Archive for Congestion Fee
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.
As Sam Schwartz’s Move NY traffic pricing plan once again makes the rounds, the usual suspects are lining up in support (and against) the proposal. A new mayoral administration could give supporters a chance to make waves, but this plan may live or die in the hands of Albany. Unsurprisingly, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is not racing to throw his weight behind it.
To reporters yesterday, Cuomo made a brief remark on the plan, showing his skeptical hand. “The East River bridge tools were brought up may times before, he said. “It’s a proposal that’s been brought up almost every year for the past several years. It hasn’t passed in the past and I don’t believe it will pass now.” Cuomo, of course, has the power to turn his words into a self-fulfilling prophecy, and he’s not even giving the plan a fair shakedown. I’m not surprised.
But should we be disappointed? Cuomo isn’t rushing out to support a traffic pricing plan for reasons I may not support, but a few good minds have cast some doubt on Schwartz’s current proposal. To get a sense of what, I’d direct you to a series of posts Cap’n Transit posted in 2012. He noted that the plan isn’t fair or equitable and went about discussing how it has incentives for future drivers and uninspired proposals and empty promises for bus service while overvaluing community boards and generally misses the point. I’m glad to see a traffic pricing plan back in the news, but it’s clear we have a long way to go before we reach a solution acceptable to everyone.
Once of Mayor Bloomberg’s defining moments in the middle of his second term was to be a traffic pricing plan. Designed to raise revenues for the MTA whiling reducing congestion across the city’s East River Bridges, Bloomberg proposed a daily fee for automobiles entering Manhattan south of 59th St. with revenues set to bolster rail and bus service. The congestion pricing plan was controversial but had garnered the support of a majority of New Yorkers so long as the money went to transit. What happened next was Albany at its finest.
Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan passed the City Council, and the measure went to Albany for a home rule request. Usually, Albany is generous in granting these measures, but this time, Sheldon Silver had other plans. The powerful Assembly speaker and Lower Manhattan rep let the bill die in committee. It never even came up for a vote, and at that point, Bloomberg’s 2030 plan lost a major source of revenue. Albany, coincidentally, lost a major ally too as New York’s mayor, never one to embrace the upstate capital, seemed largely at odds with New York’s state leadership after the vote.
For years, a congestion pricing plan has hovered around the edges of New York City politics. The idea itself hasn’t completely died, but support for a pricing scheme hasn’t rematerialized. Over the years, Sam Schwartz has continued to refine the idea into a fair tolling scheme, and he and I spoke on it at my Problem Solvers event last October. Now, with a new mayor — albeit one who hasn’t embraced a congestion pricing or East River bridge toll plan — and the MTA’s five-year needs coming into view, time may be right for another attempt.
That, at least, is what Matt Flegenheimer argues in The Times today. Here’s his story:
First, the name had to go. There could be no more talk, transit advocates reasoned, of “congestion pricing,” a phrase Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg often used before his sweeping plan to overhaul New York City’s bridge tolling system was vanquished in 2008, and treated as political arsenic ever since. Then, with a clean slate, supporters could move on to the hard part: sculpting a proposal that might succeed where the mayor failed.
And so, more than five years after Mr. Bloomberg’s plan died in Albany, a cadre of the city’s transit minds has primed a successor, fine-tuning a pricing model that might be more palatable to residents outside Manhattan, meeting quietly with former opponents and preparing to take its case early next year to a public that has grown accustomed to free, if traffic-choked, rides over the East River.
Political obstacles abound, including securing the support of the State Legislature. But in what the plan’s supporters have billed as the most significant change of heart so far, Councilman Mark Weprin, an outspoken critic of the old proposal, said in an interview last week that he was receptive to this reimagined version. “I’d like to have a chance to talk to them again,” he said of his constituents, “and say this makes a lot more sense.” (Mr. Weprin, a Queens Democrat, is running for City Council speaker.)
The latest version of Schwartz’s plan is available in a presentation on his website (pdf), and it essentially involves a series of trade-offs. The Verrazano Bridge toll would be lowered while the free East River crossings would come with a charge. Direct routes through and into Manhattan would all carry the same charge so that traffic would find the most efficient route and not the cheapest while transit would enjoy added revenue.
It’s a much more rigorous plan than that put forth by Mayor Bloomberg, but absent some serious political pressure it won’t happen. The first obstacle is the MTA. The agency won’t advocate for this plan on its own, and any proposal that involves reducing Verrazano tolls means that the MTA’s own revenue streams would be reduced. Unless the city bridges are all turned over to the MTA, lowering MTA tolls is risky, and I’ve received indications that MTA doesn’t particularly want control over all the bridges and all the attendant headaches that came along with it.
