Queens Pricing Opponents Push a Fantasy Commuter Tax

Last week the Queens Civic Congress held an "MTA Capital Plan Forum," where members peddled their commuter tax revival plan to transit chief Elliot "Lee" Sander as an alternative to congestion pricing, which Sander says is vital to the future of his agency.

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To be fair, the QCC has promoted this idea for several years, long before pricing was introduced by the Bloomberg administration. Here’s the QCC in 2005:

Re-instate the Commuter tax after and dedicate this money for transportation infrastructure. If the proposal includes sharing the proceeds with our suburbs, it should pass in Albany. Let the ‘burbs keep what their residents pay; New York City will do well with wealthy out-of-staters who live across the Husdon, Connecticut and elsewhere. Double the former rate — netting $450 million to start, and reaching $1 billion soon.

But it’s easy to be cynical when the QCC suggests the city, or the MTA, abandon congestion pricing to get behind the commuter tax. Setting aside the fact that it would do nothing to reduce congestion or VMT and has no environmental or public health benefit, Albany has already rejected it, and did so almost on a whim. Current state legislators Richard Brodsky, Denny Farrell, Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver were among those who voted to repeal the tax in 1999.

These guys are still in charge, and no one at the capitol is talking about a commuter tax. There’s no reason to believe it would be voted back in. Not even Brodsky, who has elevated anti-pricing rhetoric to an art form, is suggesting a return to the commuter tax to alleviate congestion, preferring a carbon tax and license plate rationing instead.

Besides having no basis in reality, claiming "it should pass in Albany" is a weak nail on which to hang the future of public transportation in New York City. In that light, the QCC commuter tax push should be seen for what it is: another attempt to distract from a plan that would actually reduce traffic congestion while raising critical funds for transit.

Photo, of QCC President Corey Bearak and MTA Executive Lee Sander, by Bruno DeFranceschi via Queens Civic Congress

  • Transit infrastructure has been horrifically underfunded for so long, we are deep in a hole.

    I would welcome the QCC’s commuter tax and Weiner’s federal gas tax increase . . . but only as an adjunct to Congestion Pricing (or the bridge tolling plan, which I favored).

    Imagine if we could extend the SAS to Staten Island and Coop City. Imagine a fast, reliable connection to LaGuardia, or a connection between LaGuardia and JFK.

    Imagine rail service over the new Tappan Zee Bridge or Tunnel. Imagine new transit links between NY and NJ. A Fulton Street terminal that soars. Through running regional rail.

    Expanded high-speed intercity rail.

    All of these things are possible if we have the political will to allocate the resources. the more pots the money comes from, the better.

  • rhubarbpie

    Former City Council Speaker Miller pushed this when he was running for mayor, too. It wasn’t real then, and it’s not now, for the reasons you mention, Brad.

    Maybe they are just dreamers, those guys at the QCC.

    There are obviously ways to raise a substantial amount of money for transit without congestion pricing, and there are likely ways of reducing congestion without these fees. But when opponents merely champion no-go solutions, they weaken their own position.

  • tomsail

    TIME TO TAX THE BIG SPENDERS/USERS:

    TRAFFIC CONGESTION, ENERGY CONSERVATION AND PAYING FOR OUR MASS TRANSIT SYSTEMS, ROADS, AND BRIDGES:

    Realizing that there are millions of households that own two or more cars in America (THE BIG SPENDERS/USERS), it is time that these households start paying their fair share for their use of, and for the additional wear-and-tear that they inflict on, our roads, highways, and bridges.

    If a household registers more than one vehicle, they should be assessed a significantly higher annual motor vehicle tax for each car registered after the first one.

    This new policy would help to reduce the number of cars on the road, and to increase the funding needed to update and improve all of our transportation systems.

    Additional ideas for improving our transportation systems can be found in the new book, “HOW TO LIVE WELL WITHOUT OWNING A CAR” by Chris Balish.

  • Access magazine recently ran a thoughtful and, I think, convincing article about the politics of congestion fees: For Whom the Road Tolls: The Politics of Congestion Pricing, by David King, Michael Manville, and Donald Shoup. The crux of their argument is that to muster political support, revenues from congestion pricing should be directed to cities on a per capita basis. They argue against congestion fees going to drivers, transit agencies, or road bureaucracies.

  • Jonathan

    Laurence, thanks for the link. I like this quote:

    Congestion pricing lacks a constituency that derives concentrated benefits from priced roads, a group whose gains greatly outweigh its losses, and who can be certain before the fact that pricing will be to its advantage. Without this constituency, congestion pricing has few strong advocates—-people or groups willing to spend time, money, and political capital to make pricing a reality. Congestion pricing may well be in the public interest, but right now it is no one’s special interest.

