NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan to ease traffic congestion by imposing new $8 fees on drivers got a boost on Thursday when the federal chose New York as one of nine semifinalist cities competing for $1.1 billion of transportation aid.
"This plan will keep the city that never sleeps from becoming the city that never moves," Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters told reporters, adding that traffic delays now cost the region's economy $13 billion a year.
Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Miami, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle also were selected from the 27 cities who sent in traffic-fighting plans, Peters said.
Bloomberg, a Republican, said that although charging fees for cars driving south of Manhattan's 86th Street between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. would only push 5 percent of the commuters onto subways or buses, the effect would be "like having a quiet Friday in summer." Trucks would pay $21 fees under the plan.
Bloomberg's plan, which mirrors congestion fees already used in London and Singapore, looks like one of the Transportation Department's early favorites. Peters called the strategy "very bold" and added it was sound and would work.
New York wants $500 million of federal aid to boost mass transit links in 22 underserved areas by adding bus priority lanes and new bus and subway links. Speeding up traffic would also help improve air quality, another Bloomberg priority.
Peters said the federal cash must pay for short-term improvements, and stressed she must know with "certainty" by early August that the city's plan will go forward.
Her time frame gives the mayor and Democratic Gov. Eliot Spitzer just two months to persuade state lawmakers to approve the fees, which aim to speed deliveries to stores and offices.
The tolls would raise $380 million a year for mass transit but that does not include operating costs, Spitzer said. More buses and commuter trains might have to be added to accommodate individuals who give up driving in favor of mass transit.
Some suburban lawmakers oppose charging motorists to drive on city streets and others fear that city residents who live in outer boroughs outside Manhattan, who are often lower income and have poorer access to mass transit, will get hit the hardest.
Bloomberg said his plan has wide support. "You are really are hard pressed to find any kind of advocates, straphangers, or environmental or economic groups who are against it."
Spitzer, who previously said only that the anti-congestion plan merited study, on Thursday vowed to fight for it, partly by getting legislators the answers they need. Transit officials are now, for example, analyzing how traffic will change once drivers cannot escape tolls by using tunnels and bridges that now are free, such as four East River crossings.
"This is a necessary investment for the future of New York City, which is to a great extent the economic engine of New York State," Spitzer said. "So this is not really a question of whether. It's a question of how. ... It's a question of making sure we do this wisely and properly."
Bloomberg wants to create a new agency to spend the $30 billion the new tolls will raise on tunnels, railroads, subways and buses by 2030. But the state now runs many of those links and some state lawmakers are reluctant to relinquish this control.
The legislature adjourns on June 21, but Spitzer said lawmakers could return to enact the city's new tolls.
Democratic Speaker Sheldon Silver's spokesman said the Assembly at a Friday hearing will delve the plan's depths, such as whether New York state or New Jersey drivers would pay more because the new fees would be deducted from other tolls they pay and analyzing how many cameras would be needed to photograph license plates, whose drivers could then be billed.
Calling the plan's objectives, embodied in a new Senate bill, "extremely worthwhile," Republican Majority Leader Joseph Bruno added: "We can review the facts and specifics and conduct an analysis of the costs and benefits to the public and the environment."