The return of the son of the return of congestion pricing

By · Published in 2011

For many transportation advocates in the New York City area, congestion pricing is that idea that just won’t go away. When the city launched a failed bid for such a pricing scheme three years ago, a slim majority of New Yorkers supported such a plan — and even more did so when revenues were guaranteed to be invested in public transit — but the plan died a political death. Since then, it has hovered on the periphery of politics, not quite receding but never coming back.

Today, the Daily News checks in on the status of the congestion pricing fight and finds that things are in a holding pattern. The same small group of people who haven’t yet gained the backing of big-name, powerful New York State politicos are still out there fighting the good fight, and although they think the tide might turn, it clearly hasn’t yet.

Still, the numbers being thrown around are significant. MOVE NY, a group headed by Alex Matthiessen, a member of the 2008 Commission on Sustainability and the MTA created in 2008 by Elliot Sander and long-time supporter of Charles Koumanoff’s balanced transportation analyzer, says the right congestion pricing plan could realize $1 billion in annual revenues. Furthermore, the plan has something for transit riders too: With congestion pricing revenues, the MTA could lessen and delay planned fare hikes. Kenneth Lovett has more:

Under the “MOVE NY draft sustainable mobility plan,” drivers entering New York City’s central business district, from 60th St. down to the Battery, would pay a toll at 22 entry points. The tolls would vary based on the time of day. Peak hours – between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. – would be in the same range as the Port Authority’s bridge and tunnel tolls, and the cost would be lower overnight and on weekends.

Yellow cabs would not be subject to the tolls, but they would be slapped with a $1-per-trip increase to generate $180 million a year, with $20 million going toward the hacks’ health care. Livery cabs would get a 50% discount, and commercial vehicles would not pay more than once a day. The plan would also chop tolls by 15% for the Whitestone, Throgs Neck, Cross Bay and Verrazano bridges, and defer by a year a 2013 MTA fare and toll hike…

“Everyone we’ve spoken to across the region agrees that we need to find new funding for our transportation system and appreciates the effort we’ve made to test different ideas and solicit feedback,” said Alex Matthiessen, an environmental consultant and MOVE NY campaign director.

I haven’t had a chance to review the draft of the sustainable mobility plan, but all of these tweaks and changes to the basic pricing plan seem like the give and take of politics. The plan still needs a champion in New York City and one in Albany who is willing to put themselves out there and can round up the support needed to move this through the legislature. I still think a trade-off could be achieved by reducing the payroll tax in exchange for congestion pricing, but so far, no anti-payroll tax politicians have been willing to take that stance.

There is one final cause of concern as well. The last word in Lovett’s article belongs to an anonymous source from Albany. “I think there is zero appetite,” a lawmaker said. “They can dress this up all they want, but people just don’t trust the MTA.” A quick read through the Daily News comments reveals that mistrust. New Yorkers and lawmakers alike simply don’t trust the MTA.

Now, the MTA and Albany have been through this game before. The MTA threatens service cuts and fare hikes while Albany claims the MTA is mismanaged and can’t spend its money properly. Usually Albany is willing to step in, but for the past few times, the MTA has called their bluff. We’ve had steep fare hikes and serious service cuts. Still, state lawmakers claim they don’t trust the MTA, and these statements to the press feed public mistrust as well. It’s a cycle that is going to end either with change in Albany or serious cuts in public transit service. It’s time to bridge that gap, and it’s getting closer to a time when a congestion pricing plan deserves to be a part of a serious public conversation.

22 Responses to “The return of the son of the return of congestion pricing”

  1. Miles Bader says:

    So what was the cynical political calculus that led Albany to kill congestion pricing, against all reason, last time?

    I presume, at least, that it was something more than “Sheldon Silver feels like being a dick today”….

    • Bolwerk says:

      Eh, you know the drill. Sheldon Silver is a creature of whatever way the political winds in his supermajority are blowing, but the only thing you can really blame on him is he doesn’t have the testicular fortitude to take a stand on the Assembly’s breakfast menu. With the city representing about 40% of the Assembly, there needed to be a pretty unified front among city pols for it to pass, and that never materialized in the Assembly. Since there was never a vote, it’s hard to come up with an official tally, but probably the upstate pols were neither here nor there, if deferential to their peers in the outer boroughs, suburbanites were tepid to against, Manhattanites were for, and Staten Islanders were against (but they’re too small to count for much by themselves). Most of it seems to stem from kneejerk discomfort Brooklyn/Queens pols, mostly representing people who depend heavily on transit and light on people who depend on frequent drives to Manhattan, had with the proposal.

