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Posts from the "Congestion Pricing" Category

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Unlike Toll Reform, a Sales Tax Really Is a Regressive Way to Fund Transit

Funding the MTA with sales taxes? This is who will end up paying the most for it. Image: Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy

Among New York state residents under 65, poorer households currently pay a far greater share of their income in sales and excise taxes than more affluent households. Chart: Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy [PDF]

The MTA capital program is facing a $12 billion shortfall, according to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, and unless that gap is closed, transit riders will end up paying even more to cover the agency’s ballooning debt load. There’s one clear way to address that problem while cleaning up the traffic mess that ensnares motorists, bus riders, pedestrians, and cyclists alike — raising revenue by reforming NYC’s broken toll system. But a leader of Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission appears to favor a regressive option that won’t fix the dysfunction on city streets.

Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein reported yesterday that Ray LaHood, former U.S. secretary of transportation and co-chair of the commission, thinks Virginia’s transportation funding model is worth considering in New York. “They went from a gas tax to a sales tax,” LaHood told Capital. (Virginia repealed its gas tax in favor of a wholesale tax paid by gas station owners and a sales tax increase paid by consumers, raising $880 million each year.)

Speaking to Brian Lehrer on WNYC this morning, LaHood said he was unfamiliar with the “Fair Plan” promoted by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz and the non-profit Move NY, which would raise revenue for transit by creating a more rational citywide toll system. LaHood went on to say, “People think [the Virginia sales tax model] has great potential.”

But a sales tax is one of the most regressive revenue-raisers out there. Of the types of taxes states typically levy — on property, income, and sales — “sales and excise taxes are the most regressive, with poor families paying eight times more of their income in these taxes than wealthy families, and middle income families paying five times more,” according to the non-partisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy [PDF]. In New York, sales taxes already hit the poorest fifth of the state’s households more than twice as hard as the wealthiest fifth, when measured as a percentage of income [PDF].

Compare that to who would pay under the Move NY toll reform plan: Tolls would increase only for people driving to Manhattan south of 60th Street, while tolls would drop on outer borough crossings. Car owners are wealthier than car-free New Yorkers, and a Move NY analysis shows that drivers who will pay more under the plan have household incomes far higher than transit users. Asking them to pay a higher toll to support train and bus service, while lowering tolls in the outer boroughs, transfers resources from the haves to the have-nots — it isn’t regressive at all.

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The Move NY Fair Tolling Plan Is Polling Better Than Congestion Pricing

Toll reform is polling better in New York City than congestion pricing did, even when pollsters don’t mention that the Move NY plan would mean billions in transit revenue.

Capital New York’s Dana Rubinstein reports

“Would you support or oppose a plan to charge tolls on the East River bridges, which go into Manhattan, and at the same time reduce tolls on the bridges between the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island?” a Quinnipiac University pollster asked New York City voters earlier this month.

The voters were divided, 49 percent against, 41 percent in favor.

Support fluctuated by borough — it was strongest in Staten Island and the Bronx — and was about the same among voters who drive to work (51-43 percent opposed) and those who take transit (49-42 percent opposed).

These are stronger numbers than congestion pricing got in 2007 and 2008. The proposal for a road charge below 60th Street in Manhattan during rush hours polled in the 30s, generally, when transit revenue was not mentioned. Pricing polled in the high 50s and low 60s when it was framed as a way to keep fares low.

The Move NY plan, developed by transportation consultant “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, would establish a Central Business District cordon at 60th Street and add tolls to East River bridges, while tolls on outer-borough crossings would be reduced. The plan calls for removing the Manhattan parking tax rebate and adding a taxi trip surcharge. It would raise nearly $1.5 billion a year, with a quarter of revenue dedicated to road and bridge maintenance and the remainder to transit capital and operating funds.

Congestion pricing has risen in popularity in cities that have implemented it. Despite intense opposition beforehand, after three years 70 percent of Londoners said that city’s road pricing program was effective, and twice as many supported the charge as opposed it. Though it doesn’t yet have a champion in Albany, a coalition of interests, from the Straphangers Campaign to AAA New York, has coalesced behind the Move NY toll reform proposal. There’s room for its poll numbers to climb, if the upside for transit is part of the framing.

Here’s another figure for state lawmakers to consider: In 2007, 87 percent of voters said traffic congestion was a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. This month it was essentially unchanged at 86 percent.

