Home Congestion Fee The Gray Lady revives a congestion pricing discussion

The Gray Lady revives a congestion pricing discussion

by Benjamin Kabak

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.

You may also like


Andrew March 5, 2012 - 11:28 pm

Schwartz’s approach is a pretty good one, and I hope it receives due consideration.

But the article is poorly written. It implies that the MTA is at fault for allowing trucks to cross from Brooklyn through Manhattan to New Jersey for free. On the contrary, the MTA fought tooth and nail against the federal legislation of the late 1980’s that required one-way tolling at the Verrazano, and none of the East River bridges, aside from the Triboro (which is already tolled), are under the MTA’s jurisdiction.

Marc Shepherd March 6, 2012 - 8:03 am

It’s worth noting that $15 billion in bonding would not even finish the Second Avenue Subway. It’s a piddling amount, compared to what is needed.

Larry Littlefield March 6, 2012 - 9:20 am

Furthermore, if the MTA would spend the next 30 years of congestion pricing revenues immediately and be right in back in the same hole if four years, it isn’t worth doing.

Hank March 6, 2012 - 10:39 am

They type of defeatist attitude (that the MTA and TWU would simply piss the money away) is one of the worst arguments against some of the good ideas put forth by Schwartz and others.

Larry Littlefield March 6, 2012 - 10:49 am

The Times proposed spending all the money up front, not me. That is exactly what shouldn’t be allowed, let alone encouraged.

Phantom March 6, 2012 - 9:59 pm

The unfortunate fact is that NYC / NYS / MTA / Port Authority have an exceptionally atrocious recent record at managing any big construction projects.

Before they receive any more money, let’s fix the management union and legal problems that make for exploding costs and endless timelines

Alon Levy March 7, 2012 - 12:10 am

Sure, but some projects (i.e. SAS, and no others) have benefits so great they’re worth it even at today’s costs.

There’s no excuse for the 7 extension or the ESA and ARC disasters, though.

Phantom March 7, 2012 - 12:35 pm

The government has a whole lot of leverage – none of these projects happen unless they disburse the money

And if they used that leverage, you have to think that concessions can be made.

Unfortunately, I’m well aware that the likes of Shelly Silver are bought and paid for ten times over by the unions.

Unless things change, things like construction and pension costs will be the ruin of NY State. I’m not optimistic.

In the meantime, I’d be a reluctant supporter of a ” starve the beast ” approach – no funding for any but the most urgent major projects unless costs are brought into line.

Alon Levy March 8, 2012 - 12:54 am

I’m not optimistic either, but I’m not that pessimistic. One decade of fast income and job growth could solve all that – it’d make it possible to move redundant workers to the private sector, which is what’s needed here. Japan National Railways was a basket case in 1980; by 1990, it had shed something like two-thirds of its workforce, so that after privatization, most of its remnants are profitable. And this was in a more contentious labor environment than today’s New York. There’s no way this could’ve been done with today’s growth, but in the 1980s JNR could find all those redundant workers other jobs and mollify the unions.

Bolwerk March 8, 2012 - 7:48 am

That is optimistic. We had almost 15 years of mostly high income and job growth until 2007. The MTA and TWU alike used that as an excuse to grow and spend. And at least some of the appeal to working in the MTA is job security – all against the macroeconomic backdrop of a country with really shitty health benefits and a pisspoor social safety net. And in a city where, for better or worse, the economy just doesn’t offer much opportunity to workers without at least a bachelor degree.

I’m hardly one to praise the TWU’s behavior, but I can’t exactly say I blame them either.

The Phantom March 8, 2012 - 10:21 pm

The TWU, the construction unions and the lawyers have the politicians bought and paid for.

These groups have been robbing the taxpayer for the past fifty years. Who represents the taxpayer?

With the pension explosion, sky high Workers Comp and disability costs, horrible work rules, come 20 years we may not be able to run the existing subway, much less build new ones.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 12:21 pm

CP shouldn’t be expected to fund the entire transit system. It’s ONE source of revenue, among what should be many.

And $15B is hardly piddling, even if, because of the wild overpriced nature of the SAS, it’s not enough.

Woody March 6, 2012 - 9:55 pm

Different math? If the Feds put in 40%, the same as they’ve done in Phase I, then the nearly-$25 billion estimated cost to finish the SAS would be paid for with $10 billion from the Feds and $15 billion from Congestion Pricing.

