In 2019 the New York State legislature approved, and a reluctant Governor Cuomo signed into law, congestion pricing for lower Manhattan. With 2022 being a gubernatorial election year, New York politicians, including Governor Kathy Hochul, are doing their best to delay the program until after election day. Writing recently in the Gothamist, Gwynne Hogan reported that:
“New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said the long-awaited congestion pricing plan for the busiest parts of Manhattan has hit another snag that might delay its implementation yet again. Speaking on the WCBS-TV debate stage Tuesday night, alongside two other rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor, Hochul said “an additional environmental issue” had been raised by the federal government that could derail the plan, which aims to charge drivers who enter Manhattan below 60th Street fees of between $9 and $23.”
Of course, it must be an environmental issue. Let’s see. Getting fewer people to drive cars and trucks into lower Manhattan when it is most crowded and instead encouraging people to take mass transit options that are improved by the extra billion dollars a year generated by the congestion tax. What could pollute more than that? One would think the environmental impact would be quite positive: less air pollution, fewer greenhouse gasses, and less contribution to the heat island effect partially caused by the internal combustion engine. The only environment threatened by the congestion tax is the political climate surrounding the governor. How disappointing to see our new governor allowing questionable political strategy to dominate important public policy decision-making.
The MTA bureaucrats note the problem is their need to respond to over 400 comments about the MTA’s environmental studies posed by federal bureaucrats. You’d be amazed how quickly those questions could be answered if the elected officials in charge were finally ready to implement the program. Despite the political nonsense uttered by New Jersey governor Phil Murphy and other out-of-touch and fact-challenged outer-borough opponents of congestion pricing, most of their voters and most people who come to Manhattan take mass transit. They would benefit from improved mass transit funded by a congestion fee. The latest idea being pushed by congestion pricing opponents is that this is not the time to institute a commuter tax. Inflation is high, gas prices are rising, and the reluctance to come back to work post-COVID might be exacerbated by a new fee. The argument is that we should not discourage driving through a tax of any kind.
It turns out that commuting by car has increased due to COVID. Even though people are only slowly coming back to work, traffic congestion in Manhattan continues to get worse. According to Hogan:
“Despite just a fraction of workers having returned to their Manhattan offices full-time, car traffic has quickly rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and pedestrian fatalities are on the rise. New York was deemed the most congested city in the country, and fifth most congested city in the world last year…”
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.
Mass transit in New York City suffers from ancient technology and inadequate policing. It has also been stuck in a design that is overly Manhattan-focused. Hochul’s proposed use of 14 miles of largely abandoned train tracks to build a new line connecting Brooklyn and Queens is one way of remedying our out-of-date mass transit system.
But her plan for a Brooklyn-Queens train will require a subsidy and, to date, does not have a business plan. Congestion pricing is a way of providing an incremental revenue stream for mass transit. It provides a new source of revenue to make the subways more attractive to riders. It will drive some people away from personal transit to mass transit, but most of the people driving to New York City, paying the tolls, and parking are indifferent to the price of their commute. Most are either wealthy or have a way to pass the cost off to customers as part of the cost of doing business. It makes New York more expensive than many cities, but that is already the case. People who drive to Manhattan are using a very scarce resource: New York City’s street space. They are competing with pedestrians, cyclists, and many others for that space. While this is true in many American cities, none is as crowded as New York. Charging for that space and using that charge to improve mass transit makes the city more environmentally sustainable and economically competitive.
It is a truism that most elected officials are more interested in winning elections than serving the public. Perhaps I’m getting overly cynical, but many speak as if they are idealists, but their willingness to discard principles can be breathtaking. The game is about accumulating power. Good public policy is a byproduct and almost inadvertent impact of our political process. I recently traveled by air through New York’s now beautiful LaGuardia Airport. That project was a major priority for former Governor Andrew Cuomo. It was put together with a unique funding and management arrangement that took advantage of the huge business opportunities presented by lucrative airlines and retail establishments selling products to customers who are told to arrive at the airport hours before their flights depart and have plenty of time on their hands. Malls may be dying, but many brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants are thriving at our world’s great airports. The LaGuardia project served the public but also served a wide variety of Cuomo campaign contributors. Sometimes good policy and good politics align. I keep waiting for that to happen with congestion pricing.
Neither Suozzi nor Hochul wants to run against Republicans this November having raised any taxes. I get that. So, the governor and the MTA are content to hide behind the “oh-so-complicated” federal review process. It’s a true profile of political cowardice. New York City’s subway system is often compared to the circulatory system of the human body. It is vital to our city’s economic and civic success. Mobility is central to urban life. Despite that, it seems as if every generation has allowed politics to interfere with its operation. Mayor LaGuardia and his contemporaries insisted on maintaining the nickel fare and drove the initial subway private franchises (the BMT and IRT) into bankruptcy in order to implement his goal of ensuring that our mass transit system would be publicly owned and operated. During the city’s near-bankruptcy of the 1970s, the city ceded control of the system to the state with the creation of the MTA. Under Richard Ravitch, the subway system was rebuilt in the 1980s. Today, the subway system requires new signals, switches, cars, and expanded routes. While congestion pricing can’t pay for all of that, it can help. We need our elected leaders to stop playing politics, roll up their sleeves, and deliver mass transit for all New Yorkers.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.