The Politics of Road Pricing: Andrew Cuomo vs. Actual Polls

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Andrew Cuomo styles himself as a guy who gets stuff done. That’s what muscling through the Tappan Zee Bridge double-span boondoggle and the multi-billion dollar LaGuardia renovation is all about. But when reporters ask Cuomo about funding transit by putting a price on NYC’s free bridges, he likes to portray himself as a helpless bystander, stymied by politics.

Quinnipiac poll results released this morning again show that public resistance to a toll swap as envisioned in the Move NY plan (higher tolls on East River bridges, lower ones on outlying MTA crossings) is not nearly as deep as Cuomo makes it out to be. The survey of 1,108 NYC voters found 44 support Move NY-style toll reform to fund transit, while 49 percent oppose, replicating the findings of a poll this May.

Two weeks ago, the same governor who wrangled marriage equality through Albany told a Syracuse-based radio station that he is “dubious” about the political prospects of Move NY. “The outer boroughs were very opposed to this plan last time,” Cuomo said. “I don’t think there’s been a change of heart.”

In fact, the Q Poll reveals the absence of stiff opposition to Move NY in every borough. In Staten Island, there’s even a 61 percent majority in favor of the plan. Only in Brooklyn does opposition to the plan exceed support by more than 10 points, 52 to 41 percent.

These are numbers that a politician who wants to take on the big, systemic problems plaguing NYC’s streets and transportation system could work with, especially since we know that public opinion of road pricing improves after implementation. Sure, getting New York’s state legislators in line won’t be automatic. But let’s not pretend the greatest political obstacle to road pricing is the “outer boroughs” when it’s Cuomo himself.

The new Q Poll is a great hook for one of Streetsblog’s favorite graphics: Public support for road pricing initiatives increases after implementation. Graph: FHWA/CURACAO
  • scastro87

    Is it surprising that Staten Island, which doesn’t have any East River bridges, would support having tolls on those bridges so tolls on bridges in Staten Island would be reduced?

  • Bolwerk

    Maybe it is, from the perspective that even a decade ago it likely wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.

  • scastro87

    Maybe 10 years ago the proposal wouldn’t have promised reducing tolls on SI bridges. But it’s pretty obvious that Staten Islanders think they’re getting a good deal out of this in terms of reducing the tolls on the bridges they use most. It’s not like Staten Island is a mass transit dense borough that gets excited about money for mass transit.

  • Jeff

    I hate to sound too cynical, but I feel like the opinion of people who regularly drive over the currently-free bridges doesn’t really count. It’s basically akin to taking a poll of a kindergarten class about whether they should get free ice cream.

  • It’s not surprising. So what?

  • scastro87

    4/5 boroughs disapprove, even when adding the context on reducing other tolls and spending money on mass transit. If you take that part away, support is much lower. It’s disingenuous to say this plan would just take a bit of wrangling by Cuomo to pass and he’s ignoring the public.

    (SORRY THIS IS THE WRONG IMAGE).

  • scastro87

    Image I wanted to post.

  • If you take that part away, you’re not describing Move NY. When pollsters describe the actual proposal you get results that suggest a winnable fight. No one said it would be a gimme.

  • scastro87

    That’s true. I think the tone of the post made it seem easier than it probably is.

  • Bolwerk

    I’m not sure how easy it is to quantify this, but I still feel like there has been a sea change in attitude somewhere. I feel like a decade ago “free bridges” to Manhattan would have meant a lot more to SI (or to anyone, not just SI).

  • BBnet3000

    Likewise the plan proposes reducing tolls on the Throgs Neck/Whitestone, which have no viable transit alternative.

  • Ardcomp

    It is not true to say public opinion improves after implementation of road pricing. The Stockholm referendum was limited to those inside the proposed zone and excluded everyone outside but who travelled into the area for work.

    As for Manchester and Edinburgh, there was no pricing introduced after the referendums as public support was very much against.

    If you want to see why road pricing is promoted, follow the money and see who benefits.

  • JoshNY

    As others have said, these poll results aren’t nearly as good as you’re describing (a cynic might say “spinning”) them to be. To me, this looks like Staten Islanders like the idea because the VNB toll will be lower, and everyone else (in the aggregate, not as individuals, that is) is opposed. Because Staten Islanders are in favor of lower tolls for themselves in a fairly large majority, the overall numbers look pretty close.

  • HamTech87

    What’s f#%*’d up is that it is cheaper to drive from Westchester into Manhattan than to take the train, even off-peak. Somehow, we have to change that simple calculation.

