In the biggest change in local transportation policy in a generation, maybe two, “congestion pricing” will be instituted in Manhattan’s Central Business District in early 2021. It is the first action in decades that could actually lower traffic congestion, and that could provide a stable funding base for the capital program of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). It also transfers considerable power from the Mayor to the Governor.
Vehicles entering Manhattan on or below 60th Street will need to pay a charge, probably through the E-ZPass system or, if they do not have such passes but their license plates are photographed, higher rates via “pay-by-mail.” The program has three major goals—reducing traffic volumes on Manhattan’s streets by making it more expensive to drive; reducing air pollution; and providing an assured source of capital funding for the transit system.
The new program was enacted as part of the FY2020 State budget, Chapter 59 of the Laws of 2019. Most of it is codified in a new Article 44-C of the Vehicle and Traffic Law. This column discusses what the law provides, what is yet to be decided, and who will decide.
Coverage and Exemptions
Vehicles that travel south of 60th Street only on Route 9A (the West Side Highway) or the FDR Drive will not have to pay, but if they venture inward they will. The only exemptions written into the new statute are emergency vehicles, and vehicles transporting a person with disabilities (to be defined). People who reside south of 60th Street and have annual incomes below $60,000 will receive a credit against their state income taxes. Passenger vehicles will only have to pay once a day, even if they cross 60th Street more than once.
Beyond that, the board of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (TBTA) will set the charges and decide on any exemptions or discounts. The statute directs TBTA to implement a plan for exemptions, credits or discounts for for-hire vehicles such as taxis, green cabs, black cars, and rideshare vehicles such as Uber and Lyft. Since Feb. 1, 2019 these vehicles have been paying a congestion surcharge for trips south of 96th Street of $2.75 ($2.50 for medallion taxis, $0.75 for pool trips). This surcharge was enacted by the State Legislature on April 1, 2018. Some in the taxi industry challenged the action; the New York State Supreme Court issued a temporary restraining order against the surcharge but lifted that order on January 31.
The statute also directs TBTA to consider giving breaks of some sort to drivers who already paid to enter Manhattan through one of the tolled bridges or tunnels.
The law authorizes TBTA to provide additional credits, discounts and exemptions to others, as informed by traffic studies. Among those who are already seeking breaks are motorcycle, tour bus and truck drivers, and police officers. There are conflicting press reports about whether some kind of exemption has been promised to New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy for New Jersey motorists.
A practical limit exists on how many discounts and exemptions can be granted, however, because the statute requires that the revenues from the surcharge must be enough to support at least $15 billion in bonds for the 2020-2024 capital program, which translates to an annual revenue requirement of roughly $1 billion.
The revenues must all go to capital expenditures—80% for the New York City Transit Authority (i.e., subways and buses), 10% for the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR), and 10% for the Metro North Commuter Railroad. The state budget includes a separate $100 million to design, procure and install the tolling system.
Most estimates are that the roundtrip charge will be in the $12-$14 range for passenger cars and around $25 for trucks during prime business hours, and less at night and on weekends.
The system will be planned, designed, installed and operated by TBTA, the arm of the MTA that tolls and maintains bridges and tunnels. By the end of May, the TBTA must enter into a memorandum of understanding with the New York City Department of Transportation with regard to how the congestion pricing system will be designed, installed and maintained. Unless that memorandum provides otherwise, all the key decisions will be made by the TBTA.
The law requires the TBTA to create a Traffic Mobility Review Board to conduct the traffic studies and recommend the toll amounts and variable tolling structure. One of the Board’s six members is to be recommended by the Mayor of New York City. The other five members will be appointed by the TBTA (read: the Governor’s Office) and are to include one member each from the LIRR and Metro North territories. The Board’s recommendations are due in November or December 2020. The statute provides that the system may not start earlier than Dec. 31, 2020, followed by a phase-in period of 60 days. Given that the MTA wants to begin collecting the money as soon as possible, the system will probably debut in January 2021. The ultimate toll amounts, exemptions, and other details will be decided by the TBTA.
