When the Eliot Spitzer scandal hit on Monday afternoon, my thoughts turned to congestion pricing. Slowly gaining momentum with New Yorkers but losing the support of key politicians, the congestion pricing plan was going to require a monumental negotiation in Albany. With this scandal, I fear it is all but dead, and with it, we lose a chance to significantly improve both the environment and mass transit in New York City.
Recently, it seemed, the tide had been turning in favor of the congestion pricing plan. With Elliot Sander’s State of the MTA speech last week, improved mass transit partially funded by congestion pricing revenues took center stage. His plan showed a New York with better transit options and fewer cars.
Then, last week, The Times wrote a stridently pro-congestion pricing editorial:
New York riders pay a considerably higher share of the cost of mass transit than riders in other cities. Fares for buses, subways and commuter rails increased again this week to help pay the M.T.A.’s operating costs. It is time for New York drivers to help carry the burden. Congestion pricing fees can produce significant and recurring new money for mass transit’s capital expenses.
Congestion pricing, of course, has many other virtues. New Yorkers would enjoy the health and economic benefits of less gridlock and tailpipe emissions — and faster commutes. Getting money to help fix mass transit is yet another reason why the City Council and state lawmakers should approve congestion pricing before the end of the month — when a deadline to receive more than $350 million in federal funds expires.
I’ve said it before myself, and I continue to agree with The Times. The city needs congestion pricing badly.
Meanwhile, an amNew York story published today notes that nearly two-thirds of bus commuters approve of the congestion pricing plan. “Bus riders are really the unsung winners of congestion pricing. They win with faster, more reliable buses,” Transportation Alternative’s Wiley Norvell said.
The opposition however is gaining strength too. As Gotham Gazette notes, the City Council is now leaning 20-12 against congestion pricing. And here I thought elected officials were supposed to represent the desires of their constituents.
All of these political machinations bring us back to Gov. Spitzer, the man who could have brokered a deal for the congestion pricing plan. As Streetsblog commenter momos aptly noted, Albany will now be consumed with this scandal and the ensuing fallout. In fact, we could find ourselves with a new governor this week.
“Both the budget and congestion pricing had to be negotiated by the end of the month,” momos wrote. “The negotiating environment was bad enough. Now it’s downright destroyed. Spitzer is weakened if not replaced entirely, while the uproar in Albany will give the Assembly cover to do as it will. If there were several months for things to settle it would be difficult enough; with critical deadlines in 3 weeks, forget it. This is so tragic. Congestion pricing dies not in a debate over its merits but in the ashes of a Governorship imploding from a sex scandal.”
And that about sums it up.
As congestion pricing goes, however, all is not lost. The MTA can still pressure the legislature to make good on its promises of funding that emerged during the fare hike hearings. Now more than ever in fact, the state and city should be willing to pony up other funds to ensure the financial health of the MTA. While congestion pricing is seemingly on its last legs, the MTA need not be at all.