Two Ways to Tell the Story of Congestion Pricing
This Monday the Washington Post ran a long feature on page A1, "Letting the Market Drive Transportation," about the Bush administration's attempts to shift financing for roads from the gas tax to user fees, and starve transit in the process. The cast of characters includes a pair of conservative ideologues, Tyler Duvall and D.J. Gribbin, high up in U.S. DOT, as well as Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, who earned the enmity of alternative transportation advocates last summer when she said bikes aren't transportation.
The article tells how this troika came up with the plan to seed pricing in five pilot cities, and delves into their ulterior motives:
For Gribbin, Duvall and Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, the goal is not just to combat congestion but to upend the traditional way transportation projects are funded in this country. They believe that tolls paid by motorists, not tax dollars, should be used to construct and maintain roads.They and other political appointees have spent the latter part of President Bush's two terms laboring behind the scenes to shrink the federal role in road-building and public transportation.
On the face of it, the story meshes with some of the anti-pricing arguments New Yorkers have been hearing, especially from Representative Anthony Weiner, who has called pricing a conservative ploy to de-fund federal support for transit projects. That position has drawn ridicule from Mayor Bloomberg as he stumps for pricing, captured in the Observer's account of yesterday's Crain's New York Business Breakfast Forum:
“I have nothing against any one congressman [but] that is one of the stupider things I’ve ever heard said. Forget the fact that he’s one of the congressmen who’s supposed to get the money for us. The Democrats control -- his party controls Congress -- what’s he talking about? Number two, by that argument, we should cut all the taxes, which some people would like, and then just sit here and wait to give us all the money back.
The Post story has already provided fodder for press accounts favorable to Weiner, like this Daily Politics post, which quotes the Queens congressman:
"I'm interested in solutions, not name calling. I respect the Mayor, but I don't think the evidence supports trusting President Bush and his cabinet here. In Washington the Administration tries to cut money to roads and to cut mass transit, and then they come to New York City and say they won't. I'm concerned that New Yorkers will get the short end of the stick."
On close examination, however, the Post article omits several details that would have led to a different conclusion, namely: There is no inherent connection between pricing and reduced funding for transit.
To begin with, the article fails to note that pricing enjoys widespread support from transportation policy experts who, unlike the officials it profiles, believe pedestrians, bikes, and transit should have priority over cars. In New York, we've also seen green groups like the League of Conservation Voters and Environmental Defense rally to support pricing. And the two cities to initiate pricing most recently -- Stockholm and "Red Ken" Livingstone's London -- did so under left-leaning leadership.
Clearly, there are (at least) two ways to tell the story of congestion pricing: one is to say traffic will be mitigated by allocating scarce road space more efficiently; the other narrative is about reclaiming city streets from the private auto, making motorists pay the cost of their own pollution while funding alternatives that make it easier for people to get around without a car.
These two ways of viewing pricing are not mutually exclusive. However, the Post story shows how the Bush administration has conflated the first narrative with an anti-transit agenda, and with their belief in privatizing roads. But the article neglects what's been going on in New York. Here, the advocates pushing pricing forward subscribe mostly to the second view, and the City and the Traffic Mitigation Commission have proposed using the revenue to support mass transit and livable streets.
Yes, local pricing advocates want the $354 million that Peters has been dangling in front of New York. But so what? In ten months she'll be gone, and so will Gribbin and Duvall and their agenda. The real meat of transportation policy for the next five years, the highway re-authorization bill, will be decided after they leave. Congestion pricing could play a significant part in that bill, and it could go hand in hand with more money for bikes and transit if the story gets told right.
Rather than letting the Bush administration frame the issue, our elected leadership -- especially people like Anthony Weiner and the rest of New York's congressional delegation -- needs to push the Livable Streets narrative of congestion pricing down in DC. Who has the vision to step out in front of this issue and define it as truly progressive transportation policy? Elected officials from Detroit and Phoenix certainly aren't going to do it.