July 01, 2007

New York Mayor Unveils Master Plan for Greener City

On April 22, Earth Day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced sweeping plans to guide New York City’s growth over the next 25 years in a decidedly greener direction — plans that would make New York, in the mayor’s words, “the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city.’‘

With supportive appearances made by video-feed from California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and (now former) British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mayor Bloomberg proceeded to lay out a vision for sustainable growth over a period in which New York, a city of over eight million, expects to gain one million additional residents. Dubbed “PlaNYC”, it contains a wide range of proposals for specific improvements in mass transit, parks, pedestrian space, cycling facilities, and green building, as well as new mechanisms for funding infrastructure and coordination between various agencies.

PlaNYC highlights include a pledge that every New Yorker would live within a 10-minute walk from a park, and it calls for small public plazas in each community board district that does not have a park. The plan also proposes 1,380 additional miles of bike lanes — more than three times the current number — by 2030, and 1,200 more on-street bike racks by 2009.

A critical component of PlanNYC is its strategy for reducing traffic gridlock and auto emissions by using a congestion-pricing plan modeled after programs successfully implemented in London, Singapore and other cities. Under New York’s plan, the city would charge US$ 8 for cars and $21 for commercial trucks that enter or exit the central business district (Manhattan below 86th Street) from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays. The charge would be $4 for cars and $5.50 for trucks driving within Manhattan during the same period, and several exemptions would apply for expressway travel on Manhattan’s periphery and for taxis. Money raised through congestion pricing would be added to the $400 million a year in combined city and state funds that the plan seeks for the creation of a new financing authority for transportation projects.

Not surprisingly, the congestion pricing program is a particularly contentious issue among New York state legislators. Like other aspects of PlaNYC, the program’s success will depend on significant financial commitments from the state and federal governments, as well as future mayors. Though New York Governor Elliot Spitzer is generally supportive of congestion pricing, several key members of the State Legislature, including Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, remain opposed. They cite concerns that poor and middle class commuters to the central business district would be hurt, or that metro and bus transit capacity would be overwhelmed by the shift away from using cars brought about by congestion pricing.

“Congestion pricing will make our transportation system work better for everyone”, said recently appointed New York Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, responding to these concerns in the City Room blog at the New York Times. “The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers who work in the Central Business District take mass transit, and far more lower-income residents use transit than drive. Nearly half of households in the city don’t even own a car. Congestion pricing provides a dedicated stream of funding to improve and expand mass transit, to improve the services used by our huge transit-riding majority.”

A last-minute compromise on the congestion pricing plan fell short just before the New York state legislature took its summer recess, but the issue may be taken up again in a special session on July 16. The national U.S. Department of Transportation says that the Legislature must act by mid-July if New York wants receive as much as $500 million in federal funds to help launch the three-year test of the congestion-pricing program.

150 advocacy groups in the New York metropolitan area provided recommendations that were considered in the development of PlaNYC.

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