But I’d favor putting all the money, or most of it, into outer boro projects, like the TriboroRx and/or subway lines extending down Nostrand or Utica in Brooklyn, and/or into eastern Queens.

Manhattan will benefit most from congestion pricing, with even the Second Avenue bus moving faster from Day One. So better to put the funds into the boros afraid that it is their drivers who will carry the burden of congestion pricing.

Alon Levy March 7, 2012 - 12:14 am

If you want to match payers to projects the most, then the money should best be allocated to projects that take people from outside the congestion zone into the congestion zone. This includes Utica and Nostrand, but unfortunately not Triboro, which is too bad since it’s almost certainly much cheaper than both per rider. But this also includes some projects in the suburbs and Staten Island; I’d personally propose a Staten Island-Manhattan tunnel, followed by Brooklyn-Lower Manhattan and Grand Central-Lower Manhattan through-connections. (They both exist on the subway, but would force extra transfers on suburban riders.)

TP March 6, 2012 - 9:20 am

I wouldn’t quite say poorly written, just written for a different purpose. The article’s audience is people who have no knowledge of transportation planning in the region; people for whom the distinction between different governmental, quasi-governmental, and non-governmental entities is fairly baffling. It’s written for the people who were swayed to vote for Bloomberg by his promising an F express train (seriously, I know many people who did) and for whom congestion pricing is a crazy new idea.

What percentage of city residents are under the impression that the City controls the MTA? I’d assume if you did a poll the results would be something like 40% yes, 40% unsure.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 9:36 am

I just thought it was funny that the author, who probably knows nothing of his city’s infrastructure, was careful to not mention that his new found hero writes a column for the Daily News. Only the peons read tabloids.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 1:58 pm

Why would/should he plug a competing paper? Regardless, Sam Schwartz is a fairly well respected voice in transportation planning, not to mention a former city official. The DN didn’t invent him.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 2:11 pm

Fair point about not mentioning the competition. He is speaking to an audience that’s probably never heard of him, so maybe he could have mentioned his column without noting where it’s run. I think he’s best known as Gridlock Sam, and the average guy would be surprised that he has a think tank.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:40 pm

I actually had no idea the two were the same person for a long time. Some years ago, at least. 😐

Alex C March 6, 2012 - 12:39 am

Cuomo will fight this tooth and nail. We know who he is now.

The suburban state legislators will make sure this never happens. They’ll keep doing what they’ve been doing: demanding NYC subsidize their LIRR and Metro-North more and more, while demanding we let them use our roads for free.

IF they get this to work, I would guess that new tolling system they’re using on the Henry Hudson Bridge will probably be a big part of it to speed tolls up. That would be rather nice and would be appreciated by all.

But it probably won’t happen in this form. If it does go through, it will be completely watered down and presented as a “Monumental NYC Traffic Reform Led by The Benevolent Prince Andrew Cuomo.”

Just being realistic.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 9:40 am

I think that the placement of toll barriers has to be considered a big issue. The notion that you can do without them is true only theoretically. This is not a place that does “honor system” well. A point that really has to be considered when we’re importing policies from places that handle it well. If you are going to do this all electronically, we’ll soon be in the usual position where law-abiding citizens will be played for suckers by scofflaws who’ll roll through these things and never pay a dime.

Chris O'Leary March 6, 2012 - 9:50 am

No, it absolutely doesn’t. There are plenty of toll systems that have no toll barriers, and some are even in “this place” that you say doesn’t do well on the “honor system.” There are quite a few high-speed electronic toll collection systems in New Jersey already. Hell, the MTA is planning to do away with barriers at the Henry Hudson. It works, it’s been proven to work, and it’s the only way that Congestion Pricing will be accomplished.

If Congestion Pricing happens, there will be no toll barriers. It will be collected electronically. Never in the Congestion Pricing discussion were toll barriers even suggested. Ever.

John-2 March 6, 2012 - 10:46 am

The key aspect of the Henry Hudson test isn’t how well the electronic system works; it’s how hard the MTA and law enforcement agencies come after people without EZ Pass tags who fail to remit the toll, especially those living in neighboring states who are more likely to be in the area frequently.

