Advocates, opponents argue NYC traffic plan

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NEW YORK (AP) – With state lawmakers facing an apparent make-or-break deadline on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s traffic congestion pricing plan, advocates and foes ratcheted up their rhetoric on Sunday, focusing on the proposal’s impact on public health, especially asthma.

Both appeals, at back-to-back news conferences at City Hall, were aimed at the state Assembly, which must vote Monday on Bloomberg’s request for approval for $500 million in federal transportation funding – or see the money go to another city, proponents of the plan said.

Whether the vote would take place was uncertain, but news reports from Albany said a letter signed by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislative leaders might suffice in its place.

At Sunday’s first event, a coalition of 150 public interest and environmental groups called on the Assembly to act, saying Bloomberg’s scheme to charge special fees for cars and trucks to enter midtown Manhattan on workdays would be a “net gain” for commuters and the vast majority of New Yorkers dependent on mass transit.

Flanked by signs reading, “I breathe, I vote,” “I ride buses, I vote” and “I walk, I vote,” and amid chants of “green the streets,” the coalition’s speakers warned that unless the Legislature votes Monday to accept $500 million in federal transportation funds, the city won’t buy advanced pollution-free buses, a key element of Bloomberg’s plan.

“Here’s $500 million,” said Michael O’Loughlin, the group’s spokesman, brandishing his wallet for the television cameras. “Suppose I offer you $500 million to clear your air. Why wouldn’t you do it?”

Paul Steely White, executive director of the nonprofit Transportation Alternatives, said “environmental justice advocates” have found neighborhoods in Harlem and elsewhere are most affected by pollution from local bus depots rather than buses on the road, but the major cause of pollution is buses and trucks stuck in traffic and idling their engines.

“That’s the main source of air pollution, and that’s what is going to be reduced as a result of the mayor’s plan,” White said.

Minutes later, on the same shady spot, City Councilman David Weprin, chairman of the council’s finance committee, released a report saying health problems in poor areas would be impacted more, not less, by an influx of suburban motorists parking and taking mass transit to avoid the Bloomberg tax.

“It is not a coincidence that regions considered hubs for mass transit contain a significant percentage of the population affected by health disorders that stem from pollution such as asthma,” Weprin’s report said. “If … more cars equal more pollution, then how can it be argued that more cars going to these neighborhoods will not also lead to more pollution for them?”

Weprin said the city should take steps to improve and upgrade mass transit first then talk about taxing people later.

The city is among nine municipal finalists for three U.S. Department of Transportation pilot programs to combat urban traffic congestion and pollution, part of a $1.2 billion outlay for new programs to ease U.S. gridlock.

In May, a climatic study found that cities covering less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface generate 80 percent of its heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

Calling it a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” Bloomberg asked the legislature to hold a special session by Monday to approve his traffic plan, which calls for cars to pay $8 and trucks to pay $21 to enter Manhattan’s most heavily traveled business district during workdays, with the money going toward transportation improvements.

Advocates of the plan say similar approaches have worked in such foreign cities as Singapore, Oslo, Stockholm and London. New York was among 27 U.S. cities that initially applied for the Department of Transportation funds.

At the competing news conferences, the principal issue was whether Bloomberg’s plan would help to reduce or lead to a possible increase in asthma, especially in poor areas, where it is most prevalent among children.

The executive director of an environmental action group in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, Elizabeth Yeampierre, said children there were severely affected by traffic fumes from nearby highways leading to Manhattan.

“If our children can’t breathe, we can’t fight any of these things,” she said. “This is not rhetoric. This is a life and death issue.”

A Bronx resident allied with Weprin, Marian Feinberg, in effect agreed that expressway traffic is a major cause of pollution but said recent studies show links between this and asthma are “very local.”

“Doing something about traffic congestion in Manhattan is not really going to affect the air quality in the Bronx,” Feinberg said.

Richard Lipsky, speaking for the Bronx-based Neighborhood Retail Alliance, said he was “appalled by the use of asthma as a way to sell the mayor’s plan” after environmentalists remained silent about the expansion of a major mall-like retail center that brought more cars into the area.

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