"If you were to design the ultimate system, you would have mass transit be free and charge an enormous amount for cars."
So said Mayor Michael Bloomberg last April, right about the time he unveiled his plan to charge motorists a fee to drive into Manhattan's central business district. Eight months later, as the mayor's original proposal mutates for better or worse, the MTA is hours away from raising transit fares. Neither idea has exactly caught fire with the public, and the fare hikes could actually end up a foil for congestion pricing -- a plan originally intended as a sustained financial boost for the transit system.
And then there's Theodore "Ted" Kheel. The environmentalist, philanthropist, and renowned labor attorney has lobbied for free transit in New York for over 40 years. Last February he commissioned a $100,000 study that, as it turns out, could put the city's money where the mayor's mouth is. A summary of findings released late last week shows that if the city were to impose a $16 congestion fee ($32 for trucks) below 60th Street in Manhattan, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, along with higher curbside parking fees and a taxi surcharge, the MTA could remove its turnstiles and fareboxes forever.
Relying on exhaustive analyses of dozens of factors ranging from vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and transit capacities to emissions and employment data, assembled in an interactive spreadsheet created by Charles Komanoff, the study, managed by the Institute for Rational Urban Mobility (IRUM) and researched by Joseph Clift, George Haikalis, Brian Ketcham and Carolyn Konheim, found that the Kheel Plan would:
Reduce traffic within the Central Business District by 25% and within the entire city by nearly 10%. Auto trips into the CBD would drop by one-third.
Save the public a staggering $4 billion a year in recovered productivity, or more than 100 million "vehicle hours" that would otherwise be spent in traffic. (Some 20% of this value would be realized by bus riders, 32% by truck, taxi and auto users within the CBD, and 48% by vehicle users in the rest of the city.)
More than recoup revenues now generated by fares. The one-two punch of the $16 automobile toll ($3 billion annually), taxi fare surcharge ($340 million annually) and higher curbside parking fees ($500 million annually) would generate nearly $4 billion annually - enough to replace the $3.5 billion in current tolls and subway and bus farebox revenues and still leave an annual revenue stream of $500 million for improving and expanding transit.
Provide universal no-fare transit with less crowding than today's service. Making transit free will be an enormous boon for all New Yorkers, particularly low-income residents, and lift, once and for all, the specter of fare hikes. The Kheel Plan also includes a strategy for handling the anticipated increase in ridership that will result in less, not more crowded trains and buses.
Shorten travel time: Enable a one-third (34%) increase in vehicle speeds within the CBD and an average one-tenth (10%) increase in the rest of the city. A typical 12-minute taxi trip in the heart of midtown Manhattan would be trimmed to nine minutes, while five minutes would be shaved from the typical 55-minute ride for a non-CBD trip, say from Bayside to Bensonhurst. Bus travelers would also save time: a fare-free system would eliminate the tedious swiping of MetroCards that leads to frustrating boarding delays, thereby shortening a typical 20-minute bus ride to 15-16 minutes.
Produce additional, significant benefits: The plan would generate an additional $2 billion in health cost savings and other benefits from reduced pollution, fewer traffic crashes, lower insurance costs, and increased tendencies to walk and bike - all due to diminished traffic levels.
"The PlaNYC proposal, while commendable and courageous, offers little if any relief to endlessly spiraling subway and bus fares," researchers conclude, while "the Kheel Plan banishes fare escalation from the civic horizon by abolishing the fare itself."
While it was developed independent of the Congestion Mitigation Commission process currently underway, its authors say the Kheel Plan "takes Mayor Bloomberg's visionary congestion pricing proposal to its logical conclusion." As Commission chairman Marc Shaw noted at yesterday's meeting, however, that logical conclusion is going to have to be something that "works in the real world" -- a world filled with term-limited City Council members, parking garage industry-funded lobbyists, a debt-laden MTA and various other challenges. Logical or not, one thing is for certain: With the Commission's aggressive timeline set to deliver an Implementation Plan to City Council by January 31 and Council scheduled to vote by March 28, a conclusion will be reached shortly.
Brad Aaron began writing for Streetsblog in 2007, after years as a reporter, editor, and publisher in the alternative weekly business. Brad adopted New York's dysfunctional traffic justice system as his primary beat for Streetsblog. He lives in Manhattan.
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