Congestion Pricing Foes Sit Down at the Table With Fair Toll Advocates


After years of meetings and tweaks, the Move NY fair toll campaign launched this morning with a simple message: With AAA and trucking interests at the table beside transit advocates, reforming New York’s broken toll system actually has a shot. It’s a different beast than the congestion pricing plan that Mayor Bloomberg pushed for six years ago, with more obvious benefits for New Yorkers who don’t live in Manhattan.

The coalitions are shaping up differently this time, backers noted during a series of panel discussions this morning. “Last time around there was a feeling that this was being shoved down people’s throats,” said Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen. “We have staunch opponents of previous pricing plans with us.”

“It’s a pleasure working with the other side here for a change, instead of being in our own corners,” said AAA New York’s Jon Corlett. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, compared sitting down with AAA to Nixon visiting China.

Why are these groups willing to work together? The Move NY plan, developed by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, has some big carrots for motorists while still reducing congestion and funding transit. The plan would charge everyone driving into Manhattan below 60th Street, while outer-borough crossings with few transit options nearby would see a toll cut. It also asks Manhattanites to pay up by removing the borough’s parking tax rebate and adding a surcharge to taxi trips. The plan would raise almost $1.5 billion annually, with a quarter of it going to road and bridge maintenance. The rest would go to transit in the form of both capital funds and operating assistance.

The exact mix of projects that would benefit remains to be determined, but Move NY advocates say they would like to focus on filling outer-borough transit gaps through a mix of bus and rail expansion, funding things like a new transit route on Staten Island’s north shore, additional Bus Rapid Transit lines, and new Metro-North service in the eastern Bronx to Penn Station.

To keep things simple and focus on the plan’s core fair-toll principle, Move NY has dropped some of the bells and whistles from previous versions of the plan. The plan no longer calls for low-income and off-peak toll discounts, changing Port Authority tolls (“Let sleeping Christies lie,” Schwartz said), new bike-pedestrian bridges over the East River, or reconstructing the Belt Parkway to accommodate trucks. These and other tweaks could be added back into the plan later, but Move NY is focused on building support for its central objective: toll reform.

Kendra Hems, president of the New York State Motor Truck Association, supported the Move NY goals of cutting down on car traffic and diverting truckers from busy surface streets, offering a connection to Mayor de Blasio’s Vision Zero agenda. “We know that the communities don’t want us there,” she said, “and truthfully, our drivers would rather operate in areas with less pedestrian and bicycle traffic, as well.”

The Move NY toll plan, showing proposed one-way E-ZPass rates. Click to enlarge

The spirit of collaboration feels real, but the campaign remains far from the finish line: Backers aren’t yet lining up to endorse the plan, which is still open for adjustments, and Move NY is at least a year (and an election) away from launching a full-court press in Albany. “We are not looking for Mayor de Blasio or Governor Cuomo to take a position on this issue,” Matthiessen said.

Getting to that point will require the support of outer-borough leaders who opposed the last attempt at road pricing. Council Member Mark Weprin, representing eastern Queens, opposed the 2007 congestion pricing plan as an Assembly member but is open to the Move NY concept now. “There’s a knee-jerk reaction to this plan. A lot of people jump out and hold press conferences,” Weprin said in a not-so-veiled reference to his brother, Assembly Member David Weprin, who preemptively came out against the Move NY plan last year.

The Move NY plan would include a lockbox provision written into the legislation, and bonds supported by the toll revenue would include provisions requiring the state to preserve existing MTA revenue sources. But Mark Weprin still had reservations. “You need to assure me and the people I represent, if the tolls are going to go down this year, that they aren’t going to go up the year after,” he said. “But I am open to options.”

I asked Matthiessen what impact Governor Cuomo’s recent toll discounts on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge might have on the Move NY plan. “It’s understandable that he was looking to give them some toll relief,” he said, before noting the drawback. “If you reduce tolls, you have to understand that you’re losing revenue in the process that is vital to supporting our mass transit system.” Matthiessen said he doesn’t expect to see more one-off toll discounts around the region. “That’s the kind of thing that would undermine support for our toll-swap concept,” he said. “We’re going to move forward assuming that was just a one-time event.”

