De Blasio’s Wrong: There’s a Fair Congestion Pricing Plan Right Under His Nose

Asked about congestion pricing on WNYC, de Blasio recited his usual list of misdirections and red herrings.

Just 4 percent of outer borough workers commute by car into Manhattan. Of those, the vast majority are from middle- or high-income households. Image: Community Service Society
Just 4 percent of outer borough workers commute by car into Manhattan. Of those, the vast majority are from middle- or high-income households. Image: Community Service Society

Mayor de Blasio apparently doesn’t take transportation policy cues from every public radio listener.

On Brian Lehrer this morning, caller John from the Upper East Side told de Blasio he’s disturbed by the mayor’s opposition to congestion pricing, which John described as “a progressive solution for a problem that’s intractable and getting worse.”

In response, de Blasio recited his usual list of anti-pricing talking points:

  • Road pricing is a “regressive tax,” the mayor says. In fact, affluent car-commuting New Yorkers would pay nearly all of the tolls while the benefits would accrue to transit riders who earn less. Coupled with fare discounts for low-income riders, it would be even more progressive.
  • De Blasio claims Brooklyn and Queens would pay disproportionately, failing to acknowledge that the Move NY toll swap and for-hire surcharge, Manhattanites pay the biggest share of any borough.
  • Then the mayor dropped a classic misdirection about the lack of exemptions for people who drive to medical appointments in the Manhattan CBD. His cynical red herring disregards millions of New Yorkers who must swipe a MetroCard and hope the broken subway or traffic-hobbled bus gets them to the doctor, or health care job, on time — and swipe again to get home. Does de Blasio also believe there should be a medical exemption for transit fares?

“So far,” said de Blasio, “I have not seen a plan that actually is fair and would work.”

De Blasio’s arguments against road pricing are either not rooted in fact or are addressed by Move NY. His insistence that he hasn’t seen such a plan smacks of willful ignorance.

As long as he refuses to engage in a serious discussion on the most scrutinized road pricing proposal to come along since 2008, de Blasio is signaling that he’s not interested in reducing gridlock and helping bus riders mired in traffic.

  • JarekFA

    And what the fuck — they don’t have doctors in Brooklyn or Queens. We all have to drive in to Manhattan?

  • Toddster

    De Blasio’s alternative facts are just another move he’s taken straight out of Trump’s playbook. My favorite part was when De Blasio stated that “5 million people in Brooklyn and Queens would over overwhelmingly pay the cost”

    Last time I checked, less than half the people in Brooklyn own a car and a little over half in Queens, with the number of those using the to commute even lower. As a non car-owning Brooklyn resident, the only thing me and my 2.5 million peers will be paying for it the continued cost of congestion, delay and over crowding that will continue until this is in place.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Again, it’s about the division of the spoils between the pension rich political/union class, driving to placard parking in Manhattan, and the bonus rich executive/financial class, which can easier afford to pay tolls the tolls. The serfs on bikes, buses and the subway don’t count at all.

    Retired public employees pay zero state and local income taxes, no matter how high their retirement income is. And active public employees don’t want to pay for parking and tolls. They consider themselves worse off than the executive/financial class because they don’t count the cost of their pensions.

    https://larrylittlefield.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/chart5a.jpg

    And they certainly don’t want to share a subway ride with the losers. Particularly if the cash rich (as opposed to the bonus rich) don’t have to.

  • vnm

    I am so friggan’ disappointed in de Blasio.

  • Brian Howald

    “Mayor de Blasio apparently doesn’t take transportation policy cues from every public radio listener.”

    I see what you did there.

  • Brad Aaron

    The five million people in Brooklyn and Queens who drive into Manhattan reside in the same alternate-reality NYC as the e-bike riders who pose a serious danger to public safety.

  • AnoNYC

    I hope the governor and city council roll right over the mayor on this one.

  • AnoNYC

    I’ve seen this excuse a lot in the comments against congestion pricing online. It’s a ridiculous reason to oppose CP and not very well thought out.

  • Mike

    He lives in the Seinfeld reality of everyone in NYC owns a car and they all use them to get everywhere they have to go in the city.

