Archive for Congestion Fee

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.

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As more and more members of the new Republican majority in the State Senator and a few Democrats too have taken aim at the state’s controversial commuter mobility tax, I’ve speculated about a tit-for-tat trade. In return for a reduced tax burden for suburban business, Albany could support and approve a congestion pricing fee for New York City with dedicated revenues for the MTA. For city transit advocates who have long pushed for a pricing plan, such a proposal would be ideal.

Today, we learn that forces are quietly gathering in Albany to push such a plan. With a new name attached to it — traffic pricing as opposed to congestion pricing — Sen. Daniel Squadron is, in the words of The Daily News, “rounding up colleagues” who will support his plan to charge $10 per car to enter parts of Manhattan. In exchange, the payroll mobility tax would be drastically altered.

Squadron, who is working with members of the Bloomberg Administration to develop a concrete proposal, sees congestion pricing as a way to restore stability to the MTA’s balance sheet. “The MTA needs a sustainable funding source,” Squadron said. “This has to be on the table.”

Adam Lisberg has more:

While there is no formal proposal, the money could restore some of last year’s MTA service cuts, halt the next fare increase and reduce the payroll tax outside the five boroughs…Now, backers call it “traffic pricing” – and want to build support among outer borough and suburban lawmakers before proposing a specific plan…

One idea would reduce the payroll tax on businesses outside Manhattan – which could win backing from suburban lawmakers. “Everybody out in the suburbs hates the payroll tax, so the idea of ‘feathering’ the tax could be helpful,” said one person involved. “This has to be a regional effort. It has to enjoy regional support,” the source added.

Driver fees could also reverse some of the MTA service cuts that eliminated two subway lines and 36 bus routes last year, and help plug the system’s $10 billion long-term maintenance gap. They could also delay the 7% fare hike scheduled for a year from now, backers hope.

Despite these hopes, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos seems less welcoming of the idea. In an interview today with Capital Tonight, he called congestion pricing “just another tax” and said he wouldn’t support the plan even if it resulted in a lower payroll tax for suburban businesses. It sounds as though the MTA might have to threaten steep fare hikes to see such a pricing plan realized.

Still, as someone who has supported congestion pricing since Day One and loves the idea of using this fee to reduce auto traffic while supporting transit, it’s tough to find anything wrong with this plan. I would caution its supporters not to overreach though. New York City residents have expressed their support for congestion pricing as long as revenues go toward the MTA, but how far can those revenues go?

Already, in the build-up to a concrete plan, early whispers have these revenues being used to (a) restore service lost to the June cuts; (b) lower or avoid the 2013 fare hike; and (c) help close the $10 billion gap in the capital plan. The money generated simply cannot go that far. Three years ago, officials estimated approximately $400 million in annual revenue from congestion pricing, and that’s enough to reverse the service cuts and likely avert some of the fare hike. It’s not enough to also begin bonding out the next capital plan. Someone will have to make some tough choices there.

From a policy perspective, I’d prefer to see congestion pricing revenue go toward expanding service. If that means capital investments and rolling back service cuts, then we’ll just suffer through another fare hike that’s probably inevitable anyway. By putting a price on driving, the city will send more people to the subways, and the system must have the reach and capacity to respond. The fare, while good for politicians looking to curry favors, matters less in the long-term than expansion and maintenance.

No matter the outcome, though, it’s nearing time to rally the troops for another fight. This time, the state, despite Skelos’ objection, should work to approve congestion pricing. For the sake of transit, for the sake of our productivity and for the sake of the environment, the city will be much better off for it.

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As the MTA struggles to find a reliable source of dedicated revenue and the city remains choked by traffic, higher-ups in the Bloomberg Administration appear to be putting out feelers again on a potential congestion pricing plan. Stephen Goldsmith, the new Deputy Mayor for Operations, sat down for a chat with NY1 this week, and during the interview, he spoke at length about the future of congestion pricing.

