Johnson Might Try to Steer Traffic Plan Around Legislature

A common sight in Soho, a police officer gave a driver a ticket for “blocking the box” at the congested intersection of Watts and Thompson Sts. on one of the main Holland Tunnel approach routes. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY SYDNEY PEREIRA | City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said last week that the city may be able to implement congestion pricing without the state Legislature — though he added that if Albany lawmakers could pass a plan, it would be much easier.

“I think we have potential home rule authority that we’re willing to look at,” Johnson told reporters after his speech at a New York Law School breakfast last Friday. “Again, it is always cleaner and easier if Albany does it because of the vast powers that Albany has through our state constitution over the city of New York. But if there’s going to be inaction, we will take a look at what our potential authority and powers are.”

He compared the possibility to the recent work-around that the City Council, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo used to renew the school speed cameras program earlier this month after the state Senate refused to renew the program ahead of the school year. That fix involved Cuomo signing an executive order allowing the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to give car ownership information to the city for speed cameras enforcement, plus a new City Council law creating a city schools speed camera program, and nearly doubling the number of protected schools from 140 to 290.

For congestion pricing, the work-around would likely be different, Johnson said.

“This is not a template, in some ways,” Johnson told reporters. “You have to go through and look bit by bit, which is why it would be much easier if the state passed a full congestion pricing plan. In the absence of that, we have to take a look.”

Johnson supports traffic pricing both to reduce congestion on the city’s streets and fund the city’s ailing public transit system.

“Without congestion pricing, we don’t have a realistic path forward for mass transit,” Johnson said.

Two plans have been floated as congestion pricing possibilities: Fix NYC, a Cuomo-backed scheme, and MoveNY, an earlier grassroots plan spearheaded by Sam Schwartz, transportation expert “Gridlock Sam,” which inspired Fix NYC.

However, some legal scholars argue that the city doesn’t need the state to pass congestion pricing, and that city-owned bridges can be tolled through city laws.

Roderick Hills, a New York University School of Law professor, specifically cites a 1957 provision in the Vehicle & Traffic Law, 1642(a)(4), which says that lawmakers in a city with more than 1 million people can implement tolls, taxes and fees on highways, so long as they are “authorized by law.”

“Absent 1642(a)(4), the city would be in trouble,” said Hills, who testified on the matter with five other legal experts before the City Council last June.

That provision, he added, is “explicit and fairly clear” in giving the city the power to toll its roads.

But politically, it’s less of a surprise that the city hasn’t already used its authority to enact congestion pricing.

“The politics of congestion fees are tricky, and in the past when the city has tried to toll the East River bridges, there were lots of protests,” Hills said. “It makes sense for the city to go to the state.”

Additionally, the 1957 provision doesn’t give the city the power to toll some other spans, like the Throgs Neck, Whitestone, RFK Triborough and Verrazano-Narrows bridges, which are operated by the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.

A comprehensive policy, Hills said, would allow the city to control the East River bridges, along with the city’s other major bridges — which would be important in terms of possibly lowering traffic fees in the outer boroughs to balance the added fees in Manhattan.

It would be “handy to have a new state law to give the city some power to deal with the Authority bridges,” he said.

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