Congestion Pricing vs. Ravitch Plan: Which is Better for the Boroughs?

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Under the Ravitch Plan, driving into Manhattan over the Third Avenue Bridge will be a relative bargain for Richard Brodsky’s Westchester constituents.

It’s easy to dismiss City Councilmembers Lew Fidler and Peter Vallone, Jr. as transportation troglodytes. They’ve led the pushback against bridge tolls — most recently at the City Council hearing this week on the Ravitch Commission recommendations — yet neither has ever put forth a workable alternative for reducing job-killing, community-wrecking traffic congestion. Judging by their anti-toll rhetoric, you’d think that half their district drives to jobs in the Manhattan Central Business District, yet the actual percentages who do so are surprisingly meager: 5.3 percent for Fidler’s Brooklyn district and 4.4 percent for Vallone’s Queens district (plus another 1.7 percent and 1.3 percent, respectively, who carpool).

But in one respect, bridge-toll opponents may have a point: tolling equity. According to my calculations, 60 percent of the proposed Ravitch bridge tolls would be paid by Brooklyn and Queens residents. Yet these residents make only 36 percent of car trips into the CBD. The disparity would mean a hefty cross-subsidy — worth a few hundred million dollars a year — of the region’s drivers by drivers from these two boroughs.

Whence the disparity? There are two sources. First, the Ravitch plan imposes no new tolls on auto trips into the Manhattan core that come from New Jersey and northern Manhattan; these constitute almost one-quarter of the total. Second, another 20% of trips into the CBD — from Bronx, Westchester and other points north — use one of the Harlem River bridges. Ravitch wants those drivers to pay less than half the standard MTA toll rate that would apply to the four East River crossings — the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg and Queensboro Bridges.

Under the Bloomberg congestion pricing plan, Brooklyn and Queens actually bore a fairer share of the burden than in the Ravitch plan, in spite of Bloomberg’s controversial “toll-net” provision that heavily discounted autos from New Jersey. Even so, under Bloomberg’s plan, auto trips from Brooklyn and Queens, 36 percent of the total into the CBD, would have accounted for 40 percent of toll revenues, making almost a 1-to-1 match-up. That may explain why Councilmember John Liu, from Queens, voted for the mayor’s plan but is blasting the bridge tolls provision in the Ravitch plan.

Was Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal the last word on geographical equity? Hardly. There’s no need for a cordon toll plan to include toll-nets. Nor should it give Manhattanites a free pass; an easy-to-administer surcharge on fares for medallion taxis, which are overwhelmingly used by Manhattan residents, could swell the toll-revenue pie and spread it over a broader population and income base.

Can’t someone fashion a plan along those lines? Hmm, maybe someone already has.

  • MetroCarl

    Shame on the environmentalists like the NRDC and others who are more concerned with political maneuvering than environmentally progressive policy. Instead of cozying up to Ravitch, I’d like to see the enviros fulfill their mandate and take a stand on behalf of a positive plan like the Kheel plan.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Your analysis assumes that fairness already exists, because it takes the status quo as a given. That’s political thinking — suck up to vested interests — not real fairness that assumes everyone has equal value.

    Is it fair that New Jersey drivers have to pay a toll to drive to Manhattan, but Brooklyn residents do not? Is it fair that New Jersey tolls are lower than TBTA tolls, given that in order to keep them there the Port Authority cut back on its aiport access program in the early 1990s and drain money from NY airports to NJ?

    Anything that discourages toll shopping is a good thing for the vast majority of Brooklyn and Queens residents, because it discourages unnecessary driving and congestion. Those that drive to Manhattan are, from the point of view of someone who is neither, either very rich, very privileged (with special access to parking), or extremely willing to sacrifice in order to avoid sharing a ride with their fellow human beings.

    The issues are:

    What about all those debts NYC ran up to rehab those bridges? Is it stuck with the debt while the revenues are spread to the suburbs?

