Home Congestion Fee A glimpse into the transit mindset of NYC electeds

A glimpse into the transit mindset of NYC electeds

by Benjamin Kabak

It’s not too often we get a direct glimpse into the minds and inner workings of a New York City politician attempting to come to grips with transit policy, but this weekend’s Daily News provided us with just that opportunity. Appearing in print at around the same time we learned of his support for a Soundview ferry, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. penned his take on Sam Schwartz’s Move NY toll plan. His critique is flawed and shows the battle anyone fighting for transit in New York City faces.

Claiming that the Move New York plan was revealed to the public for the first time last month — technically true as the campaign launched but Schwartz, who discussed the plan at my October 2012 “Problem Solvers” session, hasn’t exactly been quiet lately — Diaz had the audacity to call it a “unfair regressive tax.” Does the Bronx Borough President know what a regressive tax is, you may wonder. I know I certainly am. Here’s Diaz’s critique in his own words:

To make this toll plan work, supporters this time are pledging to lower the tolls on outer-borough bridges, such as the Robert F. Kennedy and Verrazano Bridges, in order to entice support from those communities that rejected this proposal in 2008. What “Move NY” has proposed is likely a Trojan horse. While the promise of lower tolls is certainly alluring, there are no guarantees that those tolls would stay low forever. In fact, given the history of this city’s bridges and their tolls, we can be certain that these so-called “lower” tolls will surge back to their original heights in short order.

We are told that the congestion pricing system will be “fair.” I have a different definition of fairness than those proposing this scheme. It is not fair to place a regressive tax on those who can least afford it. It is not fair to imply that outer borough tolls will remain low forever…

If revenue is required, we can raise money in other ways. For starters, we should charge drivers to register their cars based on the vehicle’s weight and level of fuel efficiency. Not only will this incentivize drivers to choose hybrid or electric cars, it will place the burden of new funding on the vehicles that cause the most congestion and pollution. We must also begin to implement new transit plans that will lower congestion by providing alternatives, and not through new bridge taxes. This includes improvements like ferry service in Williamsburg, the Rockaways and Soundview, and new Metro North service in the East Bronx.

Just how, pricing supporters will ask, do we pay for such relatively inexpensive transit upgrades without a new pricing scheme? I would say that we have been paying all along, and that it is time for the other boroughs to be treated as “fairly” as Manhattan has been.

Diaz goes onto bemoan the high cost of construction for the Second Ave. Subway, 7 line extension and East Side Access, not because he’s concerned about MTA spending but because he can’t see the forrest for the trees. East Side Access barely touches Manhattanites as it is more concerned with bringing suburban commuters while the Second Ave. Subway will directly benefit Diaz’s constituents as they’ll enjoy less crowding on the Lexington Ave. lines that snake through the Bronx. (He conveniently doesn’t discuss the plans to add four Metro-North stations to underserved areas in his borough.)

But what of this claim of regressive taxation? We see this over and over again from politicians who have a very distorted view of who drives and who owns cars in New York City. As of early 2012, only 46 percent of Bronx households owned cars, and those who Diaz claims can’t afford a modest toll certainly aren’t driving into Manhattan every day. In fact, as Streetsblog eloquently argued a few months ago, the real regressive tax is the current tolling scheme. “It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses,” Ben Fried wrote. “It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.”

I don’t know if Schwartz’s plan is the answer to the transit funding woes, but it’s an answer. At some point, too, it will be the path of least resistance toward garnering a dedicated revenue stream for the transit system. But it’s not regressive, not by any stretch. I wouldn’t expect much more from a politician who thinks that a ferry that would serve a ridership in the low triple digits is a game-changer, but it does provide a glimpse of the mindset pervasive in the boroughs, City Hall and Albany. Misguided thinking is no way to set policies that impact millions.

You may also like


BrooklynBus April 8, 2014 - 11:11 pm

He has a point that there is no guarantee that the cut tolls won’t return to their former levels in a few years, just to get the free bridges tolled.

Alex C April 8, 2014 - 11:12 pm

And then we might face the horror of finally being able to afford to properly maintain all our roads and bridges.

Bolwerk April 9, 2014 - 8:49 am

Doubtful, since it’s the MTA that presumably gets the money.

However, things like the VB are often congested now. That strongly suggests the toll isn’t high enough, at least during peak congestion times.

