You Know What’s Fundamentally Regressive? NYC’s Current Toll System

You can drive into the center of town and clog up the streets without paying a dime, but you’ve got to pay a fare to ride the bus.

Well, a few words from Andrew Cuomo made clear that fixing NYC’s broken road pricing system won’t be on the table before next year’s statewide elections. But some opponents of congestion pricing — notably, Eastern Queens City Council Member Mark Weprin — are warming to Sam Schwartz’s toll reform plan, which calls for a uniform price on entry points into the Manhattan core, including the East River bridges and 60th Street, paired with lower prices on less congested, outlying bridges.

And so, the Times turned to former Westchester Assemblyman Richard Brodsky for a dash of his trademark fake populism:

Among former critics of ideas to toll the East River bridges, reactions to this one have been mixed. Richard L. Brodsky, a former Democratic assemblyman and a senior fellow at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said Mr. Schwartz’s plan was “a fundamentally regressive tax,” even if equity problems among the boroughs were “addressed to an extent,” at least compared with the 2008 plan.

“It will modify the behavior of the guy driving the ’97 Chevy,” Mr. Brodsky said, “but will do nothing to modify the behavior of the guy driving the 2013 Mercedes.”

It’s telling that Brodsky imagines his working-class stiff as “the guy driving the ’97 Chevy.” It’s not “the guy riding the R train” or “the gal transferring from the Q60 to the M15.” Transit commuters far outnumber car commuters in NYC and earn, on average, far less, but they never figured into his message.

Brodsky, who hasn’t held office since a failed run for attorney general in 2010, represented the wealthiest Manhattan-bound car commuters in the NYC region. He wasn’t looking out for regular Joes — he was defending free driving privileges for white collar elites earning, on average, $176,231 per year.

He also managed to obscure a core truth about NYC’s current toll system: It doesn’t work for the little guy. We are right now at this very moment living under the burden of a “fundamentally regressive” toll plan — it’s the status quo we’ve had for decades. It’s regressive that a few people in single-occupancy vehicles can clog streets and immobilize hundreds of less affluent people riding buses. It’s regressive that wealthy car owners can drive into the center of the city without paying a dime, while transit riders have no choice but to pay higher fares because the MTA capital program is backed by mountains of debt.

Reforming NYC’s road pricing system will make the regional transportation network more equitable in profound ways. It will speed up the surface transit that less affluent New Yorkers rely on, improving access to jobs. And by injecting funds into the MTA Capital Program, it will help improve the transit system without fares eating up a bigger chunk of household budgets.

The toll and fee structure in the Sam Schwartz/Move NY plan is arguably a more equitable arrangement than congestion pricing, mainly because the wealthiest borough — Manhattan — pitches in a bigger share relative to the other boroughs. A lot of the revenue from Manhattanites would come from a surcharge on yellow cab rides south of 96th Street. Move NY analyst Charles Komanoff sent in these charts showing the geographic origin of revenues under each proposal:




People like Mark Weprin look at these numbers and see the contours of a major regional transportation reform they can support. People like Richard Brodsky barely even look.

Streetsblog will be off for the holiday and back on Monday. Happy Thanksgiving, readers.

  • There’s another factor that makes the present toll system regressive. Current taxes on drivers in New York State don’t, as far as I know, even cover the costs of maintaining and upgrading the roads, let alone the costs of congestion, pollution, crashes and the multiple other costs that fall on taxpayers from the road system. So ordinary taxpayers pay out to subsidize the driving of the disproportionately wealthy class that drive around New York City. The current undercharging for road capacity not only snarls the city up but transfers wealth from non car-owning taxpayers (like me) to car owners.

    One side-effect of the current system that’s very close to my heart is the effect on cyclists. It not only makes the streets congested and difficult to use but has an economic effect on cyclists. It makes the cost of buying and maintaining a bicycle look pretty bad value by comparison with the costs of running a car:

  • Charles

    We are living under a toll system that was designed by Robert Moses and his contemporaries to do one thing: build bridges. It outlived its purpose decades ago.

    For how much longer must commuters from Staten Island to Brooklyn, or Queens to the Bronx, pay through the nose while elites ride from brownstone Brooklyn to lower Manhattan for free?

  • Clarence Eckerson

    Should have heard the ABC-7 news anchors yesterday. Rolling their eyes at “the new toll plan” and told viewers “get ready for this: hold on to your wallets”. Tease after tease. All knee-jerk reax. The way they talked to the camera was like every person was a driver. I really find it interesting also that when they do these stories they only interview driver’s for their reaction. Not pedestrians, not transit riders, not cyclists, all of whom would be benefit. Windshield reporting.

