Congestion Pricing Q&A With Rohit Aggarwala, Part 3

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Rohit Aggarwala, New York City’s Director of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, sat down to answer some of the more frequently asked questions about Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal for a three-year congestion pricing pilot program. Below is the third part of our four part interview. Here is Part 1 and Part 2.

Aaron Naparstek: Mayor Bloomberg’s plan proposes that all of the congestion pricing revenue would go to a new public authority called the SMART Fund. Why not let the MTA receive the funds? Why is it a good idea to create a new bureaucracy?

Rohit Aggarwala: I think that’s one of those things that has to be discussed and worked out. Our proposal was to create the SMART Fund. Roughly half of its revenue would come from congestion pricing, the other half would be a joint contribution from the city and state. By devoting the revenue to a new financing board that would make regional decisions about transportation investment priorities, that would be one way that you can prevent the money from disappearing.

There are a variety of other ways you can do it. I think the commission and the state legislature and the governor are going to wind up weighing in on whether the SMART Fund is the right way. But I think there is near universal agreement that congestion pricing revenue should be dedicated to transit investment.

AN: What transit enhancements will the City undertake prior to the launch of congestion pricing?

RA: The proposal that we submitted jointly with the MTA and the State to the U.S. Department of Transportation envisioned a number of things, the most important was the roll out of more than 300 new buses. The buses would be used for increasing the frequency of bus service, new express routes, and some enhanced express bus service to specific areas within the suburbs.

What’s particularly important in terms of making those buses move quickly are some of the Bus Rapid Transit improvements that the City will do, like signal prioritization, automated bus lane enforcement, and some of the incremental improvements that, for example, could facilitate easier transfers from certain bus lines to certain subway stations, things like that.

AN: If congestion pricing is so successful that it removes 112,000 daily car trips from the streets, will the subway system have the capacity to handle all of the new riders?

RA: Yes. On those few lines where there’s truly no more capacity during rush hour, the plan takes that into account and creates new capacity on the bus routes that would allow people who use those crowded subway lines to switch over to buses. We think that we can enhance bus service so that it’s faster and more attractive.

I think one of things that most people miss is that it’s not like all 112,000 drivers are going to switch over to the 7 train or the Lexington Line during rush hour. There are lots of subway lines that, even at rush hour, have the capacity for more frequency or more cars and a lot of the people who will switch will actually be riding during the middle of the day. That is a time when the river crossings are not at capacity, but the street grid in Manhattan is at its most congested. So, that’s a time when it’s very easy to switch somebody onto the subway system because the subways are by no means at capacity at lunchtime.

AN: Will congestion pricing funds be used for public space, bicycling, and pedestrian improvements?

RA: We envisioned congestion pricing partially funding the completion of the city’s Bike Master Plan. The Bike Master Plan is, of course, a tiny about of money compared to the Second Avenue Subway. But because bicycling contributes to a reduction in auto-based transportation, bike projects are something that I think should be eligible. We didn’t include pedestrian plazas or things like that in the financing but we made a commitment in PlaNYC to do those projects. There’s a lot that DOT is already beginning to work on. The concrete changes do take time but it’s a new regime over there, and I think they are really pushing that kind of thinking as quickly as it goes.

  • gecko

    MTA should be considered a money pit unless it starts to seriously act on human-scale transport and transit.

  • Gelston

    How will we be sure that the CP revenue doesn’t replace other transit money the city would otherwise get? Is there a revenue-sharing formula for the region and the city that governs the other sources?

  • Red

    Have we run out of Rohit Aggarwala glamor shots? =P

  • Budrick

    The MTA will be considered a money pit until it stops being strangled by the unions and it can start paying market wages instead of inflated salaries to the lucky few fortunate enough to get their foot in the door who benefit from the unlucky many.

  • JF

    Yeah, the nerve of these people, wanting a decent salary to pay for a New York apartment and feed their families!

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Budrick,
    $24/hr for subway mechanics does not a stranglehold make. The MTA unions do pretty well vis a vis the private sector in Health and Welfare and Pensions, that is what holds them to the MTA. Otherwise they would leave for higher wages elsewhere. There are particular labor market needs to mass transit. People have to develop skills on a single piece of equipment for most of their careers, therefor the agency needs to train people and then retain them. Same with the managers who are often criticized by the unions, anyone running a private sector enterprise with 60,000 employees would make a whole hell of a lot more than what the MTA leaders make. They, too, stay for the security, H&W and Pensions. That is the reality of the MTA labor market. Bashing the agency and the workers only makes the citizenry more suspicious of mass transit which at the MTA. The MTA, although clearly having made mistakes and having more to make, is the premier mass transit agency in the US. 75% of operating costs in all mass transit is labor expense, that is not strangling that is what it is. I’m sure you are very efficient in whatever it is that you do but seriously, driving this debate down into broad-brush, anti-labor smeers, entirely unsupported by facts is just what the debate about Congestion Pricing does not need. On the other hand, maybe you would like a job with the TA, then you have what is called Civil Service, nothing to do with getting a foot in the door, go take the test man then wait in line, I’m sure you will be an asset to the track gang working third shift on an elevated line in January, or down with the rats in the tunnels.

  • momos

    The root of the MTA’s financial problems is not the unions. It is underfunding by government. The City of New York has drastically cut its contributions to the MTA since the early 1980s. I would argue that the State of New York should pick up the slack, since the MTA is a multi-jurisdictional authority that broadly benefits the state as a whole (beyond the suburban counties served by the MTA when you consider the vital economic importance of the MTA).

