Infrastructure Bigs: To Compete, NYC Needs Congestion Pricing, Tolls

Holland_Tunnel_tolls.jpgTolls at the Holland Tunnel. Now the Port Authority is looking for the next financing model. Image: Library of Congress.

At a panel put on by the New School last week, some of New York’s biggest players in transportation and planning came together to discuss the future of the city’s infrastructure. They all seemed to agree: The city can’t keep up with its global competitors without new sources of revenue.

Christopher Ward, the executive director of the Port Authority, framed the stakes: "We have to ask, what builds wealth?" The other panelists concurred: New York’s health and economic dominance won’t continue without consistent investment in its infrastructure, particularly its transportation network.

Seth Pinsky, the president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, put it more directly. "We have spent the last 20 years trying to get our infrastructure back to pre-1970 levels," he said. Without moving further, "We will not be able to compete with other world cities."

The challenge, though, is financing. Especially if you’re talking about the panel members’ top priorities: The ARC tunnel, the 41st Street station on the 7 line subway extension, renovation of the Delta Terminal at JFK, and the East Side Access project are exceedingly expensive. Ward stated that the Port Authority’s current commitments mean that no new capital projects are on the table for the next decade, even though his agency is among the more fiscally healthy in the region.

Ward identified two different causes of the infrastructure funding crunch. The first is that "we are living in the out years," experiencing a budget crisis deferred from a generation earlier. Additionally, he said, "we’re largely ignoring the role of urban centers because of this idea that you can do more with less," which he traced back to the Reagan Administration.

Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, underscored the sense of fiscal crisis. "Even what we have, we don’t have," she said, referring to the recent attempt by Westchester legislators to cut the payroll tax from last summer’s MTA rescue package.

The solution, they all seemed to agree, will necessarily include new funding mechanisms. Ward claimed that "the congestion pricing initiative will return time and time again until we get it right." Robert Yaro, the president of Regional Plan Association, agreed: "Congestion pricing is going to be back."

Higher tolls were repeatedly discussed approvingly, though no one got into specifics.

The panel also showed a lot of interest in raising revenue from increases in real-estate prices where new infrastructure is built, a process known as value capture. Yaro proposed that new transportation infrastructure could be paid for by recapturing some of the "hundreds of thousands of dollars" added "to each home within a half mile of those stations." Pinsky noted that "that’s essentially what we’ve done with the 7 extension," where the process has raised billions. Ward also expressed interest in value capture.

The focus on expensive mega-projects led one panelist to question whether less costly solutions should play a larger role in addressing the region’s transportation needs. Alyssa Katz, a consultant at the Pratt Center for Community Development, introduced Bus Rapid Transit into the discussion, noting that projects the other panelists seemed to favor are "incredibly expensive and difficult to do."

While the other panel members sounded bullish on BRT, they also seemed to downplay its potential significance within the region’s transportation network. "If you look at connectivity," said Ward, "BRT is a good example of that at the local level. But then there’s the regional connectivity and the global connectivity." Similarly, Yaro said that "BRT doesn’t replace; it complements."

He concluded by noting that a new generation of transportation infrastructure will depend on breakthroughs in funding. "The Port Authority invented the cash register bridge and Robert Moses perfected it," said Yaro. "We need a new cash register."
  • Another piece of the Connectivity puzzle has to be bike share programs to complement the transit network. That would be a huge boon to folks that have to walk more than 1/2 mile to the train/bus, especially in Brooklyn & Quuens.

    This also has huge tourist benefits – for instance, this morning I helped direct 5 french-speaking tourists on the Broadway bike lane around 57th Street navigate their way to the Seaport.

  • J

    I find it infuriating that Mr. Pinsky argues that we should be rebuilding our infrastructure while at the same time he pushes through projects that serve to put additional strain on that same infrastructure.

    Mr. Pinsky, why not try spending millions of EDC dollars on transit, ped, and bike improvements instead of on massive parking garages? If you want congestion pricing to fly, make it easy to get around without a car. This should be the TOP priority for EDC, not accommodating parking.

    The global cities NYC competes with aren’t building 3,000 car parking garages. Maybe they did in the 1970s, but not anymore. Sure one agency can’t do it alone, but if you want things to change, be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

  • J:Lai

    A much better process for allocating resources is needed. I agree that mega-projects like the 2nd ave subway, etc, are not the best uses for capital dollars. BRT is a good stopgap measure, but what would really be useful is repairing and upgrading all the existing subway track, signals, and stations. Improve service on existing subway lines first, then maybe think about adding new lines.

  • Simple solutions: Raise the tolls. Raise the gas tax to $3.00 per gallon.

  • Higher tolls would work. Give incentives to leave the car at home.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    I thought the new “cash register” was the $1.8 billion-plus MTA payroll tax and sundry other fees that downstate businesses and individuals are now shouldering.

  • I thought the new “cash register” was the $1.8 billion-plus MTA payroll tax and sundry other fees that downstate businesses and individuals are now shouldering.

    I think you were the only one who thought that, Nicole. The politicians knew it was a lie to get the pressure off them, and so did we.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    So then, Cap’n Transit (whoever you might be!), we really need political reform first, not more money.

    Otherwise, how do taxpayers know when the money to fund “lies” — and backdoor Albany bailouts of itself via the MTA — stops, and when the money to fund transit begins?

    The threshold certainly isn’t $1.8 billion in new funds a year. Is it $2.5 billion? $5 billion? Seems very expensive to find out this way.

  • So then, Cap’n Transit (whoever you might be!), we really need political reform first, not more money.

    Exactly. In fact, we shouldn’t spend any money until we fix all the political problems. Some of it might go to someone who doesn’t deserve it! Of course, we can all do without the subway until we’ve stopped all the politicians from lying.

  • Nicole Gelinas

    There’s a big difference between saying “we shouldn’t spend any money” and saying “we should just mindlessly *continue* to increase revenues because everything, of course, must be a problem of revenues and not a problem of costs.”

    We have tried the latter solution. We’ve been increasing state and city revenues for years, and we haven’t gotten modern transit. And now we’ve increased revenue for the MTA, and the state has stolen a big chunk of it, and has used the new money as an excuse to continue to allow labor costs, at the MTA and elsewhere, to spiral out of control.

    So maybe we should try the other approach. No?

  • Has any agency ever been improved by starving it of funds?

  • Good point, Alon. Surely, this is not the first time that a corrupt government has misappropriated revenues and racked up huge debts in order to continue to provide services to the public. What’s worked in the past?

    Let’s see. NOT the English Civil War. Not the French Revolution. What else?

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