Can Congestion Pricing Survive Cuomo’s Political Timidity?

Speaking on WNYC this morning, the governor suggested putting off an Albany vote on congestion pricing until next year.

Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr
Photo: Governor's Office/Flickr

Governor Cuomo says he wants to pass congestion pricing, but he’s shying away from legislating the policy in Albany this year, and that could spell trouble. Without stronger leadership from the governor now, it’s anyone’s guess whether a good congestion pricing plan will pass in the future.

Speaking on the Brian Lehrer show today, Cuomo said “the congestion in Manhattan is incredible” and made the case for congestion pricing to raise funds for transit improvements. He did not sound like someone who wants to strike while the iron is hot, however.

“There are stages to the congestion pricing,” he said, “and I’m cautiously optimistic that we could start the process” this session.

Lehrer had asked Cuomo about his proposal to compel the city to give the state a share of property tax revenue from areas served by MTA expansion projects. A leaked version of the bill, giving the state broad leeway to define areas where it could essentially seize money from the city, was widely panned as aggressive overreach by the governor.

On WNYC, Cuomo insisted that value capture would only be activated at the behest of the city, and was not a replacement for congestion pricing.

Then he characterized congestion pricing’s chances in Albany as “tenuous at best” and said he doesn’t expect it to pass in “one fell swoop.”

Cuomo’s comments align with a report in Crain’s on Sunday that he’s looking to get the deployment of congestion toll technology funded this session, leaving the hard part — legislating the actual toll — for next year, after the state elections in November.

It’s a timid calculation. The idea is to lower the political risk for legislators (and Cuomo) by avoiding a tough vote before election season. But it raises the risk that Albany will fail to enact good congestion reduction policy.

Assembly Democrats have already put forward a weak substitute that would add a small surcharge on for-hire vehicle trips without setting up a cordon toll for other car and truck traffic. If Cuomo doesn’t insist on legislating the cordon toll as part of this year’s package, it’s possible Albany will pass the taxi/Uber fee now and never get around to the centerpiece of congestion pricing.

Dragging the process out for another year also creates its own political risks.

The experience of other cities shows that people support congestion pricing after they see it in action. That’s what happened in Stockholm, where a six-month demonstration period won over a skeptical public. After congestion pricing cut traffic 20 percent, 52 percent of Stockholm residents voted to make it permanent in 2006. By 2011, public support stood at nearly 70 percent.

The flipside is that public support deteriorates the longer people debate congestion pricing without seeing it work. If Cuomo puts off a vote for another year, he runs the risk of letting opposition to congestion pricing intensify and harden, making passage in the legislature less likely than it is today.

  • redbike

    I’m speaking loosely here, because MTA funding is … squishy. Broadly (quibblers: start your engines) the city funds MTA capital costs, and the state funds MTA operating costs. In the depths of my ignorance of high falutin’ finance, it seems to me the rewards from investing capital (e.g. increased property tax revenue) should go to the city. Value capture is a fine idea, but it’s the city’s dollars – not the state’s – that were the source of the capital investment. Getting into the weeds, to the extent that the state’s lack of funding has resulted in maintenance and repairs (operating costs) being neglected until the only recourse is rebuilding (a capital expense), that should further bar the state from even a whiff of a taste of the increased real estate tax revenue.

  • Joan

    The traffic is totally OK for a big city like NYC. The “congestion” is caused by new construction blocked lines, blocked no standing lines in rush hours by delivery trucks, by thousands of cars with placards- all city and state agencies workers drive big cars because they know that they can block a bike lane or a bus lane without being ticketed. The city failed to provide an infrastructure and better mass transit before allowing all these new buildings to be erected. I need a car for the work I do, otherwise I have to carry on the subway a 20 lb “bag” 3x3x1 ft. I drive a smart car, which is 3 times smaller than an SUV. Why should I be charged the same price for toll/parking as a regular car. The problem could be resolved if the city sets more strict rules for delivery hours or taking away 2/3rds of the placards. The city should encourage drivers to buy and drive small cars. More bridges and tunnels are needed (and open the fkcin 56th street) Cuomo’s plan sounds more like filling up somebody’s pocket.

  • Vooch

    driving a car in Manhattan even a small car ( and we should applaud you driving a small car ) carries huge costs.

    Streetspace is staggeringly expensive.

    Therefore it’s reasonable to charge for use of that space.

    I wholeheartedly agree that size or perhaps a proxy for size weight of motor vehicle should govern the congestion charge.

    I also strongly advocate that all parkways should be for the exclusive use of vehicles with commercial plates not exceeding 7,000 gross weight.

    BTW – 20lbs and 3×3 is perfect for a cargo bike; it’s faster and easier than driving ?

  • Urbanely

    I completely agree that the city should be encouraging use of small cars. In Europe, old cities are populated with small cars and trucks. It’s easier to maneuver small streets. So much congestion happens here when a massive vehicle blocks a small street. With the mayor riding around in a convoy of Suburbans, I doubt we’ll see any change in that regard.

  • Urbanely

    The point about the Stockholm demonstration period is interesting. I don’t remember that being included in the draft plans for NYC. Was it?

  • kevd

    the city’s funding of the 7 train extension to hudson yards was the exception, not the rule.

  • Reggie

    “I am cautiously optimistic that we can begin to conceptualize how to initiate further dialogue about starting a process that potentially could result in some form of congestion pricing after a period of due diligence.”