De Blasio Sounds Ready to Negotiate on Congestion Pricing

Testifying in Albany, the mayor outlined what he wants to see in a congestion pricing plan - a noticeable shift from earlier statements disparaging the policy.

Mayor de Blasio testifying in Albany yesterday. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor de Blasio testifying in Albany yesterday. Photo: Ed Reed/Mayoral Photography Office

Bill de Blasio spent the summer and fall knocking congestion pricing, but since the release of road pricing recommendations by Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel [PDF], the mayor has softened his stance.

De Blasio first showed signs of opening up to congestion pricing last month, when he called the Fix NYC proposal an “improvement over previous plans.”

Testifying in Albany yesterday, de Blasio refrained from calling it a “regressive tax,” a go-to attack that he leveled against congestion pricing repeatedly (and erroneously) last year. Instead he told legislators that the Fix NYC version of congestion pricing is “fundamentally different, better” than the 2008 version under Mayor Bloomberg and the Move NY toll reform plan.

It’s strange to hear that from the mayor, since the Fix NYC plan isn’t all that different from those earlier plans, and it could do as much or more to reduce traffic on NYC streets. But whatever the reason, de Blasio sounded ready to negotiate, laying out conditions for his support:

If there were a congestion pricing plan there are several measures critical for New York City residents. One — a requirement that all proceeds are invested in mass transit projects in the five boroughs only. And two — the City of New York needs the ability to sign off on transit projects and priorities. Also, any pricing scheme for passenger vehicles should take the needs of New Yorkers with hardships into account including low income New Yorkers and those with disabilities.

For the most part these are reasonable conditions. Creating a mechanism to guarantee that congestion pricing revenues are devoted to projects that benefit New York City transit riders — a.k.a. the “lockbox” — should be doable. And de Blasio is in an excellent position to negotiate those guarantees, according to TransitCenter advocacy and communications director Jon Orcutt.

“It’s good that the mayor is starting to stake out, at least in general, positions on what the revenue should go for,” Orcutt said. “That needs to get sharper in terms of specifics, and that can only be worked out and negotiated with the MTA and the governor. There’s no way around that.”

To determine where the money should be invested, Orcutt said electeds need to listen to the officials at New York City Transit and NYC DOT who know the city’s transit needs best.

There are several policy measures Orcutt mentioned that could benefit city residents before congestion pricing goes live, like buying more buses and expanding bus service, better fare integration for in-city commuter rail trips (along the lines of the “Freedom Ticket” pilot MTA Chair Joe Lhota has promised), and more bus lanes in the farther reaches of the boroughs, where congestion pricing won’t do much to reduce traffic and speed up buses.

More troubling is de Blasio’s impulse to carve out exemptions. Anti-poverty advocates have released research showing that the low-income beneficiaries of congestion pricing far outnumber the very small share of low-income New Yorkers who car commute into the Manhattan Central Business District. A targeted discount for low-income residents may not undermine congestion pricing (few trips would be affected), but adding exemptions on top of that could erode its impact.

That’s what happened in London, where exemptions and discounts “diluted the scheme’s effectiveness,” according to road pricing researcher Lewis Lehe.

For New Yorkers with disabilities, inaccessible subway stations remain a huge problem. For residents who need regular access to hospitals and health care workers dealing with exceptionally long commutes, deteriorating transit service is a much bigger concern than cheap car access to Manhattan below 60th Street. Instead of seeking exemptions to a congestion fee, de Blasio could do a lot more for these New Yorkers by steering congestion pricing revenue toward transit investments that will help them.

That scenario doesn’t feel as far-fetched as it did a few weeks ago. On congestion pricing, de Blasio seems ready to play ball.

  • bolwerk

    BdB’s conditions may be prima facie reasonable, but he’s still kind of being a jerk. If he cares so much about hardship, where the f has his support for transit been all along? Just in terms of naked volume, there’s got to be some factor of public transportation users dealing with “hardship” for every driver.

    This, once again, hits on one of the most backwards facets of American (and New York) society. In a sane transportation regime, pouring public resources into driving would only occur for disabled people who can drive safely and can’t use public transportation. The focus would be routing able-bodied people onto public transportation. Instead it’s the other way around, with able-bodied people encouraged to drive and people with disabilities thrust onto public transit

  • SingleOccupantDriver

    This Dutch study concludes a 10% transition from cars to motorcycles decreases traffic delays by 40% with induced demand included.

    It’s unlikely more people will commute in motorcycles or scooters, but it’s very possible commuters will choose innovative and cleverly designed narrow track vehicles since they would give them much higher levels of safety motorcycles do not provide.

    Driving fleets of narrow cars would make existing roads more efficient. Without narrow car innovation, congestion pricing will result in more expensive empty seat hauling, and streets will continue to be used inefficiently.

  • ohnonononono

    Fix NYC vaguely recommends some money going to transit improvements in the suburbs, in what I assumed was an effort to make the plan remotely palatable suburban legislators: “Revenue raised under these various surcharge options should flow to the MTA to be utilized for the SAP and for transit improvements in the outer boroughs or suburban counties, including bus systems.”

    De Blasio asking that zero revenue go to transit in suburban counties would seem to ensure that zero suburban legislators will ever support it.

  • reasonableexplanation

    I love small vehicles, but they only make sense if they’re cheap… which they’re not.

    The smart car for example, would be a great fit if it cost less than a regular compact car, but it doesn’t, so why get it over a nissan versa for the same price?

    I hope we get cheap small cars, like the Renault Twizy here in the states one day.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Just remember, however, the zillion other ways that NYC has been treated unfairly by the rest of the state in recent decades. Including times when NYC has been flat on its back. Read through this for some of them.

  • Guest

    Why did De Blasio change his tune? Don’t discount the panel’s FDR escape hatch, which was a brilliant, if unintentional, bit of strategy. It’s likely no small matter to De Blasio, even if only subconsciously, that his “morning commute” would remain free. Not that he personally would have been out money, but because to him, as a matter of principle, a Regular New Yorker shouldn’t have to pay a toll to do a Regular New Yorker thing like driving 24 miles round trip through the middle of town to get to the gym every day.

  • AMH

    I think congestion pricing should include a discount for motorcycles and scooters (as I understand it, they would pay the same price as an SUV driver). The city should be encouraging literally anything and everything that’s not a car.

  • bolwerk

    Fair point, but an obvious solution is to cut the parking costs for the smart car significantly.

  • Wilfried84

    There should be an additional surcharge for SUVs. Large vehicles impose a higher cost on the city and other road users, so they should pay more too.

  • Vooch

    Placard holders want free pass

  • AMH

    Parking garages already price based on vehicle size–munimeters should do the same.


Photo: Crain's New York

Bucking de Blasio, Speaker Candidates Support Congestion Pricing

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.