Home Public Transit Policy The DMV fees hike in perspective

The DMV fees hike in perspective

by Benjamin Kabak

The car lobby in New York State is ramping up its rhetoric this week as driver licensing and registration fees jumped significantly on Tuesday. The hikes, passed earlier this year as part of Albany’s efforts to save the MTA, are significant — 60 percent for licensing fees and 140 percent for registration charges — and motorists aren’t happy.

Newsday’s Alfonso Castillo spoke to a few disgruntled car advocates this week who, in the words of Robert Sinclair of the AAA Auto Club of New York, bemoaned “being made scapegoats for the state’s insolvency.” He continued, “It wouldn’t be so bad if the money were going toward motorist-related issues.”

Of course, Sinclair would never admit it, but the fees are going toward motorist-related issues. The fees are going toward a mass transit system that is vital to the health of New York City. They’re going to a system that keeps the roads clearer than they would be and contributes to a healthy environment for everyone. Those are most decidedly “motorist-related issues.”

Throughout the state, politicians looking to secure votes are speaking out against the fee hikes. Politicians, of course, will always speak out against the fee hikes, but so far, none of them have taken up Gov. David Paterson’s challenge to propose another way to generate this much-needed revenue. Congestion pricing, as always, remains on the table.

Personally, though, I side with the politicians but for different reasons. Unlike Kemp Hannon, a Republican from Garden City, I do not subscribe to the believe that “the use of a car is not a luxury, it’s a necessity.” Plenty of New Yorkers — millions, in fact — do not own cars and lead very successful lives. I do think, however, that licensing fees are at the same time too steep and not steep enough.

In December, when Comptroller William Thompson issued his call for increased fees, I examined his proposal with skeptical eye. He wanted to bump driver licensing fees up from $50 every eight years to $50 every year. For a mandated form of government ID, I thought this charge to be excessive.

In the end, though, the fee hike was far less onerous. Instead of paying $50 for an eight-year renewal, drivers in the region serviced by the MTA have to pay $80.50 for an eight-year renewal. Car registration rises from $44 every two years to $105 every two years. In effect, then, my driver license costs $10.63 a year while I pay $1056 a year to ride the subway (12 Unlimited 30-Day MetroCards at $88 a piece). In that regard, the state is practically giving away driver licenses for next to nothing. Maybe Thompson’s proposal isn’t as burdensome as I thought.

The real solution is, as I mentioned, a congestion fee: Drivers should be charged for the driving they do in areas serviced by mass transit and the social and environmental costs that driving accrues. We shouldn’t pay more for our identification cards just because politicians can’t challenge the vocal car-driving minority.

One day, the MTA will rely on congestion pricing to thrive, and the City will rely on it to become a cleaner and easier-to-navigate metropolis. For now, though, we shouldn’t give AAA spokespeople a pass for their complaints about “motorist related issues.” It just doesn’t ring true.

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Quadboy September 2, 2009 - 3:10 pm

Good article, but one point I’d like to make: while a car may seem like a luxury in Manhattan, it definitely isn’t in staten island. If I didn’t have my car id go insane. To go from 42nd to mid shore staten island, I could almost reach washington dc.

Needless to say, this increase hurts the outer boroughs more obviously; as if traveling isn’t painful enough

quadboy September 2, 2009 - 3:12 pm

Whoops. Meant to say in the same amount of time it takes for me to go from 42nd to mid island, I could almost reach washington dc.

Tony September 2, 2009 - 3:21 pm

Manhattan is the only borough were a car is a luxury. What about the people that live on long island, westchester, and upstate? A car is a absolute necessity because there is almost no mass transit yet there fees go up also.

Benjamin Kabak September 2, 2009 - 3:25 pm

This is a vicious cycle. Because the MTA does not have enough money to expand its service offerings, people are under the impression that cars are a necessity outside of the city. (I don’t agree with your “only in Manhattan” sentiments either.) With Transit-oriented development and a better commuter rail system – that is, things that cost money – fewer people would “need” cars.

Tony September 2, 2009 - 3:47 pm

Take a trip to long island or upstate and then tell us you don’t need a car. The few buses they have run about once an hour and not at all during the night.

rhywun September 2, 2009 - 6:47 pm

I lived in Buffalo for 8 years without a car, Queens for 7, and now Brooklyn for 2. No big deal. Anyway, I am sympathetic to the notion that these fees should to go to localities, not the state. Those localities should be free to decide whether to spend the money on more roads, or spend it more effectively on more transit.

Alon Levy September 3, 2009 - 6:31 pm

If federal and state income taxes followed the same principle of going to the localities, New York City would’ve been about $20 billion richer.

Cap'n Transit September 2, 2009 - 4:31 pm

You can get around just fine without a car in Western Queens, the Western Bronx, and most of Brooklyn and Hudson County, NJ. There are also plenty of walkable, transit-oriented “streetcar suburbs” like Lynbrook, Bronxville and Montclair where a car-free lifestyle is pretty easy.

For those defending people who chose to live in car-dependent areas, please give us a sense of how you would transition those areas to a more sustainable lifestyle, so that the next time this comes up we don’t have to hear, “Waah! But I NEED a car!” again.

