Weiner and Wylde Square Off in Pricing Forum

Four veterans of the congestion pricing wars went toe-to-toe at the Museum of the City of New York Wednesday night — the last showdown before the Congestion Mitigation Commission releases its draft proposals today.

Taking the stump for pricing were Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for NYC and Michael O’Loughlin of the Campaign for New York’s Future. Arguing against were Congressman Anthony Weiner of Queens and Walter McCaffrey of the Coalition to Keep NYC Congestion Tax Free. The standing-room-only crowd of more than 120 people — most of whom came from the Upper East Side and East Harlem, judging by the post-debate Q & A — appeared to favor Weiner and McCaffrey by a noticeable, though not overwhelming, margin. Wylde and O’Loughlin scored their share of applause, but Weiner was the only speaker to draw vocal cheers.

Claiming that "we are buying a pig in a poke," Weiner made several arguments familiar to Streetsblog readers, adding a few rhetorical flourishes worth noting. Among his main points:

  • The current plan is "not fair" because suburban drivers from LI and NJ won’t pay any fee in addition to the existing tolls on the Hudson River crossings and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel.
  • Commercial truck traffic in Midtown is increasing faster than car traffic, so a priority should be placed on mitigating truck congestion.
  • The number of people who switch to mass transit because of congestion pricing will impose costs on the transit system that significantly outweigh the revenue pricing will generate.
  • Republicans support congestion pricing because it "bolsters the idea that municipalities should pay for their own transportation enhancements," as opposed to the idea that transit improvements should be paid for from a federal pot of gas tax revenue.

Weiner built up this last point quite dramatically, painting congestion pricing as a wedge issue that has played into the hands of "Texas conservatives" by dividing people who share a concern for the environment. "There’s a reason that George Bush likes this plan," he said, insisting that "there are smarter and more progressive ways to do this."

Weiner then outlined his own three-point plan in broad strokes, saying he would 1) charge trucks to enter Midtown during peak hours, 2) offer businesses tax incentives to remain open for late-night truck deliveries, and 3) charge private motorists, but only those from outside the five boroughs.

Wylde attacked Weiner’s emphasis on trucks, pointing out that only eight percent of the vehicles in the zone below 60th Street are trucks, while 40 percent are private, single-occupancy cars. She also argued that the mayor’s plan would not pit people who live in the congestion zone against people from the outer boroughs, because "Manhattan is the magnet that creates excess traffic throughout the region, and reducing traffic below 60th Street will reduce traffic throughout the region." Her repeated references to 60th Street as the northern boundary of the congestion zone may signal that the TCMC will ultimately propose shifting the boundary south from 86th Street.

Also, in response to an East Harlem resident who expressed concern that her asthma-stricken neighborhood would become even more overwhelmed by vertical parking lots, Wylde hinted that the TCMC proposals would pay "very serious attention" to the issue of parking in peripheral districts.

O’Loughlin, in his rebuttal to Weiner, argued that New York can’t rely on Congress — especially representatives from Texas — to raise the gas tax and set aside sufficient cash to fund the city’s transit system. "Just because the Bush administration is willing to give us $354 million doesn’t make this a bad idea," he said. He cited support from the Drum Major Institute and the Central Labor Council as evidence of pricing’s progressive bona fides, pointing out that it will be "especially good for low-income New Yorkers, who are more likely to rely on transit."

  • “3) charge private motorists, but only those from outside the five boroughs.”

    Isn’t that unconstitutional? A motorist from outside NY does no more to create congestion than a motorist in NY, so there is no grounds for denying them equal protection of the law.

    Someone should run this by a lawyer: if it is illegal, it could discredit Weiner.

  • Dave

    If access to street parking can discriminate based on residency (as Boston, Philly, Washington and even New Brunswick do) then you probably can discriminate CP tolls based on residency.
    If it is legal might be a way to get those NY residents who register their cars elsewhere to register them in New York.