      It would actually be a lot less offensive if there had been a vote on the matter. It’s curious to consider it may have had close to 50% of the Dems had it passed, and maybe the Republikan minority would have pushed it over. (The Reps in the Senate have been strong allies of Bloomberg, and seemed willing to pass it, but I don’t know how the Assembly ones would feel, since they generally have no power anyway.)

  2. Bolwerk says:

    New Yorkers and lawmakers alike simply don’t trust the MTA.

    Maybe it’s time to put some lipstick on that pig? Dissolve the corporation and give it a new name. The corporate structure could be modestly reformed, or radically changed. Empire State Transportation Authority? Or maybe something more corporate, to attract potential public-private partnership (like with Deutsche Bahn)?

    Lawmakers have no reason not to trust the MTA; they created it, they can change it, and they can destroy it.

    • Marc Shepherd says:

      Yes, exactly. The MTA is the legislature’s creation. If they don’t trust it, it’s not only their option, but also their positive duty, to reform or replace it.

      Of course, merely renaming it wouldn’t solve anything. And I suspect the lack of trust is merely a cover for having to avoid more difficult issues.

  3. Larry Littlefield says:

    “I think there is zero appetite,” a lawmaker said. “They can dress this up all they want, but people just don’t trust the MTA.”

    Well guess what, if they use the revenues to defer hikes in fares that are already down adjusted for inflation and discounts, and in a few years we have congestion pricing and all the same problems, people will trust the MTA even less.

    It’s about the debt. And not just at the MTA.

  4. Marc says:

    A bad idea is still a bad idea. I can’t believe anyone would want to tax freedom of mobility.

    • VLM says:

      Do you consider a toll and road user fees a tax on freedom of mobility? What about my freedom to travel without congestion or breath clean air? Does that count too?

      If people really want freedom of one-person vehicular mobility so badly, why live in New York City? That’s really what this boils down to.

    • BBnet3000 says:

      Freedom to drive without paying for it.

  5. Too.Tall says:

    I’ve never seen a full study on the effects of this. I used to live in Forest Hills. The E/F are at max capacity, no more trains can be added to the rush hours. How are all these people going to get to mass transit? There is zero parking near any subway station and most LIRR lots are full. So are the trains.

    If this is to get people to take mass transit, improve mass transit. Revenues increase. Forcing people on to a broken system is putting the cart before the horse.

    If this is to increase tax revenues, just tax parking even further everywhere.

    Making a traffic nightmare on bridges seems the worst of both ideas.

    • Bolwerk says:

      The way to study the effects of this is to try it out. And just how many people do you think the transit system would have to absorb? Even if 1,000,000 people drive into the congestion zone daily, only a fraction of them are going to be willing to change their habits because of a congestion fee. Some might take transit, some might come at a different time, some might not make a trip at all – and at least the smarter ones would be thrilled that they can have a faster, more punctual trip.

    • Judge says:

      There are plenty of examples of gateless tolling around…

    • Andrew says:

      There’s some room on F trains. There’s plenty of room on M and R trains. There’s room on trains (and room for more trains) outside the peak of the peak. There’s room on the LIRR (at least if the LIRR changes its loading guidelines to allow standees within city limits, which I think is quite reasonable, and in any event the LIRR will be getting a new Manhattan terminal in a few years). And barring all of that, express buses are an option.

      Most people in this city who can’t walk to the subway get there by bus.

      The reason our streets are so congested with cars is that we’ve severely underpriced driving. The solution is to correct the price of driving, not to spend money that doesn’t exist elsewhere.

      And while parking is also underpriced, and the two issues are of course related, they are not the same. Raising parking taxes won’t have any impact on people driving through Manhattan or on people parking on the street or on people with parking placards.

      Open road tolling doesn’t create traffic nightmares on bridges. It does just the opposite through proper pricing, by encouraging people to drive only when they need to drive.

      The current system is bad for pretty much everybody. It’s bad for subway and bus riders, who don’t have enough funding to keep their transit system whole. It’s doubly bad for bus riders, who also have to sit through traffic jams. It’s bad for pedestrians and bicyclists, who have to cede so much public space to the private automobile and who get to breathe and listen to the resulting traffic. It’s bad for everybody who receives deliveries in the region, since trucks get stuck in traffic, increasing costs for all. And it’s bad for drivers, who have to sit in unpredictable traffic jams even when they’re in a rush to get somewhere – even if they’re willing to pay $100 to bypass a jam, they don’t have that option.

      The only people who benefit from the current system are drivers who value their time minimally and parking garage operators.

    • ajedrez says:

      Two words: Express buses.

      Chances are that if they can afford to pay the costs of driving into Manhattan, and the LIRR/subway are at capacity (by the way, nothing says they have to drive to the LIRR), the MTA can run some additional express service (say, the QM11 or a new route) to absorb those riders.

