Revenge of the Free Riders

From Transportation Alternatives’ Spring 2008 magazine:

motoring_elite.jpg

The biggest hurdle congestion pricing faced was the simple fact that the people required to enact the legislation were the ones who stood to pay the most because of it.

On Monday, April 7, Sheldon Silver walked out of a closed door meeting of State Assembly Democrats and announced congestion pricing was dead. Never mind that New York City’s mayor and City Council supported the plan along with the governor, the State Senate and an unprecedented coalition of business, labor, environmental and civic groups. Like so much else in Albany, the decision was made in secret, without a debate, a vote or even a record of the proceedings.

Until congestion pricing came around, I never paid all that much attention to Albany. Sure, I knew about the sex and graft scandals, the "three men in a room," and the Brennan Center reports showing New York’s government has more in common with the old Soviet Politburo than America’s 49 other state legislatures. I knew "dysfunctional" was the official adjective to describe Albany. But the dysfunction never seemed to impinge on my own life in any immediate, tangible way. Until congestion pricing.

I was really looking forward to seeing motorists pay to drive into Lower Manhattan. While I understood the importance of $354 million in federal aid, $491 million per year in revenue for transit and fewer kids growing up with asthma, this wasn’t what pumped me up. What I liked most about congestion pricing was the fact that the people who make life in New York City most miserable — the armada of horn-honking, exhaust-spewing, space-hogging, oil-guzzling, climate change-inducing motorheads that rolls through my neighborhood every day, to and from the free East River bridges, were finally going to have to pay for the privilege.

Assembly Democrats gave lots of reasons why they couldn’t support pricing, few of which dealt with substance and most of which boiled down to their feeling that an arrogant, imperious billionaire mayor and his elitist supporters were trying to stick it to New York City’s poor and middle class. No matter that New York City’s poor and middle class already pay a fare to ride the subway and bus and that the number one propagator of this populist claptrap was Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Assemblyman who represents the region’s wealthiest Manhattan-bound car commuters, average annual income, $176,231. At least Brodsky did a good job standing up for his constituents. That’s a hell of a lot more than Joan Millman, Deborah Glick, Hakeem Jeffries, Daniel O’Donnel, Jonathan Bing and the rest of the city’s Assembly delegation can say for itself.

The moment I realized pricing was doomed in the legislature was when Denny Farrell, a 34-year Assembly veteran, stood up before the Congestion Mitigation Commission, of which he was a member, and delivered an impassioned speech against toll booths on the bridges between Manhattan and the Bronx. Toll booths, Farrell said, would "freeze all of northern Manhattan in gridlock" on Yankees game nights. The speech took place not at the first Commission hearing in September but at the penultimate meeting in January. Somehow, incredibly, Farrell managed to sit through four months of meetings and hearings without realizing that congestion pricing fees are collected electronically; toll booths were not part of the plan. This was the guy who was assigned to bring the work of the Commission back to his colleagues in the Assembly and he either wasn’t paying attention or simply didn’t care.

During Commission meetings, Farrell frequently shared his experiences driving and parking in the city. Invariably, his personal transportation anecdotes never involved a subway, bus, bike or even a sidewalk. It was a reminder that while New York state legislators are paid a middle class salary (by New York City standards, at least), they are still members of New York City’s other elite — the free riding class. Their unlimited parking privilege allows them to drive wherever and whenever they want. From their windshield perspective, the city is a transportation problem to be solved for cars. Ultimately, the biggest hurdle congestion pricing faced was the simple fact that the people required to enact the legislation were the ones who stood to pay the most because of it. You know that beleaguered middle class driver the Assembly kept talking about? He was a state legislator.

If any good has come of the Assembly’s failure to act on congestion pricing, it’s simply this: A new generation of citizen activists got to see up close and personal how broken New York State government is and how badly it’s in need of fixing. Assembly members come up for election every two years and are often ushered in to office by as few as 5,000 votes. September 2008 ought to be the last time any of these legislators have the pleasure of going un-challenged in a Democratic primary.

By Aaron Naparstek. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Transportation Alternatives.  