  • I can think of one constituency that potentially derives concentrated benefits from congestion pricing in NYC: Bus riders.

  • Aaron — Bus riders’ time savings under the Commission’s proposed congestion pricing plan just aren’t impressive enough to do major organizing around, unfortunately. The Kheel Plan is another story altogether, since it’s fare-free boarding that generates most of the enormous time benefits for bus riders ($700M per year).

    Jonathan & Laurence — that Shoup article is indeed terrific. I love his aphorism, “The dilemma confronting congestion pricing is not that opposition is too high, but that support is too low.” We highlighted that on p. 3 of the Kheel Report.

    Rhubarbpie — You wrote, “there are likely ways of reducing congestion without [congestion pricing].” Wrong. Any congestion relief without pricing will be quickly “used up” by new trips lured out of latency by the promise of faster travel. Only pricing can “clear the market” and make the traffic reductions last.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Just because Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing doesn’t mean we give up on reinstating the commuter tax, or other forms of transit funding. Similarly, just because the QCC proposes reinstating the commuter tax doesn’t mean we give up on congestion pricing.

    I don’t think we should even think about not pursuing congestion pricing until a commuter tax bill passes both houses of the state legislature and is sitting on Spitzer’s desk.

    Also, the QCC proposal does nothing to reduce traffic through Sunnyside and Woodside.

  • Hilary

    Charles: Is it feasible to introduce the Kheel plan in phases? Strategic routes or stations that would offer enough savings from eliminating fare collection, or enough conversion of drivers to transit users to make it worthwhile? Having an example of the kind of impact it can have on a neighborhood (livable streets, improved property values) would sure help sell it. Just wondered if phased implementation is part of the plan. Thanks.

  • Hilary — Yes, but perhaps a bit differently than you laid out, i.e., not in particular routes or regions, but by “pricing chunks,” if you will. Translated: first, free buses (since bus farebox revenues are relatively small, less than half that of subways; and because the time-logistics benefits of eliminating bus fare-collection are so massive); then free subways except during rush hours; and, finally, free subways 24-7. We discuss this a little in the Kheel Report, p. 13 sidebar. More to come. Thanks for interesting question.

  • rhubarbpie

    Charles Komanoff wrote in response to my comment, “there are likely ways of reducing congestion without [congestion pricing]”:

    “Wrong. Any congestion relief without pricing will be quickly ‘used up’ by new trips lured out of latency by the promise of faster travel. Only pricing can ‘clear the market’ and make the traffic reductions last.”

    Well, you could BAN or SEVERELY RESTRICT entry to some sections of the city. No revenue, but you’ll have solved our problem. Likely to happen? No. But then again, it’s not looking so good for congestion pricing either.

    Beyond that…it is true that the lack of a constituency, aside from mostly Manhattan-based environmental groups and the like, has hurt congestion pricing’s chances. Maybe that was inevitable.

    But maybe it had something to do with having an inept champion in City Hall who refused, for instance, to stop a fare hike as a sign that congestion pricing promised something for transit riders. And who continues to push the use of congestion pricing dollars for expansion projects that will benefit few riders, like the 7 line extension.

  • Folks,

    I can only be pleased how the QCC revenue proposal got embraced by the coalition. Look through the keepnycfree.com website for the evolution of its inclusion in the coalition’s statements.

    I only became president 4 months ago tonight; my predecessor had his emphases; I have mine; people who follow my work in and out of government know that tax reform and equity are important themes.

    Every good idea has it time and this is the season for the revenue sharing commuter tax for transit. As an “old” tax, albeit packaged much better, it does not run afoul of the governor’s no new taxes statement; the congestion tax does. My friend John Liu concedes as much (that congestion pricing involves tax).

    Frankly, StreetsBlogs’ coverage — the attention — only helps the cause. People who might not otherwise see it, learn about and may look more closely at it.

    It will likely be a featured item in the Queens Civic Congress testimony on the budget at the hearing next Tuesday at borough hall.

    The think too many seem not to understand is how the pricing does nothing to influence the more well to do or those able to expense the tax (and parking where applicable). The City’s land use plans involve a great deal of luxury development that also introduces luxury vehicles; that’s what riles me about many congestion taxers. Many support an inefficient tax that marginally affects driving habits but substantially impacts those drivers at the lower income levels (even if you think those incomes are high which they are not).
    Many less well to do drivers might just drop the car altogether if the city had better mass transit options; read my testimony at the Queens hearing. Yesterday afternoon, I discussed the need to improve bus transportation in Queens with my friend Ed Figueroa. Though we differ on congestion pricing we both agree on the need to strategically review bus operations in Queens; I wrote on that almost five year ago (Bus travel in Queens poses ultimate challenge). If things do not happen via the government route, watch for a labor community summit to push this imperative.

