The One Carbon Tax That Couldn’t

Assembly Member Richard Brodsky, archenemy of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, is urging the mayor to seek a carbon tax instead. So he said, following Monday’s meeting of the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission, as reported by Streetsblog and confirmed by at least one other observer.

brodsky_crop.jpgI wish Brodsky (pictured) had checked with me first. After all, if there’s another New Yorker more obsessed with carbon taxing and congestion pricing than yours truly, I’ll eat my bike helmet.

I co-founded the Carbon Tax Center last winter. Since then, I’ve spent hundreds of hours blogging, number-crunching and campaigning for the carbon tax cause. But my devotion actually began much earlier. Back when Barry Bonds was a svelte 180-pounder, before Dan Quayle wrote potatoe on a blackboard, I published a pro-carbon tax op-ed in the Washington Post (this was in 1989). And I’ve been banging the drum for congestion pricing in NYC for almost as long.

So I’d love to be able to say that a carbon tax is our ticket out of gridlocked streets. But it ain’t so. When it comes to erasing New York’s gridlock, a carbon tax would be about as effective as a mouse stomping on an elephant’s toes.

But don’t take my word for it. Go and input a carbon tax into the Balanced Transportation Analyzer ©, the spreadsheet model I’m creating for Ted Kheel’s free-transit proposal. The results are underwhelming.

A carbon tax of $50/ton (of carbon dioxide) would cause a mere 8,000 auto trips a day into the Central Business District to disappear. That’s just 1% of current traffic, and barely more than the increase in trips the MTA board just set in motion by raising bus and subway fares. And this is with a tax surpassing any carbon tax bill being considered in Congress.

By comparison, Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed $8 daytime toll would eliminate an estimated 45,000 trips a day into the CBD. (The Kheel Plan, combining a $16 ’round-the-clock cordon fee with free transit, would eliminate 250,000 daily CBD trips.)

A little math reveals why a carbon tax can’t cure Gotham’s gridlock: a tax of $50/ton of CO2 equates to 50 cents a gallon of gas, which is roughly the fuel burned on a typical round-trip drive into Midtown. Yet that same trip currently costs around $20 for gas, parking (where applicable) and tolls (ditto). Half-a-buck on top of twenty is way too little to make a big difference in travel choices. Moreover, part of drivers’ response to higher gas prices from a carbon tax will be to trade up to more efficient cars without necessarily driving less. In contrast, an $8 cordon toll, or $16 for that matter, is real money, which CBD drivers can save only by reducing trips into the CBD.

Of course, Brodsky may just be feinting. He’s a smart guy and may have deduced that his best shot at blocking congestion pricing is to sow confusion.

Or, Brodsky has decided that leading New Yorkers out of traffic hell isn’t his concern. He’ll attack the "right" to spew carbon without paying an emission fee, but he’ll leave untrammeled the "right" to create traffic congestion without paying a congestion fee.

Ordinarily, anytime an elected official calls for taxing carbon, I’m thrilled. Not in this case. Even if Brodsky could deliver a statewide carbon tax tomorrow, New York would still be mired in motor vehicles. Just as a carbon tax is the antidote to too much carbon, charging a price to drive into Midtown is the antidote to too many cars.

Charles Komanoff will be discussing the Kheel Plan with Doug Henwood on WBAI-FM (99.5) this afternoon, beginning a few minutes after 5 p.m.

  • Mark

    I propose to add a new verb to the English language:

    brodsky (BROD-skee) v.(1) To lie. (2) To misdirect, misrepresent, or sow confusion. (4) To generate congestion, pollution, noise, or honking, physically, figuratively, or politically.

    Examples: What a steaming pile of brodsky. Well, I brodskied my way out of that, heh-heh. Quiet brodskying me, I can’t take it anymore.

    More examples?

  • Larry Littlefield

    To me, the Kheel plan is a much a something for nothing as the nonsense Brodsky spews. After all, if it succeeded and vehicular travel to the CBD plunged, so would revenues. The plan, I suppose, would be to borrow money to keep the system running for a while, and then have it collapse.

    Congestion pricing opponents want a majority of poltically connected voters — the drivers — to stick it to transit riders. Others want a majority of the people to stick it to the drivers. No one wants to pay. Someone has to.

  • Komanoff

    Gee Larry (#2), before you load your slingshot can you take a minute to look at your target? After all, the spreadsheet and other supporting documents have been up on the Web all week (see link in 5th paragraph, above).