If you don’t enforce the law and hand out penalties, you won’t solve the congestion problem because there will be X number of drivers who see the electronic bridge tolls as cutting the traffic volume initially and think “Great! More room for me.” So it will be interesting to see the initial results of the MTA’s Henry Hudson plan, along with the non-compliance numbers and the percentage of non-compilers who eventually are forced to pay the tolls and ensuing fines.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 10:49 am

What’s the level of non-payment on those systems? Are there any stats on that? The fact is that the PA goes after people who accrue thousands in unpaid tolls, strongly implying that simply dodging hundreds in tolls is operationally tolerated. The state of Maine has refused to go all electronic on a tolling plaza in York, on the basis that causal drivers just won’t pay the toll. At present, the NY region has electronic tolling with a cash pay option. This probably improves compliance for a variety of psychological reasons. I’d love to share your optimism, but I don’t see all electronic working in NYC. This is not Sweden.

Alex B. March 6, 2012 - 11:56 am

I don’t see how this is an issue.

You use the same method as automated red light cameras or speed cameras that you find in DC and other places. They capture the plate, document the infraction, and send a ticket in the mail to the address on file with the vehicle. Simple.

The only change from barrier-free tolling is the IT infrastructure to mail out infractions. The EZ Pass system already reads plates in addition to transponders.

In short, there is no option but to comply. You’re either charged via your EZ Pass, or sent a bill via your registration in another state. It’s not only technically feasible, it’s already happening.

Andre L. March 7, 2012 - 4:51 am

Texas, California, Florida, Colorado all have “cashless” tolls. The issue of people not paying electronic tolls is no different than the issue of people not paying parking tickets or red light camera infractions.

I really don’t think that electronic tolling is an issue at all. Modern APR systems are very good, and the costs reduced with absence of toll plazas are enormous (ROW, payroll, security, all time lost in queue etc.)

This being said, I’m opposed to the general idea of asking drivers to pay for transit. Money collected on drivers (fuel tax, tolls etc) should be used only in road-based infrastructure (included park-and-ride facilities that NY lacks).

Alon Levy March 8, 2012 - 12:56 am

If White Plains, Hicksville, and Ronkonkoma count as lacking park-and-rides, what counts as having park-and-rides?

Bolwerk March 8, 2012 - 7:57 am

I’m opposed to the general idea of asking drivers to pay for transit. Money collected on drivers (fuel tax, tolls etc) should be used only in road-based infrastructure (included park-and-ride facilities that NY lacks).

I agree, but drivers complain bitterly about the idea of paying for their own costs – which, optimistically, they may do directly to a tune of around 50%. Fix that and it might start making sense to have that debate. All that happens right now is a diverted cashflow, not drivers paying for transit in any meaningful sense. (In fact, it’s just the opposite.)

And park-‘n-ride facilities in NYC are just a plain stupid, bumblefuck idea. They’re a stupid idea even in Staten Island. Even in more sensible settings, the opportunity cost of such a facility is the transit-friendly development that actually makes transit make sense in the first place.

dungone March 6, 2012 - 11:41 am

New Yorkers are weird like that. They would rather pay billions extra for the joy of breathing car exhaust in congestion caused by tolls and support 24/7 toll collectors rather than bear the thought of a few bad apples slide under the radar.

One of the problems with the highway infrastructure is that there are other bottleneck areas that aren’t getting streamlined now because there’s no point – the tolls would cancel out any improvement.

Electronic tolling would be a win-win, paving the way for a more efficient highway system that motorists would be happy to pay more money to use, sending more money towards transit improvements that would further reduce congestion.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 12:39 pm

New Yorkers are weird like that. They would rather pay billions extra for the joy of breathing car exhaust in congestion caused by tolls and support 24/7 toll collectors rather than bear the thought of a few bad apples slide under the radar.

I don’t think it’s a New York thing so much as a…really a U.S. thing. But you see a similar attitude often enough with the anti-POP crowd. They can’t wrap their minds around the fact that one of the reasons POP saves or even makes money is that evasion can be used as an excuse to justifiably levy a massive fine on the person who evades. Some evasion is good, as long as enough of it is caught to make up the difference, pay for the overhead of catching them, and maybe even means having a little left over.

My uneducated guess is: the anti-crime demagogues of the pro-Ray Kelly sort can’t stand the sense of lacking power to stop evasion, and more sensible people just don’t like this sense of basic unfairness that somewhere, someone is actually beating the system. And yes, someone probably is.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 1:23 pm

I think you’d be shocked at the number of people driving around NYC who are uninsured, unlicensed, lacking in up to date inspections and registration. If you think a notice mailed to some address on file with the DMV is going to be honored by this contingent you are sadly mistaken.