    This is where the congestion tax really fails: not enough (if any net revenue) and no program to build the transit capacity to induce (my friend Rory’s carrot) folks to eschew car ownership. If you need a car because the community living requires it, why not use it to go to work if you can; if you have access to better transportation, you just may save the dollars; I know first hand car non-ownership would be for my standard of living if I could pass on it; I know how making our cars available to our children (unlike my needing to own a car from my senior year at Martin Van Buren H.S.), they save big bucks. I contrast this to one of my neighbors where there are at least four cars in the household; I am sure that family would opt for less vehicles if the transit options existed; they just do not. My brilliant son often raises different transportation options that he does not understand fail to get the light of day (and I would support every recommendation he made).

    I can remember when the chair of the Finance Committee would not even consider the commuter tax and I still remember the day he embraced it despite a staff member refusing to include it.

    If Senator Joe Bruno can support the congestion tax at Mayor Bloomberg’s behest and which could be used to lose him the two seats he needs to keep his majority, what suggests that Bruno would not embrace the Queens Civic Congress proposal if our Mayor embraced it.

    Six years ago the Mayor called for the commuter tax but coupled it with a lower city PIT (city and non-city residents would pay the same rate) so it became DOA (dead on announcement). Think about how this version which shares the wealth could gain traction if the Mayor voiced support. The bottom line is the MTA needs the funding and this reform provides the greatest stream of revenue.

    Why not come together on the QCC revenue reform and just see if better service reduces car use.

  • As aside, the photo failed to identify Queens Civic Congress executive vice president, Patricia Dolan. Pat is certainly one of the foremost civic activists, not just in Queens and deserves the mention. I am sure she was mentioned in caption that went with the photo that got lifted from the QCC website.

  • “Why not come together on the QCC revenue reform and just see if better service reduces car use.”

    Because we have been down this “road.” Better is relative, and we have better transit now that at various times in the past; yet congestion is at its worst. If we add more bus routes (on congested roads), firstly I think that’s not going to change the minds of a family so irrationally hopped up on autos that they have four in America’s most transit-rich city. I’m surprised you’d suggest otherwise. More/better transportation will shift some virtuous or economically conscious people, but without pricing it only opens up more road space for other suburban aspirationalists to buy a lot as far from transportation as possible, build a fat house on it, and complain bitterly (and disingenuously) that no transportation has since been built to their front doors. This thinking, and this behavior, is childish and undeserving of our great city.

  • Hilary

    At the risk of embarrassing myself, I have to pose an innocent question.
    What would happen if we dropped pricing as a mechanism to reduce VMT, and simply used congestion itself? We would allocate a lane of every major thoroughfare in the city for transit and bicycles, improving those modes at the least cost. The reduction in capacity for motorists would produce short-term hyper-congestion, before eventually settling to a new level (and speed) where it was worth people’s time to drive (and hitting higher-income drivers harder, as the value of their time is presumably higher).
    The environmental argument against congestion is that idling produces more pollution than optimum speed. But is it possible that the reduction in the VMT would more than offset the increase in pollution caused by the reduction in speed? And as a longterm matter, do hybrids pollute at lower speeds? Is the optimum speed for urban traffic (environmentally speaking) the same as that for regular vehicles?

    I understand that this does not get us the ongoing revenue for transit improvements. But does it get us to the same pollution-reduction goals?

  • Jonathan

    Hilary, for a more easily visualizable conception along the same lines, imagine closing to private auto traffic all the East River crossings except for the QMT and the BBT, closing the Holland tunnel, and closing all the streets between 59th and 60th Streets, leaving only the West Side Highway and FDR.

    I envision that the short-term hyper-congestion would spread out radially. I’m afraid that its new level would be intolerable for people like Angus who live on those radii, and that the transit system would continue to be plagued by underfunding.

  • Hilary

    That’s not an apt analogy, because I’m replacing one lane of auto capacity with one of transit or greenway in every thoroughfare. That would include the radii you’re talking about. I want to know if – on any given corridor – at what point does induced congestion (by reducing capacity) reduce overall emissions? (Realizing that this is paid for in time, which many people believe is fairer than price.) It’s a radical change in the relative cost (time-wise) of transit and driving, just as the Kheel plan posits a radical change in the relative cost (price-wise) of transit and driving.

  • Heffron

    Hilary the reason your idea won’t work, admirable though it is, is any time you try to remove parking there is total outrage from the driving community. It would take a leader with real strength and complete power to push something like that through, like a green Robert Moses.

