THE BRONX - The mayor's plan to charge drivers going into Manhattan got a boost Thursday when the U.S. secretary of transportation announced the city is a semifinalist for federal funding.

"This plan will keep the city that never sleeps from becoming the city that never moves," U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said while visiting Manhattan.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer also voiced support for Mayor Michael Bloomberg's plan. Bloomberg wants to charge car drivers $8 and truck drivers $21 to enter the city from Battery Park to 86th Street on weekdays between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.

"The quicker we stop putting more pollutants into the air, the healthier our kids would be," the mayor said.

If the government awards the money to New York City, Bloomberg said he would use it to improve mass transit and hopefully encourage New Yorkers to put their vehicles in park. The federal grant is designed to curb congestion.

Peters said before a decision is made, the state Legislature must back the measure because it would be difficult for the city to become a finalist if the project would not progress.

Bloomberg will be in Albany Friday to sell his plan to lawmakers. Observers feel he will face the most opposition from the state Assembly.

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