Congestion Charge Comeback?

congestion image Congestion Charge Comeback?When congestion pricing was defeated earlier in the spring, it looked dead forever, but it’s becoming clear that the idea may make a comeback. The reason for the revival is actually the reason Mayor Bloomberg proposed it- we need the money for mass transit, and we need to reduce the volume of vehicles in lower Manhattan. As time goes by, it becomes clearer that the main reason for the fee is to raise money. The absence of the fee is contributing to a fiscal crisis for the city’s mass transit system.

The New York City region has the best mass transit system in the county, but the system that is in danger of going through the same decline it went through during the fiscal crisis of the 1970. It is an understatement to say that this would be a disaster for the city’s environment and economy.

According to a joint press release of the Straphangers Campaign and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group: “Public transportation in metropolitan New York saved 1.8 billion gallons of oil in 2006, a savings that amounted to $4.6 billion for the region. By taking cars off the road and reducing congestion, transit also prevented emission of 13,973,040 metric tons of global warming pollution.”

A decade of increased deficit financing of mass transit during the Pataki years has culminated in the long-predicted mass transit fiscal crisis. Mass transit has been underfunded for many years, and the lack of funding has finally caught up with us. As the Straphanger campaign release notes: “With the projected income from congestion pricing gone, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority faces a $17.5 billion deficit in its proposed $29.5 billion five-year capital program.”

Governor Patterson recognizes the problem and has brought back Richard Ravitch, the guy who rebuilt the mass transit system in the 1980’s, to do it again. Ravitch is heading a newly formed Commission on Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Financing. According to the Governor’s office:

“The Commission is charged with recommending strategies to fund MTA capital projects and operating needs over the next ten years, a period when the Authority will be under unprecedented financial pressure as it expands its system and rebuilds its core infrastructure to provide the additional capacity needed to allow the region to grow. Governor Paterson announced in April that Richard Ravitch would head the Commission in wake of the failure of the congestion pricing proposal, which would have provided an additional revenue stream to the MTA.”

The Commission has been asked to look at congestion pricing along with variety of other revenue sources to help subsidize mass transit. We need to subsidize mass transit to keep the cost low to riders and entice people out of the cars. We need to improve the quality of mass transit for the same reason. If the choice is between sitting in your comfortable private auto and crowding into filthy, unreliable subway cars, anyone with the ability to chose will avoid mass transit. In the 1980’s mass transit made a comeback in this region, and the combination of high gas prices and decent mass transit has increase transit ridership over the past several months. However, mass transit requires constant investment to keep up the quality of service. Without a steady stream of funding to maintain and replace infrastructure, it fall apart.

One potential source of revenue for mass transit is to charge people for use of the streets in Manhattan’s central business district. One of the few useful points that Shelly Silver made during his disgraceful handling of the congestion issue this spring, is that cabs and livery cars should pay a surcharge for travelling in the congestion zone. A surcharge of a couple of dollars would generate plenty of revenue without destroying the taxi industry. I also think that fee exemptions should be available for people with chronic illnesses that need to be driven to medical care in lower Manhattan. I would also give every car registered in the five boroughs five free passes per year—to allow them to avoid the fee when they absolutely must drive to the city during the work day—as long as it wasn’t a regular commute.

New Yorkers like the freedom and simulation that mobility brings. We have a great transportation system that is cost effective and environmentally friendly. If we are to keep it intact and expand it we will need to raise and spend money. There is no alternative.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Rachel Dannefer, a graduate student at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.