  • It’s concern trolling. Nothing more, nothing less. Same way people oppose bike lanes and ped plazas by asking how on earth people with mobility issues will get to their front doors.

  • Vooch

    BdB uses the FDR everyday. He celebrates the FDR as a good thing. He is a suburbanite through & through.

  • Earl D.

    Have to say: from an urbanist perspective, De Blasio is an all around disappointment.

  • sbauman

    What’s a progressive tax? It’s that the higher an individual’s income is, the higher the tax rate will be. The congestion pricing proposals make no distinction between the vehicle owner’s income. All vehicles are taxed at the same rate (within the constraints of a different tax structure for cabs). Congestion pricing may or may not be fair or equitable. It’s definitely not progressive tax.

  • qrt145

    I think the argument is that the effect is largely progressive due to the the correlation between income and car among people who enter the CBD.

  • sbauman

    That argument is a red herring.

    It’s similar to the argument that millionaires pay more in income tax, even though their effective tax rate is usually less than many whose income is less. Warren Buffet famously noted that his tax rate is less than that of his secretary. Mr. Buffet’s total tax liability exceeded his secretary’s but that’s not the definition of a progressive tax.

    A person’s reluctance to enter the CBD varies as the amount of economic pain a cordon toll causes that person. Economic pain is directly related to the amount of the cordon toll and and inversely related to the payer’s income. Clearly, a cordon toll that isn’t indexed to the person’s income, the amount of economic pain will be inversely related to the person’s income. The percentage of drivers within each income group that will be persuaded not to drive into the cordon area will be inversely proportional to the income level. That’s the very opposite of the notion of progressive, when applied to taxation.

  • qrt145

    I think you are right that is is technically not a progressive tax. I’d say it’s really a user fee, and all fixed user fees are regressive in the sense of “amount of economic pain”. Paying $2.75 for a transit trip is more painful for the poor than to the rich. Same can be said for paying $4 for a gallon of milk.

    Alternatively, although I suspect this is not the best way to sell it politically, congestion pricing could be framed as a sin tax.

  • sbauman

    Alternatively, although I suspect this is not the best way to sell it politically, congestion pricing could be framed as a sin tax.

    Before trying to sell any congestion pricing scheme, I’d carefully check its promised benefit claims.

    The promise of reduced congestion in the NYC-CBD should be suspect. Yearly cordon counts date back to the 1970’s. They peaked at around 800K in 2005 and were only 724K in 2015. If congestion has gotten worse during this period, it has not been due to an increase of the number of vehicles entering the CBD. The reduction has been even greater for the net accumulation of vehicles within the CBD. That’s the running total of garbage in less garbage out. It peaked at around 100K in the mid 1980’s and was 78K in 2015. By just about every cordon crossing measurement, vehicle counts are down significantly from their peaks. Yet, congestion has not reduced in step with the vehicle counts.

    In fact it’s increased. NYCDOT’s 2016 Mobility Report showed an 85% correlation between vehicles entering the CBD and vehicle speeds within it. The number of cars entering the CBD has decreased and so has vehicle speed.

    It should be obvious to the casual observer, that other factors have a stronger influence on congestion than acceptable reductions of incoming vehicle counts.

    I would also question the revenue side estimates. I’ve caught what I consider to be a major overstatement of net revenues available for mass transit improvements in Move NY’s proposal. This is before how said money would be distributed among the many different public transit entities.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    De Blasio said it is a regressive tax. By the same argument you are using, it is not a regressive tax and De Blasio is wrong.

  • Pietro Gambadilegno

    “I’d carefully check its promised benefit claims….If congestion has gotten worse during this period, it has not been due
    to an increase of the number of vehicles entering the CBD.”

    There are two errors in this argument.

    The logical error: if congestion has not been getting worse because an increased number of cars have been entering the CBD, it doesn’t follow that congestion will not be reduced if fewer cars enter the CBD. On the contrary, congestion will obviously be reduced if fewer cars enter the CBD. The benefit is still therre.

    The factual error: the proposal includes a fee for taxis and Uber cars within the CBD in addition to a charge for those crossing the cordon.

  • sbauman

    By the same argument you are using, it is not a regressive tax and De Blasio is wrong.