  • Even if you cherrypicked the data and took out Staten Island, the overall numbers wouldn’t change much since it’s the smallest borough. Politically, Staten Island matters more than its population suggests. It’s the home of one of NYC’s two representatives in the Senate majority, or two of five if you count the IDC.

  • JoshNY

    I suppose that’s a fair point. Even so, the overall premise of this post seems to be “Cuomo is incorrect when he says that public opinion does not favor toll reform” and I think the poll shows that he is correct to say so. It’s not by a huge margin, certainly, and maybe even within the margin of error, but I would hardly find the poll results shown to be worth hanging my hat on if I were trying to prove that there is popular support for toll reform. Certainly not enough support to make Cuomo care.

  • The point isn’t that a majority support toll reform — that’s clearly not evident in the Q Poll numbers. I’m saying opposition isn’t so stiff that it makes the idea politically untenable. I agree the poll won’t sway Cuomo, but that’s because he’s just not interested.

    If Cuomo actually wanted to make a historically relevant contribution to NYC’s transportation system, the opportunity is there for him to take it on.

  • JoshNY

    Sure it is, but if there’s evidence he wants to make any contributions that he can’t take full credit for, I haven’t seen it yet.

  • AnoNYC

    Unfortunately, most people do not understand the Move NY Plan. They do not realize the enormous benefits.

    People associate tolls with tax, and Americans hate taxes.

  • Joe R.

    I would put the hate taxes part in context. In the EU taxes are much higher but the antitax sentiment is much lower. The reason is unlike here in the US, where a lot of our taxes go for debt service, the military, or questionable programs, in Europe a lot of the taxes go for things people use, like health care or great transit systems. People don’t mind paying taxes so long as in their minds they’re getting something equal in value. Here in the US we spend very little on important things like infrastructure. We misspend a lot of health and education dollars on broken systems (insurance companies, unionized public education) which cost more and do less than a directly government run program. On top of all this, we undertax the wealthy, with the resulting deficit spending making debt service an increasingly large part of the budget. Debt service provides zero benefit to the average taxpayer but it costs them a lot of taxes.

    The MoveNY plan shouldn’t be equated with a tax. Rather, it’s a user fee which you can choose to avoid paying by not driving where the fee is charged. Those for whom the fee will be worthwhile will mostly be people who drive for a living. Time is money. If you can squeeze in a few more deliveries by paying $50 in fees it’s worth it from a business standpoint. The only people who won’t like it will be those who don’t really value their time.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Joe,

    The size of State as percent of GDP Is Essentially Equal NY vs. EU. Taxation Is roughly Equal.

    You are most correct that Europeans do not gripe as Much about taxatiion as We do. We spend about 10% of GDP on blowing stuff up in The desert. We also seem to have a bigger issue with corruptiion than say Germany. Finally European government employee pensions do Not Consume 40% of local and provincial budgets Like in The US.

    Therefore, Euros tend to see Way more benefits for Their involuntary taxes than we do.

  • Nathan Rosenquist

    Joe, I agree with just about everything you wrote here, except I’d like to point out that European teachers are generally unionized, just like American teachers. I see this mistake frequently in progressive online rants: I’m nodding my head in agreement with the commenter, until seemingly out of nowhere they identify unionized teachers as a waste because they don’t know any better. There is plenty of waste in American education, stemming mostly from corporate influence of education spending and an obsession with standardized testing. But at this point teacher’s unions are one of the few things holding our education system together. Don’t let anyone misinform you on that.

  • lop

    US military is ~3.5% of GDP, not 10%. ~1.5% in the EU.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    the various arms of the national security state add up to 10% of GDP

  • Joe R.

    The problem isn’t unions per se, but the fact that they’re in legislator’s pockets. The UFT was given several retroactive pension increases with no real way to fund them. There were also staffing increases. Look at what they spend per pupil in the EU versus the US, and they have better educated students to show for the lower spending there. Remember there’s a huge difference between unions which advocate giving productive, highly effective members good compensation (something I agree with) versus unions asking for unnecessary staffing increases, virtually guaranteed jobs, and benefit increases for members who are already getting better benefits than most private sector workers. I can’t support the latter because we’ve seen it doesn’t lead to better performance. It’s just another form of waste, graft, corruption. For decades all we’ve heard from the UFT is we need to throw more money into the system to better educate our students. Well, we’ve done that. Inflation adjusted spending per pupil has more than doubled from the time I was in public schools, and yet by most metrics the schools are worse. It’s a shame no politician is willing to take them to task for that. If I were in charge, first two things I would do would be to cut the budget for the DOE and NYPD in half. Those are two bloated organizations with little to show for all the money they’re getting.