Steve March 6, 2012 - 1:42 pm

Seems like it should be pretty easy to automatically notify a waiting police officer when an car with out-of-date registration drives under a toll camera.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 2:15 pm

You’d think that the police would be highly incentivized to remove uninsured and unlicensed drivers from the roads. Such people are an absolute menace, far beyond any toll scofflaw. The fact is they don’t do so. I don’t know how to better explain that reality is not comporting to the desire to control, but it doesn’t. Anyone who drives extensively has a story about being hit by somebody who has no insurance. It is per se illegal to drive that way. To think that a guy who is risking arrest by simply driving gives a fig about a congestion driving arrearage notice is just not realistic.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:37 pm

The NYPD is working almost obsessively to make itself useless. They have a delusional obsession with continuing the broken windows tactics they practiced in the 1990s, without any regard to how useful those tactics might continue to be.

Actual QoL problems are ignored. Granted, they’re the less romantic ones: stopping littering, graffiti, and reckless driving, etc..

Alon Levy March 7, 2012 - 12:31 am

To add to what Bolwerk said: in a democratic society, a top-down institutional approach will not be used on quote-unquote normal people, or on anyone with enough power to resist. School reform advocates foist a discipline-centric educational approach on the South Bronx but not on Syosset; cops harass people who spray graffiti or cycle recklessly but not people who drive without insurance or park illegally.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:45 pm

Probably not that easy, at least not without blanketing the area with police cars looking for just that. And I don’t know how easy it is to check for expired out of state registrations, or even if other states would cooperate in such a thing (I suspect CT wouldn’t).

I suspect the easiest way to enforce against it is to just make the fines for failing to have a proper registration much more severe when people are caught.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:12 pm

A high risk of massive fines or having their car confiscated would probably fix this almost immediately. It’s the type of behavior that only goes on because the Jimmy Vacca/Anthony Weiner crowd are somehow complicit in continuing it. Which, going back to the CAR H8R thing, always perplexes me – because the drivers who do the “right thing” and follow the rules probably are the ones who get spanked the hardest by these rules.

Will some still slip through? Sure. But the more who do, the more who will get caught and fined out the ass.

marvin March 6, 2012 - 2:22 am

There are two issues: funding and capacity.

Regarding capacity, it is best dealt with by providing mass transit to the locations that a larger number of people travel to and making it desirable for them to use mas transit to get there. This includes insentives for taking mass transit including price subsidies and faster travel by providing bus lanes/giving buses signal preferance and building more rail capacity. It includes penalties for those who insist on driving into areas that are congested such as tolls, congestion fees and parking fees/taxes.

At the same time, our very constitution recognized the importance of interstate commerce. One of the first roles of the federal government was insuring that there would not be barriers between the states. Clearly both the tolls and lack of highways/bridges (including freight rail) from long island (which includes Brooklyn and Queens) to NJ and Ct are such impediments. Forget the tolls, for one to get from points in Queens/Nassau to Passaic or (for commercial vehicles) southern NJ involves rediculous choises between taking local streets accross manhattan at a maximum speed of 3-5 minutes per block!!) to over stressed tunnels to NJ, or taking a traffic clogged BQE through a round about route to NJ, or taking a round about route to the GWB via a 24/7 clogged Cross Bronx Expressway etc. Regardless of what one is willing to pay, the first 20 miles of the trip to else where in the country can be 1 hour at best.

Clearly toll facilities linking Long Island to CT (or at least the Cross Westchester Expressway if dealing with the CT government is too difficult), a cross Manhattan route (tunnelled straight from Queens to NJ with access to the east or west side only durring non rush hour or off peak hours) and freight rail connections to NJ (and CT) need to be built.

The region needs to fall into line recognizing that Manhattan is a the heart of our region and needs to be served, but the rest of the region needs to be connected as well. This involves construction and tax dollars which will be an investment toward the long term viablity of our region. We need to recognize that our regional survival and personal well being rests on this regardless of whether we personally commute.

