Reframing the congestion pricing debateBy
As New Yorkers and the MTA adjust to life in the post-rescue plan era of transit planning, it is worth revisiting and old — and contentious — proposal to fund transit. Lost in the debate over Richard Ravitch’s proposal to toll the East River bridges was another suggestion that Ravitch intentionally did not include in his report: a congestion fee.
Now, we know how this works. The city would charge drivers of all vehicles a certain amount each day to enter Manhattan’s central business district. Generally, this would include all of the island from 60th St. south. The system would be set up by a $350 million grant from the feds — a grant which is still available — and the projected $400-$500 million in revenue would head into the MTA’s coffers for the capital plan.
While many New Yorkers were willing to support this plan, politicians balked at the idea and turned it into a pseudo-populist cause. How would the lower class drivers afford to pay the fee? How would the businessman in for himself afford to pay it?
Never mind that lower class — and middle class and many upper class — residents of New York City don’t even own cars. Never mind that few business owners spend their days driving back and forth from the outer boroughs to Manhattan’s CBD. Never mind that a congestion fee would improve traffic, speed up trips into Manhattan and virtually pay for itself for those few that do. This was not an issue proponents would win with common sense.
But as that TransAlt graphic up there shows, a congestion fee makes far too much sense. It has an environmental and social component; it has an economic component; and it contributes to mass transit expansion. The benefits would far outweigh the costs.
With news that the money from the feds is still out there, a few political commentators and urban planning enthusiasts have been looking at ways to reframe the argument. At FiveThirtyEight, Robert Frank suggested reframing the debate and offer up a cookie in the form of a voucher:
Most people who commute regularly by car into Manhattan are not poor, and most low-income workers in Manhattan already use public transportation for their daily commute. The problem cases are low-income workers who must occasionally drive into the city on weekdays. For such people, congestion fees would indeed constitute a new burden.
But this burden could easily be eliminated by giving every low-income worker in Manhattan an annual allotment of transferable congestion vouchers. On the rare occasions when these workers needed to drive into the city, they could do so free of charge. And they could earn some extra money by selling any vouchers they didn’t need on Craigslist.
Ryan Avent thinks this approach is worth a shot. As Avent notes, “the crucial opposing push came from self-interested drivers, mostly middle and upper income individuals who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the vouchers.” But there’s something else at play: Albany blocked congestion pricing. As Avent’s readers noted, the City Council, Mayor, MTA and NYC DOT all approved the plan before Sheldon Silver killed it in committee.
So maybe now, it’s time to try again. In the aftermath of the Senate package, it’s clear that the MTA’s capital plan rests on shaky ground. The money that is there will last just two years, and the MTA needs a true source of long-term revenue. Congestion pricing would do just that, and people in the city are far more willing to support it than they are East River bridges.
Soon, in the not-too-distant future, someone in Albany or New York City will have to step up to the plate for the MTA. He or she will have to assemble a group of politicians and planners willing to go out on a limb for transit in one of the most transit-dependent urban centers around the world. Why not now? Why not congestion pricing?