It sounds like a reasonable idea: reduce city traffic by increasing peak-hour tolls so drivers drive less or at different times — but to be fair, “congestion pricing” is not the most lovable name.
“Congestion,” invoking the phlegminess of a summer cold to describe a bumper to bumper quagmire that you can’t escape. “Pricing,” which you just know is going to cost you an arm and a leg somehow. Taken together, two things you’d rather not think about: traffic and opening your wallet.
A reference to “congestion pricing” in The Boston Globe notes “opposition to road pricing seems to be deeply rooted . . . The right to own a car and to drive it anywhere, anytime, seems to be a democratic given; travel is regarded as a basic right . . . Only one place in the world has successfully implemented congestion pricing for cars: Singapore, not exactly a paragon of democratic virtue.”
That was written in 1989. But since then, the idea has worked in cities like London, slashing traffic levels, and has been proposed in various forms in NYC. This summer, its specter has arisen as a way to provide a new funding stream for the MTA and bring the subways half a century forward into the present.
But don’t rejoice just yet.
A brief history of past efforts
Congestion pricing was a key part of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, a blueprint for a greener, more sustainable New York. It proposed Manhattan-bound tolls on East River bridges south of 86th Street, with money going toward transit improvements such as faster buses and the MTA’s “state of good repair.”
“We couldn’t get people out of their cars if we couldn’t show we were going to improve their transit,” says Stu Loeser, former press secretary for Bloomberg.
This was a way to even out the vehicular entrance to Manhattan’s busiest business districts. Many drivers opt for gas-guzzling and traffic-creating out-of-the-way trips to get to the free bridges. And there’s an economic imbalance: riders pay for their buses and trains or trips on other tunnels/bridges, whereas the untolled bridges allow a free way in while creating traffic for others.
Congestion pricing has “multiple benefits,” says Kate Slevin, vice president at the nonprofit Regional Plan Association. Benefits include less congestion — a Bloomberg era study found that 43 percent of traffic in Downtown Brooklyn and 57 percent of rush-hour traffic in Long Island City was heading to Manhattan — improved air quality and more money for public transit.
Yet the prospect of a new charge for outer borough and suburban drivers, no matter how minimal or warranted, rankled some state legislators. The plan and others like it — including the more sunnily named “Move NY” — died various deaths upstate.
Could congestion pricing improve transit today?
In recent years, neither Gov. Andrew Cuomo nor Mayor Bill de Blasio has gone to bat for congestion pricing. Both seem to be car people at heart despite occasional interest in the mass transit system that pumps the lifeblood of New York City. (See: Cuomo muscle cars and de Blasio’s Journey to the Center of the YMCA).
But the two are now fighting over the complicated funding mechanisms for the MTA, which is run by the state, and on Monday de Blasio suggested an increased income tax on the highest earners among city residents. The tax would become a dedicated funding stream for the transportation authority. Similar de Blasio-proposed taxes, which require state approval, have failed twice before. Yet he continues to show no love for congestion pricing, which has a longer history of support and fewer dedicated foes.
Naturally, Cuomo has used de Blasio’s opposition to suddenly decide congestion pricing might be a decent idea, and Cuomo has suggested he may consider such a proposal next year.
There’s plenty of time for that promise to be swept aside by future events or convenience, or just another upstate legislative death. But some things have changed since earlier congestion pricing pushes — the idea of tolling without ticket booths is now a reality on a number of NYC bridges, for example.
And in de Blasio’s argument for his unlikely millionaire’s tax, the mayor hit on another change that may mean more for a plan with wider backing: increased “pressure” on Albany to do something in the midst of a seasons-long subway crisis.
De Blasio isn’t there yet, but maybe the solution with the terrible name will have another day.