COURAGE NEEDED: Congestion Pricing Leads Pols into ‘Political Death Valley’

Congestion pricing could solve part of this problem, while creating a pool of money for transit.  Photo: giggel/Wikimedia Commons
Congestion pricing could solve part of this problem, while creating a pool of money for transit. Photo: giggel/Wikimedia Commons

LOS ANGELES — They call it “the Valley of Political Death.”

Congestion pricing is not an easy sell. Indeed, Governor Cuomo’s strong support Thursday — and Mayor de Blasio’s continuing apathy — for charging drivers a fee to enter central and lower Manhattan is a fitting symbol of what cities around the globe have experienced as they attempted to institute congestion pricing fees.

A recent panel discussion at the annual convention of the National Association of City Transportation Officials made it clear that challenges ahead are huge — as, indeed, they were last year when Governor Cuomo backed congestion pricing only to do nothing to get it through the legislature during the last session.

Polls show that politicians (60 percent) support congestion pricing far more than the public (42 percent), said Daniel Firth, who has consulted congestion pricing cities such as London and Stockholm.

And public approval of congestion pricing is at a peak when the concept itself is introduced — as it was under Mayor Bloomberg a decade ago. That approval rating, however, tends to drop week by week as the nuts and bolts are figured out, until public approval reaches its lowest point at the moment of implementation.

“That’s ‘the Valley of Political Death,'” Firth said.

Here's Daniel Firth's chart on congestion pricing approval. Photo: Daniel Firth
Here’s Daniel Firth’s chart on congestion pricing approval. Photo: Daniel Firth

The good news for politicians is that public approval tends to rise — rise even higher than its initial support — in the weeks, months and years after the system goes into effect.

“People realize it’s not nearly as bad as they thought it might be,” Firth said.

And the public does understand the concept of a tax on drivers to fund public transit, as New York’s congestion pricing program would, added Washington, D.C.’s DOT Director Jeff  Marootian.

But the notion of a political Death Valley is difficult for politicians, so they need to suck it up, Firth suggested.

“The public often thinks the status quo is fine and anything we do will be worse,” he said. “We need to question that” because public approval does rise in the end.

New York itself is grappling with that very issue as Cuomo and de Blasio appear on yet another collision course, with the governor declaring that congestion pricing is “the only real answer” and “the one solution” to fund transit, and the mayor still believing congestion pricing is a regressive tax. (Former Daily News City Hall reporter Erin Durkin openly mocked Hizzoner for his stance, calling him a “very affluent man who views himself as an average middle class guy.”)

Shoshana Cohen of Portland, Oregon’s Bureau of Transportation, said she’d heard that argument before — and rejected it.

“It’s hard to pay for something that is currently free,” she said. “And it’s hard to believe that pricing will help relieve congestion. And people like driving. Our system is set up around driving, so it’s easy for people to get into their cars.” (Or, like Mayor de Blasio, be driven in one to get to gym 45 minutes away.)

The central issue of congestion pricing, panelists agreed, was, indeed, the notion of “equity.” Studies show that the well-to-do are far more likely than lower-income residents to drive into Manhattan, so it seems equitable that the rich should pay for the reduced congestion they would enjoy while funding public transit to also allow the less-fortunate to get to work easily.

In calling congestion pricing “regressive,” Mayor de Blasio has apparently not chosen that view of equity, which is why I asked the panel about the word itself.

I’m confused by the term “equity.” We know that richer people drive more. We know that owning a car is ultimately more expensive than mass transit. And we know that cars are taking a huge toll on our public health, so how come opponents — and even some supporters — of congestion pricing say it’s inequitable to tax the rich to support improvements for the less rich?

“Cities need to have a good discussion of what equity means because people are talking past each other,” Firth said, perhaps foreshadowing the Cuomo-de Blasio battle. “We need to focus people’s minds on the real equity: the equity of the entire system.”

That’s a challenge even for supporters of congestion pricing. In a recent interview with Streetsblog, soon-to-be-State Senator Alessandra Biaggi — who defeated congestion pricing staller Jeff Klein in the September primary — suggested that her strong support for a tax on driving was already wavering.

Alessandra Biaggi
Alessandra Biaggi

“I support it being progressive,” Biaggi said. “If you are a working person, a senior or a student and driving in during those peak hours, you can still be able to afford it. At the end of the day we don’t want to box anyone out who needs to be in the city.”

