It’s not too often we get a direct glimpse into the minds and inner workings of a New York City politician attempting to come to grips with transit policy, but this weekend’s Daily News provided us with just that opportunity. Appearing in print at around the same time we learned of his support for a Soundview ferry, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. penned his take on Sam Schwartz’s Move NY toll plan. His critique is flawed and shows the battle anyone fighting for transit in New York City faces.
Claiming that the Move New York plan was revealed to the public for the first time last month — technically true as the campaign launched but Schwartz, who discussed the plan at my October 2012 “Problem Solvers” session, hasn’t exactly been quiet lately — Diaz had the audacity to call it a “unfair regressive tax.” Does the Bronx Borough President know what a regressive tax is, you may wonder. I know I certainly am. Here’s Diaz’s critique in his own words:
To make this toll plan work, supporters this time are pledging to lower the tolls on outer-borough bridges, such as the Robert F. Kennedy and Verrazano Bridges, in order to entice support from those communities that rejected this proposal in 2008. What “Move NY” has proposed is likely a Trojan horse. While the promise of lower tolls is certainly alluring, there are no guarantees that those tolls would stay low forever. In fact, given the history of this city’s bridges and their tolls, we can be certain that these so-called “lower” tolls will surge back to their original heights in short order.
We are told that the congestion pricing system will be “fair.” I have a different definition of fairness than those proposing this scheme. It is not fair to place a regressive tax on those who can least afford it. It is not fair to imply that outer borough tolls will remain low forever…
If revenue is required, we can raise money in other ways. For starters, we should charge drivers to register their cars based on the vehicle’s weight and level of fuel efficiency. Not only will this incentivize drivers to choose hybrid or electric cars, it will place the burden of new funding on the vehicles that cause the most congestion and pollution. We must also begin to implement new transit plans that will lower congestion by providing alternatives, and not through new bridge taxes. This includes improvements like ferry service in Williamsburg, the Rockaways and Soundview, and new Metro North service in the East Bronx.
Just how, pricing supporters will ask, do we pay for such relatively inexpensive transit upgrades without a new pricing scheme? I would say that we have been paying all along, and that it is time for the other boroughs to be treated as “fairly” as Manhattan has been.
Diaz goes onto bemoan the high cost of construction for the Second Ave. Subway, 7 line extension and East Side Access, not because he’s concerned about MTA spending but because he can’t see the forrest for the trees. East Side Access barely touches Manhattanites as it is more concerned with bringing suburban commuters while the Second Ave. Subway will directly benefit Diaz’s constituents as they’ll enjoy less crowding on the Lexington Ave. lines that snake through the Bronx. (He conveniently doesn’t discuss the plans to add four Metro-North stations to underserved areas in his borough.)
But what of this claim of regressive taxation? We see this over and over again from politicians who have a very distorted view of who drives and who owns cars in New York City. As of early 2012, only 46 percent of Bronx households owned cars, and those who Diaz claims can’t afford a modest toll certainly aren’t driving into Manhattan every day. In fact, as Streetsblog eloquently argued a few months ago, the real regressive tax is the current tolling scheme. “It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses,” Ben Fried wrote. “It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.”
I don’t know if Schwartz’s plan is the answer to the transit funding woes, but it’s an answer. At some point, too, it will be the path of least resistance toward garnering a dedicated revenue stream for the transit system. But it’s not regressive, not by any stretch. I wouldn’t expect much more from a politician who thinks that a ferry that would serve a ridership in the low triple digits is a game-changer, but it does provide a glimpse of the mindset pervasive in the boroughs, City Hall and Albany. Misguided thinking is no way to set policies that impact millions.