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Congestion Pricing Foes Sit Down at the Table With Fair Toll Advocates


After years of meetings and tweaks, the Move NY fair toll campaign launched this morning with a simple message: With AAA and trucking interests at the table beside transit advocates, reforming New York’s broken toll system actually has a shot. It’s a different beast than the congestion pricing plan that Mayor Bloomberg pushed for six years ago, with more obvious benefits for New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan.

The coalitions are shaping up differently this time, backers noted during a series of panel discussions this morning. ”Last time around there was a feeling that this was being shoved down people’s throats,” said Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen. “We have staunch opponents of previous pricing plans with us.”

“It’s a pleasure working with the other side here for a change, instead of being in our own corners,” said AAA New York’s Jon Corlett. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, compared sitting down with AAA to Nixon visiting China.

Why are these groups willing to work together? The Move NY plan, developed by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, has some big carrots for motorists while still reducing congestion and funding transit. The plan would charge everyone driving into Manhattan below 60th Street, while outer-borough crossings with few transit options nearby would see a toll cut. It also asks Manhattanites to pay up by removing the borough’s parking tax rebate and adding a surcharge to taxi trips. The plan would raise almost $1.5 billion annually, with a quarter of it going to road and bridge maintenance. The rest would go to transit in the form of both capital funds and operating assistance.

The exact mix of projects that would benefit remains to be determined, but Move NY advocates say they would like to focus on filling outer-borough transit gaps through a mix of bus and rail expansion, funding things like a new transit route on Staten Island’s north shore, additional Bus Rapid Transit lines, and new Metro-North service in the eastern Bronx to Penn Station.

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Congestion Charging on the Horizon for China’s Cities

shanghai

Photo of Shanghai traffic: Bert van Dijk

Which Chinese city will be the first to try congestion pricing? Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai — megacities whose populations are on the scale of New York’s? Or second-tier but still mighty cities (think Chicago) like Hangzhou, Nanjing, or Xi’an?

Road tolling à la American turnpikes and thruways is already extensive in China, as a means to finance highways rather than manage traffic. Increasingly, however, with traffic and vehicle exhaust demonstrably harming business as well as human health in dozens of cities, and with strategies like quotas on new vehicles unable to offset the growth in driving, officials are looking to “economic measures.” Tolling vehicle entries to congested city centers has established a strong enough track record elsewhere in improving traffic flow and air quality that it is attracting interest not just from municipal officials but also from China’s national transport and environment ministries.

Cordon or congestion pricing, as such tolling is called, was Topic “A” last week in Hangzhou, a city of nearly 4 million (6 million counting suburbs) south of Shanghai. Some 200 officials and academics from 11 provinces, 30 cities, and at least a dozen universities packed a two-day “International Forum on Economic Policies for Traffic Congestion and Tailpipe Emissions” organized by the Energy Foundation China. Representatives from the four largest world cities with cordon tolling — Singapore, London, Stockholm and Milan — related their successes and fielded questions on everything from the digital nuts and bolts of tolling technologies to the political path that led to implementation. I was invited to report on NYC’s mixed record and share analytical insights from my traffic modeling work.

I’m still sifting impressions, but here are some takeaways thus far:

  • The biggest driver of China’s interest in congestion pricing is air pollution, with gridlock, which is spreading to more hours and more areas in every city, a close second. “Congestion and ‘smogs’ have become major concerns of the public and major bottlenecks for urban development,” summed up one high-ranking official.
  • Revenue generation for public transport — a huge motivator for tolling vehicle trips into the Manhattan Central Business District — is downplayed as a rationale for congestion pricing, perhaps because Chinese drivers already pay road tolls. Revenue may become politically salient, however, as dwindling revenues from sales of land force municipalities to come up with other ways to finance transit lines.
  • The economist’s paradigm of “congestion causation” (the aggregate delay to other road users caused by each additional car trip to the CBD) has barely surfaced in transportation planning and the design of road pricing instruments in China, yet it seems an important metric for screening candidate cities for congestion pricing.

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You Know What’s Fundamentally Regressive? NYC’s Current Toll System

manhattan_traffic

You can drive into the center of town and clog up the streets without paying a dime, but you’ve got to pay a fare to ride the bus.

Well, a few words from Andrew Cuomo made clear that fixing NYC’s broken road pricing system won’t be on the table before next year’s statewide elections. But some opponents of congestion pricing — notably, Eastern Queens City Council Member Mark Weprin — are warming to Sam Schwartz’s toll reform plan, which calls for a uniform price on entry points into the Manhattan core, including the East River bridges and 60th Street, paired with lower prices on less congested, outlying bridges.

