Congestion Pricing: A Good Return on Investment

As Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s congestion-pricing plan to cut down on traffic in Manhattan inches toward success or failure at the hands of the City Council and State Legislature, there’s no shortage of opposition. Suburban and outer-borough legislators, whose constituents like the luxury of driving into Manhattan, are vocal and irate opponents. And now the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is warning that it will cost $767 million in subway and bus improvements over the next five years to deal with the influx of new riders, should the plan take effect.

Leaving aside the question of whether the figure is accurate—the M.T.A. has not always been known for careful accounting—the money has to be considered an investment in the city’s infrastructure, not a cost. One of the many lessons we’ve learned during New York’s stunning renaissance over the past 15 years is that good, reliable public transportation makes this city far more attractive than its competitors. The improvements projected by the M.T.A. include new subway cars and buses, station renovations and service upgrades. To our ears, that’s money well spent.

Moreover, with the mayor’s plan estimated to bring in $400 million annually, the $767 million would be paid for within three or four years, allowing that perhaps 50 percent of the $400 million would initially have to go toward operational costs of the traffic plan. Once the $767 million in capital and service upgrades were paid for, subway and bus riders would continue to see regular enhancements thanks to the $400 million annual revenue from the traffic plan. In addition, the money would go toward repairing the city’s bridges and tunnels, benefiting those who continue to drive into Manhattan.

As the city faces a million new residents in the coming 25 years, there’s no way around congestion pricing if we wish to avoid costly gridlock and a spike in pollution. There are already 800,000 cars in Manhattan each weekday. The sooner a plan is implemented, the lower the eventual cost will be. The plan would charge drivers an $8 fee to enter Manhattan below 86th street between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.. London, which inaugurated congestion pricing four years ago, has reduced traffic congestion by 17 percent and carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 percent.

The mayor’s plan has the support of Governor Eliot Spitzer, State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. It’s good politics and good business.