Home MTA EconomicsRavitch Commission Opponents already combatting the Ravitch recommendations

Opponents already combatting the Ravitch recommendations

by Benjamin Kabak

While we know what Richard Ravitch is going to propose — modest fare hikes, East River bridge tolls and a small, region-wide payroll tax increase — already this plan’s opponents are gathering to defeat it. Will no one step up to save the MTA?

As Streetsblog reported today, Micah Kellner, the anti-congestion pricing assembly representative from the Upper East Side, has unconditionally threatened the idea of East River crossing tolls. Kellner’s replacement plan — raising car registration and licensing fees — would bring in some money for the MTA’s coffers but wouldn’t accomplish what the Ravitch plan would.

Basically, the gist of Kellner’s proposal is that by raising the state’s relatively low registration fees and its relatively high licensing fees, the MTA could draw in $550 million. Here’s how he described it on his blog:

When CBC President Carol Kellermann testified before the Ravitch Commission she noted that today the cost for a driver license in New York is under $6 annually. Raising annual fees for driver licenses to $50 would yield nearly $300 million. New York has the 8th lowest vehicle registration fees in the country (according to the CBC’s 2006 study South Carolina has the lowest at $12, and Maine has the highest at $435), and raising the vehicle registration fees would net an additional annual revenue stream of $250 million.

With the Ravitch Commission’s report due to be released on Friday, now is the time to be examining all the options including this one and other good ideas like reinstituting the commuter tax…In these tough financial times, I believe that it makes sense that those who choose to drive should help bear the costs of maintaining our public transportation infrastructure. These two new recurring revenue streams would constitute a good start in getting the MTA’s finances back on track.

But then, in a letter to the Governor (link goes to PDF), he explicitly spoke out against the tolls:

Early indications suggest that the Ravitch Commission will announce Friday that tolls on the East River bridges are the centerpiece of their recommendations. This is a proposal that has been recycled time and again in each and every fiscal crisis but has always failed to gain the necessary support to be implemented. I don’t know why they think this time will be any different, but I am hopeful that the Governor’s office will look to other ideas like this one and reinstituting the commuter tax as he constructs his Executive budget.

I don’t really see why. As Streetsblog points out, tolls on the bridges are a “proven and equitable course of action.” Instead of front-loading the money in registration and licensing fees, tolls are a daily reminder about the costs of driving, and they generate somewhere between $100-$300 million more than Kellner’s plan would.

Additionally, as frequent commenter Julia pointed out last week, raising fees wouldn’t serve the environmental goal of reducing traffic and raising reliance on environmentally-healthy mass transit options. People will pay up front and just drive. Initially, car ownership levels may drop, but a $50 increase in fees will seem more like a minor annoyance than a big disincentive to automobile use.

In the end, the MTA is going to need some far-sighted politicians and business leaders to step and shepherd a toll-and-tax plan through the state and city’s legislative bodies. Earlier indications are that the Governor, Mayor and MTA heads may be taking the charge. But can they overcome assembly representatives who aren’t receptive to a plan before it is even published? The fate of transit in this city may depend on it.

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rhywun December 3, 2008 - 12:41 am

The problem/benefit–as you alluded to above–is that driving is very inelastic: if you own a car, you’re gonna drive it even if you don’t really need to. For example, I know that if I owned a car (I live in Bay Ridge) I would likely be driving to most of my shopping–even though without a car I’m perfectly self-sufficient. It’s a problem because if your goal is, say, reducing traffic and increasing livability, little tax bites here and there aren’t going to accomplish much of anything. It’s a benefit because you can soak drivers for a ton of money before you start seeing diminishing returns. The flip side of that is, well, everybody outside of Manhattan drives so the solutions mentioned in this article–all of them–are politically impossible to achieve. History has shown that state politicians are even less likely to go against the wishes of their suburban power base than those city politicians, like Kellner, who happen to represent a wealthier, more car-dependent district. Frankly, none of the plans seems achievable. I wouldn’t be surprised if what we get is a temporary band-aid that does nothing to solve the long-term financial problems.

Marc Shepherd December 3, 2008 - 9:40 am

With transit planning, you have to take the long view. I agree that if you raise the cost of driving, no one sells their car that very day. But if you alter the cost/reward ratio of driving, over time people will make different decisions.

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » » On eve of Ravitch Report, Paterson endorses plan December 4, 2008 - 12:57 am

[…] mounting an offensive early, Paterson is hoping to put the plan’s detractors — such as Micah Kellner — on the defensive. “The message we keep trying to deliver is that we are in a very difficult […]

Yakov December 7, 2008 - 12:45 pm

First of all, even these little bites DO change behavior in the aggregate, I believe. Second, if the point of revenue (as in this case I believe) is not to reduce driving necessarily but raise money for transit, it’s not a bad thing if it doesn’t reduce driving. Witness: higher bridge tolls –> decreased driving (good) –> potentially lower revenue from tolls (bad)

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » » The Ravitch Report: Where the papers stand December 8, 2008 - 12:42 am

[…] Ravitch was too kind on the MTA, and the Long Island paper voices its support for the alternative licensing and registration fee increase proposal that I will get around to debating as soon as the demands of my finals allow me to: A […]

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » » Drilling down on the driver license fee plan December 9, 2008 - 1:28 am

[…] led by Assembly rep Micah Kellner and New York City Comptroller William Thompson have proposed increased fees for car registrations and licensing fees in lieu of the controversial East River […]

Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog » Blog Archive » » What’s the better idea? December 11, 2008 - 12:33 am

[…] “Raising annual fees for driver licenses to $50 would yield nearly $300 million.” – Micah Kellner, Assemblyman (D-Manhattan) […]

Silver endorses lesser tolls as Senate wavers :: Second Ave. Sagas | A New York City Subway Blog February 26, 2009 - 1:19 am

[…] one wants to have to do any of this,” Assemblyman Micah Kellner, who proposed his own plan a few months ago, said. “But we’re going to have to pay for the M.T.A. one way or the […]


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