Kai September 3, 2009 - 10:50 am

Also many parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. These boroughs certainly have areas where this isn’t true, but you can’t tell me you need a car in Williamsburg.

quadboy September 2, 2009 - 3:53 pm

I agree that these things cost money, but for staten island, it is definitely a necessity.

The ferry runs hourly after 7pm (not mta I know but still) on weekends, and a lot of busses shut down after 11pm daily, making movement on staten island extremely limited at certain times. Try the south shore, which has even less transit options than the north shore, if that’s possible.

While I see that every other outer borough has some people that need a car, they at least are connected to the subway. Long island at least has the LIRR. The only way I could see anyone on staten island function without a car is if they lived by the st. George ferry terminal. If not, they’re better off living elsewhere

Jonathan September 2, 2009 - 4:06 pm

I’ve been to Staten Island and there are plenty of taxis available for getting around in the middle of the night. I’m sure that one taxi ride a weekend costs less than auto insurance.

Mr. Kabak, thank you for pointing out so succinctly the obvious argument that better mass transit frees up roads for AAA members and the like. Nice post.

JP September 2, 2009 - 4:15 pm

If non-driver IDs cost the same amount, it’s not just a luxury tax, it’s a “I must carry identification at all times” tax. But how many people really get those?

tim randle September 2, 2009 - 5:29 pm

…but they’re not. they’re $9 to $15 for up to 8 years…

rhywun September 2, 2009 - 6:49 pm

Yeah, I just renewed mine and I forgot the exact amount but it was a lot less than a driver’s license.

quadboy September 2, 2009 - 4:51 pm

Calling a cab in staten island takes minimum 45 minutes to an hour. Not like other areas.

If I could sell my car I gladly would. I hate driving and I wish I can drop my insurance. Driving around here is more trouble than it worth.

However, anyone who says that a car isn’t a necessity on staten island, I would bet they don’t live on staten island.

There are tons of opportunities to raise mass transit in the area, all of which I am for, but the mta won’t do this because a) staten island doesn’t have the population the outer boroughs have and b) not enough funding. The north shore railroad, having more busses at night (especially the 79), and increasing express bus services outside rush hour are some examples. Moreover, they could also start charging for the staten island railway (and maybe even the ferry) to help cover some of the costs. It seems though that the money obtained in staten island doesn’t stay in staten island (the verazanno anyone?). That is part of the problem.

Jason September 2, 2009 - 5:18 pm

I read somewhere (possibly here) that off the R train in Bay Ridge there is an abandoned tunnel junction that was to branch off into Staten Island. Perhaps if enough people who are forward thinking in your borough could rally to have the MTA finish that project ( at the very least create a tunnel to Staten Island and have at least one station to start), your boro could finally break free of the car.

I agree with your sentiment that getting around the island is the hardest of any of the boros, jersey, hudson valley and long island.

Alon Levy September 2, 2009 - 6:48 pm

Little-known fact: the idea of extending the R to Staten Island goes back to 1913, making it the longest-proposed line that hasn’t been built yet, beating SAS by 16 years.

rhywun September 2, 2009 - 6:54 pm

Staten Island (except whatever parts were settled before 1920 or so) was deliberately designed for car dependence, like any other suburb. I don’t live there, so I can’t say whether its transit is adequate for its population density, but until they build to city densities, they’re not gonna see NYC-style transit. So it’s kind of pointless to complain about it. If you don’t like it, your only real solution is to move somewhere else.

Quadboy September 2, 2009 - 10:16 pm

I couldn’t agree more. It seems like Staten Island is a hopeless case.


This link here shows what’s in store for Staten Island unless things change (and it wont). The overdevelopment plague really killed Staten Island. Combine that with lack of real infrastructure and you’re left with people leaving in droves. Its already happening.

Alon Levy September 3, 2009 - 6:32 pm

Leaving in droves? Staten Island is one of the few parts of the Northeast with faster population growth than the national average.

quadboy@yahoo.com September 2, 2009 - 5:24 pm

That would be a dream, but you’re assuming that the mta would be willing to spend the funds for it. Moreover, it seems that staten islanders are always in arms about the traffic situation but aren’t willing to protest/rally for it. Sad, really.

Even if they approved of the project today, you’re looking at least 20-30+ years before its completed. Same thing with the north shore railroad they’ve been talking and studying for decades.

Don’t think im against these new waves of fees (im not). I just wish these fees would go more towards improving my commute. It seems like all this is doing is delaying another fare increase, which affects everyone. Wish albany can provide a real solution.

SEAN September 2, 2009 - 5:30 pm

The AAA lobby is clueless. Transit in the long term is benificial for all. In the mean time keep razing those licence fees. I need a steady stream of funding for my BeeLine system. Oh, that’s right all we suburbanites are too rich to bother with the bus.

Quadboy September 2, 2009 - 6:12 pm

It seems that there needs to be major reform with the way funds are allocated. The City and State together need to make transit their top priority (just like how many politicians claim it is and then not do anything). That’s the only real solution.

