A collaborative effort between Alex Matthiessen’s The Blue Marble Project and ‘Gridlock’ Sam Schwartz, a movement better known as Move NY has been making ripples across New York for the past few months, although the plan itself has been in the making for over five years. Originally formed by Matthiessen’s Blue Marble Project in 2010 to address the City’s transportation crisis, the project outlines a plan to maintain, modernize and expand the city’s aging transport system, and to improve the road and bridge networks with funds raised by introducing tolls on the City’s East River Bridges and at various crossings in the Central Business District.
When he started out developing Move NY, little did Matthiessen know that Schwartz, formerly New York City’s Traffic Commissioner and Chief Engineer of the NYC Department of Transportation and author of Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars, had been working on a plan to ease pressure off of New York’s busiest streets for years. And while each had a plan sketched out for the City, it is not until they joined forces in 2012 that the movement picked up stamina.
In an interview with progrss, Matthiessen explains that Move NY began as an effort to finish what former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2007 congestion-pricing scheme began. He explains that the team’s outreach and planning efforts are very much informed by lessons gleaned from Bloomberg’s experience. Bloomberg’s 2008 plan, which intended to promote greater use of mass transit through improvements and additions to transit infrastructure and services and to introduce a London-style congestion pricing program, fizzled out due to lack of support.
Since they began work in 2010, the Blue Marble Project has drawn on the support of foundations that worked with Bloomberg to raise almost $3 million from the Rockefeller Foundation and a number of other environmentally focused foundations in New York City.
In a nutshell, Move NY proposes introducing a sustainable and dedicated revenue stream through a fairer tolling system, which would reduce high tolls and restore tolls in areas where traffic is bad and other transport options exist, in order to draw in revenue needed to maintain the City’s roads, bridges and mass transit system. He explains that the new tolling system would create a balance by reducing tolls for people who pay high tolls and introduce tolls for those who travel into the City’s most congested Central Business District at no cost everyday. According to Matthiessen, this “toll swap,” would reduce traffic inside the Central Business District by about 15%, which would translate into an 18-20% increase in vehicle speeds.
Through this system, Move NY would provide the City with two revenue streams: one through the PayGo system and another through a system of bonds; the former is projected to raise $1.345 billion per year while the latter would raise $12.5 billion.
The plan would effectively increase tolls around the Manhattan area and lower tolls on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority‘s (MTA) bridges on the outer part of the city by nearly 50%. This, according to Matthiessen, is “the genius of Sam Schwartz.” He explains that commuters traveling from the city’s outer boroughs currently pay up to $16 round trip in tolls, although they are neither the cause of congestion nor do they have any alternative transit options. In the meantime, 750,000-800,000 trips are made into the City’s Central Business District in Manhattan everyday for free, meaning that they are incentivized to use their cars. All tolls would be paid via the electronic toll collection system E-ZPass, which is used in cities across the United States.
The most controversial aspect of the plan is the proposal to restore tolls on the East River Bridges (Queensboro Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge). According to Matthiessen, the bridges were originally tolled from the time that they were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s until then-Mayor William Gaynor removed all tolls in 1911, which, according to him “explains why they are among the worst maintained bridges in the whole city.”
Some of the plan’s benefits include extending the citywide commuter rail discounts to seven days a week, facilitating faster travel inside and outside the City’s Central Business District, creating a new monthly pass for combined commuter rail, subway and bus rides, and creating a new ferry service. The plan also promises $1 off all Express Bus fares and $2.8 billion in increased annual economic activity.
“Because we plow most of the money back into the mass transit system, there is actually going to be an increase in the number of people traveling into the Central Business District because more people are going to take an improved public transit system to get into the city. In a city of nine million people with an estimated million more coming over the next 20 years, you cant have everybody driving, you have to disincentivize unnecessary car trips and incentivize people to use mass transit,” he explains.
While New York Mayor Bill De Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo are crucial potential supporters, neither has explicitly endorsed nor rejected the plan. In March of this, year Robert J. Rodriguez, a Democrat who represents the 68th District based in East Harlem, introduced the bill into New York State Assembly. By late May, the bill had 28 supporters in the Assembly, and, at the time of our interview, the team was prospecting the possibility of getting a Senate bill introduced as well, which would make it a two house bill. “The bad news is that New York’s legislative session runs from January to June, which doesn’t give us enough time to get the bill passed this year, but our hope is to get the two bills introduced, which would put us in a really strong position to come back in January and put this to a vote,” says Matthiessen.
A Grassroots Effort
One of the team’s key priorities was to design a plan that would not alienate the outer boroughs of Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx or give priority to Manhattan – a mistake that other plans have made, according to Matthiessen. He explains that, it Schwartz’s ideas that were instrumental to designing a plan that was less Manhattan-centric and friendlier to drivers – two factors that helped the team gain political traction.
“Part of this is content, but it’s also process – it’s treating people with respect and showing them that you care about what they think and showing them that you’re willing to be flexible and make changes to the plan as you go and gather information and people give you ideas,” explains Matthiessen. According to him, the secret sauce in getting support for Move NY has been the team’s engagement of the community. He explains that almost six years of engaging key stakeholders across the city – from business and political leaders to community organisations and interest groups – have paid off in unexpected ways, creating support on the ground and allowing them to integrate feedback and criticisms in the process.
Matthiessen points to the support that Move NY has gotten from the New York Chapter of the AAA (Automobile Association of America) – America’s leading lobbying group for drivers – as evidence of the plan’s ability to represent different groups. He explains that the AAA, which has opposed every attempt to toll the East River Bridges for the past 40 years, realizes that federal funds for transport are drying up and that drivers need to find a “fairer way” of solving the City’s problems, but also realizes that “drivers are getting a lot back in return” with Move NY. “This is politically very significant because they are the one group that would normally hate a plan like this,” he adds.
Matthiessen explains that one of the benefits of spending so long developing Move NY is that group has had time to adjust the plan to complaints and concerns. “There’s two ways to move something like this forward – you have to have political support for it from the majority of the public and elected officials, and I think that we are getting that both with the content of the plan and our process in developing it. We have shown that for six patient years we’ve been listening very carefully and closely to what people have to say, and especially what our opponents have to say,” he says. “I think because we’ve spent a lot of time with our opponents and integrated their feedback, it gives us a lot of credibility and makes it a stronger plan.”