  • TraffEric

    As a reader of this blog, of course I agree wholeheartedly. Now the question remains, what can I do? From my vantage point, the 1st step is to support Paul Newell by volunteering for his election campaign this fall to unseat Sheldon Silver. How should I go about doing this? And what are other people doing to take action?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (A whole new generation of citizen activists got to see up close and personal how broken New York State government is and how badly it’s in need of fixing.)

    Actually, everyting else they do is worse than the CP process, which at least involved a commission with public findings. If people only knew…

    Most people are resigned to things as they are, and the special deals usually involve costs deferred to the future so they are unaware they have been sacrificed.

    But while “a whole new generation of citizen activists” may be more aware in 2008, wait until 2010 when those bills come due. Will they get away with the propaganda that tax increases and service and benefit cuts are due to “circumstances beyond our control” again?

  • Mark Walker

    #1: “And what are other people doing to take action?”

    I contributed to Paul Newell’s campaign:

    http://www.newellnyc.org/donate.html

  • Competitive primaries

    Trafferic:

    Why not join us next week for a meet & greet with Paul Newell and Livable Streets Advocates next Tuesday? http://www.actblue.com/page/may_21st

    Democracy requires competition.

  • Moser

    Actually, un-seating any of these schlubs this year will take more votes. Votes in state legislative districts pretty much double during presidential years as opposed to off-years. Probably harder to get any focus on a local primary in presidential season too, when primary days are split between presidential race early and everyone else in September or whenever.

  • Competitive primaries

    Moser

    Have you ever seen how many people vote in the Assembly primaries? A few thousand – maybe ten thousand if it’s a really tough race.

    Assembly members are paper tigers. A few thousand votes could sway an election.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Here’s what’s sad about Albany.

    Let’s say an honest “conservative” perspective is that people should expect less from government but should not be required to contribute as much to it. And an honest “liberal” perspective is that people should be required to contribute more to the government, but can expect more services and benefits in return.

    Having the government become so unfair that even those with an egalitarian frame of mind turn against it would seem to fit the conservative narrative very well. As a former boss once told me — government is corrupt, duh!

    But why are New York’s Democrats content to make deals and non-decisions that leave New Yorkers with less and less benefit from the public sector and less and less connection to it?

    Because they and their insiders and supporters are too greedy to let ideology stand in the way of their greed, it seems. Just as the business class seems determined to destroy any confidence in business. Generation Greed.

  • Michael1

    We have to make sure we vote for different politicians come September, at least.

  • Moser

    Sure, I’m just saying from a strategic point of view that you are dealing with more voters in a presidential year, about half as many in an off year. Which is better for an insurgent? Probably depends on specific factors and context.

  • I like the framing of this as the “driving elite”. This was very much what the group of people who went to visit Daniel O’Donnell heard.

    The point about our delegation not representing their constituents while Brodsky represented his is very apt.

  • Vroomfondel

    Glenn, I had the opposite reaction to the term “driving elite”. What is this supposed to mean, and when did “elite” become a dirty word? If someone is elitist, does that mean he or she is wrong? I don’t think so. The e-bomb is just a cheap way of generating resentment.

  • Mike H

    the disconnect between New Yorkers and city politics has a lot to do with the last 20 years of gentrification.
    In that many NYers are transplants, and believe they are leaving soon. Consequently they do not take part in civic society.
    This allows the lucky Sheldon to continue

  • gecko

    If the streets were treated as the true public spaces that they are, cars would have minimal access at best, safely sequestered away from hurting people, and congestion pricing would be meaningless.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    the disconnect between New Yorkers and city politics has a lot to do with the last 20 years of gentrification.
    In that many NYers are transplants, and believe they are leaving soon. Consequently they do not take part in civic society.
    This allows the lucky Sheldon to continue

    I believe that that’s true of certain groups, but not “transplants,” by which I take it you mean people from other parts of the US. I know many more people from non-NY America who want to settle here and live permanently than who are just here to spend their twenties in some Sex and the City fantasy.