How to pay for transit into Manhattan and new transportation facilities must be framed in this context or we will be stuck in our current situation which can not be sustained as other regions will expand in ways that will make us obsolete.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 6:36 am

Clearly both the tolls and lack of highways/bridges (including freight rail) from long island (which includes Brooklyn and Queens) to NJ and Ct are such impediments.

Know what might be a bigger impediment? Not having tolls.

Keep in mind, the people who scream the loudest about the cost of a toll or CP are probably about the last people we want driving here anyway. The costs of accommodating them after they cross a bridge are high. They may contribute absolutely nothing to the economy or even their own costs. And they take space from both vital (food, beer) and high-value (=high tax-paying) surface transportation alike. And I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re the most incompetent drivers too.

Matthias March 6, 2012 - 12:51 pm

Another impediment to constitutionally-guaranteed mobility is the lack of transportation options to many locations. A toll isn’t an impediment any more than a train ticket, but the lack of transportation services is. Hear that, Republicans?

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 2:18 pm

Sorry, you lost me there. When did Sheldon Silver and Andrew Cuomo become Republicans? I must have missed that story, perhaps that was on the day the Giants won the Superbowl? It’s not the Republicans who are lurking in the shadows, quashing all of your dreams. Life’s not like that.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 3:06 pm

Sheldon Silver strikes me as a much more mercurial creature (I mean that only in a bad way, sadly), but Cuomo has always struck me as something of a Republican. If the Republikan Party weren’t better represented by Paladino than by Rocky, Andy would probably be a member.

Alex C March 7, 2012 - 1:04 am

Cuomo is a DINO. He has been a Republican on taxes and transit. And allowing fracking in the State.

Bolwerk March 7, 2012 - 1:40 pm

The Democrats mainly exist for no reason other than winning elections. Once you realize that about them, most of their political malleability is explained.

Whatever is left is because they’re also generally rather stupid.

Alex C March 7, 2012 - 2:55 pm

That is said about both parties. The only difference is that with Democrats there’s a slight chance they might actually do something good (for the general population, not just their corporate donors which).

Bolwerk March 7, 2012 - 3:46 pm

No, Republikans have a more or less concrete agenda backed by a mostly coherent ideology. It’s an evil agenda, but it’s concrete.

The Dems pretty much are a clusterfuck of competing interest groups who don’t fit with the other guys, and always have been. That was why southern segregationists and Upper West Side socialists could both comfortably vote for Franklin Roosevelt.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 3:08 pm

There is a *right* to travel interstate, and it’s regarded as one of the most fundamental in the whole constitution. There is no constitutional guarantee of mobility.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 9:24 am

I can easily envision another 3 Hudson vehicle crossings. One should be built under the harbor from Brooklyn to Hudson County, NJ. It could be a continuation of I-280 and tie into the Turnpike. Manhattan has become an obstacle to regional and national commerce. The configuration of the Holland Tunnel itself has become an historical artifact as it divides Jersey City and Hoboken. The approach roads should be buried under a new park/housing, and the tunnel should be reserved mostly for local traffic. The entire city of Jersey City can be avoided by a cross harbor route that spares the built up waterfront area from the current plague of crossing vehicles. It is amazing to see cars with Florida, Virginia, North Carolina plates, crawling through Manhattan and Jersey City, where they don’t want to be, imposing traffic on places that they aren’t bound for.

Eric March 6, 2012 - 5:44 pm

Your plan would be astronomically expensive. For the same cost, you could build a number of rail tunnels and subway extensions that would have a much greater value to travelers. Remember that a lane of traffic carries about 1000 people per hour, while a “lane” of subway carries about 50000 per hour.

John Paul N. March 6, 2012 - 4:05 am

I’m in for congestion pricing. But if it happens now, 6 months, 1 year, 2 years down the road, is the MTA ready for the additional crowds in what is already a congested system? I predict the MTA will be allowed a period to purchase and have delivered to them additional equipment before CP is activated; otherwise commuters’ complaints of miserable comfort and delays will dominate the CP debate and there will be a high chance of repeal. The MTA may also very well decide to defer the retirement of equipment to accommodate CP; that also will not be desirable in the long-term as chances of breakdowns and higher maintenance costs will increase. (One of the MTA board members is so fastidious with MDBF.)