I pushed back on Biaggi’s notion of a carve-out for “working people,” given that everyone who drives into Manhattan could make the argument that he or she is doing it for “work.” She replied by suggesting an income level at which congestion pricing would kick in — another questionable concept, given how easy it would be to game that system. It’s also questionable about why politicians would focus on the supposed wave of low-income drivers entering Manhattan when studies show it is a tiny number of people.

Washington D.C. tried a different approach, raising the cost of parking rather than tolling drivers to enter the business district of Penn Quarter/Chinatown. In a pilot program, the district discovered that increasing the cost to store a car on the curb reduced double-parking by 43 percent, reduced cruising for parking from 15 percent to seven percent and reduced the amount of time to find a spot from six minutes to two minutes.

It was interesting to note that New York City DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who was not on the panel, but was a mere spectator like this reporter, asked Marootian for more information about this success, suggesting a way forward for her agency if the mayor doesn’t back the governor’s larger congestion pricing scheme.

Editor’s note: The bulk of reporting for this story was done at the NACTO convention in Los Angeles, with additional reporting from New York.

  • JarekFA

    Means testing congestion pricing is peak neoliberalism. She was after all Hillary Clinton’s Deputy National Operations Director in 2016. I just don’t understand why so few politicians can’t just speak the truth on this issue. Be bold. Stand for something — that garners more respect and support, regardless of the merits of any individual policy. I opposed the soda tax but my support for Bloomberg increased after he pursued it because he was trying to address an important public health concern and he was using the levers of public policy to achieve that laudable goal. Like, what the fuck is this fetishization of the low income worker driving into Manhattan to work!?!?! If you work a trade, you should rightfully pass that cost on to the customer who is demanding your work and causing you to clog up the streets.

  • ortcutt

    We have any number of these stupid carve-outs for some special interest or the other. Look at all of them.

    https://www.e-zpassny.com/en/about/plans.shtml

    Means-testing seems especially dumb and hard to administer to me.

    Are any of these a good idea? No. Should needing to put some dumb carve-outs in place in order to get a majority on board with congestion pricing be a impediment to getting congestion pricing? No.

  • Reggie

    A car is a car is a car. Each one causes the same amount (+/-) of congestion whatever the reason for the trip into Manhattan. It’s called “congestion pricing” because it is about the congestion that each car contributes to. It isn’t called “bad driver pricing” because it’s not about penalizing some drivers and not others based on life and lifestyle choices.

  • Larry Littlefield

    After Cuomo wins in 2018, if he has the courage and self knowledge to recognize his own political mortality (not going to be President, not going to win a fourth term), he would be free to take on any interest he wanted, say whatever he wanted, do whatever he could, and not lie about what should be done when he couldn’t.

    Otherwise, he’s useless. Like DeBlasio.

  • Joe R.

    As for increasing the cost of parking if congestion pricing doesn’t pass, why not do both? Each on its own will help. Combined there might be a synergistic effect where the net result exceeds the sum total of the results of each individually.

    That said, while I think increasing the cost of parking will certainly decrease car trips, I don’t know how much effect it’ll have on double parking. We have a culture of driver laziness in this city where people double-park even if there’s open spots on the same block. In fact, I’ve seen people double-parked right next to an open spot. Maybe the third thing to do is to start aggressively ticketing double-parking.

  • Joe R.

    He’s worse than useless. If he did nothing substantial that’s one thing. Instead, he’s spending money we don’t have on mostly useless, pointless vanity projects. It seems he’s out to finish the job of destroying New York State that his father started.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Everything but an off peak discount. Since serfs who generally use mass transit are more likely to do the bulk of their driving off peak.

  • carl jacobs

    Dropping a congestion tax on top of a disfunctional transit system. What could go wrong?

  • Elizabeth F

    We experienced the “Political Death Valley” thing with Obamacare. Unfortunately, it took 8 years to go through the cycle, and many politicians lost their jobs in the meantime.

    If the congestion pricing political death valley is short enough, maybe politicians could start the ball rolling immediately after getting elected, and hope to be on the other side when they come up for re-election.

  • sbauman

    Means-testing seems especially dumb and hard to administer to me.

    Whether or not means testing is dumb is a political and economic question.

    Administration should be fairly easy. One assumes that license plates will be recorded by whatever sensor is used. One must submit a driver’s license to register a vehicle. One must submit a social security number to obtain a driver’s license. One must also submit that social security number to file one’s income tax.

    It’s a simple three step query for a relational database to get a vehicle owner’s income from the vehicle plate number.

    Plate Number –> Driver’s License Number –>Social Security Number –> Gross Income

    Any toll discount or surcharge could be administered prior to sending out a bill or used as a credit when income tax is due.

