Weprin: Bring back the commuter taxBy
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.