  • Respect the Past

    Does the analogy of in-state tuition debunk the issue if this is illegal? Students from different states, if they are not a direct contributor to a given state’s tax base pay a different rate than those whose family pay into the state tax coffers. I don’t see how this would be different, not that I support Weiner.

  • Remember the Past

    In order to pretend that the commuter tax repeal wouldn’t cost NYC much money, the state legislature only repealed it for residents of New York State, not residents of New Jersey and Connecticut.

    The court system did the rest.

  • lawschoolwasawhileagobut

    I think a price charged only to non-NYC motorists is constitutionally problematic as regards NJ & Ct drivers (not sure if NY state is free to treat different classes of state residents differently, but this probably doesn’t raise the same constitutional issues as out-of-staters) because there is a constitutional right to interstate travel. On the other hand, if non-NYC NY drivers are charged the same as out-of-staters, maybe it’s OK, but probably not b/c choosing to afflict your own citizens probably doesn’t allow you to do otherwise unconstitutional things to others.
    Residents-only parking isn’t the same: out of towners are free to go to those places, they just have to pay to park.

  • Ben Fried

    Weiner did mention that it was a mistake to repeal the commuter tax, but I have no notes about him specifically saying that it should be brought back. Since he made it a point to single out the Hudson River crossings and Queens Midtown Tunnel as entry points for suburbanites, maybe he’s in favor of ramping up the tolls on all of those as a de facto commuter tax?

    My gut feeling, though, is that he was grandstanding under the guise of progressivism and stonewalling any change that might piss off some of his constituents.

  • “My gut feeling, though, is that he was grandstanding…”

    His idea of charging a congestion fee only to people that can’t vote against him in the mayoral election removes any possibility that Weiner had a principle in there, somewhere. If pricing were a “regressive tax on the working class”, it could not become something else at city limits. The notion is incredible. Beyond that it’s constitutionally dubious, which doesn’t even matter because pricing with a “city slicker exemption” would go a lot less far in Albany than Bloomberg’s plan (which takes great pains to charge even the Wealthy Manhattan Elite).

    But he’s right that it’s a wedge issue for the pathetic environmental movement, which is not a movement at all but a feel-good social network and, increasingly, a perverted kind of marketing. Neither feeling sentimental about polar bears nor buying more green crap is going to do a bit of good, and in so much at it has given moral cover to participants in sprawl and SUV fads, mainstream environmentalism has done a great deal of harm. If pricing’s alliance of serious conservationists and economic conservatives leaves the Eddie Bauer edition environmentalists out in the cold, so what? We’re supposed to feel sorry for giving Democratic strategists a headache?

  • vnm

    “3) charge private motorists, but only those from outside the five boroughs.”

    This is an incredibly unabashed bald-faced political ploy.

    Weiner, you see, wants to be mayor. If he wanted to be Nassau County Executive, he’d probably say the exact opposite thing. This is all about getting to Gracie Mansion – and zero about sound policy.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    Grandstanding? I’m shocked to find grandstanding going on in a political race. How come Christine Quinn is not grandstanding?

    Weiner was the only elected to speak on the issue, following his pattern. He spoke with passion and several of his points were left alone in the ether by O’Lauglin and Wylde. Neither countered his central, if unspoken, contention that local funding is unnecessary for the MTA ignoring the history. Let someone else pay, let the oil patch pay through the Federal gas tax, let the suburbanites pay through a commuter tax.

    Maybe Wylde and O’Laughlin leave that alone because Mayor Mike has continued the tradition of every Mayor since Dinkins of shorting the MTA about 80 million a year. 80 mill x 12 years throw in some interest and voila = MTA deficit. That plus the larger State skim explains the present MTA deficit bubble. Neither the proponents or the opponents of CP dare identify where they will get that money if CP goes down.

