Image of asthmatic girl promotes New York traffic-fee plan

An image of a sad-looking little girl squeezing an asthma inhaler is used to pressure New York state lawmakers into approving Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial plan to reduce traffic and pollution by charging motorists who drive into Manhattan.

The tag line is: "She cannot hold her breath waiting for Albany to act."

The flier is being mailed this week to 350,000 households, urging voters to call lawmakers in Albany. The state legislature would have to come back for a special session to approve the plan before a July 16 application deadline for matching U.S. federal funding.

Bloomberg's plan calls for a three-year pilot program that would charge drivers a fee - $8 (5.87 EUR) for cars and $21 (15.40 EUR) for trucks - in the city's most heavily congested zone. His administration says it would force more people onto mass transit, thereby reducing traffic and improving air quality, particularly for children who suffer from asthma.

"Does anybody want to look a parent in the eye and say, 'Well, we can wait for your child, we'll do it down the road, just let your child continue to breathe worse air than we could have had if we had the courage to stand up?' I don't think anybody wants to make that call," Bloomberg said Thursday at a rally staged to show support for his proposal.

Medical studies, including one published in the Lancet earlier this year, have found links between air pollution and respiratory ailments. But it is unclear how much the traffic fee scheme would ultimately change the city's asthma problem.

The Bloomberg administration predicts that traffic would decrease by 6 percent inside the zone, which is the business district on the lower half of Manhattan, but the city's asthma rates are highest in poor neighborhoods that are outside that area.

Backers of the traffic proposal, who include environmentalists and a number of elected officials, say that those outer communities would also benefit from the reduction in traffic, since many of the thruways leading into Manhattan snake through those neighborhoods.

But the mayor's plan does not have hard numbers on how much traffic, or asthma rates, would decrease in those areas. And some opponents of the plan believe traffic in outer areas would actually increase because many people would still drive from their homes to places outside the zone where they could then get on subways and buses into Manhattan.

In London, where drivers have been charged traffic fees since 2003, residents complain about the "parking lots" that have formed outside the zone. Within it, traffic thinned by 20 percent and carbon emissions similarly decreased, Mayor Ken Livingstone said at a May environmental summit of mayors in New York.

U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, an outspoken critic of New York City's congestion pricing plan, said using the asthmatic little girl to push the plan is more of a political tactic than anything based on substance.

"The mayor should be applauded for raising this important subject of asthma, but his response seems to be anyone who opposes him wants to poison kids," Weiner said. "The mayor's car tax is not a cure for asthma - what it is is a giant bureaucracy funded by a regressive tax."

A spokesman for Knickerbocker SKD, the company that produced the image, could not provide the age or name of the child featured on the flier, which was described as a stock photo. The campaign was paid for by the Partnership for New York City, a business group that is a chief supporter of the mayor's scheme.

The city health department says the number of New Yorkers with asthma has increased in the past two decades, although hospitalizations have declined. Among children, the hospitalization rate was 43 percent lower in 2005 than in 1997, with fewer than 9,000 compared with nearly 15,000. While it declined, the child hospitalization rate is still three times higher than the national rate, the health department said.