Prendergast’s Objections to Toll Reform Don’t Make Any Sense

On WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show this morning, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast joined his boss Andrew Cuomo in dumping cold water on the Move NY toll reform plan as a way to fund the transit authority’s capital program. Trouble is, his critiques don’t make much sense.

Photo: Marc A. Hermann for MTA/Flickr
Toll reform? Nope and no way, say Cuomo and Prendergast. Photo: Marc A. Hermann for MTA/Flickr

Lehrer played a clip of Cuomo arguing against toll reform on the radio yesterday, then asked Prendergast what he thought of the idea. The MTA chief said he isn’t being dismissive of the plan and that he’s not opposed to it. He then ticked off what, in his view, are a bunch of reasons to dismiss the plan and oppose it.

First, Prendergast said that Move NY “leaves some bridges free.” Exactly what he’s referring to here is a mystery. Maybe Prendergast is concerned that the plan doesn’t put tolls on the Harlem River bridges. He never explains. “I’m not saying this is my position,” he said, “but there some local elected leaders that are concerned [that] some bridges are left free.”

Then, the MTA head said these mysterious free bridges would lead to toll shopping. “I’m not so sure it accurately predicts what driver behavior will be,” he said of Move NY. “I’ve been other places where people drive a long way out of their way to avoid paying a toll.”

Again, it’s not clear what Prendergast is talking about here. The most fundamental component of Move NY is a consistent toll for driving into the central business district, thereby eliminating the incentive to shop for a free bridge and clog up local streets.

Prendergast was also concerned that Move NY would not provide enough revenue to maintain the existing East River bridges — a cost that’s already paid for in the city’s capital budget.

But Prendergast’s objections don’t stop at the bridges. “There’s also some concerns about what will happen with the 60th Street cordon,” he said, without explaining the problem. “I’ll let others speak to the political process.”

Prendergast was also concerned that toll reform wouldn’t start generating revenue soon enough. “To implement this and see your first dollar of revenue, you measure it in years, not months. You see it in three or four years,” he said. “Let’s not count this capital program dependent on that process.”

Even if it took four years to implement — which Move NY says is unlikely — a portion of the toll revenue could back bonds, which would provide cash for the capital plan more quickly than a purely pay-as-you-go program.

These answers are unlikely to sway the Cuomo administration. Apparently, the governor and his MTA are just not interested in reforming the city’s broken toll system to raise revenue for transit.

  • In London, Ken Livingstone won the mayoral election in May 2000 and introduced the congestion charge in February 2003. That was in a considerably more complex environment, since there are far more places to cross the boundary of the London cordon than in New York, where bridges, tunnels and the south end of Central Park present a far simpler cordon. That time included all the necessary consultations, design of the program and at least one legal challenge. So it’s very hard to see why it would take long to introduce a system in New York.

  • kevd

    Wow. He not only seems like a horrible MTA CEO, but reading those quotes, I’m worried that he might be incapable of expressing a thought coherently.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Somebody needs to ask the question — why were NYC residents forced to endure service cuts and fare increases in excess of inflation to subsidize waste, fraud, and featherbedding on the LIRR? And why did Cuomo force the MTA to allow all the abuses to continue.

    Whose tribe are they?

  • BBnet3000

    That’s what happens when you enter an extreme state of cognitive dissonance to keep your job because your boss is a complete moron with whom you have to try to march in lockstep.

  • Andrew

    From what I’ve heard from those who have worked with/for him, he’s actually a fantastic MTA CEO, but he unfortunately feels the need (perhaps correctly, perhaps not) to kowtow to the Governor.

    When intelligent people sound incoherent, it’s often because they are saying something they don’t actually believe to be correct.

    This wouldn’t be the first time. Remember when Prendergast announced that the subway would run through the blizzard, and then he later announced that the subway would shut down for the blizzard, but the subway actually continued running through the blizzard even though the stations had been closed and nobody could get to them?

  • Andrew

    May 2000 to February 2003 is a lot longer than a year.

    Perhaps congestion pricing wouldn’t get us out of today’s mess. But would it forestall tomorrow’s mess? Then we should start working on implementation today.

  • Bolwerk

    Andrew is right. He has been around a long time, and historically he has shown himself to be quite capable.

    If anything, he seems like a great person for the role. What isn’t fair is that Cuomo is probably taking advantage of that. But MAYBE you could criticize Prendergast on not being too great at the politicking thing.

  • So, aside from being an unreconstructed asshole, what’s the real reason Cuomo and his minions won’t support the plan? Anyone?

  • kevd

    Ah….
    Makes sense.

  • kevd

    Noted!
    Once again it seems like the problems seem to originate from his boss.