    Most of these transplants are in a very meaningful sense refugees – like my father was in 1955 – from parts of the country that didn’t tolerate their particular religious beliefs, or lack thereof, or sexuality, or fondness for dancing. Or, you know, cycling, riding trains and buses, or walking. They can’t go “home,” because home would require them to drive. Seriously.

    On the other hand, I know that there’s a lot of mistrust from “native New Yorkers” towards people from other parts of the country. It crops up in the Curbed comments all the time, with people telling each other to “Go back to Ohio!” The congestion pricing debate was often framed as “real New Yorkers” against transplants.

    I’ve gotten some of it, since people don’t seem to recognize my Hudson Valley private school geek accent as belonging to New York. Just last month in a discussion of congestion pricing someone asked me, “were you born here?” As if that makes me somehow less competent to judge the merits of the plan.

    For the record, yes, I was born here, and so was my mother, and her father, and his mother. My family’s been here for over a hundred years. But that doesn’t mean that someone who moved here from Rock Island (or Fuzhou, or Medellín) isn’t here to stay, and deserving of a say in how the place is run.

  • Peter

    rich people call the shots?

    hmmmm…

  • Larry Littlefield

    I’m from Yonkers and my wife was born in Brooklyn. Does that count?

    It isn’t natives, it’s insiders working the system. Most of the insiders are natives. But most of the natives aren’t insiders.

    And most of the natives and new arrivals who aren’t insiders aren’t so rich they have no need of benefits from the public sector they pay for in taxes, though they are less and less likely to receive them.

    Here is a non-transportation example.

    In NYC in 1990, the average non-Hispanic White high school dropout earned more than the average Black, Latino or Asian high school graduate.

    The average non-Hispanic White high school graduate earned more than the average Black, Latino or Asian with some college or no degree.

    And the average non-Hispanic White with some college earned more than the average Black, Latino or Asian with some college graduate.

    True in 1980 too. Didn’t have access to Census PUMS for 2000.

    Looking industry by industry, in the high-paid finance sector and the low-paid retail sector, there were VIRTUALLY NO racial and ethnic distinctions in income by level of education.

    What was driving those distinction were certain sectors where those with lower levels of education earn more than elsewhere, and virtually everyone in those sectors/occupations was White.

    And all those sectors/occupations were in or related to or controlled by our political system. Your placard holders, and supporters of placard holders.

    Most White people receive no benefit from these arrangements, just like most natives receive no benefit from the transportation policies of those in change in Albany. A few token folks from other racial and ethnic groups are in on the deal, but most aren’t.

  • The word elite is the perjorative in this case – “driving” is.

    If I say someone is an elite athelete or elite scientist, that’s not an insult, it’s a compliment.

    The “driving elite” as Aaron very aptly defines the political class as a whole in this city and state, that means something different. It means they are out of touch with the rest of the public on a basic daily issue that has a direct negative consequence on the rest of us.

    It’s similar to politicans that send their kids to private school (or went to private school themselves) and all their friends send their kids to private schools and try to understand their constituent complaints about the problems with the public school system. Call them the “Private school elite”.

  • First line should read: “The word elite is NOT the perjorative in this case – “driving” is”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Let’s just refer to them as the “Placard Oligarchy” and the “Black Car Oligarchy,” so we can keep the political and economic overlords straight.

    In other contexts, they are the “Pension, Sick Day and Overtime Oligarchy” and the “Stock Option and Trust Fund Oligarchy.”

  • Vroomfondel

    Glenn, I see you point, but I’m still unhappy with a word that has a good, meritocratic meaning doing double-duty in a pejorative. Besides, the use of “elite” in a pejorative sense is mostly a verbal tick of right-wing demagogues. We need to reclaim the word for the people;)

    I like Larry’s “placard oligarchy”, except it doesn’t quite seem to roll of the tongue right. How about “driving royalty” or “placard royalty”, to connote unearned privileges as well as an obnoxious sense of entitlement?

  • Marty Barfowitz

    Vroom,

    This semantic wankfest is irrelevant, tedious and even a tad elite.

    Save it for a late night dorm room debate, would ya?

    I’m trying to concentrate on the important stuff. It’s hard enough as is.

    – Barf.

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