Quinn Makes Pricing Panel Picks

From Elizabeth Benjamin at The Daily Politics:

Aides to Council Speaker Christine Quinn are calling Council members this morning with the news that none of them made the cut when it came to her three appointments to the 17-member city/state commission that will decide the fate of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan.

According to Council sources, Quinn’s appointees will include Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, who, aside from Bloomberg himself, has been perhaps the most outspoken proponent of congestion pricing and whose organization spent considerable time and cash on pushing the mayor’s plan.

Another Quinn pick is Ed Reed, a top aide to the Rev. Floyd Flake, whose Queens church, Allen AME, was one of several that played host to Bloomberg in July as he made an eleventh-hour push on a congestion pricing deal by arguing that reducing traffic is an environmental justice issue because cleaner air would result in fewer cases of asthma in kids.

The third Quinn appointee, whose name I have yet to confirm, is someone from the Drum Major Institute, which pushed back against congestion pricing opponents’ claims that the mayor’s plan would hurt the middle class.

A number of Council members are very unhappy with Quinn’s choices, which clearly were made with an eye toward making Bloomberg happy.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the one anti-congestion pricing leader who has three appointments to the commission, is also poised to announce his picks – all of whom will be members of his Democratic conference, according to Assembly sources.

  • Steve

    Wha-hoo–Quinn is on board! If Quinn picks Wylde, then who is Bloomberg picking–Paul White? Aaron Naparstek?

  • I hope Bloomberg or Spitzer will put on some of the NEW DOT folks like Schaller and Orcutt and other well known current advocates like Gene Russianoff…

  • drose

    Newsday’s Spin Cycle blog is reporting that Andy Darrell of Environmental Defense is Minority Leader Tedisco’s pick to the panel.
    More good news, but I am worried that stacking the panel with known congestion pricing proponents will cause a revolt in the Assembly Majority that will likely materialize when the implementation plan needs to be passed next winter. Any bets on this happening?

  • momos

    Drose – I share exactly the same concern. Ideal picks would be competent, nonpartisan and open-minded professionals with records that can’t be used by the Assembly to assail the impartiality and rigor of the commission.

  • Thank you, Mayor Quinn!

  • Steve

    drose & momos, I’m concerned that you may be taking the “advocacy model” of social change too far. The commission is very obviously a political body with a specified number of appointees from each stakeholder representative. I don’t think Silver is going to pick “netutral experts” (often easier to find in theory than in practice, and I don’t think think Quinn or Bloomberg sho7uld be doing so either. (I was only kidding about Paul and Aaron!).

    The most likely scenario is that Silver will extract his price and make his peace, so there will be no reciminations over appointments to the Commission. But if not, I don’t think Silver’s lust for revenge when re-approval time rolls around (assuming CP is approved in the first place) is going to be sated one whit by the appointment of seemingly open-minded “neutral” experts to the Commission by CP proponents Bloomberg, Quinn, and Spitzer. He will be out for blood. But even so, he won’t be able to criticize the CP proponents’ appointments, because his will be vulnerable to the same criticism. I doubt he will be able to come up with anyone with the credibility of Wylde, however much she has made up her mind. Who will Silver appoint? McCaffrey?

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Its really not a question of well-meaning policy wonks versus clubhouse political hacks. In the end a lot of the wonks are pretty politically savvy and a lot of people in the clubhouse understand what good policy is. Coming up with an ideal plan is really not essential. Coming up with a plan that will carry a majority in the Senate, Assembly and City Council is. Conceivably the “three men in a room” will agree on a program with a lot of back room quid pro quos flying hither and yon. Speaker Quinn can appoint her wonks and let Bloomberg buy off a majority of the city council with the many favors the term-limited in that body will need to support their long-term political agenda. Good policy doesn’t have to get lost in the shuffle, idealism does.
    The last time congestion pricing was passed (when Rockefeller took the TBTA revenues into the MTA stream) the formula that emerged wasn’t ideal. Indeed, citizens from Staten Island to Montauk to Chelsea continue to all find some unfairness in the formula. Yet that formula has provided a dedicated stream of revenue flowing from cars to mass transit for the last forty years. And, it continues to reduce traffic throughout the five boroughs. Congestion pricing will do the same only more localized in Manhattan south of 86th. That is the core of the political problem, the decongestion costs are generalized the decongestion benefits are localized.
    Congestion pricing isn’t the only way to fund mass transit. But it is the only way that also decongests Manhattan. Thats what makes it an acceptable tax.

  • Dave

    “That’s what makes it an acceptable tax.”

    Is congestion pricing indeed a tax or rather a usage fee? While it might seem that any money paid to a government agency is a tax, there are actually numerous counterexamples. When I apply for a passport and pay a $50 fee, most people would not call this a tax. Nor would most people think of the $6 dollar fee to cross the GW Bridge (if that’s inded what it is now) as a tax. Finally, the $2 (or really, $1.67 when you figure in the standard discount) that I pay to the MTA for use of the subway is by almost no accouts a tax. These are all fees of various sorts.

    What makes them a fee and not a tax? I’m not entirely sure and I look forward to your suggestions. My intimation would be that it has something to do with their being charged at a flat rate (i.e. not only non-graduated, but also set in constant dollar amounts) for a very concrete service.

    I would argue we should think about congestion pricing similarly: a usage fee paid to the government for the use of congested roads.

    This is more than a semantic question as you will see here:
    http://www.nypost.com/seven/08192007/news/regionalnews/diplos_take_exit_from_traffic_fee_regionalnews_ginger_adams_otis.htm

    The State Department is insisting diplomats be allowed free access to the city’s roads since international law prohibits levying taxes on diplomats (similarly, the article states the State Department has accrued an unpaid bill of $3 million in London). I should think the State Department is wrong in both the legal interpretation and their sense of what ‘diplomacy’ is. The formers hinges entirely on how we delineate taxes from fees; the second, alas, will change only when we get rid of the current adminstration (if then).