SEAN April 9, 2014 - 10:04 am

We havent learned from the I-35 bridge disaster yet & I’m not sure if we will.

Bolwerk April 9, 2014 - 10:48 am

AFAIK our region’s bridges are mostly in good shape. More than one already recently went through an expensive rehabilitation.

lop April 9, 2014 - 8:03 pm


From 2000 to 2012, $4.7 billion in capital spending was pumped into the 209 city-managed bridges studied in the city’s Independent Budget Office report, which adjusted for inflation. Almost two-thirds of that money went to the city’s 10 biggest bridges that span the East and Harlem rivers.

Since 2003, most bridges were in “fair high” condition and none were in poor condition — a turnaround from 1996, when 48 bridges were deemed poor. One bridge still in poor condition today — the Brooklyn Bridge — is in the midst of a rehabilitation project.

Good thing none of the bridges billions of dollars have been spent on, and will have to be spent on moving forward, have regressive tolls on then.

lop April 9, 2014 - 11:57 am

I thought the MTA was only going to get ~70% of the new money, the rest would go to road maintenance. Or was it maintenance for the bridges?

ajedrez April 9, 2014 - 4:20 pm

Actually, from personal experience, the bridge itself is rarely congested. Now, the approaches on either side are a different story.

Alon Levy April 11, 2014 - 6:33 am

That’s not all that surprising, given fluid dynamics. Normally, if you have three lanes merging into two, the slowest speeds will be in the three-lane segment just before the merger; the two-lane segment will be faster.

The reason is that the throughput in cars per hour has to be the same, and throughput is equal to speed times number of lanes divided by headway, where headway has units of distance rather than time. If the number of lanes goes down, speed divided by headway goes up, and since headway grows less than linearly in speed, this means speed goes up rather than down. Of course, a road that has three lanes all the way will simply have higher capacity and so higher throughput; the capacity on a road with three lanes merging into two is limited by the two-lane segment, so the three-lane segment will be slower.

This can be readily seen if there’s an accident reducing the number of usable lanes on an Interstate segment.

lop April 8, 2014 - 11:36 pm

His successor, or a future legislature in Albany might possibly raise tolls on the inter-outerboro crossings so we shouldn’t do anything? If that’s what people vote for in the future there’s no reason not to go that route. And if it’s not then they can vote in better representatives the next election to re-lower the tolls. And if you’re worried about the MTA raising them on their own, set in law that they have to cost 50 or some other percent of the fee to enter the CBD and then the only way they’ll raise the toll on the Whitestone is by raising the toll on the rest of the city’s bridges too. Still not enough? Then set the tolls as state law, need legislature to change them. It’s not a legitimate point at all. It’s fear-mongering from an anti-transit buffoon who has no place making policy.

Tower18 April 9, 2014 - 10:55 am

This is a red herring argument. All costs everywhere eventually go up all the time. There is a 100% chance that any tolls lowered will eventually be raised. But that’s not a relevant reason to oppose anything. If we do absolutely nothing today, guess what, those tolls will almost certainly be raised in a few years anyway. Just like the subway fares.

JebO April 9, 2014 - 3:12 pm

+1 That is exactly right.

Bolwerk April 9, 2014 - 9:35 pm

No. We’re supposed to make sure that people in the future can’t do things BrooklynBus doesn’t want us to do today.

Bronxite April 9, 2014 - 5:31 pm

Yes, of course the tolls will rise. They have to. Inflation?

Alex C April 8, 2014 - 11:11 pm

Politicians who drive, only listen to constituents who drive, and only know people who drive, always end up fighting for those who drive. They simply don’t understand or care for the idea that someone would want to go somewhere in something other than a personal automobile and see anything that makes driving more expensive as oppressive.

SEAN April 9, 2014 - 10:15 am

These polls don’t see the wrighting on the wall – the younger generations rather fiddle with there smart phones than drive. This is do to several factors including afordability, student loans, job prospects & living situations.

Nathanael April 9, 2014 - 12:35 pm


The “handwriting on the wall” is a very good analogy. What is completely obvious to us — the social turn away from driving towards smartphones — seems to be incomprehensible to many car-obsessed politicians, no matter how many times we explain it to them. It’s as if we’re talking in a foreign language.

Bolwerk April 9, 2014 - 1:18 pm

To be fair, they probably have plenty of time to use their smartphones when being chauffeured. If those Gen Y bums would just get jobs, maybe they could take taxis too.