The plan would also need support from suburban legislators, many of whom oppose the Payroll Mobility Tax, which was created as part of a 2009 MTA funding package. Yesterday in Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein floated the idea of eliminating the tax in exchange for the Move NY plan. Matthiessen said that was a non-starter for many of those interested in the plan. “If you literally swap one for the other, you’d be left with no net revenue,” he said, “and for us the whole goal is to have new revenue to invest in our region’s roads, bridges, and transit system.”

Today’s event featured Kevin Law of the Long Island Association, a business group, but most of Move NY’s outreach has focused on the five boroughs. Matthiessen said he’d like to start talking with more legislators on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.

So far, the lack of attention from legislators and the governor suits Move NY just fine. Transit funding has not been a priority in Albany because other items are taking center stage as the MTA starts to formulate its next capital plan. “It’s not unusual that elected officials are going to focus on those issues that are commanding their attention at the time,” Matthiessen said. “We feel confident that Albany is going to focus on this issue when it has to, which is at the end of the year.”

  • Sunny Zheng

    3 more questions came to mind…

    -London’s charging system charges trips within the CBD as well as those entering and exiting. I assume that this plan doesn’t call for that?
    -Will the FDR Drive also have a cordon at 60 St?
    -Will someone traveling through (Midtown Tunnel->above 60 St) within a small predefined window of time be paying $5.33 or $10.66?

  • Bolwerk

    There is plenty of air for everybody to breathe, at least for now. There is a very finite amount of street space for motor vehicles in Lower Manhattan and not everybody who wants to can use it. Pricing it simply makes sense.

  • nyctuber

    Complete nonsense. Taxpayers pay for those roads, and should not ever be charged again to simply use them.

  • qrt145

    Perhaps you haven’t heard of the tragedy of the commons, but it’s what happens when you make something free and it’s ruined through overuse. Pricing is one of of dealing with it. The law of the jungle is not.

    There are plenty of public goods which charge usage fees. Do you suggest getting rid of those too? Many people here think we should make public transit free, for example…

  • nyctuber

    Our current tax structure pays for upkeep of the roads. Not interested in straw men, sorry.

  • Bolwerk

    Presumably, people who drive into Lower Manhattan pay disproportionately lower taxes than the people who live and work there.

    Either way, the people on foot are taxed to pay for the drivers.

  • Bolwerk

    It’s funny when people recite a straw man and then say they aren’t interested in straw men.

  • nyctuber

    Taxes are not measured in that manner. Stop advocating the insane idea of forcing people to pay for driving on public roads.

  • nyctuber

    Learn the definition of the term.

  • Andrew

    “Our current tax structure” doesn’t even charge motorists for the space their vehicles occupy on city streets, let alone for the upkeep of those streets.

  • Andrew

    Apparently you don’t remember the traffic congestion in the days following Sandy, when a lot of car owners who normally ride transit decided to drive into the Manhattan CBD, because the subway system wasn’t running.

    And that was in a city with below-50% vehicle ownership rates. Without a reliable transit system, a lot more households would find vehicle ownership a necessity.

  • Bolwerk

    People are already forced to pay for driving on public roads. In fact, those of us who rarely or never drive still pay for it.

    All that would change is people would pay more in relation to their use. Truly an insane concept!

  • Bolwerk

    Okay, let’s have it. What do you think the term means?

  • Well, “free” is a weasel word; nothing is free. I am in favour of public transit being paid for in its entirety by taxes, just as garbage collection and firefighting and many other essential services are.

    Furthermore, this comment about “free” public transit conflates two very different things. Congestion pricing is primarily a health-and-safety measure, a means to control overcrowding on the roads. The fact that it would bring in revenue is a (welcome) side-effect; even if no new revenue were needed, even if all our public goods were already adequately funded by public funds (taxes), congestion pricing would still be a good way to manage overcrowding on the roads. Likewise, if transit fares were intended as a means to control overcrowding, then this would at least be a defensible rationale — temporarily, until the system could repsond to the demands of the ridership by the construction of new lines.

    But transit fare were in fact always meant to pay the costs. This is why the 5-cent fare became a problem: it was inadequate to pay the costs of the private system; and, even after the public takeover of the BMT and IRT, politicians became trapped in the uniquely American illogical ideological box that required both that the fare remain low and that taxes not be increased. One or the other must keep pace with costs; I prefer that it be taxes, though, given the impossibility of this under the prevailing orthodoxy, then it must be fares.

