Friday, April 11, 2008

Road Blocked

Comment is Free
Ian Williams
19 April 2008
On Monday the speaker of the New York state assembly, Sheldon Silver, emerged from a closed committee room and, in an announcement as skimpy on voting details as Robert Mugabe's election commission, killed mayor Mike Bloomberg's traffic congestion pricing plan.

In a gesture seemingly as futile as the synchronised seppuku of the suicide squad in the Life of Brian, the Democratic group not only killed a measure wanted by the residents of Manhattan, which would also help reduce oil consumption and carbon production, they also spurned a tidy offer of some $350m for the transit authority from Washington.

The latter was a rare gesture from President Bush, who perhaps noticed the notorious limo jams on his way between the Waldorf Astoria and the United Nations, although others more cynical suggest it was a vain attempt to leave a legacy - any legacy - of environmental concern for his two terms as Exxon's plenipotentiary in the White House.

Just after Bloomberg took office, I actually stumbled across him on the platform of City Hall Station. He was not grandstanding. There was no camera in sight, nor in fact any visible security. I was the only press around, and I was accidental. On his way uptown, on the Lexington Avenue line, he explained it was the only way to get uptown at peak hour, even though he candidly disclosed that the mayoral limo was going along separately to pick him up later.

But he knows the problem, the streets of stalled vehicles hooting their horns and farting their toxic brew of half-digested petrochemicals into the lungs of the overtaking pedestrians on the sides. Opponents of the plan concentrated on the relatively small amount of CO2 that it would save, discounting the noxious and nauseous effects of idling diesel engines. But there is the very serious time cost. People in the city have to build in extra hours in case of jams, which, of course, always spontaneously generate before you when you are running for a train, plane or meeting.

It's worth mentioning that the tail-back from Manhattan jams stretches way beyond the initial area below 60th Street, affecting all the other boroughs as well with congestion and lung clotting.

Bloomberg picked up the idea from London's leftist mayor, Ken Livingston, and it was backed by a coalition of unions, community and environmental groups and corporations - and even the state Republicans. His plan, although far from perfect, was a solid answer to a real problem, and indeed, if ever there was an area made for pricing it is Manhattan, with points of entry at the tunnels and bridges, many of which are already paying a toll. Only one in five Manhattanites, and only two out of five in the whole city, have a car.

To be fair to speaker Silver, despite the deserved bad press he has had, he does not seem to have actively killed the plan. It was more in the nature of "thou shalt not kill but needst not strive, officiously, to keep alive". He was responding to his colleagues' suburban prejudices, which are deeply engrained in American life. To return to the Life of Brian, they think like the People's Front of Judaea when it decrees that comrade Stan has the right to have a baby, even if he can't, because he's a man. With almost primordial suburban prejudice, they each defend the right of every American to drive where they want to, even if they can't, because there's no room and because the imported oil is running out and costing more each day.

The story is emblematic of the poor prospects of the US being able to deliver leadership on carbon emissions. As Bloomberg post-mortemed: "Even Washington, which most Americans agree is completely dysfunctional, is more willing to try new approaches to longstanding problems than our elected officials in the state assembly." That was presumably a nod of thanks for the desperately needed $350m, but which overlooked the latest cut in Amtrak's budget, which had added resonance on a day on which hundreds of domestic flights were cancelled yet again.

If a self-evidently sensible measure, wanted by the citizens and representatives of the city that has the most intensively used transport system in the country and backed by a wide cross party coalition, and a massive Federal bribe, can smash into the barrier of the divine rights of drivers, then it does not bode well for American compliance with, let alone leadership on, the larger issues of global warming. When these things get to Washington they will meet some serious lobbying power from big oil, big coal and big SUVs. It looks like we'll have to rely on Chavez and the Sheikhs to keep upping the oil prices to get a reality check.

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