If a plan does come into fruition, I sure hope there is a good minimum period (20 years?) before the plan can have a chance of reduction or repeal.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 6:27 am

Where are these additional crowds supposed to come from? Of the fraction of highway use that is non-commercial commuter traffic and leisure riders highways do accommodate over transit in NYC, the bulk of them aren’t transit-avoidant; their best option is and will remain the car. Hell, they’re the beneficiaries of CP. Maybe not the biggest ones, but they do gain.

CP will do about two things to some drivers: it will scare away some who won’t want to pay the costs and it will shift others. Many of the drivers it scares away are probably the irrational types who hold up a crucifix and scream CAR h8ERZ any time someone mentions CP. Maybe a few actually are making an economically rational decision not to travel when CP is in effect. Some of those people will shift either their mode (to transit or at least car sharing) or their travel time.

Either way, I don’t see a flood of new transit users. I see a trickle, possibly dispersed over a system that mostly isn’t at capacity.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 9:48 am

Why would it be irrational for someone to think that supporters of congestion pricing are car haters? They are, in the main, absolutely car haters.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 12:30 pm

Okay, it’s either irrational or totally flies in the face of facts. Obviously you’re not irrational, so you must be innocently mistaken on this one. Either way, road pricing supporters are nearly the only voices for some rationality in our highway system.

The people who oppose road pricing are almost certainly inflicting extra costs upon themselves, which is stupid even by the low standards of the Randroids. They must hate cars, because they sure don’t want cars to do useful work.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 1:28 pm

I’m not saying that a pricing system makes no sense. What I’m saying is that many of the people advocating it have a very obvious animus towards cars. There are reasons independent of vegetarianism to encourage one to eat a salad, but generally the guy harping on you to ditch the steak for the arugula is coming from that point of view.

The key problem with “congestion” pricing (which is a misnomer anyway, it’s just a cordon charge around the CBD), is that it doesn’t use gained revenue to create or enhance through routes around the CBD. If billions were allocated to speeding trips through Staten Island or the Bronx to a reliable 10 minutes or so, I certainly would think the idea inspired. It would be great to vacuum through traffic out of Manhattan. That’s something like 20-25% of Manhattan traffic all by itself.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:19 pm

They have an animus towards getting hit by cars on needlessly car-choked streets. Frankly, I do too. It doesn’t make them anti-car – and if most of them would take the time to realize that they depend on surface transportation to some extent, they wouldn’t be.

I dunno, I look at it this way: the most critical surface transport is freight right now. Speed isn’t so important, but we need way more reliability; no joke, it’s critical, and every consumer good price is affected by our lack of reliability. We can worry about speed after we have reliability.

Chris March 6, 2012 - 2:12 pm

Road pricing makes sense for car users but there’s always more to these proposals than road pricing… specifically all the revenue is usually spoken for, often for totally irrelevant projects. Superficially the proposals would reduce congestion but at heart the ones that advance tend to be more about grabbing revenues for things road users tend not to care too much about (like building pedestrian bridges across the Hudson). That makes the tolls more like taxes than prices.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:27 pm

The revenue should go to something, and people should have a say and input in what that is. Would you really want a proposal that just raises the money and pours it into general coffers? That strikes me as the worst idea. Even if it goes to parks, it’s better than just letting the pigs feed at that trough.

In NYC, the only proposal to catch on – the one killed by Sheldon – had it going to transportation. Capital improvements to the transit system, specifically. Which seems totally reasonable to me. But other cities probably would want to do other things, which is fine with me too.

Chris March 6, 2012 - 3:53 pm

Personally I’d probably design a system to minimize the net revenue generated to avoid distributional effects. For instance, using the electronic payment system to create negative tolls to leave Manhattan at certain non-peak times. If the CBD is too congested, charge people to come in and PAY them to leave. Maximize the incentive for people to keep out of Manhattan at the peak hours. To the extent the problem is one of access chokepoints at the river crossings rather than congestion within a dense area, money could also be used to fund an account for eventually expanding capacity across the rivers or capacity on ring roads that would divert traffic from Manhattan altogether.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 4:10 pm

What is a “distributional effect”?

I’m really suspicious of the idea that more capacity is needed at this point. We are totally misallocating the capacity we have. Fast automobile passenger trips from A to B just seem way less important than predictable, reliable, efficient delivery of goods and services. (That is, if the cable guy is coming, he should have a reasonable expectation of making it when he says he will.)