  • TV people get about by car (and, to be fair, they have a lot of equipment to lug). We newspaper reporters are the ones on bicycles and subways.

  • Froggie

    My better half ran a TV news truck in Syracuse for 2 years. 60+ pounds of bulky camera gear, not counting cables or the satellite hookup.

  • Mark Walker

    New York City: bravely marching into the 1950s.

  • anti-rail idiot

    When is Cuomo going to admit he’s a NY suburban blue collar Republican?

  • spike

    There are at least two large groups of the middle class that drive- teachers and cops, who get free parking at work in the city. With no tolls on the bridges they can drive essentially for free (and cheaper and faster than taking the subway). Many less well off people in Queens, the Bronx and upper Manhattan (where there is much free on street parking) also have cars, or use very cheap parking in the projects. Putting tolls on the bridges would effect these people although most of these people are not trying to drive in lower Manhattan during the day. However, it does seem reasonable that the tolls on the bridges at least be equal to the cost of a subway ride.

  • Komanoff

    I nailed those numbers (“Current taxes …”) 20 years ago:

  • Jonathan Hallam

    The cost of the toll could be linked to the value of the vehicle being driven, for a direct solution. More broadly the toll should probably be both high and flat-rate, and top-level tax systems should be much more progressive to compensate.

  • HamTech87

    Can’t Mitchell Moss and his colleagues at NYU talk some sense into Brodsky, or at least try to figure out a better compromise?

  • HamTech87

    Your point about teachers is interesting. If you look at most schools in Westchester, they are gradually converting their open space and fields into parking lots. These are not parking spots for students, who generally are not permitted to park on school property, but for teachers and staff.

    And many (although not all) of these schools are in relatively transit-friendly locations. High frequency bus lines or MetroNorth stations are nearby.

    When will schools start providing counter-incentives to driving to work?
    Why are the costs to the kids of loss of open space and increased hazards of car collisions and emissions on school property going to be discussed?

  • Larry Littlefield

    What is particularly galling about NYC is the way the better off hide their privileges behind the less well off. Which is why what we mostly have of big government is the taxes.

    People think Brodsky’s toll philosophy is inconsistent with being a “liberal” “progressive” “Democrat,” whatever those things still mean. But he is remarkably consistent with what is in fact his political philosophy: neo-feudalism.

    As I’ve noted, under capitalism, you get what you earn, at least in theory. Those who believe that people need an incentive to work and innovate can agree with that. Under socialism, you get what you need, at least in theory. Those who believe that we are all part of one human family can agree with that. But over time, when you have the same group of people in power, both capitalism and socialism degenerate into feudalism, under which the privileged expect to continue to get what they have been getting, and perhaps a little more, whether they need it or not, deserve it or not. For those who have real needs, and who produce real earnings, it’s just tough luck.

    You can’t argue either economic efficiency or social equity with those who see the public sector as just a second way for some people to get over on the serfs.

    Recently I’ve read a number of articles and book reviews about the U.S. going feudal. One book, “Government’s End,” said that such a large share of public resources has been captured by special interests working behind the scenes, and they are so dedicated exclusively to their own privileges, that no reform is possible. And I read an article that claimed that in the private sector control has been gained by parasitic corporations, permanently lowering U.S. productivity growth.

    “In his latest book, “Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge and Change,” Phelps argues that the U.S. has become sclerotic as entrenched corporate interests have stifled innovation.

  • JK

    Free East River Bridges are an entitlement to the motorists who use those bridges. It is very hard to take away an entitlement. The political theory behind the taxi fees seems to be that the drivers in Queens, LI and Westchester who are losing their entitlement will be more receptive to paying tolls if rich, taxi riding, Manhattanites pay more for their taxi ride. But what entitled person thinks this way? What’s an example of this theory working in another sphere of NYS/NYC politics? The bridge pricing problem is a classic case of a group with a strong specific interest coming up against a broad, but fairly diffuse public interest in pricing. Why is it good politics to encourage medallion owners — another powerful specific interest — to become more active in the fight against pricing?

  • Komanoff

    John: You’re right to be concerned about stirring up the powerful medallion owners. But without a taxi surcharge (and remember, yellows won’t pay the regular cordon fee on the E River bridges and 60th St entrances), Manhattan is so favored that the plan will be DOA. You know from hard experience that politics is “positional”: it’s not just “Am I better (or worse) off?,” it’s “Is the change in my status better or worse than the other guy’s?” If Queens and other boroughs answer “worse,” we’re sunk.