    I did not define a regressive tax. However its definition is the opposite of a progressive tax. Namely, the higher the income, the higher the tax rate will be.

    A fixed tax of $1 is 1% of the income for somebody earning $100 but 2% of the income for somebody earning $50. Thus, any fixed tax that is not indexed to one’s income is regressive.

    So far, nobody has suggested indexing any congestion charge to one’s income.

  • sbauman

    congestion will obviously be reduced if fewer cars enter the CBD.

    The actual numbers don’t bear this out. From the 2016 Mobility Report: “Annual average taxi speeds in Manhattan south of 60th Street fell by 12% (1.14 mph) from 2010 to 2015. The number of vehicles entering the CBD: 776k (2010); 731k (2015) or -6%.

    I’m sure if the number of incoming vehicles were sufficiently reduced while the number CBD-based vehicles remained the same, there would be a point where average vehicle speeds would increase. The question is by how much must the vehicle count be reduced before vehicle speeds start increasing. Is this an acceptable solution?

    the proposal includes a fee for taxis and Uber cars within the CBD in addition to a charge for those crossing the cordon

    Move NY’s proposal is either/or. For hire vehicles with GPS tracking devices will pay for time/distance traveled within the CBD; those without GPS tracking devices will pay the cordon toll. Otherwise, for hire vehicles with GPS tracking devices would simply turn them off to avoid being subject to the charges within the CBD. Theoretically, the charge within the CBD will be less than making numerous cordon crossings.

  • Ari_F_S

    Congestion pricing is a user fee, not a tax. Therefore, it is regressive.

    However, since the average driver into Manhattan (the payer) is more affluent than the average transit rider into Manhattan (the beneficiary), the overall outcome is progressive. Your Warren Buffet example isn’t totally analogous because most people (transit riders) won’t pay any congestion fee.

    Let’s also not forget that DRIVERS who pay to enter the CBD will also benefit by the reduction in traffic and shorter travel times.

  • Joe R.

    You’re not counting the time savings drivers will experience due to paying the congestion fee. This will effectively make the tax negative in just about all cases.

  • sbauman

    You’re not counting the time savings drivers will experience due to paying the congestion fee. This will effectively make the tax negative in just about all cases.

    It’s wise not to include any time savings due before they are actually realized in practice.

    Should time savings fail to materialize, as actual NYC CBD data strongly suggests, then the congestion charge remains a regressive tax.

    Should the value of time savings actually exceed the congestion charge, as you are suggesting, then any potential motorist will switch to cars for getting into the CBD because it’s the less expensive alternative.

    This is the essence of the congestion pricing paradigm, cost influences behavior. Raise the net cost of vehicular travel into the CBD and some people will not travel into the CBD. Conversely, if the imposition of a congestion fee reduces the net cost of vehicles (on an individual basis) into the CBD, then more people will opt to take their cars into the CBD.

    It’s a no-win situation, for either scenario.

    The only scenario that works is that the imposition of a congestion fee will result in an increase of the net cost of bringing a vehicle into the CBD. That net cost may be less than the congestion charge, if congestion pricing actually reduces congestion. However, it’s still a fixed charge that’s not indexed to the individual’s income. Therefore, it remains regressive.

    N.B. one could argue that the value of the time savings is proportional to how much the individual values his time savings. Those with higher incomes are likely to place a higher value on their time savings. Thus, the net cost of congestion pricing would vary inversely in real terms with the person’s income. That makes it even more regressive than if only the actual congestion fee were considered.

  • sbauman

    However, since the average driver into Manhattan (the payer) is more affluent than the average transit rider into Manhattan (the beneficiary), the overall outcome is progressive.

    First, you are making up your own definition for a “progressive outcome” and equating it to the definition of a “progressive tax”.

    Second, you are confusing stated goals with actual outcomes. How much “average transit rider into Manhattan (the beneficiary)” will receive depends on: 1 – how much money from the congestion charge will be devoted to transit; and 2 – how that money is spent. Both are highly problematical, based on uncertainty of what Move NY’s net revenue will actually be and the MTA’s priorities in aiding the named beneficiary class.