They think everyone should be just like them. Or wants to be just like them. And the people who don’t want to be like them, and don’t look like them, are very, very suspicious.

Alon Levy April 11, 2014 - 6:34 am

To be even fairer, many of the people most opposed to any enforcement of traffic laws use smartphones while driving without a chauffeur…

Duke April 9, 2014 - 12:51 am

The toll plan in question is sensible even if it produces no net increase in revenue since it removes the incentive for drivers to go through Manhattan in order to shunpike or take a longer route to get to a free bridge, thus reducing congestion. If it produces a net revenue increase, hey, better still.

That said, the ideal and most equitable source of better transit funding is for Albany to simply cough up more dough, and end the madness where downstate contributes billions more in tax revenue than it gets in spending. Unfortunately, politics will not allow this.

Justin Samuels April 9, 2014 - 10:11 am

The city itself can fund transportation expansions WHEN it is interested in doing so. Bloomberg funded the 7 line extension by selling bonds backed by the real estate taxes of the West Side of Manhattan that would be served by the 7 at 34th and 11th. There’s no real reason the city can’t sell bonds backed by the real estate revenues of the East Side to fund Second Avenue Subway expansion for phases 2-4. The city may need to cut expenditures in other areas of it’s budget, but this can be done WITHOUT approval from Albany.

Howard April 9, 2014 - 9:17 am

“If revenue is required, we can raise money in other ways. For starters, we should charge drivers to register their cars based on the vehicle’s weight and level of fuel efficiency.”

Registration fees go to the state DMV, right? How exactly does that result in more money being available to the MTA?

Henry April 9, 2014 - 10:11 am

The MTA’s various funding sources (aside from fares and tolls) aren’t collected directly by the agency itself. The agency does not collect sales tax, real estate tax, payroll tax, or the taxi surcharge, but it still receives money from these sources.

Howard April 9, 2014 - 1:59 pm

Fair enough. It would be a good idea in general to use DMV fees to encourage people to buy smaller and more fuel efficient cars, but it seems sort of besides the point when it comes to MTA funding. As someone else pointed out below, there aren’t nearly enough vehicles registered in NYC for DMV fees to make up the difference between Diaz’s and Schwartz’s proposals, and it’s highly doubtful that NY state politicians would allow something like this to be implemented statewide.

Tolls seem like a much better and fairer source of funding than DMV fees. Unlike an annual fee that hits every car owner equally regardless of miles driven, they directly encourage people to take mass transit as opposed to driving. They’re also easily localized to the region that benefits from the mass transit systems that they’re funding. And they have the benefit of catching the many NYC drivers who already register their cars at their cousin’s house in NJ/CT/PA/etc.

Ralfff April 11, 2014 - 3:44 am

The NY DMV seems strangely uninterested in enforcing the law with illegally registered out of state cars. From what I’ve read, they’ll even ignore snitches.

Tower18 April 9, 2014 - 10:56 am

This actually is one sensible idea he has, we SHOULD do this. Many other places already do. I don’t know how it relates to the MTA, but the state should charge more at least based in vehicle weight, as it’s easy to do. Fuel efficiency is a more dodgy metric, but weight is easy.

Charles Komanoff April 9, 2014 - 12:01 pm

Tower: NYS *already* charges more to register heavier vehicles. See http://dmv.ny.gov/node/4111. The biennial charge for a 6,950 pound or larger vehicle is $140, vs. $93 for 5,000 lb and $40.50 for 2,500 lb (with many gradations in between).

Any money that Diaz’s proposal would raise won’t come close to the $1.45 billion a year (net) from the Move NY plan. With “just” 1.85 million passenger v’s registered in the 5 boroughs, each would have to be surcharged $785 a year (read: $1,570 biennially) to match the money Move NY will make available for transportation improvements. Good luck with that!

Re your “aspirational” point — you nailed it there.

Nathanael April 9, 2014 - 12:36 pm

(By the way, for those who are curious, the extra charge by weight is omitted if you’re driving an electric automobile. To avoid penalizing them for the heavy batteries. A sensible move.)

lawhawk April 9, 2014 - 3:16 pm

Weight based registrations would actually hurt the Bronx and his constituents more than the bridge tolling plan ever would. Weight-based registrations merit discussion since heavier vehicles impose greater punishment on the infrastructure, but the idea of adjusting the bridge tolling would be to spread tolls over a wider number of points and reducing their price to more evenly balance crossings and reduce congestion overall (particularly by drivers taking advantage of free crossings to avoid paying even if there are bridges/tunnels that are more direct that cost).