    The saving grace is that each taxi shift will have more fare trips, more revenue, and higher profits than at present. That’s b/c the quantum leap in CBD travel speeds will lead to more taxi use, not less, and also enable trips to turn over more quickly.

    Of course, if you have an alt pricing mechanism that ensures Manhattan residents pay their fare share (commensurate w/ the benefits they’ll get), let us know. Otherwise, we need for taxi users to pony up.

    PS: Let’s all try to refer to “E Riv bridges + 60th Street,” rather than applying the misleading label of (just) “E Riv bridges.” Thanks.

  • Stephen Bauman

    “That’s b/c the quantum leap in CBD travel speeds will lead to more taxi use,…”

    Could you quantify what you mean by “quantum leap.”

  • Komanoff

    Sure. 20% average increase (weekdays, 6am-6pm).

    See (free download). Home Page, Row 18. Click.

  • Stephen Bauman

    Looking at the graph on the spreadsheet’s “Speed-Vol Cordon” page, you state that peak volume is 220K veh/hr. This corresponds to a speed of 4.5 mph on the graph. So, a 20% speed increase would translate to a speed of 5.4 mph (with a reduction in traffic volume to 210K veh/hr). Am I reading this correctly?

  • andrelot

    Teachers are not particularly well-paid and they need to commute from places far away. Making it more difficult for teachers to reach schools, especially those not on train/subway lines, would just make it worse.

  • Daniel

    Teachers are not the only ones who need to get to the school. There are more kids than teachers that need to get there; and in the case of K-5 their parents as well. If a school is sited so badly that the playground needs to be converted to a parking lot then there is a much larger problem than finding parking for the teachers. Either the transportation to the school needs to be improved in co-operation with the MTA, or a new better sited building needs to be built and the badly sited school building sold.

    The city has the power of eminent domain when locating schools, there is really no excuse for not placing schools optimally for both the kids to get there and the staff.

  • Andrew

    So should everyone underpaid with a long commute automatically get free parking? And why would you give extra compensation to teachers who opt to drive but not to teachers who opt to take the train?

  • Joe R.

    I’ll also add that if the school functioned for years/decades without converting the playground to parking space then perhaps the problem is not where the school is located. It may just be that driving is more convenient but not really necessary. Perhaps schools need to start doing surveys of where their students and teachers live. NYC has schools located within walking distance of most residential areas, and certainly within walking distance of public transit most of the time. I think it sends a horrible message to the students that teacher parking is more important than outdoor student recreation. If anything, teachers are supposed to set an example. Part of that example should be not driving to work when they live in the city with the best public transit system in the US.

  • Joe R.

    If this is the case (and I’m not sure it is because I think most teachers choose to drive rather than really need to) then this speaks of a mismatch between schools and teachers. I think it’s important for a teacher to have as short a commute as possible so they arrive fresh and ready to teach. We can facilitate this with a master data base of school locations versus staff locations. Move people around so the school they work in is much closer to where they live.

    Lots of people have long commutes and don’t get provided free parking by their employer. Teachers aren’t special, especially if that parking comes at the expense of outdoor student recreation areas.

  • Kevin Love

    Yes, teachers are supposed to set an example. Part of that is not launching a lethal cancer poison attack upon innocent children.

  • andrelot

    Problem is that you assume teachers and schools would automatically want them to work at the closest possible school regardless of any other factor.

  • qrt145

    If a teacher wants to work at a faraway school, then getting there is his/her problem (hey, I’d love to work in London but live in NYC!). If it’s the school decision, then I’d say the school does have some responsibility for making sure that teachers are able to get to their workplace. Turning playgrounds into parking lots is not the only solution, though.

  • Komanoff

    No, but my bad: the graph is way out of date, and is predicated on earlier (and higher) CBD traffic volumes.

    You’re better off going to the “Motor V’s” worksheet, Rows 970-975.

  • Pursuant

    There is a much larger contingent of commercial vehicles in Queens and Brooklyn. Delivery and service related businesses from HVAC and elevator repairmen to Bakeries and Fresh Direct that will be affected by East River tolls.

    Most people realize that once you turn the bridges into a revenue generator it’s no longer about transportation policy. It just becomes an added cost of living in New York and one that will continue to increase like the endless toll and fare hikes and rent increases.

    Suppose we instituted a bicycle registration process and used the proceeds for bike friendly projects?

  • Andrew

    It becomes an added cost of living only for the minority of New Yorkers who rely on motor vehicles to get around.

    Delivery and service related businesses will benefit from the reduced congestion. Their increased efficiency will more than offset the cost of the additional tolls.


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