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Is Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan, a regressive tax, unfair to New York City's poor and working class?

That's what Westchester Assembly member Richard Brodsky and quite a few of the other critics claim. Before last week's public hearing before the state legislature Brodsky cited a study commissioned by City Hall showing the mayor's plan would increase the average speed of vehicles in Manhattan from 8 mph to 8.6 mph, and said to the Daily News, "Why is this worth a regressive tax on the middle class and a new invasion of privacy to go only six-tenths of a mile further in an hour?"

There are a lot of different ways to address the equity question and rebut the claim that congestion pricing is a regressive tax. Bruce Schaller did a nice job of it for Gotham Gazette. And the Drum Major Institute has made a strong case as well.

But the best case of all might be made simply by handing Richard Brodsky and his fellow State Assembly members Metrocards and loading them all up on the M14 crosstown bus, winner of last year's Pokey Award for its 3.9 mph average speed.

New York City's fare-paying bus riders account for nearly 2.3 million trips on the average weekday. As a group, they are among New York's most disadvantaged -- disproportionately women, seniors, children and the disabled. Even relatively well-off bus commuters with full-time jobs, have household incomes $10,000, on average, lower than car commuters (see chart above). While bus ridership is surging, bus speeds are plummeting. Some New York City buses travel slower than a walking pace.

When London Mayor Ken
Livingstone was mustering public support for congestion pricing, he made sure that the public and the critics knew that bus riders would be some of the biggest beneficiaries of his traffic reduction plan. Mayor Bloomberg ought to do the same.

How much will bus riders benefit? While six-tenths of a mile per hour speed increase may not sound like much to Brodsky, it adds up to nearly 14 million hours a year in time savings for bus riders, according to calculations by economist Charles Komanoff.

Applying the speed-up projected in the mayor's PlaNYC report -- ranging from 1 percent in Staten Island to 7.5 percent in Manhattan -- Komanoff estimates that once congestion pricing gets under way, bus riders annually will spend 3.2 million fewer hours waiting at bus stops and 10.7 million fewer hours stuck in bus crawl (Download Komanoff's detailed spreadsheet).

The mayor needs to develop specific constituencies that feel they will benefit directly from pricing. If the city's one million plus regular bus riders feel they have a stake in pricing, it would help create a reservoir of support outside of Manhattan. Most New Yorkers outside of Manhattan seem to perceive pricing's benefits as diffuse and its costs as very specific. This is why a proposal that costs nothing to 95 percent of the public is having political trouble.

When underdog Bill Clinton ran for president, his campaign kept itself focused with the slogan "It's the economy, stupid." Similarly, Mayor Bloomberg's slogan could be, "It's the bus riders, stu… um, Brodsky."

Photo: Birdfarm on Flickr

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