Larry Littlefield April 9, 2014 - 10:16 am

“We see this over and over again from politicians who have a very distorted view of who drives and who owns cars in New York City.”

They know exactly who drives. They do. They and their cronies and others in the political union class, the ones with the placards. The pension rich in the political/union class.

The other people who drive are in the executive/financial class. They can afford to drive. So to these parasites, a toll is regressive because it favors the other parasites.

And what about everyone else, the ones biking or on transit? They are the serfs. None of these hacks give a damn about the serfs. They don’t even understand the government and what it does.

Charles Komanoff April 9, 2014 - 10:35 am

Great post, Ben. Please note that the share of Bronx households that own a motor vehicle is even less than your stat: it’s 38%, not 46%. (U.S. Census Bureau “2012 American Community Survey”: 475,978 total households, of which 295,227, or 62%, own zero motor vehicles.)

Tower18 April 9, 2014 - 11:07 am

These guys get away with these attitudes even in places with low car ownership because:

Let’s say 38% of Bronx households have a car. Even if you get half of them who exactly support your position, that’s 19% of households. Wild-ass-guess of 1.5 voters per household. Now, for a lot of people in the outer boroughs and upper Manhattan, owning a car is still very aspirational. They still support these ideas because they’re just waiting for the day they’re going to have a car too and are free of the MTA. That percentage is a lot higher than 38% of households.

Add these things up and you have a pretty significant driver voting bloc, even though you don’t see the numbers in car ownership.

It’s amazing, I actually know someone who will drive his car ~8 blocks, circle for parking for 5-10 minutes, TO GO TO A BAR, and then drive home ~8 blocks and do the same parking dance. This is in West/Central Brooklyn. It’s a status thing to these people, “oh no, I do NOT walk, I do NOT take the bus/train”. However illogical.

Nathanael April 9, 2014 - 12:37 pm

That’s actually insane. Unless he has a chronic illness, he can WALK to the bar faster than that.

And if he’s going TO A BAR, he should damn well NOT be driving home!

normative April 9, 2014 - 1:11 pm

What no one seems to want to grapple with is that there are working/middle class people who drive rather than take public transit. Its much rarer for trips to the CBD than from two points in the same borough, but that happens as well. These aren’t people who are well-off, but in their mind its quicker and or better to use a car than the subway or train.

From my experience, status seems to be heavily involved. You are conveying you are more comfortable and better off with your car. Trips you used to take by walking or public transit disappear and you use your car–because you can.

It doesn’t bother me that such people have to pay a higher fare to enter the CBD. But, I think its important to realize it is not all wall street types on the bridge in the morning.

Justin Samuels April 9, 2014 - 1:30 pm

Other major cities in the country like Los Angeles can fund the expansion of their transit network without putting special taxes on drivers.

That’s the issue right there. As long as divisive policies that pit car drivers against non drivers are pushed, nothing will get done on public transportation expanstion.

Anytime NYC wants to they can fund a new subway line. Issue some bonds and back them up with taxes. Real estate taxes on the West Side are paying for the 7 train extension. Similarly the city can issue new bonds for the Second Avenue Subway, and back these with real estate taxes from the East Side. If the city were willing to put up a major chunk of the money, it would be easier to get additional funds from the federal government and from the state.

The real issue should be is why is NYC so unwilling to find ways to pay for transit expansion? We do have a progressive mayor, de Blasio, so transit advocates really should petition him on finding ways to expand the transit system, regardless of whether congestion pricing passes or not . It doesn’t make sense to get stuck on one funding source, when there are certainly other sources of revenue.

Perhaps revenues from New York’s Port Authority operations could be used to back revenue bonds to fund new subway lines. Particularly when the WTC is finished.

Charles Komanoff April 9, 2014 - 1:48 pm

L.A. is using a sales tax surcharge to fund transit. Want to do same here instead of the Move NY plan? Then be prepared to accept a 0.70 percentage point rise in the sales tax rate charged in NYC and the seven NY suburban counties that comprise the MTA taxing region in order to match the $1.45B/y projected from the MNY plan. Here in the five boroughs, the sales tax rate will go to 9.575% from the current 8.875%. Progressive? Good for the economy?

