Big Apple Congestion Charging: Act Now, Think Later

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

Congestion charging has been a fact of life in London since February 17, 2003. And now, New York City wants some of those extra tax revenues environmental benefits. Mayor Bloomberg’s hopes for a congestion charge currently face a tight deadline. As Newsday explains, if the New York State Senate enacts a bill clearing the way for a congestion charge on Monday, the city scores a $500m federal grant for its implementation. If not, not. To get it done, Mayor Bloomberg’s Albany shock troops have drafted an “act now, think later” bill. If passed, a 12-member commission will develop recommendations for putting an unspecified congestion charging plan in effect. Now that's what we call forward thinking!

Robert Farago
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  • Brownie Brownie on Jul 16, 2007

    This has kind of veered off into a somewhat philosophical discussion, so as a New Yorker, let me bring it back to local issues. IMHO, all of the fears of this being highly regressive are misplaced. There is almost no legal street parking in Manhattan, and the amount available during business hours has been steadily declining in the 8 years that I have lived here. Drivers who come in during business hours typically pay anywhere from $20 (if they have a monthly spot) to $50 per day, plus 18% tax. This does not include the round trip tolls you must pay to come in from anywhere besides a handful of inter-borough bridges. We're not talking about low-income workers who will be affected; the typical driver is a professional from New Jersey, Long Island, Connecticut or Westchester. Also, tourists rarely drive into Manhattan. They (correctly) take advantage of air, rail and bus access. Most non-residents I meet are terrified of driving in Manhattan and will actually pay good money to avoid it. There are only a few of outer-borough communities that are basically "off" the subway system now. Reduced traffic will benefit them, not hurt them, by making express bus service a viable transit option. Low income workers from these areas do not drive into Manhattan currently. They endure long local bus journeys to remote subway outposts, and then ride 45 minutes or more to get to Manhattan. Expanded express bus service would be a huge boon to these areas. Finally, drivers coming into Manhattan limit airport access. We have 3 major airports around New York City, but only one of them (Newark) can be conveniently reached by train. Getting to JFK is particularly bad during peak times because the only viable route is via the Long Island Expressway, where one must share the road with countless single-passenger vehicles (usually German) inching their way home. Given the quality of mass transit available from Long Island, it makes me wonder if they are driving simply to make their commute take as long as possible because they secretly hate their lives. It's an absurd state of affairs. My only beef with the plan is that I don't think the charge is high enough, given the already high cost of parking and tolls. I believe $50 per day is probably the appropriate level, personally. The truth of the matter is that most people who drive into Manhattan have displayed so much price inelasticity that I don't think anything less will make much of a difference.

  • Brownie Brownie on Jul 16, 2007

    Btw, the "German" comment in my post above in intended to indicate driver income demographics on the LIE (i.e. people who can afford premium cars), not to make any comment on what driving a German car might indicate about a person's character. I happen to own a German car, for full disclosure.

  • Safe as milk Safe as milk on Jul 16, 2007

    i'm all for it and so are most of my manhattan residing automobile owning middle class friends. all pedestrians here are plagued by dangerous drivers every day. to bloomberg's credit, he is also pushing for mass transit improvements like the second avenue subway. although i'm still peeved that he opposed the trans-harbor railway tunnel which would have diverted most of the long island bound truck traffic off our streets. currently, nyc fails federal air pollution standards so i think it's ridiculous to accuse us of pandering to the rich when we are trying to protect our health. i have nothing against tourism but if you are going to drive here be prepared to pay the cost.

  • Geeber Geeber on Jul 17, 2007
    NoneMoreBlack: Since the private cost of the use of a road is near enough to 0, while the public cost, manifest in the marginal congestion brought about by another user of the road, is above 0, there is overconsumption of roads. There can be no clearer demonstration of the necessary factuality of this statement than rush hour. We are dealing with two different costs here. The first is paying for the actual road itself, which, as has been shown, drivers do through federal and state gasoline taxes, along with vehicle registration fees. The second is paying for relatively rapid, uninterrupted travel because the road is not congested. The congestion tax is designed to make this a reality by raising the cost of road use for everyone, which, it is hoped, will discourage driving and thus make driving for those who do pay faster and more pleasurable. (Driving is obviously more enjoyable and efficient when the vehicle is moving and making progress.) What they are paying for is not the road, but the use of the road in a more efficient, uninterrupted manner. But there is one problem - all drivers have already contributed to the cost of building and maintaining the road, and now New York City is turning around and saying, if you want to use it, you have to pay even more. And not all drivers may be able to do this. But, if New York City wants to do this, and the voters support it, that is the city's business. NoneMoreBlack: It would be impossible anyway to determine which portion of all non-gasoline taxes are paid by non-drivers. This point is irrelevant to my basic argument, concerning only whom is paying a subsidy to whom, rather off the topic of whether a congestion tax is a good idea or not. It's not impossible to determine this. I just asked my contact at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT), and he said that federal and state gasoline taxes, along with vehicle registration fees and fees to obtain a driver's license, pay for virtually all road construction and maintenance costs in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania's mass transit systems receive direct state subsidies and a portion of the statewide sales tax. Mass transit receives money from the Pennsylvania Lottery, although this is used to provide services for the elderly. So, in Pennsylvania at least, it's easy to discover which users of each respective transportation system are closer to paying their own way. The federal gasoline tax is not expected to cover all road construction and maintenance costs. It is designed to cover the federal contribution to federal highway projects, but states have been always expected to contribute to federal highway projects. My concern is not with the congestion charge - New York can do what it wants, as I don't live there and never will - but with the suggestion that drivers are receiving some sort of free ride at the expense of mass transit users, and therefore need to be taxed more heavily. Which is not necessarily the case.