Pricing Alternatives Fail the “Reality Test”

A side-by-side comparison of PlaNYC congestion pricing and alternatives offered by pricing opponents shows that the Bloomberg proposal is the only one that would have an immediate impact on auto traffic while improving transit. Further, the report concludes that plans put forth by Congressman Anthony Weiner, Council Member Lew Fidler, and Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free would actually promote driving.

Does the Rubber Meet the Road? Investigating the Alternatives to Congestion Pricing, a 14-page study (pdf) issued by Environmental Defense and the Pratt Center for Community Development, breaks it down as follows.

Anthony Weiner’s Reducing Traffic and Improving Our Environment: An Alternative to the Car Tax: Many aspects of this proposal are similar to the PlaNYC’s original congestion pricing scheme. However, Congressman Weiner would limit congestion pricing to trucks only and would take a series of steps to open up more existing road space for faster-moving traffic, such as reducing alternate side street parking, and increasing traffic law enforcement, that would attract more traffic in the long run. He also suggests large-scale, long-term capital investments, such as building a Cross-Harbor Freight Tunnel, that while essential for long-term regional planning, cannot address traffic with the immediacy and revenue-generating capacity of congestion pricing.

Lew Fidler’s 9 Carat Stone Plan: This plan to fund long term transportation projects, including three major tunnels requiring massive capital investment, essentially levies a regional payroll tax that would support the state’s general fund and not be dedicated to transportation investment, unlike tolls. Councilman Fidler proposes hydrogen powered cars, which automakers and scientists agree are many years and breakthroughs away from being practical and commercially viable. He supplements these ideas with short term measures such as increased truck loading zones and enforcement of traffic laws that, while perhaps good to speed traffic flow and ensure better safety, are not likely to achieve significant reductions in traffic volumes. Other elements of Councilman Fidler’s plan, such as moving government offices from Manhattan to the other boroughs, would simply displace current traffic to new locations, and to the extent that those locations are less centrally-located in the transit system, there would likely be a net increase in traffic overall.

Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free’s Alternative Approaches to Traffic Congestion Mitigation in the Manhattan Central Business District: This plan, primarily supported by AAA, the Metropolitan Parking Association and the Queens Civic Congress, among others, combines several separate measures that collectively claim to meet and exceed the 6.3% vehicle miles traveled (VMT) reduction of the mayor’s plan. In fact, many will simply make driving easier in the Central Business District, thus probably attracting more drivers over time. Furthermore, the report’s additive approach for totaling VMT reduction overstates the results dramatically, double-counting many overlapping traffic reduction measures.

"Unlike congestion pricing, these alternatives would encourage driving — not discourage it — and as a result attract more traffic in the long term," says Michael Replogle, transportation director for Environmental Defense and the report’s primary author, via media release. "They also fail to match the criteria required by the federal grant, by state law, and the reality test for effectiveness, timeliness and revenue potential."

"Alternative proposals to fund mass transit through broad income and payroll tax increases are like taking a sledgehammer to a nail because they place special burdens on low and middle income residents," says Joan Byron, Director of the Sustainability and Environmental Justice Initiative of The Pratt Center. "In contrast, a congestion pricing plan benefits lower-income folks most and burdens them least since the vast majority of them rely on public transportation, and do not drive into Manhattan’s zone."

  • glennQ

    So reduced congestion makes roads more attractive to drive on…
    How will the congestion tax do anything but enhance revenue again?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Where’s the Konheim and Ketcham plan?

  • Ian Turner


    I guess what you’re trying to say is that congestion pricing won’t change the amount of congestion, just the demographics of the drivers that constitute it. Which is a valid perspective, but I want to try a thought experiment with you.

    Imagine that the congestion charge was set not at $8 but rather at $100,000. I think you would agree that if it cost that much to enter Manhattan during weekday hours, very few people would be willing to do it — there would be practically no cars at all in the CBD, let alone no congestion.

    If you agree with me so far, then we agree that somewhere between $8 and $100,000 there is a price that you can set to achieve any given desired level of congestion. The only challenge, then, is to find out what that price is — which can be done incrementally and by trial and error.