    Then Weiner left before the Q&A, “what am I, the Shell answer man?” A bold affront to long-in-the-tooth moderator Henry Stern. He will continue to get away with it until someone else who wants to get elected can and does get up and take him on.

    Christine Quinn and William Thompson have stated their approval of CP but done exactly nothing to pass it. They would be Mayor as well but apparently depend on the good will of traffic calmers who are supposed to be grateful for their “support”.

    Ironically, Weiner would do better if someone would keep CP in play longer into the election cycle. Maybe even if it passed. His base in the two fare zones are not real forgiving or analytical. He also got a lot of props from sneering at the “unelected” authorities, playing on themes honed to a sharp point by the near universal opposition to any fare increase of any size at any time (Quinn had a lot of bad stuff to say about the MTA during the fare increase “debate”).

    Weiner has continued to twist and bend his opposition, ducking and weaving with each new argument. He damns PlaNYC with “faint praise” and had the upper east side crowd pretty pumped, not his natural constituency. The other opponents (Markowitz etc.) who want to be Mayor are left in his vapor trail.

    The best thing to happen to Weiner’s campaign has been congestion pricing. He couldn’t have paid for this much publicity. This is the WC Fields rule in play, “theres no such thing as bad publicity, just spell my name right.”

  • Gelston

    But does Weiner have any say in the matter anyway? Marc Shaw was very explicit about whose support was necessary for the plan’s implementation: the governor, the state legislators, and the city council. (Am I missing anyone?) No one else matters.

  • On page 33 of the interim report, the staff projects the non-resident commuter tax at $887 million but if they take the approach advocated by the Queens Civic Congress and double the miniscule old rate, it generates $1.8 billion and that is no small change. Also that proposal, mindful of politics shares all revenue generated by the suburbs (Westchester/ Rockland/ Long Island) with those jurisdictions. This revenue stream ought to be part of the discussion. See a http://queensciviccongress.org/Media/files/2007/2007-10-30_transit_alternatives.pdf
    and the links in that document.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    You are correct Gelston in that Weiner has no say on the commission. He made that part of his presentation as well. The commission was another segment of the “unelected” authorities part of his analysis. All of the commission members are appointees of electeds. Even Brodsky, although he is an elected official on his own right, only sits on the commission as an appointee of Speaker Silver.

    The opponents claim the deck is stacked on the commission. Of course it is, Bruno, Silver, Spitzer and Quinn stacked it. The only way to shuffle the deck is to hold elections. Then you have to set rules for the election and that requires an election. Thats why elected officials appoint commissions and authorities.

    The accusation that the process is undemocratic is really one of those Ukranian eggs. You open one and there is another inside. And the process arguments are really just throwing eggs at the politicians. Complaining about the process is often the first refuge of a scoundrel.

    Christine Quinn on the other hand, like Shelly Silver and Joe Bruno has to actually pass legislation resulting from the work of the commission. That requires a lot of juggling, hand-holding and back-scratching. Thats a process too. That may explain some of her exquisite silence on the matter to date. That silence has allowed Mr. Weiner lots of space to run his Mayoral campaign.

    Consequently, the press is printing Mr. Weiner’s analysis including the process jeremiads. He gets to be the defining politician standing up for the little guy against rich Mr. Bloomberg. Usually that is called Populism in our political culture, other political cultures use other names.

    Bloomberg really set this all in motion by failing to present either PlaNYC or Congestion Pricing as part of his platform prior to the actual election that he won by 45% of the vote. The subsequent political developments have been pretty predictable. Mr. Weiner very much understands the politics, thats what he does, he is a politician. He wants to get elected, he takes this issue seriously and he knows how to ride a wave of suspicion and resentment.

    He also knows how to play out what for lack of a better term I call “city nationalism” that looks outwardly for solutions to our problems. That is also the focus of Mr. Bearak and the Queens Civic Congress. Weiner also layers in issues of Federal transportation funding while Mr. Bearak pretty much limits it to the loss of the commuter tax.