  • nyctuber

    100% false.

  • Bolwerk

    Please tell us how motorists pay for city streets, and what percentage of their own costs they cover.

  • Bolwerk

    If CP works, and there is no reason to think it can’t if the right price is set, CP is a money saver for anyone who values their time at greater than the congestion charge.

    If you prefer sitting in traffic, probably burning a few gallons of fuel in the process anyway, to paying $8 to actually get to your destination, you place very little value on your own time.

    CP is good business too. Anti-CP is literally anti-car.

  • nyctuber

    Part of my taxes as an NYC resident goes to upkeep of the roads. Do you plan on exempting NYC residents from the insane ‘congestion pricing’ bs? Didn’t think so. If we start charging everyone else for merely driving on our roads, they can do it to us as well. No thank you.

  • nyctuber

    Completely nonsensical.

  • qrt145

    I was talking “free” in the context of usage fees, thank you. I just brought up transit as an example to highlight the obvious point that usage fees for some public services already exist, and therefore it is nowhere near “insane” to think of charging usage fees for using public roads (which we in fact already do on many highways, bridges, etc.)

  • qrt145

    It means “I disagree and can’t provide a reasoned response so I’ll just use fancy names to ‘dismiss’ your argument”.

  • Ah, yes. Good point.

    My elaboration on the whole “free” thing and on the distinction between fares (as revenue generation) and congestion prices (as a tool for management of crowding) shouldn’t be seen as a disagreement on this broader point of yours.

  • Bolwerk
  • Bolwerk

    ^ Complete thought-stopper with no effort to actually offer any justification for the claim it makes.

  • Andrew

    New York City residents who don’t own cars (more than half of NYC households) are subject to the same exact income, sales, and property taxes as those who do own cars.

    Even among car owners, some use their cars every day while others only use theirs occasionally; some park on public land free of charge while others pay for off-street storage. There is a lot of room for improvement in the incredibly blunt financing tools that we have today.

  • nyctuber

    Owning a car shouldn’t be relevant at all. Charging people for simply using the street is madness.

  • Andrew

    So saith the one whose livelihood depends heavily on constant access to city streets.

  • Bolwerk

    Thank you for this brilliantly thought out moral defence of cordoning the street off for private purposes. You won’t complain about that traffic jam it causes, amirite?

  • nyctuber

    Whatever that means

  • Andrew

    I’m sorry if I used too many big words.

  • Joe R.

    Let’s try this another way. Do you think other people should pay the costs of someone’s driving? Driving on public streets has a lot of negative effects on both other drivers and non-drivers. Cars pollute, they create quality of life issues (horns honking, ugly rows of parked cars), they directly cause injuries and deaths, they delay people on buses, bikes, or on foot. The public at large pays for all of these costs associated with driving. We pay for police, hospitals, fire departments, traffic controls, etc. Without cars we would pay far less for these things, or not at all (i.e. you don’t need traffic signals if there are only bicycles and pedestrians).

    At its heart, congestion pricing is both a means to control traffic levels and a way to make drivers pay for the problems they cause which society has to pay for anyway. The hard fact is private automobiles are largely unnecessary to get around much of NYC. They’re a convenience at best. The price of the convenience of the relative few who drive shouldn’t be put on the backs of the supermajority who don’t. Drivers should pay for the problems they cause. They should also pay a fair price to park. Congestion pricing, along with a total ban on curbside parking (except for vehicles loading/unloading) are two measures the city could take to bring some sanity to the present situation.

    The bottom line is try living in this city as a non-driver for a few days and see all the crap you have to deal with as a pedestrian or a cyclist. Cars delay us, they endanger us, they ruin our health. The price of someone else’s convenience is too high to be borne by us. Making drivers pay a fair amount for the problems they cause is a start. Down the road, I would like to see more and more of NYC made off-limits to private automobiles.

  • nyctuber

    I think that charging people to merely drive on public roads is madness and an absurd power grab. Period. Many other ways to fund street repair, and restricting ‘private’ cars is bad news.

  • qrt145

    Let’s stop feeding the troll. Obviously he is not interested in discussion or in providing any argument beyond “it’s madness, period” or “the streets are already paid for”. You are not going to change his mind.

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