Next up is the idea that change emerges out of a crisis. Right now, reports indicated that the MTA’s finances are stronger than expected and that the agency is enjoying unexpected surpluses. We know how fragile the budget is, and we know that the MTA needs to fund a $28 billion five-year capital plan. But the average voter may not recognize as much. Levying more fees on people who think New York is already too pricey won’t go over well in bad economic times; it certainly won’t be smiled upon in good times.
Finally, there are the Usual Suspects. Take, for instances, Richard Brodsky. The one-time Westchester rep is still leading the charge against congestion pricing, and he still doesn’t understand who drives into Manhattan on a daily basis. “It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” he said to The Times, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.” Brodsky has yet to realize, five years later, that the guy with that ’97 can’t afford to drive into Manhattan anyway.
I want Schwartz’s plan to succeed. I want to see an equitable pricing scheme that reduces traffic into Manhattan and along the arteries that serve the island at the center of the city. I want Lee Sander’s comments to The Times — “If people oppose this, there is an obligation for them to come up with their alternative for how we fund the region’s subways, commuter rail and bus system” — to come true. But I’m not sure the political will is there quite yet. Someone high up will have to be a champion.
If you’re looking for an excellent transportation event to attend tonight, check out this this program hosted by The New York Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation and the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation. It’s a conversation with Sam Schwartz. Details please:
The New York Chapter of Young Professionals in Transportation and the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation invite you to join us for a conversation with former Traffic Commissioner Sam Schwartz on his vision for battling congestion in the New York region. Schwartz’s plan, which involves reorganizing tolls to generate $15 billion over ten years to fund road, bridge, subway and bus improvements, has been lauded by the media since its release in March 2012. Learn more about the Fair Plan and Schwartz’s career on May 29th.
CEO and Founder of Sam Schwartz Engineering, “Gridlock Sam” is considered a worldwide authority in traffic, highway, bridge, transit and parking systems. Prior to founding the firm in 1995, Schwartz was responsible for transportation engineering, infrastructure, and quality control and planning as Senior Vice President of Hayden Wegman Consulting Engineers, Inc. from 1990 to 1995. At the New York City Department of Transportation, he was responsible for an 8,000-person agency, a $350 million expense budget and a $700 million capital budget. Schwartz is a visiting scholar at the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management and a member of the New York Transportation Journal Editorial Board.
The shindig kicks off at 6 p.m. and runs until around 8 tonight. It’s on the 2nd Floor of the Puck Building at 295 Lafayette Street, easily accessible from the B, D, F, M, N, R and 6 trains. RSVP here if you’re interested.
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.
Congestion pricing is one of those ideas that, rightfully so, just won’t fade away. While the official effort to bring a rational road usage and transportation funding plan to New York City died an ignoble death at the hands of Sheldon Silver a few years ago, urban advocates and transportation planners have kept the flame lit. This week, Bill Keller, current columnist for and former editor-in-chief of The New York Times, lent his voice to the discussion.
Keller’s column, billed as a profile of Sam Schwartz, begins with a discussion of New York’s “transportation hell.” The city’s central business district is on an island with a limited number of access points, and it relies on an aging and underfunded subway system to bring the vast majority of commuters to and from work each day. Over the past decade, through will power and billiongs, the MTA has been trying to expand its transportation network. The going is slow, though, and the funding is scarce.
It doesn’t have to be like that. While Governor Andrew Cuomo, an ambitious and powerful chief executive, hasn’t embraced transit, as Keller notes, smart minds have been working on a rational plan to control congestion, improve efficient and support transit. He writes:
Samuel I. Schwartz, a transportation engineer and New Yorker to his kishkes, has spent 40 years — half government, half private — trying to make sense of the M.T.A. He can tell you how it rewards congestion, keeps subways and buses in a state of decrepitude, and breeds resentment. He can regale you with incentives that are utterly perverse. (He prefers “cockamamie.”) One example: If you are a five-axle trucker bound for New Jersey, you can skirt Manhattan, take the highway over the Verrazano-Narrows and pay a $70 truck toll; or you can drag your belching bulk across the narrow streets of Chinatown, TriBeCa and Little Italy — toll-free. Guess what most truckers do.) Time and again Schwartz has labored over attempted reforms — remember “congestion pricing”? — only to see them shot down because they put all the pain on the outlying car-centric suburbs, or because they ran into an antitax mood, or because people suspected the money would be siphoned off for other purposes.
Over the years he has gradually constructed a plan that is a Brooklyn boy’s gift to his city. (Literally. No client paid for it.) It wipes clean the slate, replaces it with a system of tolls and fares designed as incentives to minimize congestion in the central business district, ease circulation around the region and revive public transit.
