DOT’s Schaller on Making Congestion Pricing a Reality

Bruce Schaller, DOT’s Deputy Commissioner for Planning and Sustainability, stands on the front-lines in the battle over the City’s congestion pricing plan. Hand-picked by Mayor Bloomberg a month after the City announced its intention to charge vehicles entering or leaving Manhattan below 86th Street, Mr. Schaller must present and implement a plan that satisfies City, state, and federal officials.

As a transportation consultant, he analyzed the impact of East River bridge tolls for the Straphanger Campaign, advised transit authorities in Chicago and Austin as well as NJ Transit and the LIRR. Mr. Schaller also served as a director of the Taxi & Limousine Commission and deputy director of the Transit Authority. He earned a reputation as a congestion pricing guru through a series of op-eds as well as an extensive report he drafted for the Manhattan Institute on the subject.

Raised in Cleveland and Chicago, Mr. Schaller graduated from Oberlin College, earned a Public Policy MA from UCBerkeley, and taught at NYU Wagner’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management as a visiting practitioner. Mr. Schaller’s Midwestern calm and easy-going nature will be tested over the next several months as the fight over congestion pricing heats up. Recently, he sat down with CityLand to chat about the scheme.

Bloomberg’s Game Plan. Bloomberg proposed the nation’s first large-scale congestion pricing plan in April 2007 as the centerpiece of his PlaNYC. A system of high speed E-ZPass readers and cameras would scan or photograph vehicles as they entered the congestion pricing zone. Mr. Schaller envisions almost 1,000 cameras in all. The mayor’s plan calls for charges of $8 for cars, $21 for trucks and no fee for yellow cabs. Drivers that already pay $8 in other tolls will pay nothing in congestion fees. “You want people to switch modes, not stay at home,” said Mr. Schaller.

Someone Else’s Taxes. Vocal opponents, including Council Member David Weprin, call congestion pricing a tax. At a congestion pricing forum, Weprin admitted to avoiding tolls by taking the Queensboro Bridge over the Midtown Tunnel. Mr. Schaller responds that since the bridge is maintained with “millions of tax payer dollars,” someone else’s tax payments finance the Council member’s commute. To detractors that say poor public transit forces them into their cars, he points to census data showing only 28 percent of residents in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island neighborhoods drive to work. According to Mr. Schaller, the real issues with the plan are privacy concerns raised by the proposed camera system and the impact on traffic in adjacent neighborhoods.

State and Federal Voice. The City applied for federal funding for congestion pricing in June 2007, and submitted the plan to the State Legislature for approval in July. The state created a commission to explore the congestion pricing concept and to recommend a final plan to the State Legislature and City Council by the end of January. If it is then approved by both bodies, U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters announced she would award $354 million to the City for “innovative local traffic solutions.” As Mr. Schaller put it, “they know it’s a process and they’ve put pressure on people” to reach an agreement in Albany. Despite some cries from Assembly Members that the federal grant agreement was unreliable, Mr. Schaller stated that the allocation is primarily from FY 2007 funds and includes $10.4 million in start up funds for congestion pricing.

Schaller’s Mission. The state commission’s mandate is to review the City’s congestion pricing plan and alternative non-pricing plans. Mr. Schaller’s office will work with the commission to develop a research plan and flesh out the final proposal. This means doing the statistical leg work, such as running the alternative plans through a travel model to determine their effectiveness. Currently, Mr. Schaller has four staff members working solely on congestion pricing — a number he expects will grow as the process continues — along with outside consultants.

In late August, EDC issued a request for ideas from interested firms, which Mr. Schaller expects will produce a vast volume of information on strategy, technology and alternatives. While he knows some firms have been talking to each other, DOT has yet to talk directly to any vendors. When asked to name companies he might have in mind, Mr. Schaller demurred, but said it is no secret which vendors worked in London and on E-ZPass.

Penchant for Predictions. Mr. Schaller does not see the commission as a roadblock to implementing congestion pricing. In fact, he said that “the first plan is never the one adopted and is not necessarily the best. We’ll improve upon it.” Despite the tight deadlines, Mr. Schaller remains confident the commission will submit its report by the end of January, and that it will be approved by the end of March. Mr. Schaller says that congestion pricing presents a revenue stream for the state, which ultimately will win over legislators.

“No one gave congestion pricing a snowball’s chance in hell a year ago,” remarked Mr. Schaller. But once Mayor Bloomberg presented it as part of a comprehensive plan to make New York a truly sustainable city, people no longer view the status quo as an option. — Jonathan Reingold

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