    Those are straw men stuffed with red herrings too, but they are also political-economic issues of substantial complexity that draw out a gut reaction from city residents. It requires knowledgeable advocates and an audience attentive to detail and nuance to deconstruct those arguments. The public process, replicated in this debate, has not found either in sufficient quantities to limit the effects of “someone else should pay” arguments.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    So Corey, what’s your plan for passing this reinstatement of the commuter tax? Do you think it has any more chance than any of the plans under consideration by the commission? Have you gotten Brodsky on board?

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just remember, if congestion pricing or some alternative doesn’t occur, every elected official who expressed anything other than wholehearted support can be blamed for any and all financial consequences for the transportation system.

    Bloomberg, Spitzer and Bruno are off the hook. Silver, Quinn, Weiner, Brodsky Fidler and the rest are on it. Bearak and McCaffrey are free to be irresponsible.

    The fact that the commission is charged with reviewing the MTA capital plan now is a sign that those in charge are willing to be responsible. They should consider funding for the roads and bridges at the same time.

    Hey Brodsky, I want $3 billion per year in cash diverted from more politically potent priorities. Maybe $4.5 billion including the roads, with more for Upstate. Not more borrowing, cash. Your generation has been the enemy of all those afterward. It is time for it to stop.

  • Gelston

    Nicolo, Weiner is irrelevant because federal approval has already been secured (I suppose he could botch that up still.) Brodsky is highly relevant because the legislature’s approval is required to implement many aspects of the plan. Am I wrong on this?

  • JF

    Weiner is not irrelevant if congestion pricing passes and then he gets elected Mayor on a promise to dismantle it.

  • Gelston

    And refund the feds??

  • Jonathan

    JF and Gelston: According to Streetsblog, the federal money is only for an 18-month trial of CP. So the bad news is that midway through the next Mayor’s term, he or she can cancel the program.

    The good news is that if form holds (London, Stockholm, etc), the benefits of CP should be obvious from its inception. Proponents would then be able to make the case that removing CP would be like going back to the “bad old days” of lousy bus service.

    And Niccolo, thanks for the thoughtful analysis in 9 and 12. I really appreciate it.

  • Gary

    When Weiner puts his money where his mouth is, and actually starts pushing an increase in the Federal gas tax through, I’ll applaud the man.

    Meanwhile, this is a bunch of BS demagoguery. I haven’t heard a peep about the gas tax from him, outside of CP debates that he is trying to sandbag.

    In any event, increasing the gas tax is a logical and necessary COMPLEMENT to congestion pricing.

  • “Grandstanding? I’m shocked to find grandstanding going on in a political race.”

    Some things are grandstanding and some things are sound policy. I don’t think anyone is shocked by Weiner’s antics at this point, but there’s still some value in establishing when something is poppycock (using a logical argument that goes beyond gut feelings). I suppose we’ll have this conversion every time Weiner appears in a headline here. It’s too easy to find contradictions in the positions he purports to hold; I simply can’t resist pointing them out. It’s important to have a record of this stuff somewhere, whether or not it makes it into the heads of the average subway rider. Maybe it’s also important to point out single time he comes up that Weiner’s deception is good politics; personally I think it’s depressing.

  • ddartley

    Weiner makes that totally disingenuous Bush remark, and also claims that he was fooled by Bush into voting for the Iraq war resolution. I don’t know how anyone listens to the guy.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    There are a couple important take-aways from Mr. Weiner’s approach beyond the success he has had rallying the windshield vote.

    First, it is a little depressing if you think democracy must lead to good policy, I don’t think thats the case, I think thats part of the American narrative but that mythology really holds us back from changing our democracy to meet modern urban needs in any fundamental way.

    Second, his position continues to evolve as he goes through the exercise of public agitation on the matter. His is a moving target. But no one else in the actual game of getting elected is taking the shots.