And so, the Times turned to former Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for a dash of his trademark fake populism:

Among former critics of ideas to toll the East River bridges, reactions to this one have been mixed. Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and a senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said Mr. Schwartz’s plan was “a fundamentally regressive tax,” even if equity problems among the boroughs were “addressed to an extent,” at least compared with the 2008 plan.

“It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” Mr. Brodsky said, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.”

It’s telling that Brodsky imagines his working-class stiff as “the guy driving the ’97 Chevy.” It’s not “the guy riding the R train” or “the gal transferring from the Q60 to the M15.” Transit commuters far outnumber car commuters in NYC and earn, on average, far less, but they never figured into his message.

Brodsky, who hasn’t held office since a failed run for attorney general in 2010, represented the wealthiest Manhattan-bound car commuters in the NYC region. He wasn’t looking out for regular Joes — he was defending free driving privileges for white collar elites earning, on average, $176,231 per year.

He also managed to obscure a core truth about NYC’s current toll system: It doesn’t work for the little guy. We are right now at this very moment living under the burden of a “fundamentally regressive” toll plan — it’s the status quo we’ve had for decades. It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses. It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.

Reforming NYC’s road pricing system will make the regional transportation network more equitable in profound ways. It will speed up the surface transit that less affluent New Yorkers rely on, improving access to jobs. And by injecting funds into the MTA Capital Program, it will help improve the transit system without fares eating up a bigger chunk of household budgets.

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Krugman: Costs of Driving Deserve Way More Attention

Two of the nation’s leading lefty commentators weighed in on transportation incentives last Friday, when both economist Paul Krugman at the New York Times and Matt Yglesias at Slate went on a congestion pricing kick.

Krugman kicked things off by remarking that the surest way to reduce the costs imposed on society by drivers is to “get the incentives right, and charge large fees for driving in congestion.”

Yglesias took it one step further, pointing out how a variable fee on roads could lead to a virtuous cycle of better transit service and higher ridership:

Congestion fees are a kind of force multiplier for transit. After all, in some big American cities the peak congestion charge would have to get quite hefty at some times of the day. Some folks will respond to that by paying the fee, some by time-shifting their driving to a less-crowded hour, and some by riding transit. A bus, after all, is a great mechanism for spreading the cost of road access across a large number of people. And while with highways the quality of the service provided declines with the number of users (traffic jams), with well-designed transit it goes the other way. The more people who want to travel on a particular transit route, the more financially viable it is to provide high-frequency service. And high-frequency service is the key to real-world transit useability.

As Krugman noted, congestion pricing is an important mechanism to account for the cost imposed by drivers on society in the form of lost time. Anything that brings the actual price of our transportation decisions in line with the cost to society will be a boon for transit, biking, and walking relative to the status quo.

The flipside of congestion pricing would be to account for the social benefits of non-automotive modes by subsidizing them. The European Cyclists Federation currently has an interesting proposal on this front. With the European Union examining the “internalisation of external costs for all modes of transport, the ECF is advocating for a policy that would function as a kind of carrot, rewarding cyclists through tax rebates and incentives. Meanwhile, in America, we actually have a “symbolic” bike tax gaining traction in Washington state.

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This Weekend, NYC’s Traffic Dysfunction Gets Worse

As of this weekend, driving over the free East River bridges will be a bigger bargain for drivers, adding to NYC's traffic dysfunction. Map: Sam Schwartz

In case you missed it, Crain’s ran a good piece today wherein “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz explained one of the less-publicized effects of the MTA fare and toll hikes slated to take effect this weekend. NYC’s already-dysfunctional road pricing system is about to make even less sense.

With tolls on the MTA’s East River crossings going up in each direction, the incentive for drivers to take the free Queensboro, Williamsburg, Manhattan, and Brooklyn Bridges is about to intensify. Schwartz told Crain’s to expect a lot more toll-shopping drivers on streets that are already choked by traffic:

“Today I would estimate 50,000 cars, trucks and buses [crossing the free bridges]. On Monday, I’m estimating 60,000—another 10,000 will switch, and only aggravate the situation at the free bridges,” Mr. Schwartz said. “They vote not with their feet, they vote with their tires.”