    Compared with European systems like those found in Berlin or Paris, the MTA is dramatically underfunded on both a per route mile and per passenger basis. Those cities receive healthy funds from national gasoline taxes, while the MTA is configured to depend on subway fares and borrowing just to strive for a “state of good repair.”

    This chronic underfunding is the fundamental problem. It’s unbelievably shortsighted from an environmental and economic point of view to continue starving the MTA of necessary funds. I say tax the hell out of automobiles and invest the money in the MTA.

  • gecko

    The MTA is a money pit because it is completely dependent on legacy transportation moving at the best of times over a half ton of steel, glass, etc for ever person moved and the typical wasteful infrastructure that’s required to support it.

    The human capital part is its biggest asset which it also wastes.

  • Budrick

    momos–True, the underfunding is a national disgrace. Every other developed country (and even some underdeveloped countries) takes good care of the transportation system of the country’s largest city as a symbol of national pride. In the US, Congress and the President overlook New York City, instead of seeing it as the economic engine and national showcase that it is. For its part, New York State was once one of the most progressive jurisdictions in the world, in terms implementing policies that benefited its citizens, but is now controlled by scheming, self-serving, crafty politicians such as Sheldon Silver.

    Still, sad to say it, but the chronic underfunding has actually been a bargaining point for the MTA in negotiations with the unions–if funding went up 10% tomorrow, I’d expect the unions to go on strike for 20% or 30% pay hikes.

    The MTA’s pension costs are a HUGE part of its upcoming budget deficit.

  • momos

    Budrick – It is true pension & health care costs are a huge part of the MTA’s impeding financial crisis. And it’s probably true that if the MTA’s budget were increased 10%, the unions would want their workers to get a piece of it.

    On the other hand, isn’t a robust healthcare system and decent pensions an ideal American citizens value? The fact that employers like the MTA (or Detroit for that matter) are stuck providing these things instead of the national government is the problem. These costs are bankrupting employers everywhere. There needs to be a single payer system, and the costs need to be transferred to a central government.

    I’d also point out that the MTA is one of the few major employers left in the city that provides unionized and truly living-wage jobs for working class New Yorkers. Their workforce is predominantly comprised of ethnic minorities and especially African Americans. These are valuable jobs that can support a family and put kids through school. I don’t begrudge the union for preventing the MTA from going down the road of layoffs and non-unionized outsourcing.

    Again, the larger fundamental problem is the unwillingness of the state and federal governments to fund the MTA at a world class level. The unions and healthcare are secondary issues that distract from this fundamental truth.

    Transportation in NYC is a classic public good. It cannot turn a profit (hence the resolute fact that the system needs permanently high levels of investment), but it is fundamental to the viability of the city and creates endless opportunity for profit elsewhere in the market. It needs to be widely recognized as such, with commensurate financial commitments (I’d go so far as to say a New York State constitutional amendment is appropriate) from the government.

  • You know the cost issue with the MTA isn’t the workers or their compensation. It is the fact that the low-to-mid level management is utterly and totally corrupt.
    I have relatives that work in various positions in the MTA and I know of a couple of examples of MTA managers utilizing their positions to get several 100,000$ in building materials to finance improvements to their houses, and other stories, it would be awesome if one of the local papers did an investigation of the outright rape of the transportation funds that goes on.
    That’s why there has to be a firewall between the MTA and the CP money.

  • Funds from congestion pricing revenues can be pledged against specific transit obligations in a similar way to which MTA bonds are backed by fare revenues. The specter of creating another authority flies in the face of every good government commitment to reduce political insular fiefdoms. SMART would layer on another bureaucracy, smart-guy agendas, and governor-mayor stalemates that all require parallel oversight mechanisms to those we’re just building for the MTA. The MTA is far from perfect–but we know where to find them…and they’re getting more transparent.

  • momos

    I don’t want to come across as an MTA apologist. They’ve had poor management in the past and I have no doubt corruption occurs (not just among low- and middle-level management).

    But Joby Jacob, you have to look at the bigger picture. What percentage of the MTA’s budget is wasted by corruption? Even if it exceeds 1% or 2% annually, which would be enormous, that would still relegate corruption as a marginal issue.

    Folks, it’s very simple: the MTA is vastly underfunded by the state and federal governments. This is the FUNDAMENTAL problem.

    Every time you raise a secondary issue like workers compensation or anecdotal stories of corruption (egregious as those are), you’re letting the feds and state off the hook. THE FEDS AND STATE ARE THE PROBLEM.

    Bottom line: there needs to be a significant increase in the gasoline tax, phased in over time to allow people to make adjustments, with the new revenue earmarked specifically for mass transit. There could be additional taxes, such as taxing cars based on the size of their engines and CO2 output as they do in the UK. Only with an additional $2 billion per year for operating mass transit in New York instead of subsidizing drivers will NYC see its transit system improve over time to the standard seen in Japanese and European cities.

  • momos

    Here’s an example of how the problem is with the Feds & State (ie, inadequate investment):

    After Flooding, M.T.A. Plans Subway Fixes
    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/21/nyregion/21flood.html?_r=1&ref=nyregion&oref=slogin

    The authority’s executive director, Elliot G. Sander, said short-term improvements, like raising the grates or installing valves, would cost $30 million. But more extensive projects under consideration, such as increasing sewer or pumping capacity, could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and take at least several years. There was no immediate indication of how the authority, which is facing a financial crisis, would find the money for the projects.

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