You do not have to be an engineer to appreciate the logic. The scheme puts the heaviest onus on the solo driver who has ready access to a train, and lowers the cost for drivers who have no alternative. Unlike earlier plans that amounted to a punishing tax on commuters from outlying communities, the Schwartz plan has more affluent neighborhoods (like the plusher parts of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens) pay a fair share. Though the main purpose is to underwrite public transport, the plan sets aside money to make the highways more bearable — in part so trucks will use them and avoid the populous business districts. Unlike plans that are all about cars and trains, Schwartz’s includes some lovely optional extras for the green at heart — graceful new bike-pedestrian bridges connecting the gentrified waterfront neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens and New Jersey to Manhattan.
As Keller notes, Schwartz’s plan could bring in $1.2 billion, reduce traffic and provide more jobs. It could allow for $15 billion in bonding for transit projects if the MTA wanted to go further into debt. Of course, as Transportation Nation noted, not everyone is lining up for this idea. “I don’t support tolling the East River Bridges,” Peter Vallone, a Queens representative, said. “There are ways to influence congestion without increasing costs to motorists.”
Yet, if the plan implemented is the right one — with dollars earmarked for the MTA and protected by an appropriate lockbox — the public has shown a willingness to embrace it. Is it a last gasp for the MTA or a plan to protect the city from crushing traffic? Perhaps it’s part of both, but whatever the full answer, it deserves another chance. Our city may just need it to grow for the next 100 years.
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.
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.
As some of the city’s East River crossings remain tolled while others are free, city drivers have engaged in “bridge shopping” in the wake of the recent MTA toll hikes, the city’s Department of Transportation has found. In a recent report, the agency found that traffic on the tolled bridges declined while volume across the free bridges has increased by a corresponding amount. While DOT refused to speculate on the connection between the two, the ties seem rather obvious to me.
The New York Post has the numbers:
Data compiled by the city’s Transportation Department showed that traffic volume on all four of the tolled bridges and tunnels across the East and Harlem rivers fell between 2008 and 2009, while it increased on 10 of the city’s free bridges. The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel took the biggest hit, losing 4,363 of its customers, or 7.9 percent, during the financially perilous one-year span…
During that same period, the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges added a total of 4,246 vehicles to their annual count — nearly the same number that abandoned the Battery Tunnel. Those three bridges, of course, don’t cost a cent.
A similar trend was evident at the tolled Henry Hudson Bridge, where traffic was down by 3.6 percent, or 2,494 vehicles. The free alternative, the Broadway Bridge, saw a corresponding jump of 2,300.
Traffic expert and long-time toll advocate Sam Schwartz bemoaned the environmental impact of the so-called “bridge shoppers.” “It’s really very bad for the environment. They’re polluting a lot, driving extra miles, using more gasoline,” he said while arguing that the free bridges should be tolled — as they were in the early 1900s — in order to encourage efficient driving, reduce congestion and generate more revenue.
Of course, James Vacca, the head of the City Council’s transportation committee and a representative that hails from a district in which car ownership rates is higher than the city average, had a different take. “We may be reaching the point of diminishing returns with the constant toll and fare increases,” he said. “If they keep raising it further, I’m worried about the impact on jobs. The reality is, some people do have to take their cars to work.”
I know Vacca must balance the demands of his car-owning constituents with his role as head of the transportation committee, but his has been and always will be a spurious argument. Those, such as plumbers, electricians and delivery services, who “have to take their cars to work” are in the best position to pass along any tolls or fees to their customers, and anyone who drives in just to pay to to park in Manhattan can afford the East River Bridges. If they can’t, numerous subway lines serve the same areas.
At some point, common sense will overtake a debate built on strawmen, but while our politicians refuse to see the need to reduce congestion while generating revenue, local roads and free bridges will continue to see traffic increase.
As New York State politicians continue to fight over the MTA’s funding future, congestion pricing is slowly sneaking back into the discussion. Some believe congestion pricing will be the reward for a reduction the suburban counties must contribute to the payroll mobility tax while others see the congestion price revenue as a solution to the MTA’s capital budget hole.
As the debate begins to percolate, certain members of the state legislature are working to head it off before it begins. David Weprin, a representative from the 24th Assembly district in Queens, opined on congestion pricing in the Daily News yesterday. He is against the fee but proposes something else instead: a revival of the commuter tax.
Let’s take a look at the relevant parts of his argument. He raises some good and some bad points while relying too heavily on arguments that don’t withstand scrutiny. Still, he’s talking about it, and that’s the first step toward a solution.
It is true that there are severe transportation problems facing the city, but these problems have been years in the making, and instituting a tax on people attempting to drive to work isn’t going to solve it.