There is no provision for public participation in any of these decisions, except that the TBTA must hold a hearing on the proposed charges. The statute explicitly exempts the whole of the congestion pricing plan from the State Environmental Quality Review Act and the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure, two mechanisms by which public voices would normally be heard.
The law transfers a considerable amount of legal control over Manhattan streets from an agency controlled by the Mayor (the City’s Department of Transportation) to one controlled by the Governor (the TBTA). Mayor Bill de Blasio evidently agreed to this switch.
Those seeking less traffic congestion, cleaner air and more mass transit funding have been calling for charges to enter Manhattan for many years. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro (now Edward I. Koch) bridges had tolls in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but those did not last long. City officials proposed to reinstate the tolls in 1933 but they were not enacted. In 1973 Governor Nelson Rockefeller and outgoing Mayor John Lindsay submitted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency a “transportation control plan” that included tolls on the free bridges across the East and Harlem Rivers. (All the other bridges and tunnels into Manhattan already had tolls.) Under the federal Clean Air Act, this plan was binding. Lindsay’s successor, Mayor Abraham Beame, vigorously opposed the tolls. When the courts rejected the City’s efforts to annul the plan, Congress provided relief in 1977 in exchange for pledges of more transit funding. Transit advocates repeatedly proposed new tolling plans in the ensuing years, but got nowhere.
Thirty years later, in 2007, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing, having seen the success of such a scheme in London. The plan passed the City Council and received a pledge of federal funding, but could not gain the approval of the State Legislature. Opposition from the outer boroughs and the suburban counties demonstrated once again that bridge tolls—a key element of the plan—were a third rail of New York politics.
With the emergence of electronic systems for collecting tolls without queue-generating toll booths, and with the deterioration of the transit system, the case became stronger for charging for entry into Manhattan’s Central Business District and using the money to pay for transit. An additional important piece, put forward by the Move NY coalition that pressed for congestion pricing in the intervening years, was the idea of using a portion of the funding to improve transit access in so-called transit deserts—underserved parts of the outer boroughs. Governor Andrew Cuomo signaled support for the idea in 2017, and helped push it through in 2019. Mayor de Blasio came to support the proposal in the closing weeks of the state’s budget process.
Congestion pricing has long worked effectively in London, Singapore and Stockholm. New York will be the first city in the western hemisphere to adopt it. The rest of the world will be watching.
Sarah Jessica Parker slams Bill de Blasio for proposing New York City library cuts
Sarah Jessica Parker slammed New York City Mayor (and Democratic presidential hopeful) Bill de Blasio over his proposed cuts to New York City libraries.
The “Sex and the City” star channeled her inner Carrie Bradshaw and wrote a missive blasting de Blasio’s $11 million funding cut proposal, which the New York Post reports would force the New York Public Library to cut back its hours and services offered.
“As Carrie Bradshaw might, I couldn’t help but wonder: Can New York City survive without strong public libraries? Could I, as a New Yorker, accept cuts to our wonderful, important, necessary, and beloved libraries? I’m sorry. I can’t,” she wrote.
“It is not only a regular neighborhood stop for books, programs, and more, it is a cornerstone, a beacon, and one of the most beloved buildings in our community. I don’t know what we’d do without it,” Parker, 54, continued.
At the urging of Parker’s note, several hundred people wrote “sticky notes” in support of their local libraries for InvestInLibraries.org.
By Sunday, hundreds of people had posted “sticky notes” with their names and that of their neighborhood lit house, including beloved ones in Midtown, Battery City and Yorkville in Manhattan.
Angela Montefinise, a senior public-relations director of NYPL, told the Post of the proposed budget cuts, “The impacts would be especially difficult, as we actually requested $35 million in additional funding this year to cope with rising costs, expanding and new branches to meet that growing needs of New Yorkers.”
Democrats Back Bill to Ban Sale of Gas-Powered Cars by 2040
Democrats will introduce legislation to mandate zero-emissions vehicles make up all new car sales by 2040.
