New York City

Talking transit with Trottenberg

Polly Trottenberg

Polly Trottenberg MTA

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has long been skeptical of congestion pricing, which has put him at odds with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is pushing state lawmakers to institute such a system in Manhattan to help fix the city’s aging and often-delayed subways.

But the mayor has softened his stance somewhat in recent weeks, saying that a state task force proposal on congestion pricing “shows improvement” and is a “step in the right direction.”

In a Slant podcast interview, New York City Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg seemed to suggest that the de Blasio administration is continuing to come around to the idea of congestion pricing.

“Look, I think we're interested to see how the debate unfolds up in Albany,” Trottenberg told City & State. “Certainly I think the city delegation is very engaged and we stand ready to be enthusiastic implementers of whatever the Legislature comes up with.”

Trottenberg also weighed in on the progress made on the mayor’s Vision Zero initiative, standoffs over short-term subway funding, and more.

Check out highlights of the interview below. To listen to the full podcast, click on the link at the top of this article or subscribe to City & State’s podcasts.


C&S: If congestion pricing is implemented, there would be some real logistical challenges. How would this play out?

PT: It will depend a lot on exactly what they propose, but luckily we do have some examples from other cities, particularly London and Stockholm, and I've been to both those cities and talked to some of the experts there that were involved in implementing their congestion pricing. There are different ways you can do it now. Luckily with modern technologies out there, you can have plate-readers and gantries so there is certainly work to figure out how we might install that infrastructure, but a lot of cities have shown that you can do it much more easily than in the past. I don't think we're quite there yet, I want to see first what comes out of all the debate up in Albany.

C&S: One thing that you see with Vision Zero is street intersections that were not pedestrian-friendly being redesigned. These changes that are happening seem to be patchwork. Is there a systematic review going on so that it isn't dependent on having higher social capital communities that have more political influence raising a ruckus?

PT: You ask a really good question, and one that we have really tried to make a priority in the past four years. When we started out in with Vision Zero, we got at exactly what you are raising, which is, we held a bunch of town hall meetings, we put up a portal where people could click on particular intersections where they wanted to work, we looked at our 311 data. And then, we went and we mapped out for all five boroughs where the crash data showed where we needed to intervene. And guess what? When we put those two maps together, they didn't match for exactly the reason that you are diagnosing, which is you would say, neighborhoods with high social capital, neighborhoods that are more affluent, more used to dealing with city government, influential people, fluent in English, etcetera. All those reasons tended to be the ones who went to 311, who would click on our websites and go to our town halls. And when you look on those maps, a lot of the complaints in those areas were neighborhoods that were quite safe. So we have very much tried to follow the data and go to those high crash areas. We do of course still listen to communities though, I don't want to pretend it's 100 percent, we're just looking at our maps. And when we do go to where people are wanting us to intervene, and we do try very hard to engage in those neighborhoods that are perhaps that excited about engaging with city government.

C&S: There's a lot of discussion about the dynamic between the governor and the mayor and one place that manifests itself is the MTA, where you're on the board. Last month you lead a successful effort to postpone spending onnearly $213 million to renovate eight subway stations, something the governor wanted to push forward. What drove that effort and does that speak to a broader dynamic of disagreement between the state and the city?

PT: In the matter of what was called the ESI program, the Enhanced Station Initiative, it was something the governor had put forward a couple of years ago. And a couple of years ago I think he put it as a big priority and the city – again, we have enough things we were sort of taking issue with on the MTA board, and so we said "Okay, this isn't going to be our fight." But I think as you all know, and you've covered it extensively, as we've had obviously a very difficult summer and continuing difficulties in the subway system, it has sort of become clear to everybody, nobody disagrees, that we need to profoundly increase our investments in the system. I think it's made a lot of the board members, not just the city board members, go back and ask the question: Well, this program that seemed okay a couple of years ago, is it really now the smartest way to spend what is going to be $1 billion when the bread and butter of the subway system, the signals, the tracks, are in a state of disrepair? And I think the city representatives came down on the side of, we want to ask that question. And when we looked at the list of stations, a lot of them were kind of out-of-the-way stations, not stations that were used by a lot of riders, not stations that were in many cases that were in the worst state. And then finally, the board has been hearing a lot from the disability community, rightly frustrated with Access-A-Ride service and with the fact that we don't have more stations that are accessible. In New York City, only about a quarter of our subway stations have elevators and are accessible. So we were looking at spending $1 billion, not, in some places, in the stations that we thought were in the most need, and not putting in a single elevator.