Sam Schwartz knew that New York’s crippling traffic jams were bad for the city long before he coined the term that would become synonymous with urban automotive nightmare. As a young New York City traffic engineer in the 1970s, Schwartz worked on never-implemented plans to close midtown Manhattan to cars at midday and charge tolls on 14 bridges that connect Manhattan to Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Schwartz’s “grid-lock prevention program” during New York’s 1980 transit strike, which earned him the nickname “Gridlock Sam,” kept traffic flowing by banning driver-only cars during rush hour in most of Manhattan.
For 48 years, Schwartz has pursued his holy-grail solution to gridlock: congestion pricing. He wanted to charge drivers a fee to drive in the busiest parts of Manhattan. “I knew it was inevitable,” says Schwartz, now 71, “but would it be inevitable in my lifetime?”
Now it’s coming. In 2021, New York will be the first American city to charge drivers a toll to drive downtown. Congestion pricing has been deployed successfully in recent years in cities such as London and Stockholm, but in the United States, charging car owners to pay extra to get to where the action is has always seemed like a reform too far.
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Last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators agreed on a plan to make all of Manhattan south of Central Park—the business-dense end of the island—a congestion-pricing zone. The tolls, estimated at $12 to $14 per car and $25 per truck weekdays (lower on nights and weekends) and levied using EZPass devices and license-plate cameras, will raise $1 billion a year to improve New York City’s transit system.
“You have traffic being the worst it’s ever been in the central business district,” says Robert Mujica, budget director for Cuomo. “The other cities that have done this internationally have done it at a point when the traffic has reached a tipping point. And that’s where we are here.”
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