  • Joe R.

    It makes more sense to administer it as a credit or bill when income tax is due. Doing so would base the price you pay for tolls in a calendar year on your income during that calendar year. If you use the prior year’s tax return as a basis for discounts during the current year you may end up giving discounts to people making six figures who might have had no job the prior year.

    And I think if we’re going to give discounts to low income people we should have surcharges for higher income people. We might take $50K as a base income. If you make that much, you pay the actual toll amount. If you make $25K, you pay half as much. If you make $200K, you pay four times as much. The idea is the toll should hit everyone equally as a percentage of income.

  • AnoNYC

    That’s if they even understand this concept. Many, if not most probably do not.

  • AnoNYC

    More meters too.

  • Daisy Executive Limousine LLC

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  • jcwconsult

    Whether “working people” can afford congestion charges depends entirely on the job & income level. For executives it is an annoyance. For some lower income people it is a catastrophe.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • LinuxGuy

    A large portion of people who live in cities do not work, as they are on some form of public assistance.

  • fdtutf

    Right, because all the jobs are in the rural areas. Everybody knows that.

  • LinuxGuy

    A lot of people do not want to work, they prefer to take handouts from the government. Then they vote for one political party to keep this going.

  • fdtutf

    And yeah, that only happens in cities, right. *eye roll*

  • Joe R.

    That’s why the red states receive more in government spending than they pay in taxes:

    https://www.apnews.com/2f83c72de1bd440d92cdbc0d3b6bc08c

    https://www.businessinsider.com/red-states-are-welfare-queens-2011-8

    https://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2017/11/please-cut-the-crap-about-red-states-subsidizing-blue-states/

    But never let facts get in the way dogma.

    As for public assistance, keep in mind over half the people receiving it are children. I hope you don’t expect them to work. Child labor laws were abolished decades ago. In many cases public assistance is given to people who are in fact working, but don’t make enough to get by. Meanwhile, those who profit off their labor by paying them substandard wages are getting even wealthier. Income transfer schemes wouldn’t be necessary if we paid people living wages, had a good educational system, and had enough jobs so everyone who wants a job can get one. None of those things are true, so we need public assistance.

    Funny how nobody mentioned welfare when we bailed out the banks in 2008. That was the biggest giveaway in the history of the country.

  • Joe R.

    The answer is staring you right in the face. You have the congestion charge proportional to income. Maybe you start with a base charge of $10 for those making $100K. During the year you charge people the $10 toll. You then adjust that according to the income shown on your tax return next year. At tax time you either give a credit for excess fees or levy a bill in you made over $100K. For example, if you only made $50K and you paid a congestion charge 100 times (i.e. $5000 total), you get refunded $2500, so your net toll is half of what someone making $100K would pay, or $5. On the other hand, if you made $1 million you’ll owe the government $45K so as to make your net toll 10 times what someone making $100K would pay, or $100 per trip. There would be no limit on what the toll could potentially be. A CEO making $100 million annually would have to pay $10,000 every time they drove into Manhattan.

    The idea is the fee should impact users equally, whether they make $25K or $5 million. My idea would do exactly that.

  • Joe R.

    A lot of people who are already extremely wealthy do not want to pay taxes to support services and infrastructure which benefits them. Then they vote for one political party to keep this going.

  • jcwconsult

    The complexity of administration would kill that idea before it started.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • Joe R.

    What complexity? Whatever entity is in charge of collecting tolls just needs to report the total amount of tolls paid during the previous year to the NYS Department of Taxation and Finance, and to send a 1099 or something similar to the owner of the vehicle. When you do your taxes there would be a line to enter this amount, and a worksheet to calculate the rebate or extra charge. It’s no different than the tax credits NYC already has for real estate taxes paid, or the EIC. It’s a great idea because the upper middle class, and especially the very wealthy, will not be deterred from driving by a $10 charge. On the other hand, a $100, $1,000, or even $10,000 charge per trip will make them think about it.

  • LinuxGuy

    Low taxes equal more economic development. Cannot refute that. If a tax is 2% or 40%, which one leads to more prosperity? Things like mass transit do not charge high enough fees to pay for themselves and are subsidized way too much.

  • LinuxGuy

    Red states are the best opportunities. States like Alaska contribute a lot in many ways, so we pay for a few roads. We also have military bases there to protect the US.

    Children are caught in the middle, with women who have 5 kids with 5 different men, and never got married, and do not work. Look at the housing projects. Even been in one? They all have satellite TV, fancy phones, etc.

