Not too long ago—1999, to be exact—a group of suburban and upstate legislators, in a cheap political stunt for votes that had the blessing of Governor George Pataki, killed off an eminently sensible program which was bringing $500 annually million into the city’s coffers. We’re talking, of course, about the commuter tax—the modest 0.45 percent tax paid by those commuting into the city. The tax was so low that most commuters didn’t even know they were paying it. And those who did know understood that the small surcharge helped pay for the police officers, firefighters, E.M.S. crews and other city workers whose protection they enjoyed during the hours they spent in the city.
Never missing a chance to pander to voters, however, several members of the State Legislature turned the commuter tax into a whipping boy and got it repealed. Since then, the city has taken a half-billion-dollar hit annually without most commuters realizing—or much caring—that they have recovered that half of 1 percent tax they’d barely been aware of paying.
Now another good and sane idea—Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan to introduce congestion pricing for Manhattan’s business district—is rallying outer-borough and suburban legislators to start their grumbling and vow that they will make sure the plan never becomes reality. The Mayor has responded that, while the State Legislature indeed has the final say, he’s going to “fight like heck” to make it happen. All New Yorkers who care about the future of the city—economically, socially and health-wise—would do well to get firmly behind Mr. Bloomberg. Out-of-control gridlock is a quality-of-life problem—one that, if not confronted now, will only become more cumbersome.
The congestion-pricing plan envisioned by the Mayor is hardly punitive: Car drivers would pay an $8 fee to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan, a zone that could stretch from Battery Park up to 96th Street. (Commercial trucks would pay $21.) Those who live in the zone would pay $4. Taxis, and drivers who enter Manhattan but keep to the West Side Highway or the F.D.R., would be exempt. A system using EZ Pass and cameras would be used to administer the fees, which would bring $500 million annually into the city treasury, earmarked for mass-transit improvements in all five boroughs.
London, which began a similar plan in 2003, but with a $20-per-car fee, has reduced traffic congestion by 17 percent and carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 percent. Stockholm and Singapore have also instituted similar programs. City Hall projects that congestion pricing would reduce the current daily level of 800,000 cars in Manhattan by 100,000.
The Mayor knows that he won’t earn any easy political points with his plan: The accusations of Manhattan-centric elitism have already started. But traffic congestion—with its lost business hours, pollution and discouragement of tourisism — is atrocious and will only get worse as New York braces for an influx of a million new residents over the next 25 years.
The congestion-pricing plan is the best idea anyone’s put forward to unclog the city’s traffic arteries. If the State Legislature insists upon derailing this timely idea, we’d sure like to see how they plan to do better.