Memo To Council Member Barry Grodenchik: Find a New Congestion Pricing Guru

The Queens lawmaker foolishly said he agreed with former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky's flawed argument that fees on drivers are "elitist."

This hurts our city — and our lungs.  Photo: giggel/Wikimedia Commons
This hurts our city — and our lungs. Photo: giggel/Wikimedia Commons

SB Donation NYC header 2Dear Barry,

I wish we could have spoken on Sunday before you tweeted support for Richard Brodsky’s Daily News op-ed in which he assailed congestion pricing as “elitist.” As you recall, we met at your office in August and pored over my charts, including one showing that this time around, congestion pricing would draw the most fees from residents of Manhattan, not Brooklyn or Queens. (The reason: hefty fees on taxi and Uber rides in Manhattan.)

I might not have changed your mind about congestion pricing, but maybe I could have stopped you from swallowing Brodsky’s Kool-Aid.

Komanoff bike outside CM Grodenchik's office _ 31 Aug 2018 _ IMG_4024 _ cropped
Our author, no “limousine liberal,” rode his bike to meet with CM Grodenchik in Hollis Hills. Photo: Charles Komanoff

And Kool-Aid it is, when Brodsky, a car commuter from Westchester and erstwhile lobbyist for owners of parking garages, casts himself as protector of the little guy against the big bad elites pushing congestion pricing. And it’s Kool-Aid again when he labels congestion pricing “an experiment in social engineering” that will open the floodgates to admission charges for libraries and parks, when it has done nothing of the sort in London and Stockholm, which have been charging vehicle entry fees successfully for well over a decade.

Of course, that stubborn fact didn’t stop Brodsky from writing, “If a public place gets overcrowded, the government charges a flat fee to get in. If it works for streets, it can also work for parks or libraries or swimming pools.”

Nonsense. If libraries or swimming pools get too crowded, the government can build more. Not so with streets, at least not now, in 2018, after a century’s worth of bulldozing neighborhoods (and parks!) and shrinking sidewalks has left no room for more.

To put this more formally, libraries and parks are what economists term “public goods” — domains that are open to the public but whose use by each individual doesn’t diminish their use by others. My presence in the library doesn’t interfere with yours. At the beach we squeeze in a little as more families arrive. Those public facilities aren’t used up by being used.

Alas, New York’s congested streets and roads are not a public good. My use of them does detract from yours — as everyone senses intuitively, as the Partnership for NYC has documented with its $20-billion cost figure for New York-area congestion, and as I’ve demonstrated with my mathematical finding that except after midnight, each minute that a motor vehicle resides in the Manhattan central business district tacks two additional minutes on other vehicles’ combined trips.

Brodsky disingenuously points to supposed “alternatives” such as Mayor de Blasio’s millionaire’s tax — a chimera that would do nothing for traffic congestion, would generate far less revenue than congestion pricing, and would be better dedicated to non-transit governmental services. He pretends to raise crucial new questions (“Will the government be tracking all vehicles in the zone?”) that have actually been asked and answered countless times. (No, just for-hire vehicles.)

But for sheer irony, you can’t top Brodsky’s invoking France’s “yellow vest” protesters:

Across the globe in recent months and years, we’ve seen outbursts against fuel taxes, austerity programs and things that make life difficult for average people, all of which originated with well-intentioned elites largely immune from the consequences of their own policies.

Au contraire, in New York City, the “average people” take transit to go to the Manhattan core. In New York City, the elites are the one in seven who sit in hermetically sealed, private transport vehicles and enter or pass through the most transit-rich and traffic-jammed district in our entire hemisphere at no charge to themselves. The elites are apparatchiks like ex-legislator Brodsky who sport a parking placard that lets them stash their vehicle virtually anywhere, anytime, at no charge to themselves.