  • Lew from Brooklyn

    s great that a group with an axe to grind hs evaluated my plan. However, it would be nice if the evaluation was factually based. My regional payroll tax, which would generate FAR more for transportation than would congestion pricing, does nto go to either the State of the City General Fund. It would go to a regional authority, lock boxed, with a commitment from both State and REgional governments not to reduce the level of their current aid disproportionately. I have lived throught\ the nonsense about Lotto payig for Eduction aid, and would not set up a system that would reoplicate that legal fiction.

    Now go back to the drawing board and find a legitimate criticism of the plan. Or support it.Congestion Pricing is NOT the Holy Grail. It is supposed to be a means to an end, not the end itself.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Mr Fidler, unfortunately a generation of pols has handed out lots of benefits while deferring costs over the past couple of decades. Giving the people what they want? Perhaps, but to me it has been part of a generational war.

    Regardless, taxes are going to rise, not for new and better, but for what we have or less, unless we are willing to contemplate defaulting on debts and public employee retiree obligations. So which taxes should rise?

    You should know that my least favorite solution is the payroll tax. My generation, and those after, have already been hammered with a huge payroll tax rise as part of a 1982 deal to “save social security.” But social security is not saved, because that increase merely offset reduced income taxes and higher spending on today’s seniors. All we have is a bunch of IOUs saying one part of the government owes another part of the government (Social Security) money, and will need to pay it back some day. (I wrote about all this on Room 8).

    What is the difference between raising the payroll tax and raising the income tax? In New York State, retirement income is exempt from the income tax, that’s what. So while I’ll give you credit for not assuming money will fall from the sky, your proposal is for me like a red cape raised in front of a bull. The massive and growing generational inequities in every area of public policy is one of the things that upsets me most. It is as if the children and grandchildren of every NY pol live in a different state.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (In New York State, retirement income is exempt from the income tax)

    So I guess that there is no difference. Younger workers are screwed either way. You want to make me happy, propose eliminating that tax break (which the federal tax code does not have) instead of congestion pricing.

    And better yet, propose ending the double taxation of young people, who are increasingly forced to work as full-time, permanent “freelancers” so they will not receive company health benefits, by dumping the UBT for those earning less than (say) the Governor.

  • Budrick

    Mr. Fidler, is it really better to discourage people from working, through a payroll tax, than to discourage them from driving, through a congestion tax/fee?

    One of these activities is certainly more desirable for society than the other. One causes pollution, while the other feeds and houses people. Think about it.

  • Spud Spudly

    Glenn, I’ve been saying that same thing all along. The main inhibitor of automobile use today is CONGESTION ITSELF. A pricing scheme to reduce congestion will simply induce others to drive. There are hundreds of thousands of wealthy people in Westchester, Long Island and Jersey who would gladly give up their monthly transit passes if the drive to work involved less time and hassle (think about it — they’re already paying more than $8/day for their monthly Metro North/LIRR/NJ Transit passes, and they already have two BMWs in the garage, so right now they’re really only taking mass transit because of the congestion). That’s why CP is just a revenue scheme.

    Heck, even the people who proposed the plan project that CP would only reduce congestion by 6.2%. And when was the last time a government projection like that was accurate?

    CP will collect money, a large percentage of which will be used to fund the program itself and the inevitable Byzantine bureaucracy that will sprout up around it. It will also remove some middle class people’s cars from the streets so they can be replaced by wealthier people for whom the CP charge is no concern. And that’s about it.

    As for the ludicrous notion of a CP charge that can’t be accurately described with only one digit, I’d much rather see vehicles banned altogether. Because then only Donald Trump and Mike Bloomberg will be driving around while everyone else is stuffed onto overcrowded subways and buses. What Ian’s really saying is that there’s a price somewhere between $8 and $100,000 at which only the extraordinarily wealthy will be able to drive — in which case we should just ban vehicles totally.

  • JF

    Glenn, I’ve been saying that same thing all along.

    Yes, Spud, and we’ve been disagreeing with you too.

    Look, I really, really don’t care about these few thousand upper-middle-class drivers. They can go bankrupt as far as I’m concerned. Or they can ride the subway with the rest of us, and honestly, if they’re replaced by wealthier commuters from the suburbs, we can just tax those people until they go away.

    Middle-class drivers in New York are the most selfish, arrogant jerks imaginable. Their very lifestyle is made possible by the people they dismiss, neglect and pity: transit users and pedestrians. If we all had cars, this city would look like L.A. or Phoenix. Who wants to live there?

