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It’s Time to Push Congestion Pricing Over the Finish Line

Here we go again. New York’s local media is full of absurd, unverified theories about the negative impacts of a fee designed to charge to use the scarce and crowded streets of Manhattan south of 60th street and use that cash to subsidize mass transit. Like clockwork, minor politicos from Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, and the Bronx complain about the “attack” on working New Yorkers. Big time politicos lead the charge: New Jersey’s Governor talks about “double taxation.” Untested concepts are accepted as facts while people worry about drivers hogging parking spots north of 60th street. Perhaps most ridiculous is the idea that congestion pricing is a regressive tax. Here’s a newsflash: Nearly all the people who drive into the city are people senior enough in their organization to get subsidized parking or rich enough to pay for parking. As I wrote in my piece about congestion pricing this past June:

Several years ago, the Community Service Society studied the distributional impact of congestion pricing and found that:

“…just four percent of the city’s outer-borough working residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by vehicle and could be subject to a congestion fee. This compares with 56 percent of outer-borough residents who use mass transit to commute to work in Manhattan…”

A funding design that reduced traffic and provided additional funding for mass transit would redistribute wealth from rich people to benefit working-class commuters. Making mass transit more attractive provides a wide variety of positive environmental, social, and economic impacts. As New York City reopens, we need to charge motor vehicles for using crowded street space. The fact is we are not making more Manhattan streets, and we are trying to drive more vehicles on those streets. Traffic is once again horrific, and we need to figure out some way to encourage people to leave their cars and take the subway.”

It is time to move past the debate about whether to implement the New York State law enacted several years ago and move on to a discussion about how much to charge auto drivers, delivery cars, and trucks and the time of day the charges could be reduced to encourage evening truck deliveries and other practices that might reduce traffic. It’s long past time for the self-serving political pandering from New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy to come to an end and for Pandering Phil to show some leadership. No, Governor, it’s not “double taxation” when you charge bridge and tunnel tolls plus a congestion fee. It’s a charge for a second service. Stay out of the congestion zone, and you don’t get charged. How come we never heard you complain about the over 10% tax on already expensive parking garage fees in the city? How come you had no complaints when Jerseyites paid for the George Washington and then for the Throgs Neck bridge to go to Long Island? No visible political ground to plow, is there? A real leader would encourage his residents to do what 96% of New Yorkers do: Take mass transit into Manhattan! Murphy probably doesn’t bother advocating for mass transit because most Jerseyites are already using it. According to a piece by Dave Colon appearing on StreetsBlog NYC in October 2021:

“New Jersey commuters who drive into the so-called Central Business District of Manhattan comprise a small group of wealthy people, according to Census data crunched by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and released on Monday — a stinging rebuke to caterwauling New Jersey politicians who claim that congestion pricing is an unfair tax on the hard-working middle class. The pro-transit group looked at commuting patterns in 21 legislative districts in the Garden State that are closest to Manhattan and found that, on average, just 1.6 percent of commuters from those areas drive into the CBD for work — and the median income of those commuters was $107,996 per year, or roughly 22 percent higher than the $88,407 median for commuters who use transit. In short, New Jersey drivers who use the Holland or Lincoln tunnels or the George Washington Bridge to get to Manhattan below 60th Street are few in numbers but large in wallet.”

Murphy is far from alone in his relentless opposition to the congestion fee. A wide variety of local political figures are discovering that they can pick up some free media by opposing this fee. Of course, Murphy is the only one threatening to destroy the Port Authority over it; and the only one to have the power to follow up on that deeply self-destructive threat. Murphy and his anti-fee colleagues are reinforcing the anti-tax ideology popularized by Ronald Reagan and now hard-wired into the populace. In this view all taxes are bad, and as a result, bridges collapse, water systems fail, and America’s infrastructure looks, at times, like it belongs to a developing nation. Congestion fees literally tax the transportation of rich people to fund the transit used by workers. Phil, you must realize you are opposing a tax that largely falls on the wealthy. You must realize you are opposing a tax to fund critically underfunded infrastructure. All for political gamesmanship. Supporting the anti-tax ideology that has frozen in place our unjust and inadequate tax system. Shame on you.

The logic of the congestion fee is irrefutable. Traffic in mid and lower Manhattan makes it faster to walk some days than to drive. A fee could be adjusted by price and time of day to reduce the time it takes to move on the surface. At the same time, it will generate a critical and much-needed revenue stream for the subways. Even when all our vehicles are electric, mass transit will still be the most resource-efficient form of transportation. When someone brings a vehicle into lower Manhattan, they increase the time it takes for people and goods to move around, increasing the cost of doing business in New York. A fee is a reasonable way to recover some of those costs and invest them in a form of transit that can reduce street traffic.

Moreover, some equity issues can easily be addressed by allowing targeted exemptions from fees. People visiting doctors for treatment and those with mobility issues can be given temporary or permanent exemptions. Some exemptions were written into the law. Other hardship cases may emerge and can be dealt with. What is more difficult to deal with is the shameless politicians who should know better but think there is a political benefit to appearing anti-congestion fee. The fact is that many more Jerseyites ride the subways than drive their cars in lower Manhattan. They, too, will benefit from improved mass transit. A responsible elected leader could point that out and stop pandering to anti-tax zealots.

Congestion pricing was first proposed by then-mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007 and enacted into law by the New York state legislature in 2019. Fifteen years from its articulation and three years from its enactment, it is still not in place.

Columbia University economist William Vickery first invented the concept of congestion pricing, ironically, for the NYC subways in 1952 as a way of reducing crowding. It took the world only 44 more years to recognize his genius and award him the Nobel Prize in economics four days before he died in 1996. So, in some ways, this is a policy 70 years in the making. It would be tragic if a public driven by misinformation, disinformation, and shameless political propaganda is allowed to further delay this initiative.

Our national politics is riddled with ideology and idiocy, but I always believed that operational reality rather than fantasy eventually ruled on most local issues. Congestion pricing is routinely used by airlines to price and allocate seats, and businesses learned long ago its usefulness to maximize utilization and minimize waste. We are close to implementation. All we need is a little political courage to push it across the finish line. I wonder why that makes me nervous…

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