A new report by the Congressional Research Service notes that traffic congestion has reached crisis proportions in some places. But, the report notes, not everyone agrees that congestion is a major national problem warranting a federal government response. Because congestion tends to be geographically concentrated in major metropolitan areas, past Congressional action has tended to favor a predominantly state and local response.
The report speculates that Congress may well decide to continue with this approach in the next reauthorization of the guiding federal transportation policy legislation, known as SAFETEA-LU, which expires October 1, 2009. States and localities that suffer major congestion would be free to focus their resources on congestion mitigation, while those who are relatively congestion-free could devote their resources to other priorities. However, should Congress conclude that congestion has become a problem of national significance, a congestion mitigation program would become a major focus of the next reauthorization, the report states.
The question may already have been settled. The U.S. DOT, through its "National Strategy to Reduce Congestion," has made congestion mitigation a central element of the federal surface transportation program. Equally important, the need to eliminate truck bottlenecks and reduce congestion in heavily traveled interstate truck corridors has been recognized by the transportation community as a national priority. Indeed, if the second half of the 20th century was characterized by a national effort to create a continental highway system, the first half of the 21st century may become known as an era of a concerted national effort to prevent that highway system from becoming hopelessly gridlocked.
Congestion Initiative Update
Nine cities have been selected by the U.S. Department of Transportation as semi-finalists in the "Urban Partnerships" program. Thereby, the U.S. DOT is seeking proposals from metro areas to implement a comprehensive policy response to urban congestion, including demonstrations of variable tolling or congestion pricing, enhanced transit services such as bus rapid transit, increased use of telecommuting, and deployment of advanced Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) technology. From the nine semi-finalists the Department plans to select up to five "Urban Partners," which it will support with financial resources, regulatory flexibility, and technical assistance. The nine semi-finalists are Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St, Paul, Miami, New York City, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle. Winners will be announced in mid-August. The program commands significant discretionary resources. These include up to $100 million from the ITS Congestion Mitigation Operational Testing program; up to $30 million from the Value Pricing Program; up to $260 million in other Federal Highway Administration discretionary funds; up to $715 million in Federal Transit Administration discretionary funds; and $150 million in President's FY08 energy budget proposal -- for a total of over $1.2 billion.
Of all the proposed urban partnership projects, New York's proposal to implement congestion pricing in Mid- and Lower Manhattan is attracting the most attention as the boldest and most challenging of the initiatives. Combining as it does "cordon pricing" (i.e. a charge for entering a cordon area, as in the case of Stockholm) and "area pricing" (i.e. a charge for moving inside an area, as in the case of London) it is more sweeping in its breadth than anything that has been implemented to date.
The Mayor's proposal has been greeted with applause by some and deep skepticism by others. To many skeptics, the mayor's proposal seems more like a giant revenue raising scheme than a targeted congestion reduction initiative. The project would generate $380 million a year, to increase to $900 million/year by 2030, but it would reduce traffic within the charge zone by a mere 6.3 percent, according to Mayor Bloomberg's staff.
Most polls show a majority of New Yorkers (but not residents of Manhattan) opposed. State lawmakers, who must approve the proposal before it becomes law, are reported to be undecided. Opposition to congestion pricing runs deepest in the Assembly, many of whose members from the boroughs outside of Manhattan and from the city's suburbs view congestion charges as just a commuter tax by another name.
At a public hearing in Manhattan on June 8, state legislators gave a cool reception to Mayor Bloomberg's proposal. Assemblymen Herman Farrell, Jr. (D) and a dozen of his colleagues raised the familiar concerns such as the fairness of the congestion charge and its regressive effect on low income drivers, the ripple effect the program would have on neighborhoods just outside the charging zone and the threat to privacy inherent in having hundreds of cameras photographing license plates for billing purposes.
Although the project has been represented as a three-year demonstration, lawmakers at the hearing pointed out that the Mayor would retain entire discretion whether or not to continue the project. Also controversial are the huge start-up costs which could eat up most of the anticipated $500 million federal Urban Partnership grant.
Whether the legislature can act upon the congestion pricing proposal by the June 21 end of the regular legislative session is not certain. The city runs the risk of losing the federal grant if the mayor's plan does not obtain legislative approval by mid-August when the U.S. DOT plans to announce the winners of its Urban Partnership competition.