Weprin: Bring back the commuter tax


As New York State politicians continue to fight over the MTA’s funding future, congestion pricing is slowly sneaking back into the discussion. Some believe congestion pricing will be the reward for a reduction the suburban counties must contribute to the payroll mobility tax while others see the congestion price revenue as a solution to the MTA’s capital budget hole.

As the debate begins to percolate, certain members of the state legislature are working to head it off before it begins. David Weprin, a representative from the 24th Assembly district in Queens, opined on congestion pricing in the Daily News yesterday. He is against the fee but proposes something else instead: a revival of the commuter tax.

Let’s take a look at the relevant parts of his argument. He raises some good and some bad points while relying too heavily on arguments that don’t withstand scrutiny. Still, he’s talking about it, and that’s the first step toward a solution.

It is true that there are severe transportation problems facing the city, but these problems have been years in the making, and instituting a tax on people attempting to drive to work isn’t going to solve it.

The fact is that most of the transportation infrastructure in the metropolitan area was designed when cars still had tail fins and ribbons of highways were laid, encircling our cities and suburbs in an effort to turn New York into a commuter’s utopia. The sprawl that followed, in addition to the neglect of the area’s mass-transit infrastructure, has brought us to the problem we are facing today: too much traffic, too few alternatives.

Here, Weprin starts off on the right foot. Most of our transportation infrastructure in the city was built either in the early 1900s or in the post-war period. We spent millions on roads without improving the mass transit network, and now the city is choked in traffic. It’s an unsustainable problem that has both an economic and environmental impact.

That said, Weprin’s next argument relies too heavily on a profile of drivers that simply doesn’t exist. He continues:

Taxing commuters as much as $2,000 a year, and taxing small businesses that use trucks to ship their goods to Manhattan a fee in excess of $5,000 a year, might be a great way to raise money, but it doesn’t solve the problem; it just covers it up at the expense of hardworking New Yorkers…

A useful exercise to understand the future transportation needs of New York is to imagine the multitude of negative effects a congestion-pricing scheme would have on the city of New York. The tax on commuters and businesses is the most obvious, but the stress that this plan would put on the already-troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority would result in giving those who can afford to drive into Manhattan an option while forcing working-class New Yorkers to cram onto already-crowded trains, subways and buses.

What I just described is the best-case scenario. I would hope that if people had to pay money to drive into Manhattan, they would see the error of their ways, buy a MetroCard or a bike, and be content with not having their car at work. What is much more likely to happen is that the outer boroughs will become a park-and-ride lot for people commuting from Long Island and Westchester.

This proposal also represents an embargo on Manhattan businesses, theaters and restaurants by taxing customers each time they choose to drive into Manhattan to frequent these establishments. Instead of ending congestion and mitigating pollution, a congestion pricing plan would simply move all of these congestion problems off Manhattan and stick the rest of the city with them. I believe this is unthinkable.

This argument is a common one amongst congestion pricing opponents, but it ignores the numbers. Those who commute daily via automobile into Manhattan make, on average, over $20,000 more per year than those who rely on the subway. In other words, the middle class worker who daily drives into Manhattan simply doesn’t exist in numbers great enough to halt congestion pricing.

Meanwhile, Weprin fails to consider two important parts of a congestion pricing plan. First, he focuses on “the multitude of negative effects” but doesn’t pay any lip service to the positive effects. Those include a more productive economy in which people are not stuck in traffic; a better funded transit network; and a cleaner environment without congestion choking our roads or throats.

Second, to combat the threat of turning the outer boroughs into park-and-ride lots, a proper congestion pricing scheme will have to come with a residential parking permit plan. That’s a common sense part of the solution. If the idea is to discourage superfluous driving with its socially negative impact, it will require some creative thinking.

Weprin ends though on a reasonably optimistic note. He wants to restore the commuter tax:

One commonsense solution to help the MTA raise the funds needed to actually begin to confront this congestion issue is by revving the nonresident income tax or commuter tax and ensure that part of that revenue be earmarked for the MTA. This is a much less-regressive tax than charging working-class New Yorkers to drive around their own city.

I will be introducing a bill that would implement a 1% nonresident commuter tax and would split the revenue equally between the city of New York and the MTA. A plan like this would allow us to raise revenue, not by regressively taxing our working-class residents but by collecting the money from those who already use our cities’ services regularly but don’t pay taxes for them because they live outside the city.

