Could the PA budget usher in congestion pricing?By
When the Port Authority dropped its new budget on Friday afternoon, the prices were shocking. The proposal — designed to fund a ten-year, $33-billion capital plan — includes steep fare hikes for PATH riders and a significant increase in bridge tolls as well. While the New Jersey and New York state governors have slammed the Port Authority for the proposal, indications are that the two have known about the budget for months. The politics of transportation fare and toll increases are always messy.
While Gov. Christie may be feigning the outrage, in New York, Andrew Cuomo may very well be using the Port Authority’s budget to scheme. According to an article in City Hall News today, Cuomo may use the PA increases to push for the return of congestion pricing. This is, in fact, a thread that Cap’n Transit picked up on yesterday. Let’s start with the latter.
The Cap’n notices first that the planned increases and the political responses represent some fantasyland where everyone recognizes the need for upgrades to the infrastructure but no one wants to pay for it. These projects — such as replacing PATH rolling stock and rebuilding the Lincoln Tunnel helix — aren’t free. The Cap’n also says the PA budget plan exposes the sheer hypocrisy and absurdity of the political fight over congestion pricing. He writes:
One of the reasons the Port Authority is raising fares and tolls is that Governor Cuomo expects it to contribute $380 million a year to the MTA capital plan. This makes sense in a way, because people from New Jersey commute to Manhattan by train, bus and car, and benefit from having people ride the NYC Transit subways and buses. Some people have noted that the $380 million probably wouldn’t be necessary if we were bringing in $500 million a year through congestion pricing on the East River bridges and tunnels. In essence, New Jersey drivers will be paying what the drivers from Westchester, Long Island, Connecticut and the outer boroughs refused to pay.
But even Streetsblog though didn’t pick up on one of the grand ironies involved in having New Jersey drivers subsidizing sprawl in Bayside and Mamaroneck. Back in March 2008, in one of the craziest episodes of the whole crazy congestion pricing debate, twenty New York City Council members signed a letter complaining that the proposed congestion charge would be deducted from any bridge and tunnel tolls paid the same day. This, they wrote, was “blatantly unfair.” They even demanded exactly what Cuomo is asking from the Port Authority this year: that it contribute to the MTA capital plan. Of course it was a total lie: the proposed congestion charge would have remedied numerous unfair situations, not created one.
And now, over three years later, it looks like this will happen without congestion pricing. Now, if there’s a remedy for a situation that is blatantly unfair, and you apply that remedy in a situation that isn’t blatantly unfair, that would be blatantly unfair, right? And yet – I have not heard a peep from David Yassky, Jimmy Vacca, John Liu or anyone else who signed that letter. They only care about fairness when they think their constituents are the ones being treated unfairly.
Since the Port Authority has a monopoly on the Hudson River crossings, it can essentially create a congestion pricing corridor and capture revenues it needs for infrastructure improvement projects. Furthermore, once these toll hikes go into place, the absurdity of free East River crossings will be even more evident.
That situation, according to City Hall News, may be nearing a head. They call the PA budget a potential “catalyst to put tolls on the free East River bridges and impose congestion pricing.” They write:
People close to the discussions believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo will accede to a $2 toll hike despite his public protests. And once Cuomo establishes that a toll increase does not fall under his “no new taxes” pledge, these people believe that would lay the groundwork for a coordinated toll plan that would raise the price to enter crowded Manhattan but reduce it elsewhere. “The bridge tolls will become the way to solve the MTA problem,” said one person involved in the long-term effort. “In this situation, it’s ludicrous to leave some of the bridges free.”
Publicly, the idea of charging drivers to enter Manhattan sputtered to a halt after proposals from Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Lt. Gov. Richard Ravitch died in Albany. In the upper levels of the New York City region’s transportation agencies, however, leaders have for months quietly discussed how to impose a coordinated system of tolls that would raise money for transportation needs while also deterring drivers from entering the most crowded part of the city. “You could have a rational system that tries to ease the burden in the outer boroughs while charging people who drive in and cause the congestion,” said one of those high-ranking officials.
Outer-borough elected officials who said it was unfair to charge New Yorkers to cross into Manhattan quashed previous toll and congestion pricing plans. Now, the transportation leaders believe they could change the dynamic by cutting tolls on crossings between Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, focusing the charges on Manhattan commuters. “The outer-borough leaders that fight congestion pricing are the ones that use the Whitestone and the Throgs Neck,” the official said. “Why do people in Staten Island have to pay so much?”
This plan — which would supposedly raise $1.9 billion — would include a $13 fee to enter Manhattan south of 60th St. with tolls on the four free East River bridges. The cost to cross elsewhere would either stay the same or be lowered. Tolls could drop on the Verrazano, the Triboro, the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges.
Forces are moving toward a plan involving congestion pricing and bridge tolls. The health of our region’s infrastructure and economy may, in fact, depend on it.