    What about pedestrian and bicycle access to the bridges? The suburbs won’t care, and cut decide to cut it off.

    In the middle of the weekday, would the tolls lead to an even more empty FDR and an even more crowded BQE? CP could have been designed to only charge those entering the congestion zone, not passing through.

  • kmc

    Neither plan is good. Because of the set-up costs and yearly overhead costs for salaries and other expenses, the MTA will be right back at square one with not enough money. There needs to be funds acquired from a broader tax. A sales tax increase would be a better option.

  • In the middle of the weekday, would the tolls lead to an even more empty FDR and an even more crowded BQE?

    If we can empty out the FDR, we can use a couple of lanes for the East River Greenway.

  • John Smith

    Politicians are a bunch of BS artists! Over a majority of their constituents in Brooklyn and Bronx do not drive or own a vehicle. They use the “poor” and senior citizen” on fixed income for excuses not to impose tolls on the East River and Harlem river bridges. Can one of these politicians tell me how their constituents can afford to purchase a vehicle, register the vehicle, pay insurance for the vehicle, pay maintenance on the vehicle, pay for parking the vehicle, and pay for gas if they are “poor” or “senior citizens” on a fixed income? Even if the MTA goes forward with the “Doomsday” budget, it would be cheaper for the “poor” and “senior citizen” to purchase an MTA monthly pass for $100.00 than to operate a vehicle in NYC. One of my friends who is a senior citizen in Manhattan sold his vehicle because he could not afford it.

  • Lee

    Another possibility for tolling is doing it city-wide and distance based using GPS. Tolling based on distance is the fairest way as it is a measure of actual consumption while the cost of GPS is much less than the system proposed for NYC a while back.

    If you want to learn more check out:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GNSS_Road_Pricing

    http://www.skymetercorp.com

  • I always thought Lee’s idea was the best. A congestion zone based off the 5 boros (including the $4 intra-zone fee that Bloomberg’s plan had) is inherently the most equitable, and has all the right incentives… While I love the CBD congestion zone as well, the incentive there would be to expand transit within the CBD.

    In the long term with a 5 boro congestion zone, perhaps the MTA could expand transit connections across the outer boros, without going through Manhattan. Maybe they could even extend the 7 train into Queens where it’s actually needed, instead of expanding it within Manhattan!

    I always thought it would be a nightmare operationally, but GPS sensors could make it work.

  • I hope they toll that bridge– When did you take this photo? it never looks that empty when I’m trying to walk or ride over it.

  • Boris

    I don’t see how distance-based pricing is fair, because some areas have less traffic simply because they are less populated. It makes no sense to charge the same amount for a 1-mile drive that takes you through Times Square as a 1-mile drive that goes up Staten Island’s Korean War Veterans’ Expressway. But if we are going to make adjustments based on the amount of congestion, then we might as well go with a less privacy-invasive option such as variable congestion pricing.

    Maybe this would also address Komanoff’s perceived inequality between the Ravitch and the Kheel Plans. If pricing is strictly congestion-based, in real time, and 7 days a week, then we are effectively controlling the choke points which cause the majority of congestion in the metropolitan area- people driving through the five boroughs to get to points east or west, as well as rush-hour congestion in Manhattan.

  • Lee

    Tolling based on distance? I thought that’s what the gas tax was for! Except that the gas tax also encourages smaller / lighter / more efficient vehicles (any vehicle, not just cars) – a bonus!

  • J. Mork

    There is no expectation of privacy when driving a motor vehicle. That’s why they make you attach a plate with an identifying number on it.

  • Lew from Brooklyn

    Noplan indeed?

    I do believe tht I in fact proposed a plan that would ahve relieved traffic congestion and paid for mass transit. You may not have liked it, but it wass at LEAST as viable as the notion of free mass transit in perpetuity.