Is it unfamiliarity or ideology that leads you to brand the Move NY plan as “pit[ting] car drivers against non drivers” — a tired frame that ignores at least four ways in which drivers will benefit? Here they are: (i) dedicated revenue stream (~$350M/y to maintain roads/bridges); (ii) end to “toll shopping” that paralyzes streets on both sides of the free bridges; (iii) faster car travel because of reduced car volumes; (iv) faster car travel because investing ~$1.1B/y in improved transit maintains, upgrades and expands transit so that some other car trips get switched to trains and buses.

Nathanael April 9, 2014 - 5:05 pm

Tolling the free bridges would fix a LOT of the car traffic problems in NYC by redistributing the traffic in a sensible fashion across the various bridges. People do whacky things to avoid tolls. The “one way toll” situation on the Verazzano is abused by truckers, too.

Spendmor Wastemor April 9, 2014 - 5:28 pm

“The “one way toll” situation on the Verazzano is abused by truckers, too.”

That’s not abuse, it’s a rational response to the tax. Abuse would be balancing a tractor trailer on Batman’s motorcycle to pay the 2 wheeler toll.

That would be worth money to watch!

Nathanael April 11, 2014 - 10:25 pm

Did I say it wasn’t a rational response? A rational response can easily be abusive.

If you’ve got a billion dollars, buying Congressmen is a rational response to a lot of your problems, but it’s still abusive.

Justin Samuels April 11, 2014 - 10:13 am

If voters in NYC would accept a sales tax increasing to fund subway expansion I would have no problem with this. Voters in LA accepted it.

Transit advocated have talked about congestion pricing for years, and it always FAILS in the NYC area. Stop sounding like broken records and figure out other sources of funding. At least a sales tax would be payable by all, instead of pitting drivers against non drivers.

The bottom line is NOTHING is FREE. And if residents of NYC want expanded subway service, then everyone needs to pay the taxes for it.

Nathanael April 11, 2014 - 10:25 pm

For some reason, we rarely have referenda in NY. Not even non-binding referenda.

Nathanael April 11, 2014 - 10:26 pm

…I think this causes elected officials to have totally wrong ideas about what their constituents want, sometimes. The referenda act as a sanity check of sorts.

Alex April 9, 2014 - 3:22 pm

I mean, I don’t think anyone denies they exist. But they certainly are not common and most belong to a special group who have access to parking placards or some form of free or cheap parking. But their overall share is likely pretty low in comparison to more affluent drivers. What’s frustrating is this disingenuous argument that bridge tolls would hit middle and working class people the hardest. It’s simply not the case.

Alex C April 10, 2014 - 10:21 am

I don’t think shaping transit policy around people who drive simply to prove to everyone that they’re not poor (which is stupid) is a good idea.

Rob April 9, 2014 - 4:28 pm

Just another reminder that we are ruled by idiots. Some of whom we elected.

Nathanael April 9, 2014 - 5:05 pm

Someone should probably run against him.

Spendmor Wastemor April 9, 2014 - 5:22 pm

“It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses..”

Politically that flies. Factually, not so simple.

Example 1: On 125th street, the buses block both lanes, impeding car traffic and other buses. Because of its fundamentally broken method of operation, that bus routing immobilizes everyone.

But what if you had a dedicated bus lane…?

On street with full or partial bus lanes, the things still grind along at a miserable pace. Example, 34th street. There, an NYCT bus takes longer to cross town on the bus than a 3 speed bicycle.

How about a longer stretch? On 2nd ave, the bus often leaves the reserved lane, the better to hog space, and slumbers along at less that the speed of traffic. Even without the advantage of the bus’s royal red painted reserved lane, a taxi eats less of your time than the bus.

On crosstown routes at least, transportation would be better served by cancelling the bus entirely and offering a covered sidewalk in its place, or perhaps a bike/blade only no-walking lane. Both cars and trucks would spend less time idling, thus cutting pollution, and riders would spend less time jammed in a steel shh it can.

Tower18 April 9, 2014 - 7:30 pm

Your position is that a taxi headed downtown on Second Avenue during rush hour would be faster than a bus in an *enforced* lane? This is laughably incorrect.

Is a taxi faster than a bus in the same mixed traffic? Of course, because it only makes 2 stops.

Frankly I’m not sure what your point is. We should all take taxis? Who pays?


Leave a Comment