    For example, Eastern Queens was set to have some trial BRT implemented in an area that everyone complains is under served (and rightly so). And what happened? It was squashed by residents and pols concerned that a lane of parking would be lost to make the BRT bus lanes. And now we can’t pass congestion pricing b/c these same people don’t have public transit options. Folks like Lancman and the QCC can call for more buses as much as they want, but until they are willing to make dedicated bus lanes, which you can’t do without taking away either parking or a regular car lane, than buses will never be efficient enough for long trips.

  • I think of that as the Paris vs. London model. New York’s motorized minority will fight tooth and nail against either, though with induced congestion there is less capitalism for them to pretend to be up in arms about. But with that you lose the benefits that efficient roads can have for the economy (deliveries, foreign dignitary transport, whatever). Without business support there is even less of a constituency for “squeezing out” than for pricing. The only foreseeable way a New Yorker could get such a system is to move to Paris. Since we are so much more like London, pricing is more viable. And I think it’s better: better at breaking up classism even, but in ways that require a reasoned look at demographics to appreciate, and dramatically better at funding transportation when you have a population that is practically untaxable. Paying to use something is a concept that, in the end, New Yorkers do believe in.

  • Corey Bearak

    BRT received opposition in SEQ because the so-called planners looked at a map rather than reach out to the community to look at possible routes. I live in NEQ but serve on a community board that extend into and through SEQ. I would not impose my view; I have thoughts but the point remains when you fail to engage and consult the community, the outcomes make less sense or prove outright unworkable. NYCDOT did not reach out to the community boards and invite suggestions. They did not reach out to the transit union(s). They did not reach out to the community groups and elected. They came in with a plan. Drive that route by car (personal or FHV), bike or bus and see first hand how it does not work. There are routes that can work.

    I will ad Hilary’s point about dedicated lanes is being tried in lower Manhattan; I noticed it on Broadway near City Hall. Maybe the NYCDOT A/C Steve Weber can advise how that is working out in terms of adherence. Maybe streets have no parking during a.m. and/ or p.m. peak. In Queens the enforcement could be better; even parking illegally in bus stops can slow buses.
    The locations people complained of when I was a council aide in the 80s and 90s still come up.
    When the state added a lane to the LIE, some of us suggested a dedicated bus lane as a prelude to a light rail line.

  • Stan Lee

    Corey,

    What do you think of Quinn’s ferry network idea? Do you think it will be popular with your neighbors?

  • Heffron

    There’s always some excuse. From my personal dealings with pro-car advocates (which is different that a random person who just owns a car) no plan that involves removing parking or making a lane dedicated to BRT will ever work for them on any road where it would be really useful.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (At the risk of embarrassing myself, I have to pose an innocent question. What would happen if we dropped pricing as a mechanism to reduce VMT, and simply used congestion itself? We would allocate a lane of every major thoroughfare in the city for transit and bicycles, improving those modes at the least cost.)

    No embarassment at all. That, in fact, is the current situation. I wrote about that on Room 8 last year here http://www.r8ny.com/blog/larry_littlefield/congestion_you_can_fee_me_now_or_fine_me_later.html.

    It isn’t my favorite suggestion, but as part of the blowback if CP is not implemented, I’ll be in favor! In fact, the more I think about it, the more I come to be in favor in any event.

    The basic argument is, if those who want to drive anywhere anytime for free make us live with the consequence of congestion, and we will have congestion no matter what, we can at least take back some of the public space for other things and be no worse off.

  • Corey Bearak

    Stan Lee,
    Ferries are popular and coveted in the Rockaways.
    Ferries would also be an interesting opportunity to connect with the parking available at Shea. It will make the next iteration of the QCC platform.

    The City and DOT have all sorts of ability to deal with lanes. Many of the wider streets in Queens have been “narrowed” by pavement markings to make those streets safer.

  • Hilary

    Corey – I’m sure they’re popular and coveted. But will Rockaway policemen pay $15 one way to come to lower Manhattan? The Wall Street yuppies choke on paying that to go to Red Hook.

  • What would happen if we dropped pricing as a mechanism to reduce VMT, and simply used congestion itself? We would allocate a lane of every major thoroughfare in the city for transit and bicycles, improving those modes at the least cost.

    Hilary, if congestion pricing is the “London model,” then what you’re describing here is, esentially, the “Paris model.” Convert parking and travel lanes into exclusive bus- and bike-only lanes. Turns streets into pedestrian spaces. Convert the riverfront highway into a summertime beach…

    The problem is: How to pay for it. The London model offers a great solution.

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