    As of late, I’m seriously starting to question whether we need public education at all, indeed any education, for the majority of citizens. I know that’s sacrosanct in places like this, but my rationale is with everything politicians are doing, there aren’t going to be jobs for most of these students, so why waste money teaching them? Yes, it’s a nihilistic position, but I see no real solutions from either the left or the right. The jobs a lot of college graduates end up getting could be done with a grade school education. If the US is going to continue with its militaristic ventures we might as well just draft 10 year olds into the army. This is obviously tongue-in-cheek, but seriously the US has really warped priorities. Infrastructure, which often leads to job creation, is far down on the list. Foreign wars are near the top.

  • lop

    There was a way to pay for the pension increases.

    http://www.amazon.com/Dow-2008-Different-This-Time/dp/1893958701

    This guy had to be right.

  • Bolwerk

    I wonder if European public spending on transit is as high as ours.

  • Joe R.

    Whether it is or isn’t at least they have a much better system to show for it.

  • lop

    Is it still a user fee if the money is spent on other things?

    http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Truck-company-owners-say-Thruway-tolls-6427816.php

  • Joe R.

    If it’s on other things which indirectly benefit drivers (like improved public transit) then yes. On the specific case in that article, I might say no except for the fact the Thruway tolls don’t even come close to covering the damages heavy trucks do to the road. If tolls covered those and then some, there would be a valid case. As things stand now, the truckers are being subsidized even if they don’t see it that way.

  • lop

    So a bike user fee to build highways and get cars off the streets to make room for bikes would be fair game too?

  • Joe R.

    We already have highways. There’s no room to build any more. And they wouldn’t benefit cyclists unless you also build a bike lane on the highway. If anything highways tend to encourage more car use. These cars ultimately eventually end up on local streets. Besides that, as you know the best way to get cars off the streets isn’t to build highways but to make it harder to park. Or to just outright ban them from certain areas. Neither costs money to do. In fact, doing either saves a ton of money given all the issues motor vehicle use causes.

    The math wouldn’t work out anyway. You would have to charge each cyclist tens of thousands of dollars per year to get enough money to pay for highways.

    The math only works out (sometimes) to get road users to pay for other projects because there are a lot of road users, and as a group they’re a lot wealthier than cyclists. Also, as a group they cause negative externalities. In fact, that and covering operating costs are really the only rationales which should be using for imposing user fees. Someone cycling or walking arguably imposes few or no externalities. They cause just about negligible road wear. So what’s they point of charging them anything?

  • ahwr

    Indirect benefit. Just like transit for drivers.

  • Joe R.

    Except there is no indirect benefit because more highways wouldn’t take cars off the streets, assuming you even had the room for them in NYC, which you don’t. Now I might support some type of fee (a sales tax maybe) to build huge underground parking garages at highway exits, the idea being you can only drive in NYC on highways. Once you get off the highway, you park in the garage, and take some other mode to your final destination. Everyone would benefit from this—bus riders, cyclists, and pedestrians. That’s why I would fund it from a broad-based tax like a sales tax, not a fee imposed solely upon cyclists. In fact, any plan to get cars off the streets would benefit a broader group than just cyclists, which is why everyone should pay for it.

  • ahwr

    A bicycle user fee (not tax!) should be used to pay for highway expansion. Not to cover all the costs. Just some of them. Because it would indirectly benefit cyclists. Just like funding transit in part with motor vehicle user fees (not tax!) benefits drivers.

    The MoveNY cordon tax is a tax. Not a user fee. It’s a good enough plan. Would be better with time of day pricing and not bonding out the revenue. But it’s still worth doing.

  • Joe R.

    The thing is how much tax would you get from cyclists, and more importantly how would you collect it? A sales tax on bikes or bike parts is something I might be OK with, given that it’s unobtrusive, plus it would be maybe some tens of dollars annually. Anything else would be unworkable. And if this fee existed, I would be very adamant that highways would have to have a parallel, non-stop bike route. That’s a direct benefit I’m more than willing to pay for.

    I personally would have liked to see some enhancements to the MoveNY plan. Time of day pricing as you said is one. I would also like to have seen some progressive cordoning, such as a modest fee (i.e. a few dollars) to enter city limits during peak times, a higher one once you get roughly past the midpoint of the outer boroughs, and finally a hefty fee to enter Manhattan during peak times. You could reduce or eliminate some of these fees off-peak or on weekends.

    And yes, a big no to bonding out the revenue. Governments are far too eager to spend money before they even have it. If the plan works better than expected, meaning a lot fewer people choose to drive and pay the tax, then the projected revenues may not materialize. Then again, it may be a wash because the city would spend less on negative externalities.

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