would be imposed on drivers coming from New Jersey). But that is an unproven conclusion. Intuitively, the outer borough businesses and residents, who have few transportation alternatives, will keep using their vehicles but then would have to pay for the privilege. Thus, the burden of funding new capital projects for the MTA will fall hardest on the group that will benefit least by it.
Aside from the inherent unfairness of the Move NY Fair Plan, to make it work cameras and tolling systems at the bridges and tunnels would have to be installed and several new bureaucracies managed by political appointees would have to be created to oversee the collection of tolls, spending of toll revenue and enforcement of violations. And even though it would get a new credit line of several billion dollars, there’s nothing in the proposal to make the MTA more responsive to its customers or more disciplined in its spending.
As for the L train situation, we don’t yet know what arrangements the displaced riders will make – who will take connecting subways and ferries and who will be on the road. While it is likely that there will be more traffic on the Williamsburg Bridge, it takes a great leap of faith to conclude that a toll will “ease traffic on the East River bridges allowing a significant expansion of public transportation and faster commutes” as Squadron and Steely White predict. And, even if it did, where would the drivers go? We’d have more congestion on the roads near the bridge as drivers looked for scarce parking or we’d have even more people pouring into the subways. And, given that there is presently no mechanism to collect and enforce the tolls and no definite plan on how to spend the money collected, it seems wasteful to build out such systems or create new agencies unless they were planned to be permanent.
Squadron and Steely White are correct when they say that a little creativity is needed to create a better transportation network. But a bad idea with a new coat of paint is still a bad idea.