    Third, transportation issues are very complex and simple solutions are almost always wrong. A lot of the stuff Mr. Weiner plays off of are contradictions that Mr. Bloomberg has left on the table.

    I’m sorry if I repeat myself in the blog and perhaps I should check out of the debate for a while on the politics of the situation. Good policy often makes bad politics, I’ve used the following Moses quote in this regard, “It takes more than a good idea to make a great public improvement. The fact is that such things happen when there are leaders available, ready and eager to take advantage of the logic of events. Even then the whole result is accomplished only by a series of limited objectives, over a surprisingly long period of years.”

    Other than that approach, which really requires the hard work of political organizing over a long period of time, we are left with the basic question of why Bloomberg ignored these issues during the last political campaign. The only answer is that this good policy is peculiarly resistant to democratic solution.

  • “First, it is a little depressing if you think democracy must lead to good policy, I don’t think thats the case”

    It’s depressing that I have an optimistic political philosophy? It’s a lot of things (unrealistic is an easy charge) but it’s a pretty twisted view that finds unhappiness in it. I feel so sorry for you right now. (Just kidding.)

    Maybe some day we can know (rather than speculate) why Bloomberg endorsed congestion pricing when he did. I happen to think he resisted the idea the same way practically everyone does (an emotional response derived from national freedom-by-auto culture), until he talked to the right person and heard the right argument. In that version it’s just bad luck that he didn’t support pricing sooner. Ferrer and Weiner would have both made a very loud, disingenuous case against pricing, and Ferrer still would have won the primary for stupid reasons. Pricing would not have been able to stop the Bloomberg landslide.

    But that’s enough of me playing political analyst. People are free to make of Streetsblog what they want (unless it is ever moderated); for me it’s a place for optimism and smart policy. (The various “livable streets” slogans are cheerful enough.) It’s great to have an understanding and explanation of the guileful politics of the opposition, but they do not deserve our admiration.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    I don’t find revisionism a very good historical approach, what might have happened if what happened hadn’t happened. I’m sorry if I diluted the conversation in that way. I don’t admire the guile of politics but it is part of how democracy works. I admire jazz music, good wine and a nice meal, none of which I found at the Weiner v. Wylde debate.

    I don’t believe that democracy, to the extent it reflects the will of the people, is always a force for good policy. Sometimes, often in fact, the people can will really, really bad policy. I don’t think thats pessimistic, but it is part of the reality.

    Many of the voters who are falling for the oppositionists here are opposing this on process reasons as well. Weiner will make sure he reminds the voters that they themselves never got to vote on it, or for or against someone who intended to implement it. So, the commission is a way to avoid a democratic solution. Soon the City Council, State Senate and Assembly will have to vote up or down on something. Then they will all have to get re-elected or find new jobs in the case of most City Council members.

    If CP goes down, and it is at best even money right now, maybe all of you who think the voters will support it should jump through the political hoops to create a referendum on congestion pricing in time for the next Mayor’s race. Now am I being a pessimist if I think that would delight Congressman Weiner? Does that mean I admire guile in politics? Does that make me a guileophile?

    I personally find it kind of depressing that people pretend that these things are not decided politically, or that our democracy is so ideal that it will lead to good policy. Politics takes work and determination issue in and issue out year after year. It is a system for deciding.

    There is a minimum threshold of civic trust that is a prerequisite a democracy to produce good policy. We have not reached that threshold. Clearly, from the fare hearings, much of our citizenry does not trust the MTA to handle the money. It does have a theatrical element to it, like when the Straphangers hand out their halloween treats for them MTA board meetings.

    Politics is show business for ugly people.

  • Louis

    Aside from all the politics, which I don’t know much about, the proposal to charge only cars from outside NYC is flawed.

    If non-city-dwellers drive less, that free road space that is left over will be quickly filled by NYC residents driving, and we will be in the same problem with different plates.

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