  • Komanoff

    The London charging system had to be conceived, designed and installed from scratch. I’m sure thousands of individual decisions had to be made (Robert Wright’s point). Whereas the Move NY plan has been ready to go for some time. And only 32 toll locations.

  • MR

    Car drivers in this city have far more political pull than any other voting block. For some reason it’s okay to underfund the MTA and negatively impact the quality of life for millions of people, but inconvience far fewer drivers and politicians jump into action to defend them. Unfortunately the MoveNYC plan lacks any significant backing from a senior political leader who could champion the cause…we need adds on TV like the ones UBer And the Charter schools.

  • Joe R.

    I think MR hit upon the reason in the comment right above yours. It’s sacrosanct to inconvenience drivers or charge them any more money, most likely because the most influential people either drive or are driven.

  • Andrew

    Maybe. On the other hand, this is Cuomo we’re dealing with.

  • Andrew

    So maybe it won’t take 2.5 years to implement it – one year still seems quite optimistic to be.

    Not that that should stop us from starting.

  • Andrew

    And how do those politicians get around? There’s your basic answer.

  • com63

    Uber and Yellow cabs should be fighting for MoveNYC. Yes, they would have to pay the fee everyday, but it would only be once. They would more than make up for it in extra fares due to reduced congestion. We’ve seen how much political clout the medallion owners and uber have when they are fighting each other, just imagine if they lobbied together for something.

  • com63

    But that is why they should be fighting for less congestion. I bet the get to expense any vehicle expenses and tolls so it wouldn’t hit their wallet. They probably are stuck in traffic more than the average NYer.

  • JudenChino

    Don’t want to further burden all those working class people from queens driving to central manhattan for work. Oh wait, those people don’t exist or to the extent they do (plumbers, deliveries etc . . . ) they should pass the costs on to their customers.

  • Nathan Rosenquist

    Because MoveNY would provide a steady, dependable revenue stream (Protected from raids and theft by bond covenants) that would make Albany’s strong-arm control of capital funds obsolete. Thus less undeserved political power for Albany.

  • JK

    Additionally, NYC area crossings have had EZ Pass for decades, London had no electronic tolling prior to congestion pricing. NYC even has EZ Pass readers in place in Midtown and elsewhere to monitor traffic movement. We’re already wired, they were not.

  • JK

    The Thruway sells short term debt called Bond Anticipation Notes (BANS) which are backed by future bond sales. Once MoveNY was approved by the state legislature, it would be easy for MTA/NYC to immediately sell BANS based on MoveNY revenue. The issue here is purely political, not financial or policy. Prendergast would have been smart to say simply that the politics are too controversial for the MTA to base capital planning on MoveNY as a revenue source.

  • oxfdblue

    When I read stuff like this, all that comes to mind is that we have some of the most self-centered, stubborn politicians around. There isn’t a single problem in this city that cities around the world haven’t had and haven’t solved. The same goes for the country as a whole. MoveNY isn’t perfect, but it is light years ahead of any other plan or truth is, lack of any other plan, ever suggested.

  • Prendergast to Lehrer (softly, off-mike) – “I have to say this crap or the boss will fire me.”

  • ahwr

    Don’t they get city provided vehicles, EZPass tags and often drivers?

  • AndreL

    But I think that is part of the problem: it tangles up vocal constituencies that benefit from the status quo on bridge and tunnel tolls. Moreover, London congestion charge zone is not a transit area for regional traffic (jsut takes a loot at the map), whereas Manhattan is a pass-through corridor for many people driving to and from areas well outside its limits, unless they build a Brooklyn – Jersey City tunnel and another very expensive tunnel near midtown under Manhattan

  • Miles Bader

    Can’t somebody just run over Cuomo? No way would you ever be charged with anything…

  • Andrew

    Yes, I assume so. So they have a sense of what it might mean for them if they had to pay more tolls. They have much less of an idea of what underfunded transit would mean; it simply doesn’t occur to many of them how many of their constituents rely on transit and aren’t directly affected by tolls at all.

  • Brooklyn-JC drivers are part of the problem. There’s a perfectly good PATH train from WTC, a short walk from Fulton St where practically every train from Brooklyn stops. If you really need to drive, then go through Staten Island. Verrazano toll will be cheaper under this plan, so that’s a viable option.

  • I think he is “concerned” that NE Bronx-Brooklyn commuters who currently avoid Queens and go through the CBD and take Brooklyn or Manhattan bridges will take the Throgs Neck or Whitestone bridges instead. In this case, Kosciusko Bridge would be the mysterious “bridge that remains free” in his argument. Move NY would probably make congestion on the BQE worse, and that is a valid concern, but that is a reasonable price to pay for clearing up the surface streets inside the CBD.

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