Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics


A Serious Solution for a Serious Problem

Photo by Brian Rosner
London's successful congestion pricing plan was initially met with controversy.

Last Monday, the New York State legislature declined to vote on congestion pricing and let the deadline for $354 million in federal transit funds run out. The grant may be gone, but the challenges of unhealthy air, poorly funded mass transit and traffic-choked streets remain very much with us. Thankfully, they are now front and center in the public debate about the future of New York City.

Yes, charging people to drive in Manhattan is controversial. However, as a solution to our immense traffic and transit problems, congestion pricing is also effective and fair. It is the only solution that will both cut traffic and expand transit. That's why I believe that our leaders will return to it on its merits.

In fact, congestion pricing has come a long way in a remarkably short time. A year ago, it was scarcely on the political radar at all. Today, there is a specific proposal, put forward by a commission organized in collaboration by state and city government and vetted in dozens of public hearings.

And there's extraordinary public support. Two out of three (67 percent) of New Yorkers, including a majority in every borough, support congestion pricing when the revenue is dedicated to transit improvement. The City Council, in a strong act of leadership, voted 30 to 20 in favor. Labor, community, environmental justice, public health and business leaders stepped forward in support. Small businesses spoke in favor of less traffic, less wasted fuel and being able to reach more customers faster.

The debate has moved this far because we all know that less traffic and better transit are keys to New York City's economic growth and air quality. In the next 25 years, New York will grow by about a million more people. To be ready to serve this population, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority must have a well-financed capital plan immediately.

Our children must be also able to grow up in this city without being exposed to high levels of traffic pollution. The effects on asthma attacks, brain development, lung function and heart disease are just too strong to ignore. A recent study shows that the exposure to high levels of vehicle pollution can have a similar impact on children's IQs as exposure to lead or their mother smoking during pregnancy. How can we not act?

The congestion pricing proposal itself improved over the last year. The commission modified the mayor's original proposal: The northern border moved to 60th Street; the number of cameras was slashed from 300 to around 25; operating costs were cut close to $100 million; detailed environmental review was spelled out. The State Senate bill added relief for low-income drivers and demanded that New Jersey pay its fair share. Finally, individual legislators raised ideas that could easily have become amendments, including, for example, a three-year pilot program; expanded environmental review during the pilot; and exemptions for cancer patients needing to drive to medical care. Unfortunately, these proposals were never incorporated into an amended bill, and state legislators never got a chance to vote on them.

It is not surprising that asking people to pay more to bring a car into the central business district at peak business hours will be controversial. Every city that has tried congestion pricing, including London, Singapore and Stockholm, faced similar controversy. In each city, as people begin to see the benefits of congestion pricing, public support grows. Better transit. Less traffic. Cleaner air. Faster commutes. It is no wonder that public support in New York City is so high and that the City Council voted "yes."

Solutions for the Short Term

On April 7, we learned that Albany was not ready to vote yet. As a result, New York City missed out on a federal grant that would have brought expanded subway, bus and ferry service to every borough this year. We missed out on a 39 percent drop in gridlock in western Queens, a 22 percent drop in gridlock in northwest Brooklyn and a 20 percent drop in gridlock in Harlem. We missed out on $500 million in net annual revenues from the fees that would have delivered bus rapid transit, improved subway service and faster commutes.

We must continue to work together to find innovative solutions. There are important steps that can be taken now, including:

* Better traffic management. Slashing abuse of placards, the permits that allow many city employees to park for free. (Last week's crackdown in lower Manhattan is encouraging.) Better enforcement of traffic laws. Less double-parking. These simple steps can be taken with limited resources. However, they are not enough. Without congestion pricing, their benefits may not be long lasting, as freeing up more road space inevitably attracts more cars. We should take these steps but not stop there.

* Focus on transit that can be improved quickly. Bus-rapid-transit lines (especially for neighborhoods that lack subway access now). More ferries. Extra subway cars and buses. The lost federal grant would have paid for exactly these kinds of improvements. Now we will have to find the money elsewhere -- not easy, in a time of declining state and city revenues.

* Encourage clean vehicle technology. Diesel filters for the dirtiest trucks and buses, incentives to switch taxis and livery cars to hybrids, clean fuels for ferries -- these are all important. But with traffic volume on the rise, technology alone won't unclog our streets or speed commutes.

Many large-scale infrastructure solutions face uncertain financial futures. For example, Environmental Defense Fund has long supported the rail-freight tunnel and the full Second Avenue Subway, but there has never been enough federal, state or city money to get them built. In a time of declining state and federal revenues, where will the resources come from? Ideas for new income taxes, like the millionaires' tax, may well gain traction. But with state revenues declining, it may well be easier to dedicate a congestion charge to the MTA "lockbox" than to fight off competing demands on general tax revenue.

Congestion pricing is an idea that makes sense for New York, and we're tantalizingly close to a version that fits New York City's needs. New York City should have the chance to try congestion pricing.

Andrew H. Darrell is the New York regional director of Environmental Defense Fund and a former member of the New York Traffic Mitigation Commission. EDF works on economics-based solutions to environmental problems and has been active on congestion pricing both here and in other cities for many years. 

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