The bill is co-sponsored by three Democrats running for president in 2020 who support the Green New Deal.
The internal combustion engine has long been a target for environmentalists.
Democrats will introduce legislation to completely phase out the use of gasoline-powered cars by mandating that only zero-emissions vehicles can be sold by 2040.
“When I take a lungful of air in this moment, it has 30% more carbon in it than when I was born,” Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, the bill’s main sponsor, told The Huffington Post on Wednesday. “That is a change that has never happened in a single generation of humankind on this planet.”
The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont. California Rep. Mike Levin will introduce a House version of the bill, Huffington Post reported.
Harris, Gillibrand, and Sanders are running for president in 2020, and all of them co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution. However, no Democrat voted for the Green New Deal in March when it came up for a vote in the Senate.
Merkley, who also supports the Green New Deal, sees this bill as part of that broad vision of completely greening the U.S. economy. The Green New Deal calls for achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years and dramatically expanding the welfare state.
“This is just one small contributor to that vision,” Merkley told The Huffington Post. “But we need to develop the details around many ideas so those ideas are ready to be combined into a larger package.”
“If we can’t get a larger package, but we can get individual pieces like electric cars, buses, better insulation, then we should do that, too,” Merkley said. “We need to push at every level.”
Merkley’s bill would mandate 50% of new vehicle sales be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. Companies can comply with the law by buying credits, which is similar to California’s zero-emission vehicle program that largely benefits electric car-makers, like Tesla.
The internal combustion engine has long been a target for environmentalists. Vehicle emissions are a large source of greenhouse gases and pollution, and some countries have already pushed forward with plans to get rid of gas engines.
France and the U.K., for example, plan on banning gas and diesel vehicles by 2040. On a more local level, Paris wants to ban gas-and-diesel-powered cars by 2030 and some German cities have also contemplated bans on diesel cars.
Merkley plans to introduce the bill Wednesday, and it’s nearly identical to electric vehicle legislation he introduced last year. The bill is unlikely to pass a Republican-controlled Senate and White House.
Huffington Post speculated that gas-powered cars could be taken completely off the road by 2050 based on current vehicle turnover rates.
There are, however, legitimate questions over the feasibility of drastically ramping up electric vehicle sales. Part of the problem is building out all the charging stations needed to keep electric cars moving.
Zero-emission vehicles made up just 1.9% of U.S. car sales nationwide, according to the Auto Alliance.
The environmental benefits of electric vehicles also depend on what energy sources are used to generate power and make batteries. Recent studies have found electric cars may not have much of an impact on greenhouse gas emissions.
The 2019 Law Power 50
Law underpins much of what drives politics and policy in New York. From legislating to lobbying, from courtroom battles to campaign challenges, the state’s legal professionals are integral players on everything from elections to land use to criminal justice to labor to health care – and the list goes on and on.
Our inaugural list of the state’s 50 most influential lawyers highlights the breadth and versatility of the legal profession, featuring leaders who have advised Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, served as top prosecutors at the city, state or federal levels, represented victims of police brutality or sexual harassment, and made their mark on New York government through their work on major real estate developments or hot-button policy debates.
This being New York, it will come as no surprise to City & State readers that some of the names at the top of our Law Power 50 list could have been plucked from national headlines for protecting high-profile defendants, filing legal challenges against the Trump administration or advancing the #MeToo movement.
We reached out to legal experts to compile this list, ranking each person based on their achievements, track record and their sway with powerful politicians. Since we cover elected officials on a day-to-day basis, we limited this list to those who are not strictly in government but instead influence it from the outside.
We’re pleased to introduce our inaugural City & State Law Power 50.
1. Benjamin Brafman
Brafman & Associates
Maybe even more than his four decades of experience, Benjamin Brafman is known for his quick wit (which frequently makes jurors laugh), his masterful cross-examinations and his list of high-profile clients. Brafman has defended the likes of Jay-Z and Sean Combs, mobsters including John Gotti’s right-hand man, “Sammy the Bull” Gravano, and until recently, the infamous Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein (though the two parted ways in January).