    And i might add, that I heard respected transit advocates like Gene Russianoff and Noah Budnick argue for the payroll tax swith the exact same words that I used when i first proposed it almost a year ago. Had that been done then, we would now have already raised over a billion dollars for mass transit and there would be no talk of fare hikes now.

    many of the ideas that I proposed are being worked on now by places like the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability. We may yet find out if they work.

    sign me,

    troglodyte from Brooklyn

  • Dear Lew (Councilmember Fiedler) —

    Your year-ago plan, while well-meaning, is doomed to failure because it ignores the “rebound effect” whereby car owners will take advantage of newly freed road space to make additional trips that then “use up” that space.

    We could place traffic cops at every intersection, airlift every double-parked car and truck, and mandate 2 a.m. truck deliveries … and gridlock would reappear within a week, as the improvement in traffic flow attracted drivers now deterred by the too-crowded roads.

    You may not like free transit financed by congestion pricing (though I believe many of your constituents would), but it doesn’t advance the conversation to represent, against both economic theory and hard evidence, that your plan or any other plan without a pricing element can bust gridlock.

  • nonyr

    lew fidler presented a detailed counterproposal to congestion pricing, and debated it frequently on many blogs with whoever had a comment, whether said comment was insightful and informed or just opinionated and stupid. vallone… vallone just wants to see his name in print.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Yes Lew did put forward a payroll tax and yes that is part of the Ravitch report. That doesn’t mean that it is more “progressive” than bridge tolling or congestion pricing. Repeat it all you want. And as far as mitigating congestion it is clear that a payroll tax won’t do a thing about that. Charlie does bring up a good point about the relative cost of bridge passage over Harlem v. East River bridges. Perhaps that explains Brodsky’s relative passivity against Ravitch as opposed to CP.

  • Ray

    “Bridge-toll opponents may have a point: tolling equity. According to my calculations, 60 percent of the proposed Ravitch bridge tolls would be paid by Brooklyn and Queens residents. Yet these residents make only 36 percent of car trips into the CBD. The disparity would mean a hefty cross-subsidy — worth a few hundred million dollars a year.”

    The funds from Ravitch’s proposed East River tolls would go toward MTA capital projects and operations serving – Brooklyn and Queens (and should we also be saying LONG ISLAND!). East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, BRT, Station Re-habs – a lot of these investments directly impact the Brooklyn and Queens user.

    Let’s talk about equity… You sited an amazing fact… that NJ drivers only make up a quarter of vehicles into the CBD! Yet these drivers have paid draconian tolls that are the principal funding engine for the region’s major capital needs. Yes – that’s right Brooklyn and Queens residents – your principal airports – JFK and LGA – in part – are funded thanks to the wallets of NJ drivers. Yet NONE of the substantial Hudson toll pool finds its way into NJ’s state rail capital or operating budgets (Though notably the PA committed funds for ARC are appreciated).

    How’s that for equitable?

  • C/M Fidler’s comment (and position) sort of proves the point that we need to be doing a better job educating community members–residents and businesses alike–of the benefits of reducing congestion. Right now, the arguments are too esoteric–or the simpler ones aren’t being recognized by residents and businesses–to give politicians the cover they need to implement something like congestion pricing. It will take time and more focused outreach to the communities least likely to support. Given the urgency, that’s unfortunate. But it will make for better public policy in the long run.

  • christine

    Charles, the low rate on the Harlem river bridges is so clearly politically motivated that it is not worth aguing about it … One good thing it does, is to establish the precedent of all accesses with a toll. After two years the MTA will have enough info to show where people are really coming from and their level of revenues…

    Overall the Ravitch plan raises money for the MTA, but does not reduce congestion, whereas the congestion pricing was really intended to reduce driving.

    To bring back clean air and congestion relief in the plan, we need an incentive for good behavior: I propose that the tolls be proportional to the number of passengers in the vehicle, with a $ 0 charge if there are 3 or more people in the car , normal toll for 2 people and triple toll if there is only one preson. This would not apply to trucks (deliveries, not SUV).