While he isn’t sure if the New York political climate in Albany would pass a congestion measure, Goldsmith understands the need for traffic pricing and the costs driving exerts on society. “The issue is,” he said, “you’ve got a limited number of transportation mechanisms and different ways to get around — Both how you get around and where you are driving or what subway you are taking or what bus you are on. How New Yorkers use those resources will have to be very efficient for the infrastructure to maintain the number of people, and congestion pricing causes people to think differently about how they consume those roads and consume those bridges. So it’s a very important signal to the populace.”

If Bloomberg wanted to make one last play for congestion pricing in the final years of his reign as mayor, after the upcoming election would be a fine time to do so. Those in Albany whose support is required wouldn’t be fighting a campaign, but even still, congestion pricing with revenues dedicated to the MTA has the support of the majority of New Yorkers. The measure also passed the City Council two years ago and would do so again. The time might be right for another push.

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As New Yorkers and the MTA adjust to life in the post-rescue plan era of transit planning, it is worth revisiting and old — and contentious — proposal to fund transit. Lost in the debate over Richard Ravitch’s proposal to toll the East River bridges was another suggestion that Ravitch intentionally did not include in his report: a congestion fee.

Now, we know how this works. The city would charge drivers of all vehicles a certain amount each day to enter Manhattan’s central business district. Generally, this would include all of the island from 60th St. south. The system would be set up by a $350 million grant from the feds — a grant which is still available — and the projected $400-$500 million in revenue would head into the MTA’s coffers for the capital plan.

While many New Yorkers were willing to support this plan, politicians balked at the idea and turned it into a pseudo-populist cause. How would the lower class drivers afford to pay the fee? How would the businessman in for himself afford to pay it?

Never mind that lower class — and middle class and many upper class — residents of New York City don’t even own cars. Never mind that few business owners spend their days driving back and forth from the outer boroughs to Manhattan’s CBD. Never mind that a congestion fee would improve traffic, speed up trips into Manhattan and virtually pay for itself for those few that do. This was not an issue proponents would win with common sense.

But as that TransAlt graphic up there shows, a congestion fee makes far too much sense. It has an environmental and social component; it has an economic component; and it contributes to mass transit expansion. The benefits would far outweigh the costs.

With news that the money from the feds is still out there, a few political commentators and urban planning enthusiasts have been looking at ways to reframe the argument. At FiveThirtyEight, Robert Frank suggested reframing the debate and offer up a cookie in the form of a voucher:

Most people who commute regularly by car into Manhattan are not poor, and most low-income workers in Manhattan already use public transportation for their daily commute. The problem cases are low-income workers who must occasionally drive into the city on weekdays. For such people, congestion fees would indeed constitute a new burden.

But this burden could easily be eliminated by giving every low-income worker in Manhattan an annual allotment of transferable congestion vouchers. On the rare occasions when these workers needed to drive into the city, they could do so free of charge. And they could earn some extra money by selling any vouchers they didn’t need on Craigslist.

Ryan Avent thinks this approach is worth a shot. As Avent notes, “the crucial opposing push came from self-interested drivers, mostly middle and upper income individuals who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the vouchers.” But there’s something else at play: Albany blocked congestion pricing. As Avent’s readers noted, the City Council, Mayor, MTA and NYC DOT all approved the plan before Sheldon Silver killed it in committee.

So maybe now, it’s time to try again. In the aftermath of the Senate package, it’s clear that the MTA’s capital plan rests on shaky ground. The money that is there will last just two years, and the MTA needs a true source of long-term revenue. Congestion pricing would do just that, and people in the city are far more willing to support it than they are East River bridges.

Soon, in the not-too-distant future, someone in Albany or New York City will have to step up to the plate for the MTA. He or she will have to assemble a group of politicians and planners willing to go out on a limb for transit in one of the most transit-dependent urban centers around the world. Why not now? Why not congestion pricing?

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For the last few months, we’ve been covering the MTA’s budgetary woes nearly non-stop. The city’s transportation authority is facing a massive budget crunch, and advocates would prefer to see the hole plugged through contributions from drivers. That way, public transit will thrive while congestion, an environmental and social evil, will be curtailed. The solution out of Albany does not such thing.

