To Londoners it will seem like a bargain. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Sunday unveiled plans to introduce a congestion charge for cars entering the busiest parts of Manhattan. But compared with London's £8 (US$16), New York's proposed charge will be a snip at US$8.
The proposal was one of several delivered in a wide-ranging speech to mark Earth Day, an international day of environmental action. Bloomberg's plans include measures to encourage home-building, plant 1 million trees, invest in public transport and reduce air pollution.
Known as PlaNYC, the proposals are expected to carry a price tag of tens of billions of dollars. For Bloomberg it is an opportunity in the final three years of his administration to cement his legacy by positioning New York City at the forefront of civic environmentalism.
In a speech last December, he outlined his vision for the city, saying: "Unless we considered the full range of challenges to our city's physical environment, the progress we'd worked so long and so hard for might be at risk ... it became clear that to secure a stronger, cleaner and healthier city for our children and grandchildren, we had to start acting now."
For his opponents, however, the move is that of the billionaire mayor penalizing the city's poor by introducing a new regressive tax.
"This is another tax for New York City folks," Walter McCaffrey, a lobbyist with Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free, a group representing local business and labor groups, told the New York Times. "If you're riding in a limo you can afford it. But this city is also made up of working-class people who would be hurt by it."
In comments before his speech, Bloomberg did not shy away from the suggestion that the charge was a tax, a position that is generally shunned in US politics.
"Using economics to influence public behavior is something this country is built on, it's called capitalism," he said in his weekly radio address.
He went on to outline a series of subsidies to accompany the proposed charge, as well as pledging to spend the revenues, expected to reach hundreds of millions of dollars each year, on public transport.
This is not the first time New York has flirted with congestion charging. In 1987, then New York mayor Ed Koch proposed a US$10 fee to drive into Manhattan, but withdrew the plan in the face of opposition from business leaders. Five years ago, in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Bloomberg proposed new tolls for road bridges to Manhattan to raise money for mass transport. Those proposals too were withdrawn.
But the mayor has judged that the political climate is now more sympathetic to charging. Several cities around the world -- from Stockholm to Toronto to Singapore -- have prepared the ground for New York. But London, which transport experts say has similar traffic issues to New York, is the model most closely observed by the mayor's advisers.
While Bloomberg bears little resemblance to London's mayor, Ken Livingstone, he has taken lessons from his counterpart's efforts to introduce the charge. The Partnership for New York City, a prominent business group, was to unveil yesterday a campaign to support the proposal to introduce congestion charging.
"It sounds like a lot of money," the mayor, whose net worth is put at US$5 billion, said in the radio address. "But you go to a movie and it's 12 bucks. So let's put some of this stuff in perspective here."
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