Occupy the Toll Booth! Could OWS Revive Congestion Pricing?

Driving that train, running on fumes. (Office of the Governor)

Charles Komanoff, the hound of Manhattan traffic, penned an interesting column yesterday for Streetsblog arguing that the Occupy movement had the potential to bring congestion pricing back to life.

After all, the protesters, with their message of pervasive inequality, arguably helped put enough pressure on the Cuomo administration to embrace some form of higher taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers. Why couldn’t some form of populist support do the same for tolls on East River bridges and the subsequent boost to clean air and mass transit that would come with it?

At this point, it’s fair to ask how the changes in the zeitgeist wrought by the Occupy movement might affect transit and transportation in New York City. Will revenue infusions from Albany mean better service and stable fares for that most egalitarian mode of travel, mass transit? Will the most inefficient and socially destructive mode — driving private cars into Manhattan — finally pay for usurping so much street and road space? In particular, might congestion pricing, the sole policy measure that could finance transit and disincentivize driving in gridlock, get a boost from OWS’s paradigm of equity and equality?

As we now know, Albany actually dinged the M.T.A. amidst this populist-led revolt on the rich by reducing the commuter tax by $250 million a year. While there are promises to restore that from the general fund some time in the future, transit advocates are already wary, given past raids on the transit agency and what many see as the governor’s ambivalence toward mass transit.

“We look forward to also working with the governor and the legislature to ensure that the financial health of the M.T.A. is sustained,” the Regional Plan Association’s Bob Yaro said in a statement. “We don’t know how much revenue would be lost with the reductions in the payroll mobility tax announced today, so we want to make sure that any loss is made up on a dollar-for-dollar basis.”

As one Albany insider put it to The Observer today, Governor Cuomo does not view the M.T.A. as a mode of transportation: “He views it as a budget line.”

If anything, it will not be some communitarian zeitgeist, as Mr. Komanoff praises, that will bring congestion pricing back around—it would have to be the vagaries of a desperate M.T.A. budget. After all, it was only when a gaping hole had been opened in the state budget that the governor began considering altering his promise not to raise taxes. He has professed opposition to congestion pricing before. Might a yawning transit budget convince him otherwise?

mchaban [at] observer.com | @MC_NYC

Occupy the Toll Booth! Could OWS Revive Congestion Pricing?