Will Paterson Endorsement Ease Congestion-Pricing Gridlock?


The politics of congestion pricing is nearing a boiling point and opponents continue to make the case for a different approach to traffic reduction.

There are, of course other ways of reducing congestion, but Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal has the advantage of generating new resources for mass transit.

On Friday, our new Governor, David Paterson, demonstrated political courage and came out in favor of the plan to charge drivers for entering New York’s Central Business district during the work day. He joins City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and State Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno in support of the bill. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has yet to be heard from.

However, lots of prominent politicians are opposing all or part of the Mayor’s plan. To congressman Anthony Weiner, the revenue part of the proposal is the root of the problem. The congressman’s argument, as reported in The New York Sun:

“This is where it matters that you have a certain amount of political acumen. What the mayor does not understand, what his supporters in the environmental community don’t understand — we are playing exactly into the Republican argument that if you want mass transit, you should tax yourself,” he said. “I am going to be hearing from my colleagues in Washington, ‘Well, you need $200 million less. You’re already collecting the $200 million.'”

Bloomberg referred to this comment as “one of the stupider things I’ve ever heard said.” I’m sure he has heard dumber comments, but just the same, Weiner’s making a pretty feeble argument against congestion pricing. Most of New York City’s transit system is locally financed, so we are already taxing ourselves. In fact as conservatives are fond of reminding us, New York City is the most highly taxed jurisdiction in the nation. The fact that we would be willing to assess yet another fee on our overtaxed community only indicates how desperate we are to reduce traffic.

If Congressman Weiner were really serious about the issue he’d be working to increase transportation funding across the board. The nation’s roads, bridges and mass transit are all underfunded. Potholes and falling bridges have become a way of life on the American roadway. The best way to fund all transportation and transport infrastructure would be a substantial increase in the tax on gasoline. The tax should be set as a percentage of the price of gasoline and should be high enough to build and maintain roads and mass transit. However, as Congressman Weiner knows, with gasoline already reaching $4 a gallon, no one is going to legislate an increased tax on gasoline.

With the deficit growing, the economy tanking and the financial cost of the war in Iraq increasing daily, the federal treasury is an unlikely source of needed funds for mass transit. So, where does the Congressman think the money will come from? If Bloomberg is naive about the ways of Washington, what does that make Weiner?

Assemblyman Richard Brodsky has been arguing against congestion pricing from the start. According to Brodsky: “It is basically a tax, a new tax, and a tax which falls disproportionately on the backs of . . . middle income and working families.”

I guess he’s not referring to his own constituents since, according to Transportation Alternatives: “Brodsky’s Manhattan-bound drive-to-work constituents earn on average $176,231 annually—the highest of any New York county in the metropolitan area.”

Data on those who drive to the Central Business district clearly indicate that most of those who would be charged the congestion fee are nowhere near being middle-income or working class. Some opponents worry that the charge will penalize those that don’t work in the city, but need to take family members to the hospital or to a doctor. One possible solution to that problem is to make the first five trips in any calendar year free, and to provide a free pass for those with medical or similar needs that require regular transport into the central business district. A set of policies could be set on exemptions and a web-based exemption application process could be used to efficiently eliminate charges.

Some critics think the economy is too fragile for a new fee. City Comptroller William Thompson Jr. Supports congestion pricing, but suggests that the city postpone congestion fees until the economy improves. He offers the following amendments:

A More Equitable Charge: $5 for City Residents and $10 for Non-City Residents

Accelerated Spending for Capital Projects and Service Improvements before Instituting the Charge by Investing up to $500 Million

Guaranteed Maintenance of Effort for MTA Capital Program Funding

Pricing Flexibility

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine said now is not the time to impose this kind of extra tax burden. “Raising the cost of things in a recession is difficult,” Corzine said. “It’s a difficult damp down for people already struggling.”

Sheldon Silver wants low income workers that must drive into the city to get a rebate on the fee.

The idea of pricing flexibility makes sense, but the notion that congestion pricing is all cost and no benefit, ignores the monetary value of the time wasted in traffic. If the fee is set high enough, the people paying it get an important benefit: The time they save when congestion is reduced. If congestion pricing works, the time saved may be more valuable then the fee paid. If you make $25 an hour, a ½ reduction in travel time is worth $12.50. The time of many of the people stuck in traffic is worth more than the fee that will be charged. The idea that the people who can pay $30-$50 a day to park in Manhattan will be burdened by a congestion fee doesn’t make sense.

While a tax is a tax—congestion pricing is actually a charge for using a scarce resource that once was free. Clean water out of our kitchen faucets used to be free: Now, we pay a water bill. Television used to be free, now most people pay a pretty hefty cable bill to get more channels. Space on the streets of New York’s Central business district has become too scarce to give out for free. In order to keep traffic moving on those streets we need to figure out a way to ration it. Congestion pricing is one way to do that.

Mike Bloomberg has had the courage to get out in front on this issue and lead. We now see that Quinn, Bruno, Patterson are also behind the plan. This of course leaves the often inscrutable Shelly Silver as the last remaining major hold-out. Perhaps if he manages to veto the bill, we can start saying that those stuck in midtown traffic are being “silvered.” With the deadline for federal funding to implement congestion pricing fast approaching, it’s crunch time for the city’s best chance to reduce congestion. It will be a small miracle if that dysfunctional group up in Albany can actually pass something this creative, but the time for bobbing and weaving is coming to an end.

I am grateful for the research assistance of Sara Schonhardt, Master of International Affairs student, Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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