    Finally, I might add that in Stockholm, congestion pricing is in fact called a congestion tax, not a congestion fee (‘trangselskatt’, not a ‘trangselavgift’; I’m not sure if the State Department has been paying there or not).

  • Dave

    “That’s what makes it an acceptable tax.”

    Is congestion pricing indeed a tax or rather a usage fee? While it might seem that any money paid to a government agency is a tax, there are actually numerous counterexamples. When I apply for a passport and pay a $50 fee, most people would not call this a tax. Nor would most people think of the $6 dollar toll to cross the GW Bridge (if that’s inded what it is now) as a tax. Finally, the $2 (or really, $1.67 when you figure in the standard discount) fare that I pay to the MTA for use of the subway is by almost no accouts a tax. These are all fees of various sorts.

    What makes them a fee and not a tax? I’m not entirely sure and I look forward to your suggestions. My intimation would be that it has something to do with their being charged at a flat rate (i.e. not only non-graduated, but also set in constant dollar amounts) for a very concrete service.

    I would argue we should think about congestion pricing similarly: a usage fee paid to the government for the use of congested roads.

    This is more than a semantic question as you will see here:
    http://www.nypost.com/seven/08192007/news/regionalnews/diplos_take_exit_from_traffic_fee_regionalnews_ginger_adams_otis.htm

    The State Department is insisting diplomats be allowed free access to the city’s roads since international law prohibits levying taxes on diplomats (similarly, the article states the State Department has accrued an unpaid bill of $3 million in London). I should think the State Department is wrong in both the legal interpretation and their sense of what ‘diplomacy’ is. The formers hinges entirely on how we delineate taxes from fees; the second, alas, will change only when we get rid of the current adminstration (if then).

    Finally, I might add that in Stockholm, congestion pricing is in fact called a congestion tax, not a congestion fee (‘trangselskatt’, not a ‘trangselavgift’; I’m not sure if the State Department has been paying there or not).

  • MrManhattan

    Dave’s points are excellent, but he only addresses the actual monetary “taxes” we pay as New Yorkers while those from outside, who don’t live here and don’t pay taxes impose their huge, smelly, potentially leathal personal property on our city.

    WE pay a tax every time we’re awakened in the night by a honking horn or car alarm.

    WE pay a tax when we breathe air heavy with pollutants from stalled traffic.

    WE pay a tax when our buildings burn because the Fire Department was stuck in traffic.

    WE pay a tax as people die in ambulances that need 20 minutes to get to a hospital 10 blocks away.

    WE pay a tax when our friends, family and neighbors are killed in the streets in what are Orwellianly called “accidents”

    Or maybe the word “tax” is too strong.

    Lets just call it a “fee”

  • Dave

    One potential criticism of what I wrote earlier: an argument that congestion pricing is a tax and not a fee, is that the revenues collected from congestion pricing do not go directly to making up for the cost of the service for which the fee/tax is being charged: your $8 are going to mass transit, not to CBD road improvements (and rightly so). This sets it apart from my subway fare, my passport renewal fee and, in most cases, road tolls.

    I’m not sure this is fatal, though, (or is it?) since the congestion fee/tax is much more directly linked to a specific service – use of CBD roads – than say, a sales, income or property tax is related to any specific service. That the revenues for the fee only contribute to providing for the service provided in an indirect way still doesn’t make congestion pricing a tax. In any case, this seems right to me.

    Can anyone think of some kind of analogous fee – charge by a government for a specific service at a flat rate, but whose revenues do not (directly) provide for that service? I’m sure there must be something…

    Sorry if I seem like I’m being excessively nit-picky here but I think this is an important issue in how we think about congestion pricing. (Note how all its opponents insist on calling it a ‘tax,’ while most of its supporters don’t). A ‘fee’ gives the impression that something, some service or scarce resource is being purchased (in this case, access to crowded city streets), while a ‘tax’ suggests that the government is simply trying to raise money without providing anything directly in return for that money. (The word ‘directly’ of course bears emphasis there).

    Most people reading this will agree that people need to start thinking of streets and access to them as a scarce commodity, not something that is abundant and that we have a natural right to. If we think of them as of the former, then congestion pricing is a ‘fee’, if we think of them as the latter, then congestion pricing is a ‘tax’.

    And we can also get those evil Iranian diplomats whom Mr. Bienstock is so worried about to pay up.

  • Hilary Kitasei

    “The last time congestion pricing was passed (when Rockefeller took the TBTA revenues into the MTA stream) the formula that emerged wasn’t ideal.”

    What happened was a major revenue stream was taken away from the parks department and given to mass transit. Mass transit deserved funding, but the parks didn’t deserve to be robbed. I don’t think any highway projects were ever sacrificed for mass transit.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    That is the core of the political problem, the decongestion costs are generalized the decongestion benefits are localized.

    I agree with you that the perceived benefits are localized, but that perception is erroneous, and that’s one of the biggest obstacles we’ve been fighting. The pricing zone is a destination, and in fact most of the people who drive into it come from further out. That means that the transit-rich neighborhoods in between, like my own Woodside, can expect to see a reduction in through traffic.

    That’s a benefit, and it’s pretty widely spread. Unfortunately, congestion pricing proponents have had difficulty getting that point across, as can be seen by the people claiming that pricing won’t reduce pollution in the Bronx. Where do they think all those cars on the Bruckner are going?

  • Chris

    Niccolo,

    Think about it this way: roads (when used for automobiles) and transit are just two types of the same good i.e. transportation. Road pricing does not shift funds from one service to a completely different one. Instead it provides for a more efficient allocation of transportation resources.

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