Reframing the congestion pricing debate

By · Published in 2009

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?

Categories : Congestion Fee

11 Responses to “Reframing the congestion pricing debate”

  1. Scott E says:

    The vouchers are an interesting thought, but I see problems in its execution.
    First, you need to define “low-income worker”, a highly-debatable task in itself.
    Second, you need to verify that the self-proclaimed low-income worker indeed fits the category. Would DOT cross-check tax records? For the self-employed guys who tow their food-carts into Manhattan, whose income varies with the weather and number of other factors, this would be a real challenge.
    And third, you need a way to redeem the vouchers. With two forms of payment (E-Z Pass for tagholders, a mailed invoice from DOT for all others), where would they be sent?

    I’m all for congestion pricing, especially if it fixes the more controversial parts of the bailout plan (in my opinion, taxi surcharges and payroll taxes), but I don’t see how this can work logistically.

  2. fpteditors says:

    The whole transportation discussion needs re-framing. The private-auto system is economically and ecologically unsustainable and exists only through heavy subsidy. Public transit is a public investment that benefits all, even those who never ride it. The reason we have all these complex schemes like road pricing is that there is no one representing the people. We have been telling pollsters for years that we want public investment in public transit, but elected officials cannot overcome the highway lobby.

  3. rhywun says:

    If the intent is to reduce congestion & improve transit, it seems counter-intuitive to grant free driving privileges to an arbitrarily-defined group of “the poor”. Does London do it?

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      No, London doesn’t do that. Just as in New York, lower-income Londoners generally do not drive into the CBD. (Public transit in Greater London has a much deeper reach than it does in Greater New York, so there is even less reason to drive.)

      But we must face facts: Congestion Pricing didn’t pass the last time it came up. That means the proposal probably needs to change somehow. Vouchers for the poor probably won’t alter the economics very much. If that’s what’s needed to win passage, then I’m for it.

      • Rhywun says:

        It would have to be some sort of sliding scale before I would sign on to it. But I would rather implement it at tax time to keep things simple.

      • Alon Levy says:

        CP didn’t pass the last time because Bloomberg understands politics to the same extent a fish understands bicycling. This time the State Assembly was willing to vote for bridge tolls, and the State Senate would’ve followed suit if they weren’t bundled with payroll taxes.

        • Marc Shepherd says:

          I haven’t actually seen a clear headcount that shows bridge tolls would have passed without a payroll tax. In any event, bridge tolls alone weren’t enough.

    • Alon Levy says:

      London is also more unequal and more into screwing the poor than New York. Like New York it generally votes for the left, but it doesn’t mind much that it’s developing Latin American levels of inequality, with a class of ultra-rich finance people and a huge class of people who aren’t so rich.

  4. Marc Shepherd says:

    One other point to note: I don’t think Bloomberg’s political tone-deafness entirely explains why CP went down in flames. After all, Ravitch’s proposal for bridge tolls was effectively a subset of CP, and it didn’t pass either. Bloomberg kept his nose out of Albany, so you can’t blame that one on him.

    • Alon Levy says:

      Ravitch’s proposal failed by a smaller margin. Explaining why he didn’t schedule a vote on CP in the Assembly, Sheldon Silver said that there were 15-20 votes for it. In contrast, this year the Assembly was ready to pass a version of the Ravitch plan that included bridge tolls, and the Senate was 4-5 votes down.

      • Marc Shepherd says:

        Absolutely right, but the point is that it failed. Which probably means it needs to be changed before they try it again.

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