The son of Jewish immigrants, Brafman was recently described by Esquire as a “born fighter.” After working as an assistant district attorney under Robert Morgenthau, the legendary Manhattan district attorney, Brafman opened his own firm, Brafman & Associates, thanks to a $15,000 loan from his in-laws. That was back in 1980, and the criminal defense lawyer has been gaining prestige and clients ever since. Brafman frequently butts heads with the government, like in the late 1980s during the crackdown on the Mafia, or in 2003 when he was up against future FBI Director James Comey, or more recently, when Brafman was still working with Weinstein.
2. Donna Lieberman
New York Civil Liberties Union
Donna Lieberman was born into a family whose members in their own ways all fought for equality, justice and peace. So it made sense for her to go to law school and become a “people’s lawyer.” Lieberman has been leading the New York Civil Liberties Union since 2001, and under her leadership the organization has developed a strategy combining “litigation, public education, advocacy and lobbying to promote and protect civil rights and civil liberties.” Currently, the New York Civil Liberties Union has more than 185,000 members and eight offices around the state. She also founded the organization’s reproductive rights program, making it the only legal organization in New York state that focuses on reproductive rights.
During Lieberman’s tenure, the New York Civil Liberties Union has focused on reforming, among other policies, stop and frisk, “broken windows” policing and solitary confinement in state prisons and local jails. As for her leadership style, Lieberman has said that she strives to be a “visionary” and hopes to be “inclusive and respectful.”
3. Jerry Goldfeder
Stroock & Stroock & Lavan
Jerry Goldfeder, an election, voting and campaign finance attorney – and a mainstay of New York’s political class – has been in the profession for more than 35 years. He has represented names as big as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as members of the New York state Legislature and the New York City Council. Now a special counsel at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan, Goldfeder once served as special counsel for public integrity to then-state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. He spent decades before that frequently participating in politics and working with ballot lawsuits, residency disputes and recount battles in the city and the state.
Goldfeder also spent the past three years as chairman of the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on New York City Affairs and chaired the New York City Bar Association Task Force on the Charter Revision Commission.
As a professor at both Fordham University Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, Goldfeder teaches future generations. He also documented his knowledge in “Goldfeder’s Modern Election Law,” which is in its fifth edition.
4. Jonathan Lippman
Latham & Watkins
Jonathan Lippman presided over the state’s highest court for nearly seven years, serving as both chief judge of New York and chief judge of the state Court of Appeals. During his tenure, Lippman made major decisions that affected New York laws, state government and the day-to-day lives of all New Yorkers, including making New York the first state to require 50 hours of law-related pro bono work prior to bar admission.
Now serving as of counsel at the New York office of Latham & Watkins, he has continued to be a major advocate of reforming New York’s criminal justice system, especially closing the Rikers Island jail complex. Lippman said that the “human toll of the status quo at Rikers is unacceptable” – not only for the prisoners but for the jail’s workers and communities across New York. Lippman helped draft “A More Just New York City,” which offered a “blueprint for increasing fairness and public safety, cutting the number of people in jail by half, and closing the jail complex on Rikers.”
5. Roberta Kaplan
Co-founder, Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund
Partner, Kaplan Hecker & Fink
Before she co-founded the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, Roberta Kaplan was described as a “litigation superstar.” She was previously best known for representing the late Edith Windsor in United States v. Windsor, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case that struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and paved the way for legal same-sex marriage.
Now, however, Kaplan, who runs her own firm in Manhattan, is making waves for Time’s Up, which was created during the #MeToo movement in 2017. The fund helps pay for lawyers to fight cases brought by low-paid workers who have faced sexual misconduct or have been the victims of abuse of power. After founding the fund, Kaplan called the #MeToo movement “revolutionary” and said that she “can’t see women agreeing to return to the days of isolation and shame.” More than 21,000 people worldwide have since contributed more than $22 million.
Besides representing women who have been harassed or assaulted, the fund also defends “women in efforts that have been undertaken to stop women from speaking.”
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