Last year, the city had a chance to take a first step in that direction, but the state legislature declined to pass a congestion pricing plan. That plan would have guaranteed around $400-$500 million a year for the MTA’s capital program and would have netted the city around $350 million in federal funds as well. Officials voted down the plan over concerns from drivers and worries that the MTA wouldn’t do an adequate job administering and spending the money. That’s quite the excuse from Albany.

Streetsblog today points to a NY1 article in which Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promises that the money for the city is still there if we want it. Earlier reports had indicated that the city had lost the opportunity, but LaHood does not want to close the door on anti-congestion innovation in the nation’s largest city. “The money that was going to be provided for that particular project is still at the Department of Transportation,” LaHood said. “If New York got its act together around that kind of opportunity, I think we would look at it.”

Is it time to renew the push for congestion pricing? I saw we get on that. The MTA needs the money; the city needs a commitment to mass transit growth; and we all benefit from congestion reduction.

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The role of a mass transit system in an urban area is to discourage driving. Getting around New York by car is no easy feat, and the subways provide a relatively quick escape from the trials and travails of bumper-to-bumper crosstown traffic. To that end, the people of the Kheel plan, the proposal that called for a high congestion fee and free subways, believe that the Doomsday combination of MTA service cuts and substantial fare hikes will lead to more congestion. The authors of the original plan making a compelling case for why transit prices should not increase if service is decreasing. The last thing this city needs is more traffic.

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Today is Primary Day for many New York City politicos hoping for reelection. While the New York machine is alive and well and most incumbents won’t lose, here’s your chance to express displeasure with our elected representatives for the way they handle mass transit issues in and around the New York Metropolitan Area. As TSTC’s Mobilizing the Region reminds us, Sheldon Silver was one of congestion pricing’s primary opponents and the man ultimate responsible for its death in committee. If you live in Manhattan’s District 64, go vote for his opponents. While Silver will probably win, he doesn’t deserve the support.

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Yup. Chris’ image is still relevant despite what Sheldon Silver will have you believe.

Turn the dial on your Wayback Machine to April. Back then, the skies were blue, the grass was green and Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver killed congestion pricing. At the time, Sheldon Silver’s role in the demise of Mayor Bloomberg’s ambitious plan was not up for debate.

Well, someone should remind Mr. Silver of this inconvenient truth. Yesterday, in an interview with the Downtown Express, Silver blamed the MTA for the demise of congestion pricing. This is a stunning revision of recent history.

Streetsblog first reported this audacious piece of news yesterday, and Brad Aaron quoted the vital parts:

This week, he repeated his reason for not bringing it to the floor — the Assembly opposition was overwhelming. He said there were about 15 supporters, and if he had applied pressure, he thinks he could have gotten the number up to 20 — far short of the 76 votes needed.

He said outer borough Assemblymembers did not support the plan because “the M.T.A. lost its credibility.” After so many broken promises, no one believed the Metropolitan Transportation Authority would direct the congestion pricing revenue to mass transit expansion, Silver said.

This interview by Silver is flat-out absurd. The Downtown Express is paying attention to him right now because, for the first time in over two decades, the incumbent Assemblyman is facing a primary challenger. And that challenger came about largely because Silver allowed congestion pricing to fail. Silver now claims that, when Richard Ravitch issues his report in a few months, “you’ll see this” — the MTA’s financial woes and the fate of congestion pricing — “start to get straightened out.”

Of course, that doesn’t explain why Silver forgot that he let hundreds of millions of dollars in government funding slip through New York’s fingers or how he forgot that his maneuverings insured that congestion pricing wouldn’t even hit the Assembly floor in the first place. That he is now blaming the MTA just shows that Silver is still trying to come up with something, anything, that the public would believe. He can’t quite come out and say that he didn’t believe in the plan. So why not blame an organization many believe to be inept and financially irresponsible? It certainly sounds better that way, reality be damned.

If there were any justice in New York State politics, Silver would lose this primary, and congestion pricing would become a reality. But as this is New York State and we’re talking about New York politics, Silver will probably win, and congestion pricing — and a fully-funded MTA — will remain a pipe dream. Once again, until our politicians wake up to the reality of funding the MTA — we can’t get something for nothing — we’ll be stuck with pandering politicians who are more interested in protecting their incumbency than they are in passing responsible social, environmental and economic policies. It’s just business as usual for Sheldon Silver and New York State.