    Since the price-elasticity of car trips into the CBD is less than one, raising the price (via the cordon toll) will increase, not reduce, agency revenues from those trips.

    The spreadsheet (still being refined) lets you design your own pricing scheme. Our final report next month will offer others besides the straight free-transit plan we released this week. Go ahead, give it a shot.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Sorry, but I’m a little sensitive to any hint of something for nothing these days. Especially since after 20 years of demands for it, we might soon get hit with a whole lot of nothing. Not just in transportation, either.

  • I am sure that, if there were a proposal for a carbon tax that had a chance of being passed, Brodsky would be the first to yell:


    That stands for “Regressive Tax on the Middle Class.” Since Brodsky says it so often, he should save time (his and his readers) by just using the initials.

  • JF

    You hit it on the head, Charles. From Brodsky’s “analysis” of congestion pricing, it seems like anything that would require the middle class to actually pay their fair share of things, or that would deter them from doing something unsustainable, is “regressive.”

    At some point the upper middle class is going to have to either pay for their driving, or be deterred from it, or both. If Brodsky doesn’t have the strength of his convictions to support congestion pricing, I don’t see him having the strength to support an effective carbon tax.

  • Charlie’s post effectively rebuts the argument that a carbon tax will have a significant impact on gridlock, but may have left the unfortunate and inaccurate impression that a carbon tax is an ineffective way to reduce carbon emissions. While the most significant impact of a carbon tax will be on electricity consumption, a carbon tax will also reduce consumption of gasoline.

    Charlie is correct that part of the response to carbon taxes will be a shift to more efficient cars; the result will be some reduction in congestion (those who drive less because of the price, perhaps because they can’t afford a new and more efficient car) and real reductions in carbon emissions (less VMT and more efficient cars).

  • Hilary

    Charlie – please see if Gannett will run this as an op-ed in their Westchester papers. If not, the locals with the next highest circulation. It is so good and has to be read by his constituents.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Critics fail to acknowledge the difference between in income/wage tax, and a carbon tax or congestion charge.

    In the latter cases, all you have to do is stop doing something that disadvantages other (or future) people and you don’t have to pay. Do it less, and pay less.

    You have to earn a living. You don’t have to drive to Manhattan on a weekday. In the short run you burn carbon-based substances, but most could do it less, and if some effort is made, in the long run people can stop doing it altogehter.

    I really hate “egalitarian” arguments for selfishness, but that is what Democratic liberalism has devolved to.

  • Free Public Transit is an investment. Carbon Tax is the end of carbon/auto industry subsidy. Let’s stop giving “something” (the biosphere) to the carbon/auto industry for “nothing”.

    Thank you, Charles, excellent work.


  • Dave

    I was happy to hear that the return of the commuter tax was discussed as an option instead of ERB tolls. I’d love to hear Brodsky on that one….

    Brodsky doesn’t give a damn about the city; he just represents his wealthy, spoiled constituents who want to get a free ride from the city where they earn their decent livings.

    I’d love to see a commuter tax, CP, ERB tolls and RPP all imposed. Think of how much that would reduce congestion and how much we could fund in regional transit improvements.

    Where are the city politicians telling these suburban boobs to shut up and pay for the benfit they derive from the city?

  • No Permit Parking signs for NYC

    It seems there are so many alternatives to congestion pricing that a combination of them would work well and add up to the desired outcome of reduced cars:
    1) the carbon tax, as above,
    2) commuter tax,
    3) elimination of placard abuse by government sector commuters (reduction of about 20,000 cars daily), plus,
    4) of course, my favorite, permanent No Permit Parking signs (these signs have reduced illegal government sector commuter cars on Mott Street in Chinatown by 80%-90% in recent months. Yes, they work!)

  • Komanoff

    To “No Permit Parking” (#12) —

    I share your outrage over placard parking abuse and have been doing my bit behind the scenes for years to push downtown “electeds” to stop it.

    But while eliminating free parking for gov’t workers is right for many reasons, reducing NYC gridlock isn’t one of them.

    Without congestion pricing, the places on the roads that those cars now occupy will quickly be taken up by other cars whose drivers will be “attracted” by the reduced “time cost” to drive.

    Only a market-clearing price brought by congestion pricing will meaningfully reduce traffic levels.

    Your motto seems to be “No Placard Parking and No Congestion Pricing.” It should be “No Placard Parking and Yes Congestion Pricing.”


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