    If people want to start businesses, go to college, etc., they are free to do so. People with money create more wealth, which helps others. If we paid all people $20 per hour, inflation would balloon.

    If I recall it correctly, didn’t the government try to tell banks to issue loans to people who may not be able to repay them in the past?

  • LinuxGuy

    All the low income housing is in the cities. If people buy a house in the burbs, they need a job to pay for it.

  • Joe R.

    You’re making the error of assuming the private sector can provide everything more efficiently than government. The private sector is great at doing that for nonessential products and services. It doesn’t work well delivering essential things like infrastucture,transportation, education, health care, etc. That’s why you need taxes. If done smartly, taxes spent properly grow the economy. Another way to think of this is would you rather make $10K and pay only 2% in taxes or make $100K and pay 40%? The tax level isn’t important. It’s whether or not taxes can grow the pie so everyone gets a larger slice, including government.

    Taxes also benefit the wealthy by providing their workers with education, trains/buses to get to work, and so forth.

    The largest transportation subsidies in this country go towards automobiles. Besides the direct subsidies for roads beyond what drivers pay, there are indirect subsidies like public space set aside for parking. There are the costs of air/water pollution and climate change, none of which motorists pay for. There are the costs of foreign wars to secure oil supplies. We’ve spent $5.6 trillion and counting on such wars since 9/11. If we had a decent mass transit system so that we could get by solely on domestic oil supplies we wouldn’t have needed a presence in the Middle East, the countries there wouldn’t have resorted to terrorism, 9/11 wouldn’t have happened, and we wouldn’t have spent that $5.6 trillion.

    Sometimes I think we’re in an alternate nightmare future. We were making strides towards energy independence in the 1970s then we just stopped. After that we made things worse by defunding rail transit while at the same time switching from small cars to behemoth SUVs. It was and is a colossal mistake. So was giving the very rich tax cuts. We’ve tried trickle down economics since 1980. It failed to work as advertised. Things were far better for the middle class when there was a 94% top tax rate. When you don’t tax the wealthy enough, the money just sits in offshore bank accounts benefitting nobody. In fact, we should tax wealth in addition to income. That will encourage the rich to invest their money in productive enterprises which grow their money faster than the tax takes it.

  • Joe R.

    What about trailer parks? The red states are full of them. That’s the red state’s version of low-income housing.

  • Joe R.

    I grew up in a housing project. I can assure you nobody there had satellite TV, fancy phones, expensive clothes, etc. In case you don’t know, NYCHA only lets people into projects if their household income meets certain guidelines. And most of the families there had 2 or 3 children, both parents, and the father generally worked like my father did.

    If people want to start businesses, go to college, etc., they are free to do so.

    Unfortunately, you’re not free to do that because college costs have soared beyond the ability of most middle class people to pay for them. Saying you can go to college if you’re happy graduating $100K in debt is like saying we place no value on you or your potential contributions to society. If society places value on human capital, then it should fund whatever education is necessary for a person to realize their potential. Sure, not everyone is college material. Let’s send some people to trade school at the same time we fund education through graduate school for our best and brightest. In the long run we’ll recoup the money in taxes when we enable these people to reach their full earning potential.

    If we paid all people $20 per hour, inflation would balloon.

    $20 an hour is money? In NYC you need twice that just for a modest apartment. What would happen if we pay people more is the rich at the top would be less rich, but they would still be rich. I don’t understand this obsession with wealth. Nobody really needs more than $5 to $10 million. If I ever had a business, and reached that level, I’m happy. After that I’m not taking any more money out of the business. It would all go for my employees and business expenses. If I end up paying a cashier $40 an hour that’s fine. If some of my employees eventually end up millionaires I’ll be happy for them. I don’t care about having my net worth hit $50 or $100 million. I could never spend that much money if I lived to 1000.

    If I recall it correctly, didn’t the government try to tell banks to issue loans to people who may not be able to repay them in the past?

    That’s only part of the picture. Real estate developers and speculators wanted this because it drove housing prices through the roof. They bought low and sold high. When the people who couldn’t pay off those high loans defaulted, it was the government who picked up the ball and bailed out the banks. Private profit, public risk. That’s the new mantra. Let the middle class subsidize the rich.

  • jcwconsult

    I just don’t see that level of bureaucracy being added.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • fdtutf

    Oddly, I wasn’t thinking of either cities or suburbs. Perhaps you need to realize that there’s more to the country than those places.

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