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The MTA has no money, and with subway officials acknowledging the system’s state of bad repair, everyone is focused on solving the MTA’s fiscal crisis. To that end, reenter congestion pricing. According to an article in The Times over the weekend, Richard Ravitch and his commission to save transit as we know it is seriously considering recommending congestion pricing as a dedicated revenue stream for the MTA.

On the surface, this move may be just the push congestion pricing needs to get over that legislative hump. No longer just a pet project of a very rich and very independent mayor, congestion pricing could be presented as the revolutionary plan to save the New York Metropolitan Area’s public transit system. Of course, Richard Brodsky is still predicting doom and gloom for any congestion pricing plan, but if pricing were to fail again, the legislature would continue to shirk its duties to the MTA and New York City. We could be in for one grand face-off between the Big Apple and Albany indeed.

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High gas prices are pushing more commuters onto mass transit options. (Gas $4.37 by flickr user 54east)

As Americans prepare to hit the road later today for their Fourth of July weekend travels, gas prices are at an all-time high. The national average cost for unleaded regular gas checks in at $4.092 per gallon while New Yorkers are paying an average of $4.297 per gallon. These numbers, to Americans, are astronomical.

In New York City, however, the law of unintended consequences has taken over. As high gas prices drive Americans out of their cars, a few analysts are noting that the traffic-mitigation effects of the $4.30-gallon are mimicking, to a lesser extent, Mayor Bloomberg’s failed congestion pricing scheme. In a very well done article in The Times today, William Neuman explores how traffic volume is decreasing as gas prices increase.

The gist of it is as follows: As gas has climbed well past the $4-per-gallon mark, the MTA and the Port Authority have been reported decreases in traffic through their toll booths of around 4.2 to 4.7 percent. Meanwhile, subway ridership was up 6.5 percent over the same time period with smaller but noticeable increases on Metro-North (4.3 percent) and the Long Island Rail Road (5.5 percent). The PA’s PATH trains saw a jump in ridership of nine percent. Even parking garages in the area are reporting fewer cars.

In a way, then, the city isn’t too far from temporarily achieving Mayor Bloomberg’s goals of reducing congestion. Of course, as Neuman points out, the goal of congestion pricing was to reduce traffic at peak hours, and this current reduction is more spread out. Meanwhile, it’s clear that drivers who are opting not to drive will slip behind the wheel as soon as — or is that if? — gas prices dip again. So on the flip side, high gas prices aren’t at all like the congestion pricing plan, and a few traffic consultants believe that this is a questionable decrease as many drivers, looking to save all they can, are opting for free bridges instead of toll roads. The decrease in volume could be as little as two or three percent.

There is, of course, another catch as it relates to mass transit. The analysis is Neuman’s:

Gas price-induced traffic reduction might have a downside. Mr. Bloomberg’s plan was intended, among other things, to raise hundreds of millions of dollars a year for mass transit improvements by charging cars an $8 fee to enter the area of Manhattan below 59th Street. The plan was defeated in April when legislative leaders in Albany refused to bring it up for a vote.

In contrast, the current reduction in traffic at bridges and tunnels could actually take money away from transit, because a large portion of the tolls collected at the transportation authority’s crossings helps to finance the subways, buses and commuter railroads. In May, toll revenues were more than $4 million below budget projections, and Gary J. Dellaverson, the authority’s chief financial officer, said that June toll revenues appeared to be down even further.

So far, the drop has been more than offset by an increase in fare collections generated by higher transit and rail ridership, but Mr. Dellaverson said that the combination of slipping toll revenues and the increased cost of fuel for the authority’s buses and trains could eventually outpace ridership revenue gains.

In the end, then, it’s the same old story for the MTA. A lack of dedicated revenue not tied into market forces is forcing the agency into a corner. For our city’s air, for our roads, it’s encouraging to see traffic dipping as gas prices go up. But for the health of the MTA, this artificial free-market quasi-congestion pricing impact will only serve to deprive the agency of toll revenue while taxing train lines already at or near capacity without offsetting these increases with more revenue. And that is a recipe for disaster.

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