Here’s how a governor-backed plan could win this time around.
For the first time in years, congestion pricing might have real political traction in an American city.
Between 2007 and 2008, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a specially appointed state commission pushed to create an $8 fee for inbound car trips into the Manhattan core between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. It was projected to produce $491 million annually for transit improvements, cut driving time spent in standstill traffic by 30 percent, and slash emissions.
Crucially, the plan also included a transit build-out. Expanded local and express bus and subway service was called for, in order to prove transit as a viable alternative for an even greater share of commuters and show the congestion fees weren’t meant to be punitive. With the MTA, the city secured $354 million in federal funds for these improvements, contingent on the passage of the plan. But the plan got blocked in the state legislature—more on that in a moment—and the improvements didn’t come to fruition.
These days, it’s going to be harder to convince New York City car commuters who balk at congestion fees that great transit alternatives exist. On-time performance on the subways is tanking, and the buses are even worse.
But a congestion pricing system would be another motivation—and better yet, a means—to make swift, meaningful improvements to transit. Architected by the famed New York City traffic engineer Sam “Gridlock” Schwartz, a revised version of the Bloomberg congestion pricing plan called Move NY spotlights buses especially, calling to roll back service cuts made in 2010, add express bus options to affected outer boroughs, and speed up plans to run bus rapid transit lines across the city. Move NY projects the plan would generate $1.5 billion in net revenue, to help re-fill MTA’s dried-up coffers.
The Bloomberg-era plan thad the support of the mayor, a broad coalition of business, labor, and environmental groups, and a surprising share of suburban New Jersey and New York state lawmakers. It might have passed if not for a final political hurdle.
The biggest sticking point came from elected officials and their constituents in New York City boroughs outside Manhattan, particularly eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn. According to a 2010 post-mortem study by Bruce Schaller, a former NYC DOT official, residents had doubts as to whether the revenues would be spent effectively on transit service improvements, or if they’d even reach the MTA to begin in.
Only 5 percent of workers in those areas in particular were commuting into Manhattan by car at the time. But their voices were loud enough that their state assembly leaders blocked action on congestion pricing when it came through the New York legislature. Meanwhile, the governor who had originally supported the plan—Eliot Spitzer—had resigned in disgrace, giving way to David Paterson, who might not have had the political capital to sway those assembly members. “I think that Bloomberg plan would have been enacted if Spitzer had been in office,” says Orcutt. But he wasn’t, and the plan died.
Move NY has won the support of several New York city council members and attracted widespread media attention. Mayor Bill de Blasio has never warmed up to the idea, though, stating that it’s not part of his “vision” for congestion in New York. The congestion plan his administration has offered avoids driver fees entirely, focusing on increased police enforcement, ramping up prices for on-street parking, and encouraging off-peak deliveries.
Of congestion pricing, “I’ve never been in favor of those proposals because I haven’t seen one that I thought was fair, particularly to folks in the outer boroughs,” he said last week. But he’s also said he’s never supported a pricing scheme because he assumed state leadership would never let if fly. “I’m not putting time and energy into something that is not going to happen,” de Blasio said in June.
But Cuomo has now turned that political calculus upside down, and de Blasio could look bad if he doesn’t work with the governor on a plan that advocacy groups and civic leaders are bound to support. Tolling city-owned streets will require his participation. “The state can’t just show up and toll an entry way over Flatbush Avenue,” says Orcutt.
The governor and mayor are known for their political sparring, which isn’t a dynamic that’s particularly benefiting New Yorkers. If they worked together to make this idea idea, it could be great for New York City streets, great for New York City subways, and a vote of confidence for every other American city that’s eyed Stockholm and London streets with curiosity. Congestion pricing isn’t a cure-all for any city’s traffic ills—none really exist—but mixed in with transit investments, it’s the best treatment there is.