    I care a hell of a lot more about the much larger numbers of middle-class transit users, whose system has been neglected while our payroll, sales and property taxes pay to maintain the bridges and parkways for the ungrateful “middle class” drivers.

  • Dane


    That’s not what happened in London and Stockholm and there are lots of incredibly wealthy people living in and around both of those cities too.

    What happened in both of those cities is congestion pricing reduced the total number of people driving into the zone.

    I don’t think there’s really any reason to believe that it wouldn’t have the same effect in NYC.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (The main inhibitor of automobile use today is CONGESTION ITSELF.)

    Sounds like an argument to squeeze them, fine them, and let the sit for hours since we are stuck with the pollution, slow buses, and lack of emergency access no matter what. Fighting congestion with congestion is the alternative. In Rome the traffic is awful, but there are so many pedestrianized and very narrow, low traffic streets that pedestrians don’t have to care.

  • Spud Spudly

    So it is a “tax,” JF? I thought it was a “user fee.” And why is your vitriol directed so strongly at middle class drivers and not all drivers in general? Seems odd. And those bridges and parkways you mentioned (you know, the ones that allow goods and services to get into the City), their tolls already subsidize mass transit. So it’s not as simple as you make it seem. Either way, I know that neither of us wants to live in Phoenix because otherwise you would have stayed there.

    Dane, I believe CP would reduce the total number of people driving into the zone here as well. But by less than the 6.2% the administration has projected. And for that I’m not willing to tolerate the likely shift in driver demographics that CP will bring about. And the money for transit — which I ride every day, BTW — isn’t much of an inducement either because a large part of it is going to be siphoned off for programmatic expenses. And the small amount that will make its way into the system could easily be found elsewhere if there was the political will to just do it. A good auditor could easily wring that much money out of the MTA’s slack management and accountability procedures.

    I’m not in any way pro-congestion, Larry, I’m just against anti-congestion programs that rely on financial barriers. For me it’s a moral issue regarding fair use of the public streets. If it’s ultimately decided that fair use of the streets means that no one can drive, then that’s fine with me. But the government should not decide who gets to use the streets based on how much money they have. That’s my real point, but since nobody here seems to care I’ve taken to arguing the bare facts of CP, which provides some good ground to stand on anyway.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (But the government should not decide who gets to use the streets based on how much money they have.)

    No just how much money they have, but how much they are willing to pay. That argument can be made for any necessity — free food, free housing, free transit, free clothes, free everything. And if demand exceeds supply, take a number and wait your turn.

    You are using it for a luxury, pursued at other’s expense.

  • Spud Spudly

    I was reading at a 12.9 grade level in junior high school, Larry, but I still feel that I don’t always get what you’re trying to say. Maybe it’s my NYC public education. But you can’t compare use of the streets to the methods the gov’t uses to distribute, say, Food Stamps and welfare.

    And while it’s true that CP doesn’t check your tax returns, since willingness to pay is closely tied to income it’s essentially the same thing.

    And since the fare people pay for mass transit doesn’t cover the costs of running the system, isn’t THAT being used as a luxury at other people’s expense?

  • Larry Littlefield

    (isn’t THAT (transit) being used as a luxury at other people’s expense?)

    No, it is being used as a necessity to other people’s benefit — less air pollution, no congestion. You drive in a congested area, you make other people worse off, your vehicle has emissions, you make other people worse off.

    But as I said, I agree with you that congestion itself is the main factor discouraging people from driving right now. Unfortunately, congestion has negative side effects for non-drivers.

    So a “solution” that does not involve people who get the privilege paying is just to accept that congestion will always be at the level the next additional driver cannot stand, and not do anything about it. Instead, reduce the negative side effects on others by taking away space from the automobile. Lots of space. And fine the hell out of people caught in the congestion.

    Not just ruthlessly enforced cycle tracks widen enough for emergency vehicle access when needed, but pedestrianized streets people can walk down. Similar lanes for buses. Play streets in residential neighborhoods. Travel lanes removed from the free East River Bridges, to cut down on maintenance. Free permit parking for everyone everywhere, so no one can drive to any other neighborhood without paying for scarce metered parking. Etc. etc.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And by the way, I’m not just throwing up a red herring, I’m serious.

    I’ve been very few places, but I did go to Rome Italy. The traffic is horrendous for drivers, but half the streets are either pedestrianized or eight feet between the buildings, with cars and trucks moving at the speed of bikes and peds.