This bill would allow us to begin the hard work of creating the 21st-century transportation infrastructure that our city desperately needs. This is the time to figure out a long-term solution for meeting our future transportation needs, not just filling a funding gap in the MTA and turning Manhattan into the Forbidden City.

It’s tough to say if restoring the commuter tax would be more or less popular than continuing the payroll tax. For starters, the commuter tax has a tough history in New York. We had one for a while, and then in the late 1990s, Albany intentionally violated the Commerce Clause by ending the commuter tax on Westchester and Long Island commuters while keeping it in place for those coming in from New Jersey and Connecticut. When a legal challenge to the tax in that form arose, the courts quickly struck it down.

Of course, it would make sense to restore it because these commuters use services for which they do not pay, but it’s a bit disingenuous to say it’s not a regressive tax on the working class. Weprin’s appeal there is to distinguish it from a congestion fee, but the reality is that a commuter tax would also be passed along to workers just as the payroll tax is today.

After digesting Weprin’s well-made argument, I’m left with the same conclusion I had. The congestion pricing plan is the best of a series of less-than-ideal offerings. It targets those who, by and large, can afford to pay, and it carries with it more positive social, economic and environmental effects than the other options. Whether enough political support can coalesce around any of these options, though, is a question for another day.

Categories : Congestion Fee

17 Responses to “Weprin: Bring back the commuter tax”

  1. Billy G says:

    Make the outer boroughs into “park-and-ride” lots? You mean, commuters come into the outer boroughs, park their cars, walk to the subway station, on their way passing businesses and purveyors of all goods, including coffee, bagels, newspapers, etc. Maybe on their way home, they can pick up a pizza to put in that car to take home with them. Yeah, commerce, improving the tax-base, definitely things to avoid. How about this for an idea: Build parking structures to welcome these suburbanites so they can park quickly and cheaply within a convenient distance from the highway and subway station. Of course, that’ll never happen be cause it’d be in conflict with LIRR and MNCR.

    • pea-jay says:

      I looked at the 24th AD map and I’m wondering where this fear of park and ride freeloaders are going to park. Most of that area is beyond easy subway service and quite far out on the eastern edge of Queens. I was picturing Astoria or LIC which are a snap to get into midtown from. But not his district.

      Lame excuse

    • Bolwerk says:

      Well, it’s not like the cost of such parking spaces will be much cheaper than the congestion fee as it goes now. $10/day maybe?

  2. Donald says:

    Instituting a commuter tax would almsot certainly guarantee that New Jersey and Connecticut would retaliate with commuter taxes of their own. Lots of NYC residents work in places like Jersey City, Newark, and Stamford, so a lot of people would be impacted. I’m not sure starting a “trade” war is the right path.

    The best way to solve the MTA’s deficit is so tresort to something that is almost never mentioned, but used by virtually every subway system in the country: zone based fares.

    • I’ve explored that before, and New York is a bit unique. Because of the socioeconomics of the city and its neighborhoods, a zone-based fare would, by and large, be regressive. The richer people live closer to the central business district, and the poor and middle classes would be hit harder by zoning the fares.

      • SEAN says:

        I wonder Ben how you would answer this… in the Washington DC area the inner most suburbs Bathesda & Arlington are some of the wealthyest parts of the country & yet they pay lower fares on the Metro compared to places such as Largo & Greenbelt wich are not as well off ecconomicly.

        • Joe Steindam says:

          Perhaps the inner suburbs are more coveted because they’re closer to the core, just like in NYC how core neighborhoods are more coveted than those in the outer boroughs, depending who you ask. Either way, it’s still true that generically the DC Suburbs are wealthier than the District itself (Prince George’s County, MD appears to be the sole outlier).

          The DC metro fare is based on distance, not just whether you’re coming or going to a particular suburb. Hell the cost of a ride between Tenleytown and Union Station is more expensive than traveling between from Union Station to Rosslyn. So maybe a better system is fare zones rather than solely trip distance. That’s a distinction that DC metro has to make. It’s also easier to make the case for that fare structure in DC because the system spans beyond the District, our subway doesn’t.