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 9:07 am

I understand that there’s a toll free way out of NYC by using one of the Hudson tunnels. When I was a kid, that was the way I’d always drive out, being very cognizant of the cost differential. But do trucks really go that way in quantity? I see some small trucks sometimes use the tunnels, but I really don’t see the north side of Canal Street clogged with NJ bound trucks. I’m sure there’s some marginal differential in volumes, but it doesn’t seem pervasive. Note that larger trucks are not allowed into NYC through the Holland Tunnel anyway, but are allowed out through that facility.

John-2 March 6, 2012 - 11:04 am

National trucking companies actually do advertise for drivers by touting that they won’t have to drive routes through NYC, so in general the truckers themselves aren’t wild about the idea of having to go through Manhattan (and most, given the choice, will go out of their way to bypass the area via I-287 and the Tappan Zee or the I-84 bridge at Newburgh if they’re on a Mid-Atlantic to New England route). But whether or not you can get the trucks off the streets with congestion pricing is debatable — unlike regular drivers who have a set cash flow and might give up their cars and SUVs if the East River bridges are tolled (your boss isn’t giving you a $10 a day raise if the tolls are put in), those trucks that have to access Long Island are just going to pass their shipping charges along, or directly raise the fees to the public on whatever being shipped in the vehicle.

Ideally, the answer would be to finally build either the Cross Harbor tunnel or a freight rail Narrows crossing to connect up with the Arthur Kill lift bridge at Howland Hook, and then to the SBK and LIRR lines. That would allow a huge volume of the Long Island-bound truck traffic to be shipied in via rail, while the line could also run via Hell’s Gate and eliminate a lot of the commercial truck pass-throughs going between New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. But that’s a far higher expenditure than just electronically tolling four bridges would be, even if long-term it would potentially provide far more economic benefits (primarily by putting the Brooklyn waterfront back into the game as a major port for the new super-freighters that will become more common once the Panama Canal widening is completed a few years from now, since the deep water in New York Harbor is on the Brooklyn side, not on the New Jersey side of the bay).

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 11:16 am

A cross L.I. Sound link from Rye to the North Shore would also help. Trucks would take the augmented Tap, follow 287 and get to L.I. without bothering urban NJ, or any of NYC whatsoever, including Queens. Such a link has benefits in traffic mitigation that should be factored into its actual dollar cost. Basically, such a link has enormous benefits to the Bronx and Queens, such that any sentient political leader in those places should have been pounding the table for this since roughly 1970. A crossing in that area would also provide a vital evacuation and resupply route to L.I. in the event of a natural disaster or other calamity.

lawhawk March 6, 2012 - 11:17 am

Raising $1.5 billion or bonding up to $15 billion from the CP proceeds is a drop in the bucket for many of the proposals being floated in the comments, let alone a full-buildout of the 2d Avenue line.

Consider that if CP is actually done, it will come with all sorts of strings attached – to use X percent for road project upgrades, meaning less will go towards the very mass transit projects that would benefit a greater percentage of people. Even if a set percentage is set aside for just mass transit, it will fall short of the region’s needs for the next decade.

A new Cross Hudson rail tunnel (Gateway) would be in the $9 billion range – doubling Amtrak capacity and likely 40% increase in NJ Transit access to NY Penn.

A new NY Harbor tunnel between New Jersey and Brooklyn for freight would probably run double that amount – or more. New bridges between NJ and Manhattan aren’t likely at this point either.

Ben has regularly cited the costs for the 2d Avenue line – and why it was broken up into segments for construction over time. And then there’s all the capital construction projects that ought to be done to bring the subways up to a state of good repair – refurbishing stations that haven’t been done in generations, upgrading signal systems and tracks, etc.

However, at a time when higher fuel costs are hitting drivers, any plan to impose higher costs on drivers (including truckers and commuters) will go nowhere. And that reflects another issue – revenues that would likely fall short of projections because people are taking steps to avoid the costs and therefore burden adjacent neighborhoods or roads. It would also raise costs for those living within the CP district.

dungone March 6, 2012 - 12:00 pm

On the contrary, higher fuel prices make drivers more amendable to CP. The cash strapped drivers already get off the road and the ones who are left benefit from a congestion-free commute, offsetting some of the higher fuel prices. It’s the perfect way to redirect some of the billions of dollars getting sent over to the middle east back into local transportation infrastructure. Congestion pricing means that it’s easier to get buses in and out of the city at peak hours, which gives incentives for outlying suburbs to set up park and ride facilities.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 1:36 pm

If you can take in $1.5b billion, you can use it to enhance auto routes around Manhattan and get rid of through traffic. For example, there can be added a no-exits express alignment on the S.I. Expressway. You can get traffic from express lanes on a new Goethals to reserved express lanes on the Verrazano in under 10 minutes. That express alignment could itself have a separate toll to defray the cost. I’d expect you’d probably still have half the money left to work with.

