Let’s Hear About Mayor Bloomberg’s Transit Improvement Plan

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Kevin Sheekey: Bring this man home to talk about the transit improvements congestion pricing will fund.

Sixty Percent of New Yorkers support Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to impose a congestion pricing fee on traffic entering Manhattan’s Central Business District and spending the resulting money on transit improvements. According to the pollsters at Quinnipiac, that support hasn’t wavered much over the last few months.

This might come as a surprise to many, since the media keeps reporting that New Yorkers hate the idea of congestion pricing. And most do, if no mention is made of how the pricing money will be spent. But the mayor’s plan — the proposal on the table — is to spend congestion pricing revenue on transit improvements. The congestion fee and the new transit spending go hand in hand. Page one of yesterday’s Interim Report from the Congestion Mitigation Commission says:

The revenue generated by congestion pricing would be used to bring the regional transit system up to a state of good repair and to fund system expansion project.

So, why do the media and political debate generally focus on opposition to the congestion fee, and not on the hefty support enjoyed by the mayor’s idea of a congestion fee that supports transit? The Commission’s Report suggests an answer to that and many other questions. The report itself is a master class in New York City transportation. It is a lucid and insightful analysis of the city’s transportation woes and how to solve them. But only about two of its 68 pages discusses how pricing revenue will be spent. The bulk of it assesses the strengths and weaknesses of different ways to collect the congestion fee. And herein lies the problem.

The irony is that Mayor Bloomberg and his team are drawing media and political attention towards the mechanics of collecting the fee and essentially ignoring the bountiful transit benefits. As the recent "Q" poll suggests, to win the public debate over congestion pricing, City Hall needs to re-frame the discussion to be much more about the significant transit improvements pricing revenue would fund. The mayor himself should stand up at a series of media events and make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that his proposal, "The Mayor’s Transit Improvement and Traffic Reduction Plan," is to use congestion fees to fund transit. It is what the public needs to hear, and clearly will support. He should highlight a long and specific list of subway, bus and Bus Rapid Transit improvements detailed in a 200 page report which describes all of the transit and transportation improvements, in each borough and neighborhood, that his plan will produce.

Some may ask why building public opinion matters, since back-room deal making in City Council and the legislature will decide the fate of congestion pricing. They should ask Council Speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn. Do you think getting the mayor’s plan through city council will be easier or harder if 60 percent of the public supports it or 30 percent? It’s much easier to play winning poker when you have a good hand than a bad one. The mayor is an excellent salesman. With a little effort, and a reframing of his plan around transit benefits, he could give Quinn and Assemblyspeaker Silver much stronger hands as they round up the votes to win.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Essentially, Bloomberg’s original idea was to fund transit improvements over and above the MTA capital plan with congestion pricing revenues, along with the rest of his Plan 2030 agenda. That’s what you find if you read the report, and what backed the claim that the agenda wasn’t just platitudes like other plans. It was funded, and the funds would go to NYC, not the MTA.

    But Messers Silver, Spitzer, Bruno et al realize that as a result of the MTA’s $23 billion debt and pension obligations, huge money will have to be found to support the 2010 to 2014 capital plan if we are to even keep the system from collapse while building those projects now under construction.

    Where is that going to come from?

    We’ll be lucky if the proposal isn’t to take all the future revenues from congestion pricing and its equivalent, and use it to back 30, 40 or 50-year bonds that just pay for the next five years of ongoing nomral replacement.

    That’s what they did with the sales tax increase for the last MTA capital plan. After 2009 we’ll be paying the tax for years, perhaps forever with refinancing, but get nothing for it.

  • Mark

    “Why do the media and political debate generally focus on opposition to the congestion fee, and not on the hefty support enjoyed by the mayor’s idea of a congestion fee that supports transit?” Car ads. Watch a single newscast and count them. You’ll be amazed.

  • xue

    Larry, appreciate your insightful (if somewhat repetitive) point about the broader issue of society’s long-term debt. However, you keep pointing out the problem without describing any solutions, which doesn’t help me determine what I should conclude or what I can do about it.

  • Jonathan

    xue, if I’m not mistaken, the answer to the problem that Larry describes above is to raise fares and tolls so that a greater portion of infrastructure operating costs is paid for by operating revenues. Raising taxes would help provide additional revenues to transportation agencies, as well.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (However, you keep pointing out the problem without describing any solutions, which doesn’t help me determine what I should conclude or what I can do about it.)

    Tell the winners they have taken enough, and have to give some back. That’s what I try to do at http://www.r8ny.com. Generational equity is an issue of which the MTA situation is just a small part.

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