          • JE says:

            To be sure, Prince George’s County is no outlier. The median household income in PG ($71,696) is higher than both Maryland as a whole ($70,482) and the District of Columbia ($58,553).

        • Bolwerk says:

          If you’re looking at the Metro map, you might get a skewed sense of distance. Keep in mind that many of the outer stations are miles apart and often park-‘n-ride or bus dropoff points.

      • Roy Berman says:

        One important socioeconomic factor that I have never seen discussed in English is how in Japan employers almost universally pay for employees’ commuting costs via the most logical mass transit route from their home. If a similar tradition existed in New York City it would allow for a zone-based similarly “regressive” fare system to be instituted without actually making it any more financially difficult for poorer workers to commute.

        Of course there still could be some other regressive side effects, such as making residents from poorer districts less likely to avail themselves of cultural facilities in wealthy Manhattan, but at least it goes a long way towards equalizing things.

  3. Duke87 says:

    I’ll admit, I’ve driven in from Connecticut, parked in the Bronx, and taken the subway into Manhattan. It’s certainly the cheapest method out there, but it isn’t really worth it since it takes twice as long as just getting on Metro-North. Although, I get the distinct impression that I’m an exception rather than a rule in that I’ve actually done this. Most people I know up here in Connecticut would not be willing to leave their car on the street in The Bronx, simply based on a perceived ick factor to the neighborhood – which is really unwarranted (then again, The Bronx is my native turf. My perspective is different. ;)). Besides, most people from the suburbs will be perfectly able to afford the extra bridge tolls and will not be interested in using a more complex means of getting in just to save a few bucks. The outer borough parking lot fear is unwarranted, methinks.

    Besides, some of us from up here actually have family and business in the outer boroughs, and cannot be expected to take the train for that because it’s just nowhere near convenient (lousy Manhattan-centric system). We need to put our cars someplace in instances like this and won’t be getting resident permits.

    So, if we must push a plan like that (hey, if nothing else, it’s another revenue source for the MTA), I propose a modification on it: sell parking permits to residents of neighborhoods at a modest price (maybe $250 a year, or something). Also let non-residents purchase daily parking passes for these areas but at a much steeper price (say, $15/day). Anyone with a handicapped tag is exempt from either and can park for free.

    • Donald says:

      I laugh at the idea of resident parking permits. How long do you give it until counterfeits end up for sale on the internet? I give it 3 days. Where I live in northern NJ all of the towns have resident parking permits, and anyoe with a color copier can make all the duplicates they wanted without anyone ever knowing.

      • pea-jay says:

        ok how about some form of E-Zpass? I dont know about the programing inside the device but why couldnt we use those for parking purposes. If you are parked in your zone and enforcement sweeps by, no problem. If you are not, it deducts whatever rate is set for that day. Multiple passes that same day would not result in additional deductions. Cars without tags would have their plates photographed and the fee mailed to them plus a $50 processing fee. Added bonus easy enforcement. There, problem solved.

    • Billy G says:

      Not to mention the fact that MNCR doesn’t run trains in the wee hours of the morning, in which case subway car may be the thing that lets one get home at 2AM instead of 7AM. Parking in The Bronx (I prefer not to say exactly where, street parking is hard enough to find as it is) and taking the subway train is a viable option and I’ve found it to be a wash time-wise assuming that certain parkways are flowing. (I’m on the Harlem line, so the trains are slower than NH). Gas prices are going to make a big difference in this though.

  4. AlexB says:

    Just wanted to point out that congestion pricing would only affect Manhattan south of 60th St, but not on the FDR or the West Side Highway, and only from about 6 AM to 7 PM (I think). If someone wants to go to the theater on a Saturday or run an errand from Brooklyn to Manhattan after 7 PM, there is no charge. You only have to pay the fee during the business day. It’s not that different from daytime/nighttime minutes on your cell phone. Just be careful when you decide to go into Manhattan and it won’t be a big deal for anyone except those who drive to work.

    The people I worry about are those who really do have to drive to work: contractors based in LIC who have to drive vans loaded up with construction materials and tools to their client’s buildings in Manhattan, for example. Hopefully this can be focused most on people who drive alone in their cars to a desk job.

  5. Larry Littlefield says:

    The commuter tax is not coming back. The city isn’t as poor as it was when that tax was imposed, and some of the suburbs are not as rich.

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>