Alon Levy March 7, 2012 - 1:29 am

You’re still adding lanes to freeways, and that’s expensive. The problem with cars in urban areas is that roads are space-intensive relative to the capacity they have. That’s why in every country, transit is used mainly by people in the big cities, or by people traveling to the big cities (and why the rural branch lines all folded decades before the urban commuter lines started taking subsidies). When the main constraint is space, the cost of surface rail and surface roads is about the same. Do you really want to blow this cost on a lane that can move 2,000 cars per hour?

The Cobalt Devil March 6, 2012 - 1:15 pm

Hey Port Authority, where’s that rail tunnel you guys promised in the 1920s, the one from Jersey to Brooklyn? You know, the reason the PA was created in the first place? We wouldn’t even need to have this conversation if the PA actually built the tunnel. There’d be no need for trucks to cut across Manhattan or Staten Island to get from Long Island to Jersey.

Eric F March 6, 2012 - 1:39 pm

Good point! The freight train carrying your Amazon.com box would go through the rail tunnel, pull up on the freight siding next to your apartment, and you can take the box right off the flat car. Every bodega in Manhattan can be supplied similarly.

The Cobalt Devil March 6, 2012 - 4:25 pm

Well, if you thought about that for two seconds and expanded upon it, that Amazon.com box could be brought to LI by train and THEN trucked to my apt or bodega. Or, the PA could have built a rail tunnel AND a tunnel for trucks/cars. Why let the PA off the hook, especially since the cross-harbor tunnel was the reason d’etre for creating the agency in the first place.

Nyland8 March 11, 2012 - 10:21 am

Agreed. With the expansion of the Panama Canal, the revitalization of the Brooklyn waterfront as a 21st century shipping port can never be achieved if every container ship that comes in has to run its goods through NYC streets to get to the rest of the country. A freight train tunnel from Brooklyn to the Garden State was a great idea 90 years ago, it’s an even better idea today, and it’s one that both Albany and Trenton, who empower the PA, should get behind. Not having built one in three generations should be an embarrassment to the Port Authority, one that we should all be willing to make a stone in its shoe, right up until the day that tunnel is open to rail traffic.

If any single infrastructure project on the horizon has the best projection of paying for itself, it would seem to be this one. Moreover, it would be hard to imagine a better political position – from the viewpoint of drivers, transit riders … or anyone – than to campaign in favor of something that has the potential to add lots of high paying jobs to the region AND take truck traffic off our roads.

THAT’S the kind of investment in the future of our region that would seem to have very little downside.

Bolwerk March 6, 2012 - 2:31 pm

From what Chris Ward said at this conference, under current conditions, trucks are still the winner for freight brought in under 500 miles. The freight rail tunnel would be nice, but we’d still have a lot of trucks on our streets – not only from New Jersey, but also from intermodal freight processing centers to the east.

Think twice March 6, 2012 - 11:56 pm

Sam Schwartz is a technocrat with actual street smarts. He’s Janette Sadik-Khan’s left brain with Shelly Silver’s right brain. He’s been a world-class engineer and an Albany insider for decades. If he ran for mayor, I’d vote for him in a heartbeat.

It was he who first introduced congestion pricing to NYC. But Bloomberg (using the same inexplicable hubris that cost us the Olympics) threw out all the politically tenable aspects of the plan when he brought it before Albany in 2008. Like not making all the non-East-River crossings toll-free. To this day I wonder what on earth Bloomberg or Doctoroff where thinking that their all-stick, no-carrot plan would succeed in Albany. Same thing with Richard Ravtich’s bridge-toll plan. Neither Shelly Silver nor the Four Pendejos (um…I mean Four Amigos) would have had the backing of suburban and outerborough politicians like Peter Vallone. Schwartz knew what would work, he always knew; it’s divide and conquer. You get legislation passed in Albany that favors NYC by pitting suburban and outerborough politicians *against* each other.


Leave a Comment