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A long time ago in a city not so far away, “wait ’til next year” became the mantra for die-hard Brooklyn Dodger fans who kept watching their crosstown-rival Yankees win World Series championships. This year, as New York State budget negotiations came to a head this past weekend, “wait ’til next year” will have to be the rallying cry for congestion pricing opponents who were, once again, let down by Albany inaction.
When his FixNYC panel unveiled a proposal for a comprehensive traffic pricing plan and Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced congestion pricing would factor into the 2018 New York State budget negotiations, many transit advocates raised a skeptical eyebrow and held their collective breaths. Cuomo never presented his own plan and didn’t seem keen to lobby the legislature (or work the backroom deals) to see congestion pricing through this year, and when the dust settled at the end of last week, we seemed to get a surcharge on for-hire vehicles and a vague promise of a phased-in approach to congestion pricing that may or may not accumulate in a real plan next year. As city streets remain choked with traffic and surface transit reliability crashing, it was, yet again, a disappointing outcome from the governor who loves to parade his love of cars around New York State.
In The New York Times this weekend, Winnie Hu wrote about the 2018 decline and fall of congestion pricing and the new surcharge on for-hire vehicle trips. She writes:
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo set the stage for an ambitious congestion pricing plan when he declared that it was “an idea whose time has come.”
But that time is not now.
There was little about congestion pricing in the state budget negotiated Friday by Mr. Cuomo and state lawmakers despite months of lobbying by advocates, a six-figure media campaign, and rallies by transit riders. The most significant development was a new surcharge that will be tacked on to every ride in for-hire vehicles in Manhattan south of 96th Street: $2.50 for yellow taxis; $2.75 for other for-hire vehicles, including Ubers and Lyfts; and 75 cents for car pool rides such as Via and UberPool.
Notably missing was the congestion zone that was the centerpiece of a congestion pricing plan, laid out by a state task force to reduce gridlock on the streets and raise money for the city’s struggling subway, which is operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Under that plan, unveiled in January, drivers could have been charged a daily fee — $11.52 for passenger cars, $25.34 for trucks — to enter a congestion zone in Manhattan, from 60th Street south to the Battery, at busy times.
A coalition of transit advocates was quick to express their displeasure. Transportation Alternatives, the Straphangers Campaign, Riders Alliance, and StreetsPAC released a joint statement on Saturday:
Our transit system is on life support. Fixing our transit system should have been Albany’s first priority this year; unfortunately, the final budget does not offer a credible plan to modernize the MTA, nor provide a sufficient revenue stream to make it possible. The crisis in our subways and on our streets will continue, and New Yorkers will continue to demand action from Governor Cuomo and state lawmakers.
If the governor is serious about alleviating the crisis, he must ensure that the initial steps laid out in this budget — for-hire vehicle surcharges, bus lane expansion and enforcement — be the catalyst for meaningful reform. First, Governor Cuomo must use a portion of the new revenue to help implement comprehensive congestion pricing, by constructing cordon infrastructure and addressing needs in transit deserts around the city. Then, the governor must establish, and commit to, a timeline to make congestion pricing a reality in New York.
New York’s transit and traffic problems may seem intractable, but with bold leadership, reform is possible. New Yorkers deserve better than broken subways, unsafe streets, and crippling gridlock, and it’s time for our representatives to deliver.
David Weprin, an Assembly Democrat of Queens, has long fought against congestion pricing despite the fact that only 4.2% of his constituents would pay a fee while a majority rely on public transit. He declared a temporary victory in the fight this weekend. “I haven’t won the war yet on congestion pricing, but I did win this battle — it’s not getting in the budget,” Weprin said to The Times. With short-sighted politicians like this representing us, Gov. Cuomo’s support was even more important, and he did not, as Gotham Gazette detailed last week in a must-read piece, come close to delivering. The bait-and-switch Cuomo pulled will enable Weprin in the future at the expensive of his own constituents and the rest of the city.
Tentative c.p. deal per @JimmyVielkind, surcharging yellows + Ubers et al. but w/o cordon toll, generates just ~35% of travel-time + transit-imprvmnt benefits of "robust" version of Fix NYC. See shots from my BTA spreadsheet. @WinnHu @JDavidsonNYC @MoveNewYork @StreetsblogNYC pic.twitter.com/75K7rPQNuQ
— Charles Komanoff (@Komanoff) March 28, 2018
Meanwhile, the for-hire vehicle surcharge could be a first step toward comprehensive congestion pricing, if Cuomo wants it to be, and it’s worth exploring what this means for Manhattan’s crowded streets. In a tweet last week, Charles Komanoff detailed the benefits and I’ll summarize. The FHV-only surcharge will eventually speed up Manhattan traffic by around 6.7 percent but not until transit investments have significantly shifted mode-share. The charge will generate approximately $650 million per year with 64.6% borne by Manhattanites, 18.8 percent by those in the other four boroughs, and only 16.6 percent by those outside of New York City. (A full-fledged plan would have resulted in a 20 percent increase in speeds, $1.8 billion in annual revenue and a more equitable split of costs with Manhattanites picking up 32.4 percent, 36.9 percent borne by the boroughs and 30. percent carried by those outside of NYC.)
As constructed, the FHV surcharge moves the needle but has the perverse outcome of penalizing Manhattan residents while giving suburban drivers another year of a free pass. To the extent the FHV surcharge increases the costs of ride-hailing services ideally designed to eliminate private automobile trips, this FHV-only fee incentivizes private single-occupancy auto trips, thus countering one potential impact of a congestion pricing plan. A real plan has to disincentivize these discretionary trips while improving traffic flow (including, vitally, for buses) and generating money for transit expansion.
On a theoretical basis, congestion pricing polling numbers are, as they always are, middling, and congestion pricing plans that have been enacted throughout the world enjoy much more support after the plans are in place and the benefits tangible. As Justin Davidson detailed last week, the arguments against a pricing plan for New York City are not supported by data and facts. It almost seems like a fait acompli that NYC be the beneficiary of a congestion pricing plan, but it will, once again, have to wait as Andrew Cuomo and Albany failed to come through. The transit crisis, I guess, will have to wait another year for a real solution.