“What we have is a bridge like the Ed Koch-Queensboro Bridge sandwiched between two toll crossings—the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge,” he said. “And every time there’s a toll increase, more and more drivers hop off the Long Island Expressway at Van Dam Street to avoid going straight ahead to the Queens Midtown Tunnel, and then they just saturate the streets of Sunnyside and Long Island City, snaking their way to the lower level or the upper level of the Queensboro Bridge.”

To add to the Queensboro Bridge example, in addition to the western Queens neighborhoods that have to put up with all the extra congestion, exhaust, and honking on their streets, bus riders will get the short end of the stick. Every day 16,000 bus passengers ride over the Queensboro Bridge. Their trips are going to get more sluggish and unreliable after this weekend.

Until the governor and other electeds step in to fix NYC’s broken road pricing system, the dysfunction will only get worse.

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Graphed: Support for Congestion Pricing Depends on How You Frame It

Toward the end of last week, City Council speaker and current 2013 mayoral frontrunner Christine Quinn set off a burst of transportation policy buzz when she said she still supports congestion pricing but doesn’t expect it to get revived in Albany.

Remember, though, that while risk-averse Albany electeds may try to preemptively dismiss road pricing as politically impossible, public support for the idea is actually quite strong when it’s framed as a way to fund transit, according to a series of Quinnipiac polls conducted in 2007 and 2008.

Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah has done a huge service by graphing the results of those Q poll congestion pricing questions. When the policy was framed as “charging vehicle owners a fee to drive below 60th street in Manhattan during rush hours,” support tended to fall below 40 percent. But support surged when the pollsters asked, “Would you support congestion pricing if the money were used to prevent an increase in mass transit fares and bridge and tunnel tolls?”

Here’s his graph of the percent support for congestion pricing in response to the different questions:

Graph: Azi Paybarah/Capital New York

Paybarah notes that the last two polls, in January and March of 2008, used another variation on the question instead of the “preventing fare hikes” angle. This question asked simply, “Would you support congestion pricing if the money were used to improve mass transit in and around New York City?” (Any road pricing plan would likely pay for transit improvements by funding the MTA’s capital program, and keep fares lower by reducing the amount of capital spending that’s covered by fare-backed debt.)

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Quinn Says She Still Supports Congestion Pricing

After some pressing from Capital political reporter Azi Paybarah, Christine Quinn followed up her evasive and pessimistic statements about congestion pricing this morning with a firmer but still pessimistic statement about her position:

“I supported congestion pricing. I support congestion pricing. I do not see it coming back in Albany but my support for congestion pricing has not changed.”

So, if Quinn gets elected, don’t expect her to make the first move on this.

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Chris Quinn: “I Don’t Anticipate Congestion Pricing Coming Back Around”

Dana Rubinstein reports that City Council speaker and current mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn is bearish on congestion pricing’s political prospects:

“I don’t anticipate congestion pricing coming back around,” City Council Speaker Christine Quinn told an audience at New York Law School today, when asked about its near-term future. “It didn’t do well and I don’t expect that proposal to come back around in that way.”

Is this disappointing? Sure, it would be great news for New York City if a mayoral candidate ran in support of the single most transformative traffic and transit policy out there. And Quinn, who helped shepherd congestion pricing through the City Council in 2007 and 2008, is one of two contenders with a voting record in support of it. (The other is John Liu, who voted for congestion pricing when he was a City Council member representing Flushing, then turned around and opposed bridge tolls in 2009, when he had a citywide campaign to worry about. Bill de Blasio, meanwhile, voted against congestion pricing but is on the record supporting East River bridge tolls pegged to the subway fare.)

But is this significant? Well, I don’t think it means a whole lot.

Noted congestion pricing champion Michael Bloomberg, for instance, never campaigned on congestion pricing. He floated East River bridge tolls in 2002, a month after getting elected for the first time, but stopped pressing for them after then-governor George Pataki ruled out the idea. Running for re-election in 2005, Bloomberg again didn’t make congestion pricing a campaign issue, but it turned out to be his single biggest policy initiative in 2007 and 2008. Democratic Governor Eliot Spitzer backed the idea, and if he wasn’t such a weak-willed dirtbag, who knows, he might have steamrolled congestion pricing through Albany.

So mayoral candidates aren’t going to campaign on road pricing, even if they believe in it, and in the end, the person who has the most power to make it happen is the governor. If the NYC region is going to get a rationally priced road network and a well-funded transit system, it’s up to Andrew Cuomo to get things started — from the looks of it, preferably sometime after the mayoral election.