    And on those pedestrianized and narrow streets, the noise and fumes from the traffic is absent, so the bike riders and peds don’t have to care about how congested it is.

  • Spud Spudly

    Just to be a pain in the ass, Larry, I could say that buses do have emissions and that people could walk, bike, skateboard or rollerskate to their destinations at no charge to anyone. But I wouldn’t be serious so I won’t.

  • Larry Littlefield

    (Just to be a pain in the ass, Larry, I could say that buses do have emissions and that people could walk, bike, skateboard or rollerskate to their destinations at no charge to anyone. But I wouldn’t be serious so I won’t.)

    Perhaps, but now that there is a free transfer, the bus to subway gig doesn’t earn the MTA any extra money. If people biked to the subway if they lived beyond walking distance, the MTA coudl save money and the subway riders would live longer.

    As for emissions, buses are considered big time polluters in much of the country. But given the concentration of ownership, lower emission buses are easier to roll out than lower emission private cars, as has happened in NYC. The same will be true, eventually, for zero emission buses.

  • JF

    And why is your vitriol directed so strongly at middle class drivers and not all drivers in general?

    It’s really quite simple. Rich drivers don’t give me nearly as hard a time as middle-class drivers. They’re generally willing and able to pay privately for the various facilities and services to support their driving habits, and don’t feel entitled to them.

    Middle-class drivers, on the other hand, are at the forefront of every. goddamn. little. self-righteous protest against transit, sustainability or liveable streets. Whether it’s Bob Levine and his double-parking, Lew Fidler and his “impediment to freedom,” James Gennaro and his “confiscation,” the NYPD rank-and-file and “We do not summons our own,” or George Pataki and his transit funding cuts, middle-class drivers are there.

    Despite being a minority in the city, they dominate the community boards, the City Council, the state legislature, the civil service and the newspaper editorial boards. They speed, build curb cuts, park on the sidewalk and harass cyclists. And they are willing to hold the city hostage and make sure that no transit, bicycle or pedestrian improvement happens that could possibly make it any more difficult or more expensive for them to drive.

    It would be one thing if they acknowledged their minority status and their power, but they don’t. They assume that everyone is like them, and that they’re “sticking up for the little guy.” Sorry, but the little guy is the one you just ran over when you took the corner too fast. He’s the one whose tax money is paying for your “free” bridges that he’ll probably never cross, instead of more subway cars. He’s the one who can’t cross the street because you blocked that traffic calming project.

    So tell me, Spud, why shouldn’t I get pissed at these self-centered, self-righteous jerks?

  • Hilary

    I think it’s fair to reserve some bile for rich who use black livery cars (or taxis) to commute regularly on routes where there is adequate transit.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I just want to repeat: I’d like to see analyses like this examine the K&K plan and the Sam Schwartz plan. There do exist alternatives that are in fact different ways to implement congestion pricing.

  • The Doctor

    I think there is another way to eliminate congestion from the streets of New York, elimination or massive reduction of taxis allowed in Manhattan during business hours. I have heard when the taxi drivers were on strike that the streets of NYC were very congestion free and people were able to move about? Why should we allow taxis on the streets which seem to be the least efficent public transport in both gas consumed and actual speed to arrive at destination. I had stopped taking cabs due to their notorious ways of taking the longest route possible to any place. I am quite surprised that the subway is actually the quickest way to get to most parts of Manhattan in my experience and less expensive. Of course this will throw a lot of immigrants out of work but I do not feel that we should be subsidsizing them at the expense of the rest of us

  • Lois


    Missing from this discussion is the fact that in NYC public transit riders subsidize drivers. As I remember, public transit puts a higher percentage of money into the pot than it gets in return.

    Any time government spends money, it prefers one set of people over the others. Since the majority of people in this city DO NOT drive or own cars, and since cars are clearly the most dangerous and inefficient means of transit in the city, I do not see why car travel is treated preferentially. Walkers, bike riders and public transit users are the MAJORITY in this city. Why shouldn’t the least lethal, most democratic and most efficient means of transit – walking, bike riding and public transit – receive the majority of support in our great city? Why do we persist in making the same mistakes as the rest of the country, most of which does not have our great public transit infrastructure? Imagine what a paradise this city could be if cars were afforded the minority status they deserved? If they actually had to pay their own way, as congestion pricing would help to achieve?


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