    Finally in Manhattan, we need to increse drastically the cost of overnight parking to dissuade 10022 and 10021 to own a car and use it everyday.

  • christine

    Or maybe I am confused.. Which access will still be free? 87 – major Deagan? those should be considerd harlem river crossing , no?

  • Christine, the Major Deegan (and I-87) terminate at the Triboro Bridge, which is already tolled. So the Ravitch plan would lay the groundwork for congestion pricing.

  • Mike

    Ray: The Port Authority does, however, massively subsidize the PATH rail system, which benefits NJ. You conveniently overlooked that.

  • vnm

    Larry Littlefield wrote:

    an even more empty FDR

    Huh?? Larry, are you implying that the FDR is even remotely “empty” now?

  • J. Mork

    Christine — I can’t see how an E-ZPass transponder will know how many people are in the car. But tolls already have a built-in incentive to carpool — the toll per person is lower when there are more people in the car.

  • Boris, I actually agree with you. Distance pricing itself isn’t fair, which is why ideally I would like a flat $4 per trip.

    In that case, shorter rides are discouraged more than longer rides, and the division of bridges or congestion zones become a non-issue. It’s the same fee to drive tip to tip across Manhattan, Drive from the Bronx across Queens to Brooklyn, and to drive 2 blocks to the grocery store in Eastern Queens.

    You’re not unfairly penalizing drivers who happen to be crossing bridges because everyone gets the same toll, you’re discouraging short unnecessary (by car) trips, and those who choose to drive won’t be discouraged from crossing bridges.

    Think about an example like this: If you live in Whitestone and have a choice of going to a store in Throggs Neck or a store in Jamaica, odds are someone would choose to drive to Jamaica, even though Throggs Neck is closer. If you got charged either way, not only would you definitely be going to Throggs Neck (resulting in a shorter drive if you drove), but you would rethink the Q44 bus because there’s not a toll free alternative available.

  • Boris

    Charley,

    There are problems with this proposal too, because not every trip has the same value to the driver. True, you’d have more people walking to the store for milk, but you’d also have many people driving to work far away, since the cost is almost the same as a subway ride. A flat fee would work in a place like Florida, which is flat and has roads of the same capacity in every direction. But in New York, with its islands and choke points, you need to charge based on supply and demand.

  • Interesting point Boris!

    I think both of our schemes would have the same effect on that person going to work (assuming that person works in Manhattan, and disregarding the fact that we may be thinking of different numbers… I just picked $4 because that was the internal congestion price Bloomberg used). However, mine would have the added bonus of catching the person who may not work in the CBD.

    I think the difference in our thinking comes down to what exactly you’re trying to do: are you trying to reduce congestion in congested roadways or are you trying to reduce driving overall. Obviously they’re not mutually exclusive (reducing congestion in congested roadways reduces driving overall, and vice versa), and a lot of methods will achieve both.

    The difference comes in when you think of long term effects. Creating central zones and/or tolling pinch points leading into a central zone encourages more transit oriented development in that central zone, and I would argue this comes at the expense of making the outer boros more dense (and this lower density would bring less mass transit alternatives to more underserved areas).

    This is what I didn’t really like about the Ravitch plan. By tolling all the bridges, it arbitrarily includes only Upper Manhattan and the CBD as part of the congestion zone, meaning denser development will be encouraged in Upper Manhattan when compared to other close to the CBD areas such as Downtown Brooklyn, Astoria and LIC. There’s no reason why Upper Manhattan should be included in this congestion zone, it just happens to be on the same island as the CBD by a quirk of geography.

    Of course this is all theoretical. What I’m proposing does have privacy implications like you mentioned, and operational costs. There’s a reason why no one would ever seriously consider this…

    Pretending that the 5 boros are flat and without water boundaries however, I would still say that including all 5 boros in one zone would be better than having a smaller zone around the CBD. And, if we’re thinking about it in this abstract way, there’s no real way it would make sense to include one district and not another outside of the CBD in the congestion zone.

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