Congestion Pricing Cannot be the Future of Transportation Funding, Part 2: NMA Weekly E-Newsletter #469

To read Part 1, click HERE.

New York City (NYC) finds itself in a transportation perfect storm. The subway system is at a breaking point. Residents are abandoning city buses by droves because it’s faster to walk most days. Ridesharing vehicles clog the already snarled streets. At the center of it all: the mayor and the governor are in a dog fight with no end in sight.

First of all, NYC, the nation’s largest metropolis, does not have home rule when it comes to transportation issues. Everything has to be voted on by the state legislature. The city government makes plans and the state legislature says no. The NYC subway system needs emergency money to operate and the state allocates a billion more than their regular funding but so far the city has refused because the mayor feels like it’s the governor’s problem. NYC and NY State need to cooperate, though, because the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which operates one of the world’s largest public transportation systems, is jointly run by both the city and the state.

Unfortunately for many decades NYC and NY state officials have dithered on investing in and maintaining NYC’s infrastructure above and below ground. Over 50 percent of New Yorkers utilize some form of public transportation every day. Some experts believe that to fully rehabilitate the city’s subway, it would take $1 trillion but how to pay for it? One scheme would be to implement congestion pricing (variable-rate tolling based on time of day and number of cars on the streets) for NYC’s business district.

Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg wanted to do that 10 years but his plan was defeated by state lawmakers. In that proposal, Bloomberg suggested that every motorist entering NYC should pay an outright $8.00 toll which would have raised $500 million annually. However, opposition was quick in asserting that this toll placed an undue financial burden on drivers who lived in Queens, Brooklyn and surrounding suburbs while benefitting Manhattan. Despite the measure not passing, Bloomberg actually had the city build toll gantries and microwave towers that still stand today.

Fast forward ten years: the NYC subway system this past summer started coming apart at the seams due to ongoing equipment malfunctions, which made the service unreliable. Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested that the time for congestion tolling had come to help pay for the subway and all other transportation woes. He put together a state task force called FIX NYC whose main goal is to come up with another congestion pricing plan. Cuomo plans to make this a centerpiece of his 2018 legislative agenda.

Despite his reputation as a Vision Zero advocate and despite congestion pricing being a common component of Vision Zero programs, current NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio says congestion pricing is not a part of his vision for the city. He believes that there is no support for this kind of tolling at the state capital. Recently reelected, de Blasio has been blasted by Vision Zero proponents for not doing enough to get people out of their cars. wrote recently that congestion pricing could certainly be the fulcrum of his transportation legacy and if Governor Cuomo were to push it through the legislature this session for NYC, de Blasio should not reject it.

De Blasio should absolutely reject any attempt to put more tolling in the city. Nearly every bridge and tunnel going into NYC is already tolled and just recently went cashless. Do New Yorkers and regular commuters from New Jersey and Connecticut need more driving fees piled on top of existing tolls?

There is another issue that New Yorkers don’t like to talk about: Out-of-state car registration fraud. City officials estimate that 25 percent of resident NYC drivers have vehicles that are registered out-of-state which they believe creates a loss of $73 million in unpaid parking tickets alone. Why would out-of-state car registration fraud matter for congestion pricing?

If a city places automated license plate readers (ALPRs) everywhere for congestion pricing/cashless tolling, law enforcement might use the data to find driving/parking patterns of motorists, who even though have out-of-state plates indicating residence elsewhere, actually live in NYC and are committing fraud.

Whatever officials tell us about congestion pricing, it is always about the money which might not always be used for transportation funding. Unfortunately, people will pay congestion tolls because they still need to get to where they need to go.

Does anyone really believe that congestion pricing actually eases traffic congestion?

London, England implemented congestion pricing in 2003 and traffic conditions were better for a bit. Fifteen years later, though, travel times are worse than ever because congestion tolling does not account for distance and time driven.

If congestion pricing does not relieve traffic and if officials have the ability to use the money for other purposes other than transportation, doesn’t this just all add up to another major tax burden on motorists?

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