    Your Warren Buffet example isn’t totally analogous because most people (transit riders) won’t pay any congestion fee.

    Transit riders already pay a congestion fee. It’s called the transit fare. Unlike the cordon toll, it applies to trips that traverse the CBD cordon as well as trips totally within the cordon. As you noted, it’s a “user fee” and regressive.

    Let’s also not forget that DRIVERS who pay to enter the CBD will also benefit by the reduction in traffic and shorter travel times.

    I already covered this point in the last paragraph of my reply to Mr. Joe R, above. The monetary value of shorter travel times varies directly with the individual’s income. When the monetary value of shorter travel times is included, the net congestion charge will vary inversely with the individual’s income.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    Just raise the tolls on Lincoln, Holland and Wash. bridge. Jerseyites don’t pay any NY road user fees and buy their cheaper gas in NJ. Does PANYNJ contribute any toll money for Manhattan road maintenance ??

  • Ari_F_S

    No, I’m not equating. It’s not a progressive tax.

    Obviously, revenue needs to be spent properly. But first it needs to be raised somewhere.

    Transit fare is distinctly NOT a congestion fee. If it were, the farw would be higher during busier times.

    So what’s your solution to CBD traffic congestion?

  • sbauman

    Obviously, revenue needs to be spent properly.

    How tax revenues are spent has no bearing on whether the tax is progressive or regressive.

    I agree it would be better that tax revenues be spent for worthwhile purposes. One problem with the Move NY proposal is that it’s very short on spending details.

    Transit fare is distinctly NOT a congestion fee. If it were, the fare would be higher during busier times.

    The Move NY proposal would fail to be a “congestion fee” by that criterion. The cordon tolls would be in effect at a single rate 24/7.

    So what’s your solution to CBD traffic congestion?

    I would start by identifying individual congestion causes and rectify them. The congestion pricing paradigm is that tolling at a particular point and resulting reduced traffic at that particular point would percolate far from that point.

    The 2016 Mobility Report shows exactly the opposite occurring. Between 2010 and 2015 vehicle flow into the CBD cordon has decreased and vehicle speeds have also decreased in lock step (85% correlation). This indicates other factors are more important than actual traffic volume flowing into the CBD cordon.

    One suspected factor is the congestion generating behavior license given to delivery truck operators by the Bloomberg administration in 2006. The Bloomberg administration started a program that substantially reduced fines for illegal parking, standing, double parking, etc. in exchange for a fee and a promise not to contest any such tickets they received. The Bloomberg administration failed to increase enforcement to match the fine reduction. The result made it more economical for delivery trucks to practice congestion causing behavior.

    DeBlasio’s pilot program is to start a ticket blitz (NYPD willing) in January on the most congested streets within the CBD. The questions to be answered are: whether the certainty of a fine for congestion causing behavior will reduce the behavior and whether the reduction in such behavior will result in less congestion. N.B. this is pure congestion pricing – the fee is levied directly on the congestion’s cause and not indirectly on the number of vehicles vehicles crossing a cordon. If the results are positive, the question remains how to scale the program up citywide.

    The second question is how to enforce regulations that reduce congestion. It’s a source of corruption because of bribery regardless of which agency enforces such regulations. There is a fairly simple solution. Have the public report violators and get a cut of the fine for doing it. This can be systematized with smartphone apps that would simultaneously guarantee the vehicle owners’ rights and provide certainty that the fine would not be overturned at an administrative hearing. Such applications would simultaneously make graft uneconomical and provide a much greater likelihood that any violations would be subject to a fine.

  • Menachem Goldshteyn

    I haven’t seen this discussed, but doesn’t deBlasio’s tax plan for millionaires only apply to NYC residents? That means that millionaire car commuters from Westchester and Long Island would pay nothing. Instead it would be paid by NYC millionaires who are more likely to use transit.
    Very regressive.

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Mayor de Blasio is pulling out all the stops to frame congestion pricing as a "regressive tax," even though low-income New Yorkers stand to gain enormously. Not a single contender for council speaker is on the same page as the mayor. In a debate hosted by Crain's this morning, they all signaled support for congestion pricing, with a few caveats.