The fact is that most of the transportation infrastructure in the metropolitan area was designed when cars still had tail fins and ribbons of highways were laid, encircling our cities and suburbs in an effort to turn New York into a commuter’s utopia. The sprawl that followed, in addition to the neglect of the area’s mass-transit infrastructure, has brought us to the problem we are facing today: too much traffic, too few alternatives.
Here, Weprin starts off on the right foot. Most of our transportation infrastructure in the city was built either in the early 1900s or in the post-war period. We spent millions on roads without improving the mass transit network, and now the city is choked in traffic. It’s an unsustainable problem that has both an economic and environmental impact.
That said, Weprin’s next argument relies too heavily on a profile of drivers that simply doesn’t exist. He continues:
Taxing commuters as much as $2,000 a year, and taxing small businesses that use trucks to ship their goods to Manhattan a fee in excess of $5,000 a year, might be a great way to raise money, but it doesn’t solve the problem; it just covers it up at the expense of hardworking New Yorkers…
A useful exercise to understand the future transportation needs of New York is to imagine the multitude of negative effects a congestion-pricing scheme would have on the city of New York. The tax on commuters and businesses is the most obvious, but the stress that this plan would put on the already-troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority would result in giving those who can afford to drive into Manhattan an option while forcing working-class New Yorkers to cram onto already-crowded trains, subways and buses.
What I just described is the best-case scenario. I would hope that if people had to pay money to drive into Manhattan, they would see the error of their ways, buy a MetroCard or a bike, and be content with not having their car at work. What is much more likely to happen is that the outer boroughs will become a park-and-ride lot for people commuting from Long Island and Westchester.
This proposal also represents an embargo on Manhattan businesses, theaters and restaurants by taxing customers each time they choose to drive into Manhattan to frequent these establishments. Instead of ending congestion and mitigating pollution, a congestion pricing plan would simply move all of these congestion problems off Manhattan and stick the rest of the city with them. I believe this is unthinkable.
This argument is a common one amongst congestion pricing opponents, but it ignores the numbers. Those who commute daily via automobile into Manhattan make, on average, over $20,000 more per year than those who rely on the subway. In other words, the middle class worker who daily drives into Manhattan simply doesn’t exist in numbers great enough to halt congestion pricing.
Meanwhile, Weprin fails to consider two important parts of a congestion pricing plan. First, he focuses on “the multitude of negative effects” but doesn’t pay any lip service to the positive effects. Those include a more productive economy in which people are not stuck in traffic; a better funded transit network; and a cleaner environment without congestion choking our roads or throats.
Second, to combat the threat of turning the outer boroughs into park-and-ride lots, a proper congestion pricing scheme will have to come with a residential parking permit plan. That’s a common sense part of the solution. If the idea is to discourage superfluous driving with its socially negative impact, it will require some creative thinking.
Weprin ends though on a reasonably optimistic note. He wants to restore the commuter tax:
One commonsense solution to help the MTA raise the funds needed to actually begin to confront this congestion issue is by revving the nonresident income tax or commuter tax and ensure that part of that revenue be earmarked for the MTA. This is a much less-regressive tax than charging working-class New Yorkers to drive around their own city.
I will be introducing a bill that would implement a 1% nonresident commuter tax and would split the revenue equally between the city of New York and the MTA. A plan like this would allow us to raise revenue, not by regressively taxing our working-class residents but by collecting the money from those who already use our cities’ services regularly but don’t pay taxes for them because they live outside the city.
This bill would allow us to begin the hard work of creating the 21st-century transportation infrastructure that our city desperately needs. This is the time to figure out a long-term solution for meeting our future transportation needs, not just filling a funding gap in the MTA and turning Manhattan into the Forbidden City.
It’s tough to say if restoring the commuter tax would be more or less popular than continuing the payroll tax. For starters, the commuter tax has a tough history in New York. We had one for a while, and then in the late 1990s, Albany intentionally violated the Commerce Clause by ending the commuter tax on Westchester and Long Island commuters while keeping it in place for those coming in from New Jersey and Connecticut. When a legal challenge to the tax in that form arose, the courts quickly struck it down.
Of course, it would make sense to restore it because these commuters use services for which they do not pay, but it’s a bit disingenuous to say it’s not a regressive tax on the working class. Weprin’s appeal there is to distinguish it from a congestion fee, but the reality is that a commuter tax would also be passed along to workers just as the payroll tax is today.
After digesting Weprin’s well-made argument, I’m left with the same conclusion I had. The congestion pricing plan is the best of a series of less-than-ideal offerings. It targets those who, by and large, can afford to pay, and it carries with it more positive social, economic and environmental effects than the other options. Whether enough political support can coalesce around any of these options, though, is a question for another day.