A toll, a tax or the transportation status quoBy
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had to make a few trips between Washington Heights and Forest Hills. If I had unlimited hours, I could take a few trains, but we had more pressing matters to attend to (and groceries to cart home). Thus, I’ve had the experience of driving on a weekend over the Triborough Bridge, across the Cross Bronx, over the Whitestone Bridge, through that ugly part of the GWB approach in Manhattan and down the Deegan and FDR Drive. I’m always amazed anyone can do that on a regular basis.
While driving around on roads that were too small for the traffic, perennially under construction and in various states of disrepair, I marveled at our infrastructure. Here was a city that once built out a vast transit network but hasn’t managed to expand it much past the 1950s. Bus routes seem set in stone; subway expansion plans can be counted in new stations instead of new miles or even boroughs transversed. We don’t dream big, and we barely dream at all as many areas of the city feature bridges, roadways and elevated trains plagued by rust and potholes.
The problem, of course, is one of money. New York doesn’t have the money to spend maintaining antiquated roads, and few people are advocating for road expansion within the confines of the five boroughs. The MTA, meanwhile, definitely has no money. It has trouble covering operating costs and had to beg for its vital capital dollars just a few weeks ago. Over the years, Albany has rolled back taxes, denied other revenue-generating measures and generally acted as naysayers at a time when investment can both save our infrastructure and spur job creation.
Within New York City, at least, this trend of scorning transit could change if local politicians and officials have their way. Today, two stories showcasing various ways in which we could see a radical change in transit policy, if only Albany would act, hit the wires. Scott Stringer, a mayoral hopeful and current Manhattan Borough President, wants to see the commuter tax restored with dollars heading to the MTA. “I don’t want us to have a first-rate city with a second-rate transportation system. I am tired of the old ideas. I am tired of people saying it can’t be done,” he said to New York 1.
Stringer has been pushing for sensible transit policies for a few years now. (In fact, I attended and spoke at a conference on the future of transportation in New York City that his office hosted.) Whether it will play with the general electorate remains to be seen, but the Commuter Tax is a relatively “safe” issue. It doesn’t impact people voting for mayor and could in fact generate money for the transit network we all use. Stringer’s plan would siphon commuter tax revenue into an infrastructure bank, and considering how those who commute also avail themselves of the transit network, such a tax could serve as an equitable funding mechanism for the subways.
Then, of course, there is Sam Schwartz’s ambitious congestion pricing plan (pdf). Schwartz’s plan would lower some tolls on less congested routes while rising the fees to enter the busiest parts of the city and includes investment in the transit network. As Crain’s New York wrote in an editorial endorsing the plan, “Lowering the tolls between Queens and the Bronx, or Brooklyn and Staten Island, would increase commerce. Use of outer-borough bridges is light enough that their tolls can be lowered without snarling traffic. By the same token, imposing fees on users of congested roads would speed traffic, benefiting businesses whose time is more valuable than the cost of tolls.”
Of course, the same problems remain: Albany is obstinate. Suburban representatives won’t endorse a Commuter Tax, and no one seems to have an appetite for a congestion pricing plan or a bridge toll plan, no matter how sensible they are. So we’re stuck in the same old rut. Our transit network is decaying; our roads are forever clogged; and simple solutions that are on the table are ignored out of stubbornness and petty politics. That’s no way to run a city.