Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Road Forward For NYC Congestion Pricing

“Déjà vu all over again.� When I heard the disappointing news about New York City’s congestion pricing proposal failing this year, those famous words of Yankees and Mets great Yogi Berra came to mind.

What New York just went through is similar to what we initially went through in Minnesota in the 1990s. Congestion pricing advocates in Minnesota struggled with public support for over a decade, with several initiatives going down in flames. At one point, an aspiring gubernatorial candidate even placed a newspaper ad attacking this new idea.

But that was not the end of the road for us, and it is not the end of the road for Mayor Bloomberg’s bold and innovative vision. The Mayor and congestion pricing advocates will undoubtedly do what we did in Minnesota in 2001, redouble their efforts to explain the truth about congestion pricing.

In 2001, stinging from a series of setbacks, Minnesota congestion pricing advocates focused intensively on public outreach. We convened a blue ribbon task force of key community stakeholders to air the issue thoroughly. We hired a communications consultant to coordinate public outreach efforts. We retained an engineering firm to help answer the public’s legitimate questions.

The task force was led by a former state senator and transportation leader, and it included many opponents and skeptics. Somewhat to our surprise, after an intensive year-long study process the task force recommended piloting the concept in Minnesota.

Then our communications team went to work. Members of the task force joined us in dozens of briefings with legislators, interest group leaders, state government leaders, municipal officials, civic groups and transportation and transit advocates. We reached out to the news media. We sponsored and promoted public policy roundtable discussions with issue experts to answer public questions.

We also learned from our mistakes. In prior defeats, we learned that an accusation unanswered can quickly become an accusation believed. For that reason, an inter-disciplinary public outreach team was formed to rapidly respond to all questions posed about congestion pricing.

In previous defeats, we also learned that even leaders who are well briefed on the concept of congestion pricing sometimes have a difficult time fully understanding how pricing can make lanes less congested. For many, congestion pricing literally has to be seen to be believed. So, we used trips to existing projects, videos and other visual tools to make congestion pricing more real, and less abstract.

After focusing more heavily on public outreach starting in 2001, the I-394 MnPASS congestion pricing project was approved in 2003 and implemented 2005. By 2006, polls showed high levels of citizen satisfaction with congestion pricing. By 2007, a plan to use congestion pricing to manage traffic on a longer section of I-35W was enacted without controversy.

Certainly, external developments during this period supported the case for congestion pricing, including worsening traffic congestion, record-setting state government budget deficits, a public pledge made by many legislators to not vote for tax increases, and a highly visible analysis documenting the excess capacity in the I-394 high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. But our outreach efforts clearly contributed to the success.

I would never presume to tell New Yorkers what to do. Each locality is unique and each public outreach initiative has to be tailored to fit local circumstances. But our experience shows that set-backs can be overcome by engaging leaders and the public in a thoughtful conversation about the issue.

The whole world is watching as New York is on the verge of doing something truly historic and innovative to manage its traffic congestion. New York’s recent legislative set-back is just one early chapter in this story. As Mr. Berra famously said of his 1973 Mets, “It ain’t over til it’s over.�

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