Matt September 2, 2009 - 10:49 pm

Some people don’t realize that you need a car to get to the LIRR if you don’t live within walking distance an there is inadequate bus service, so LIers lose when transit fees AND car fees go up. And people from manhattan/other areas couldn’t survive on LI without a car, expensive taxis, or a friend to give them rides.

JAR September 3, 2009 - 12:01 am

A car is a necessity in many parts of outer borough NYC and most of our suburbs. It would be nice if it weren’t, but seriously, get your head out of the sand. Yes, technically you may be able to wait for that hourly bus just to get to a supermarket/pharmacy/doctor’s office/train to the city… and that may work for a single person with no dependents. But to shop and care for a family, while also working, takes tons of time and ends up being far less productive.
Will increasing the tax on every driver’s license in the MTA region make the difference? Not a chance. These guys will tax us into oblivion and can never make hard choices to cut spending or boost efficiency. They’ll hide taxes everywhere (check your gas bill!). Want to fund a road or a train? Then do it fairly, with a toll (or congestion charge) or a fare.

Benjamin Kabak September 3, 2009 - 12:10 am

A car is a necessity in many parts of outer borough NYC and most of our suburbs. It would be nice if it weren’t, but seriously, get your head out of the sand.

You’ve utterly missed the point. The point isn’t that car ownership might not be “necessary” in some areas of the outer boroughs, however you want to define necessary. The points are that (1) improvements to mass transit are “motorist-related issues” and (2) the debate needs to change and the funds need to change so that car-free life in those parts of the outer boroughs becomes easier.

No one is denying that in many parts of the region a car makes life easier, but 54 percent of this city’s residents own no car. Somehow, they make it work.

Boris September 3, 2009 - 11:07 am

Highway taxes are even better hidden, since many of them are non-monetary (time, health) or taken from some lump of money as decided by a distant Congressman. If we had posters detailing money paid for projects on the BQE, the way they do in New Jersey, drivers will be having heart attacks from looking at the amounts.

Ultimately I agree with you, though. Driving should work through a pay-per-use fee.

Alon Levy September 3, 2009 - 6:38 pm

JAR, imagine a world in which Congress has just banned the internal combustion engine as a way of combating global warming, buses and farm machinery excepted. Suddenly, there would be more demand for buses, which means that the LI buses would run every 10 minutes rather than one hour. They’d also run faster since there wouldn’t be cars on the road. Big box stores would raise prices a little and offer free delivery, as they did before car ownership became widespread.

Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines September 3, 2009 - 9:19 am

[…] Motorists Grumbling About Higher Vehicle Fees to Fund MTA, Roads (City Room, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

A Westchester Reader September 3, 2009 - 10:42 am

While I can understand the sentiment, it’s very close to a necessity to have a car when living in many parts of Westchester. Certain parts have little to no public transportation (in my neck of the woods, the only bus runs once every two hours, and not on Sunday) — so a car is a tremendous help. When in the city, I find MTA serves me well enough, but the irony is, wear & tear aside, it’s practically cheaper for me to drive into the city than to take Metro-North. I have colleagues who *hate* NYC, so while I do appreciate MTA enough, it’s no joy for any around here to have to subsidize this financial black hole out of fees that I pay to just get around my area.

Alon Levy September 3, 2009 - 6:46 pm

First, you’re not subsidizing the city. Both you and the city are subsidizing Upstate and the South.

Second, the MTA is subsidized, but so are the roads you drive on. Gas tax revenues don’t come close to covering the full construction and maintenance costs of roads. I don’t have data for New York, but in Texas, they at best cover one half the costs, and at worst cover 16%; for comparison, the subway recovers 67% of its operating and capital costs at the farebox.

Third, subsidies aside, there are other issues associated with car use. When you drive and when you take the train, you cause congestion, worsening the travel experience of other passengers. However, for cars the effect is much larger – roads get clogged; trains merely get crowded. Cars also pollute more. The extra health care costs coming from East Harlem’s asthma crisis are paid by the city, not by the people who drive cars over the Triboro Bridge.

ducky September 4, 2009 - 8:04 am

It’s a statewide hike. Explain to me why it’s fair that people from Buffalo or Jamestown (or the surrounding communities where public transportation doesn’t exist and isn’t feasible) should subsidies a system that they don’t use.

Benjamin Kabak September 4, 2009 - 9:19 am

Because the money from the hike in Buffalo or Jamestown isn’t going to the MTA. The money from the hike in Buffalo and Jamestown is going to cover DMV-related budget gaps. The only money going to the MTA from the hike is that collected in the 12 downstate MTA counties.

david lee December 22, 2010 - 8:58 am

what the writer fails to consider is that ALL of ny state has to pay this fee. and the writer does not take in account the people that will never use mass transit. is it fair that everyone be expected to pay for a service they never use and a service that is not in their area and a company that consistently mismanages their money

Benjamin Kabak December 22, 2010 - 9:00 am

What you fail to consider is that those who live outside of the New York Metropolitan Commute Region and pay this fee get the money back in the form of transportation investments from DOT. This is not an example of upstaters supporting NYC.


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