      • Andrew says:

        I’m generally not a fan of express buses, since, by their nature, they’re very costly per rider. But I wouldn’t be opposed to a few targeted express bus routes if projections show that the subway wouldn’t be able to accommodate everyone diverted by congestion pricing.

        • ajedrez says:

          Well, if done right, they can keep their costs down. Their nature is to have heavily peaked service, which brings costs up. However, if a peak/off-peak fare were implemented, that could help with some of that peakiness.

          Also, I think the MTA could boost their usage if they advertised them more. There are a whole bunch of rail options in Forest Hills (the E, F, M, R, and LIRR) that the buses probably go unnoticed and get low ridership. However, if the people knew that they could have a more reliable trip, they might take it rather than the subway (a bus coming every 30 minutes vs. a train every 10-12 minutes may not seem like a good option, but if you know the schedule of the 30 minute bus, you might be better off depending on the bus). This is especially true on the weekends and when there’s GOs.

  6. Chris says:

    Though I think congestion pricing is a great idea (whether through bridge tolling or even more granular road use fees), I don’t much like the details of this proposal. There’s way too many handouts to politically connected entities, for one thing: why would cabs not pay? why would commercial vehicles just pay once? Those vehicles produce just as much congestion as private vehicles using the facility at the same time; anything that doesn’t apply equally to all of them can’t fairly be labelled a “congestion price”.

    I also worry about creating lots more revenue at the MTA’s bridge/tunnel entity when the mass transit entity continues to burn cash – these tolls would be very tough to reduce later should congestion fall below its target level, if there’s another agency dependent upon the revenue. Ideally, these two businesses would be split up again so that the problems with the transit businesses could be addressed more directly, but the ship has sailed on that issue. Excess bridge/tunnel revenue beyond what’s needed for improvements to those facilities is better pushed up to the general fund to provide for more low-income tax credits – which do more per dollar to increase transit affordability.

  7. Micael says:

    1) No there really isn’t more room on thr F trains during rush. Ayway, where would these people park near the subway.

    2) Very few people cut thru Manhattan, if the do, then no need for congestion pricing, the roads aren’t clogged. And on the street parking in Manhattan is where everyone is going? Where? I’d like to park there.

    3) How’s open tolls doing? If the are so great, why don’t they great, why don’t we have them? Anywhere. At all.

    4) LIRR may have capacity, but not in their parking lots.

    Your idea to force people on to uncrowded local trains, clearing up congestion in Manhattan while dumping it on the other already congested boros but

    • Andrew says:

      1) Actually, there is room on the F. Guideline capacity on the F is 145 per car, and the F carries less than 145 people per car, even during rush hours. Hint: Try the back of the train. You won’t get a seat, but you’ll have no trouble fitting. As I said, there’s room on the M and R, which also serve Forest Hills. And as I also said, most people don’t drive to the subway – if they can’t walk, they take the bus.

      2) Plenty of people cut through Manhattan (ever seen Canal St.?), and I’m amused to learn that there’s one person who thinks that congestion isn’t a problem. Most streets in Manhattan have free or metered on-street parking. But I have a feeling you don’t care, since your other “arguments” (not enough room on the train, not enough parking by the train) apply just as much to increasing the cost of parking as to increasing the cost of driving, unless for some reason (placard?) you don’t pay to park.

      3) There are plenty of open road tolling systems (try Google if you’re not aware of any yourself), including a few in the New York area, and more in the works. All of NYC’s tolls predate EZ-Pass, and modifying existing toll plazas for open road tolling is expensive – but that’s not a problem for an entirely new toll. I guess you’re not very familiar with the topic of congestion pricing, since the proposals have always included open road tolling.

      4) Again, driving isn’t the only way to reach LIRR stations.

      This isn’t “my” idea, and I’m not forcing people onto anything. You still have the option of driving; if you do, you’ll just have to pay a bit for the space you occupy and the pollution you cause.

      By the way, I thought you said that there was no congestion.

      By the way #2, congestion parking would reduce congestion outside Manhattan too. Ever been to Long Island City or Downtown Brooklyn?

      By the way #3, congestion pricing would apply within Manhattan as well.

      • ajedrez says:

        Agree, except for one tidbit: Didn’t they say that you would only be charged once a day for going below 60th Street? If you’re going within the Zone, you won’t get charged.

        • Andrew says:

          So what’s that borough north of 60th St. if not also Manhattan?

          Incidentally, while the charge would apply to people driving into the CBD from anywhere, it would be most beneficial to Queens and Brooklyn residents, since the approaches to the “free” East River bridges are generally far more congested than the southbound avenues.


  1. […] Strategies, an eco-political consultancy based in New York City. Alex is also the director of Move NY, a campaign to bring a rational transportation improvement and financing system to New York City. […]

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