The Politics of NYC Toll Reform — What’s Different This Time?

Next month’s MTA fare and toll increase will be the seventh hike in 15 years, noted “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz this morning. “But there is one traveler that hasn’t seen any change in the cost of travel,” he said. “And that’s the person that drives into Manhattan.”

All eyes on the governor: What will he say about the Move NY fair tolling plan? Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr
One person could put toll reform in play instantaneously: Governor Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Schwartz was speaking at the public launch event for the Move NY “fair tolling” plan, which aims to dramatically reduce traffic while funding improvements to the region’s transit system (get all the details). The core of the plan is to charge for driving in Manhattan below 60th Street while reducing charges on outlying bridges. After years of careful preparation, Move NY made the case this morning that its plan is not only smart policy but a political winner.

The main message from Move NY was that its plan is unlike past congestion pricing or bridge toll proposals, which did not adjust prices on outer borough bridges. “AAA is now working with us on this plan, so we have some strange bedfellows,” Schwartz said. “The bed is getting larger. I think we’ve got something going.”

The coalition supporting Move NY includes groups like the Staten Island Chamber of Commerce and the New York State Motor Truck Association that either opposed congestion pricing in 2008 or sat on the sidelines. Move NY’s most recent polling indicates that a plurality of the region’s voters are in favor of the plan, with support highest in the suburbs.

“I’m as outer borough as you get, and I indeed was an opponent of the 2008 plan,” said Council Member and former Assemblyman Mark Weprin. “[The Move NY] plan is about, how do we increase the benefit for the outer boroughs?”

Weprin said this shift has made the plan more appealing to most (though not all) elected officials. “I definitely know they have more support than they had last time, just in my conversations with my colleagues,” he said. “This plan is about helping the outer boroughs. The 2008 plan, in my mind, was about helping Manhattan.”

In the Move NY plan, three quarters of the additional revenue generated by the toll swap would go to the MTA, leaving a substantial chunk for roads, which could appeal to legislators who opposed congestion pricing. (Unlike earlier drafts, the final plan does not spell out specific road projects to spend on.)

The politics of road pricing are a little different in the city itself. While some City Council members, including Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez and Manhattan’s Margaret Chin, have been enthusiastic about the Move NY plan, Mayor Bill de Blasio has yet to weigh in. Move NY says its plan is a natural fit for the de Blasio administration, with its focus on the outer boroughs and potential to fund ferry and BRT expansions. The plan also dovetails with Vision Zero by cutting traffic on local streets near entrances to the free East River bridges.

City Hall remains noncommittal. “We’ll review the plan, as will everyone who shares concern about seeing the MTA’s capital plan funded and transit fares kept affordable,” said de Blasio spokesperson Wiley Norvell.

MTA debt is on the rise. Without more dedicated revenue, it will only get worse. Graphic: Move NY
MTA debt is on the rise. Without more dedicated revenue, it will only get worse. Graphic: Move NY

The key to the plan, though, is Governor Cuomo.

The last time the governor offered a direct opinion on toll reform, in 2013, he dismissed it. Since then, the $15 billion gap in the MTA capital plan has become a more urgent problem. Move NY says it has briefed the governor’s staff on its proposal and described their reaction as “open-minded.” A kind word or two from Cuomo about toll reform could get things rolling in Albany. For his part, the governor has said “everything is on the table” for funding the MTA capital program, but has also described it as “bloated.”

This morning, Move NY advocates warned that they would strongly oppose any effort to cut the size of the $32 billion capital plan, which Move NY campaign director Alex Matthiessen described as “on the low end of what the MTA actually needs.” The group was also not enthused about cutting existing dedicated MTA revenues, like the Payroll Mobility Tax, in exchange for toll reform. “If we raise this new revenue, and simply remove some of the revenue that already exists,” Matthiessen said, “then we haven’t actually accomplished our goals.”

Alternative revenue sources are either political dead ends or have major drawbacks. Bringing back the commuter tax or expanding the payroll mobility tax are non-starters with suburban legislators, gas tax increases are deeply unpopular, and increasing the sales tax would hurt working-class New Yorkers hardest.

And only toll reform combines new revenue with the transformative effect of road pricing.

One way or another, the $15 billion gap will have to be filled. The governor’s office wouldn’t say much about its thinking in advance of the Move NY event this morning, and has not responded to Streetsblog’s inquiries this afternoon.

That might change soon enough. “Starting tomorrow, there’s going to be a lot of discussions,” Weprin said of the Move NY plan. “People are going to be talking about this.”

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