Archive for Congestion Fee
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan rose and fell in inglorious fashion, another congestion pricing plan has lingered on the horizon, not quite dying but not quite getting the attention it deserves.
That plan is, of course, Ted Kheel’s plan to make the subways free while implementing a high congestion fee and delivering all the revenue to the MTA. When I first wrote about Kheel’s plan in January, it generated 20 comments worth of discussion, and the Kheel Plan still stands as something of a Holy Grail for congestion pricing advocates.
On the one hand, this plan solves a lot of the problems inherent in Mayor Bloomberg’s PlaNYC2030 proposal. All of the money from the plan would go toward improving mass transit. If you accept the baseline assumptions inherent in the plan, the proposed fees — $16 for cars and $32 for trucks at all hours — would generate a significant surplus for capital expansion and infrastructure maintenance, and the subways and buses could be free. The extra money generated by the high fees would also allow the NYPD and the MTA to increase police presence to counter fears of unsafe subways if the barrier to entrance — in this case, the fare — is dropped.
When congestion pricing died at the hands of Sheldon Silver and the New York State Assembly Democrats, Ted Kheel vowed to make his plan an issue in the upcoming mayoral race in New York City. Kheel has commissioned Charles Komanoff, the research director and lead writer of the original plan, to refine the original Kheel plan. Yesterday on Streetsblog, he outlined the goals of the second version of the computer model for the Kheel Plan. In his words:
- Time-variable congestion fees: instead of being locked into a straight $16 fee 24-7, we’ll assess higher peak-periods fees along with offsetting, lower fees when traffic is light.
- Time-variable subway fares: we’ll test retaining the fare during the a.m. peak as a possible transition strategy to ease subway crowding and improve system efficiencies (buses will be free 24-7, regardless).
- Closer integration of parking pricing with road pricing.
- Possible differential tolls into the Central Business District by “portal” (New Jersey vs. Long Island vs. Bronx/Westchester).
- Intra-Manhattan congestion charging: according to some GPS developers, it may soon be possible to charge per-mile or per-minute for driving within the CBD; this would open the door to even more revenue and less traffic and further dispel the rap on congestion pricing as a giveaway to Manhattan.
I, for one, am intrigued by these tantalizing glimpses into the future of the Kheel Plan, and I’m glad to see Kheel, 94, pushing to make this plan a central issue during the next election cycle. I also think this plan is the key to the future of congestion pricing in the city. As Komanoff wrote, “In retrospect, it seems clear that Bloomberg’s plan appeared to too many people to be ‘all stick.’ There wasn’t enough direct and concrete payoff, for anybody, to attract wide public support. The Kheel Plan remedies this defect with the very considerable, tangible, obvious ‘carrot’ of free transit.”
This is a plan that clearly benefits every subway and bus rider in the city. With these additions, the plan can be refined further with adjustments in how and when to charge what prices for driving and what fares for mass transit. While drivers and die-hard civil libertarians will not be too keen on using GPS devices to charge by the mile within Manhattan, this part of the proposed Kheel Plan 2 would ensure that the groundbreaking plan would not discriminate against the outer boroughs.
Later today, Komanoff will host a brown bag lunch at the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. He’ll discuss the current model and elaborate on his goals for the future plan.
In the end, this plan — and whatever comes out of Kheel v. 2 in the fall — holds up to scrutiny pretty well. Economists and city planners may challenge the traffic assumptions of models, but the biggest challenge Kheel and his supporters face is in the political arena. If they can turn the Kheel Plan into a populist cause and really drive home the point of free and good public transit in exchange for the congestion pricing, a candidate supporting this plan could garner enough support to win. Otherwise, it will forever remain just another good idea that never saw the light of day.
The MTA is going your way at a record pace this year. (Graphic courtesy of The Daily News).
Just last week, I wondered how the fare hike would impact MTA ridership figures. Through February of this year, ridership was on pace to set a modern-day record, but the fare hike loomed.
Well, the numbers are out, and ridership continued to increase in March at near-record levels despite the fare hike. Through the first quarter of 2008, ridership on the commuter rail lines and the subways is up around 5 percent over the same time period from 2007. By the end of March, 393.7 million riders had swiped into the subways this year. The Daily News blames rising gas prices.
“Obviously, there’s been an enormous push by gas prices moving people from cars to mass transit, but that’s not the only factor,” Christopher Jones, vice president of research at the Regional Plan Association, said to the News. “The economy is getting weaker, tolls are going up and traffic congestion is getting worse.”
As the News notes, conditions are ripe for drivers to eschew their cars. The average price of a gallon of gas in the city is $3.97, up nearly 80¢ from last year; and with tolls up as well, the MTA saw a drop of nearly 2 percent in the volume of cars passing through their tolls. The Port Authority saw a drop of 1.5 percent. (The Tri-State Transportation Campaign has noted a similar decrease in the volume of cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.)
All of this brought the Daily News to a logical conclusion: Despite the moans from the anti-congestion pricing forces, charging drivers would actually get them off the roads, and the MTA would have had a dedicated revenue stream to address the higher ridership demands being placed on the system. In fact, the paper editorialized on that exact point yesterday:
The trends prove that the theory of congestion pricing was valid: When the cost of driving rises, people actually do switch to mass transit.
Opponents of imposing an $8 fee to cross the untolled East River bridges scoffed that motorists would never leave their cars. But the opponents were wrong, and mass transit riders are suffering for the error.
Had Silver and the Assembly passed congestion pricing, as the City Council did, the MTA would already be using that $354 million in federal aid (which has now been disbursed about the country) to make more bus and subway seats available.
Then, the congestion fee would have given the MTA a half-billion dollars a year to pay for big projects like completing the Second Ave. subway and extending LIRR service to Grand Central Terminal. When that money vanished, the MTA’s building plan was eviscerated.
The News takes an appropriately strident tone toward the Assembly, but I don’t think it’s a clear cut issue of dead or alive anymore. As gas prices continue to rise — What? You think they’re ever going back down? — MTA ridership will increase, and as public education campaigns continue, public sentiment will shift in favor of congestion pricing.
Congestion pricing isn’t dead; it’s simply dormant with many people working behind the scenes to plot the plan’s next move. In all likelihood, Richard Ravitch’s commission will recommend a form of congestion pricing to fund the MTA. And when that time comes, the plan’s proponents will have the facts and the knowledge to get this necessary improvement off the ground. It’s only a matter of time.