By KATHRYN WYLDE and MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO
Most New Yorkers can’t afford to drive around this city; they use subways and buses. So as our subways crumble and buses idle in traffic, congestion pricing is the clear win-win answer to both reducing gridlock and funding the transit improvements we so desperately need.
We were both members of a workgroup, established in this year’s state budget, that just issued a report calling upon the Legislature adopt a congestion pricing plan. The idea is to charge a fee for cars and trucks that drive into the Manhattan central business district, and a premium when traffic volume is high.
It could raise more than $1 billion a year, which would go to fund the modernization of the subway system and other transit needs. Cities around the world have adopted congestion pricing, with significant economic and environmental benefits.
The logic of charging private vehicles that travel through the region’s commercial core seems obvious. But many state legislators are leery. A similar measure failed in Albany in 2008.
Some legislators have legitimate concerns; they represent areas known as “transit deserts” where there are no subways and bus service is lousy. These concerns must be addressed by providing reasonable transit options in underserved parts of the region.
Others object that congestion pricing is another tax and New Yorkers are already over-taxed. This is a valid complaint, but driving your personal car into Manhattan is usually a choice — something not true of most taxes. Besides, many bridges and tunnels are already tolled; we accept this as a fact of life.
A more disingenuous argument was made recently in the Daily News by former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky — that congestion pricing is somehow elitist, as if the concept of drivers contributing to the cost of the transportation infrastructure that all New Yorkers depend on is unfair or even un-American.
The roads should be free? By that logic, why shouldn’t the subways, commuter rail and buses be free?
In fact, legislators and many other public employees have a special perk that makes congestion pricing a particularly jarring concept for them: parking placards. There are as many as 150,000 private cars with windshield placards (more if you include the counterfeits) that allow those who hold government jobs to park for free and in illegal spots on the city streets.
What is this benefit worth? Certainly far more than the $3,000 a year that opponents claim would be the congestion charge for weekday commuters.
Tolling America’s roads goes back to the stagecoach era. Most vehicles today have E-ZPass and take for granted that they will be contributing to funding our infrastructure, just as transit riders who swipe their MetroCards are doing. The people who benefit from congestion pricing are the several hundred thousand workers who commute by buses that are stuck in gridlock, and the small businesses that deliver goods and services in the region’s busiest commercial core.
The cost of congestion in our region exceeds $20 billion a year. It adds to pollution, reduces the productivity of our economy and our workforce, and contributes to making the commute to work in New York City the longest in the country.
Unless we want the transit system to continue to fall apart, new mass transit money will have to come from somewhere. Congestion pricing is by far the best option.
Wylde is president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City. Mark-Viverito is former City Council speaker and a candidate for public advocate. Both served on the Metropolitan Transportation Sustainability Advisory Workgroup.