Chart: Charles Komanoff
Chart: Charles Komanoff

Though Brodsky wouldn’t know it, New York City has its yellow vests. We are the bus riders and straphangers organized by the Riders Alliance; the walkers and bicycle-riders organized by Transportation Alternatives; the poverty-wage transit users who, thanks to resolute campaigning by Riders Alliance, the Community Service Society and Council Speaker Corey Johnson, are about to become eligible for half-fare Metrocards.

Barry, these groups, along with hundreds of allied livable-streets and economic-justice organizations, are united for congestion pricing because we know — from London, from Stockholm, and from economic logic — that it will make life materially better for the vast majority of New Yorkers.

Reject Brodsky. Stand with us.

Streetsblog contributor Charles Komanoff is a long-time traffic pricing modeler and advocate and one of the nation’s best respected experts on pricing the street.

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  • Larry Littlefield

    The MTA really needs to put that “Generation Greed” surcharge on its transit fares and tolls. So everyone would see, every day, the legacy Brodsky et al left for them.
    The only good thing about his campaign to kill congestion pricing the last time around is this. They would have bonded against it, and would have already spent all those future revenues on themselves as of several years ago. At least now some of them are gone, and some are on their way to jail.

  • ohnonononono

    Brodsky was instrumental in killing Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, but he is now a FORMER Assemblymember who’s been retired since 2011. Why are we still listening to him? A lot has changed since then. It seems the number of current electeds who are supportive of pricing (or at least publicly state that they’re open to it) is growing every day, and the number publicly stating that they’re against it has shrunk as they retire or are put in jail. We know de Blasio is opposed, but he’s basically a lame duck at this point. Rising political stars like Corey Johnson seem to support it. The new State legislators seem open to progressive reforms like pricing. If Cuomo is actually serious about it this time I hope I’m not naive in thinking things will be different now.

  • PDiddy

    Captain Planet villains are not mutated monsters in the real world. They are old white dudes that are lazy and selfish.

  • Brodsky wrote, “If a public place gets overcrowded, the government charges a flat fee to get in. If it works for streets, it can also work for parks or libraries or swimming pools.”

    For what it’s worth, if you want to go to Jacob Riis beach–aka “The People’s Beach”–it’s free if you arrive by foot, bike, or transit, but people who drive have to pay $10 to park.

  • AnoNYC

    For searchers: Congestion Pricing – How outer borough residents get to work

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8b444fda10829380b7166efaf149456430e4f4c725c51e36530cb111f1857a2e.jpg

  • AnoNYC
  • AnoNYC
  • Maggie

    Bravo and well said!

  • SAlpert5

    Governor Andrew Cuomo says that the MTA needs a “steady source of
    revenue” for funding, and that is why he is advocting so-called
    “congestion pricing” for driving in Manhattan. Perhaps the Governor has
    forgotten some of the following taxes that are ALREADY collected for the
    purpose of “steady funding for the MTA”: 100% of the MCTMT gross Wage
    Tax, the MTA surcharge on the Real Estate Mortgage Recording Tax, the
    Motor Vehicle Registration $50 Surcharge, The Auto License and Permit
    Surcharge, Various surcharges to cable TV and home and cell phone and
    gas / electric utility bills, a 0.375% sales tax surcharge in all
    counties in the MCTD… and that’s just off the top of my head. The REAL
    source of financial problems at the MTA is the constant “kicking the can
    down the road”. The current outstanding debt liability at the MTA is
    over $35 BILLION. That is more than dozens of countries in the world!
    That costs about $3 BILLION A YEAR IN INTERESTS PAYMENTS. If the MTA had
    paid off its debts and not simply refinanced them with new debt, there
    would be billions of dollars in surplus every year! It’s time to
    dissolve the MTA and default on this crushing debt, and START OVER WITH A
    CLEAN SLATE and a strong law to prevent borrowing by this public
    authority. As for costs to drive in Manhattan, Drivers are already assessed with a $15 toll if they come from the New Jersey side of the Hudson (including Rockland County, NY), or $17 round trip if they take a tunnel or a toll bridge from Queens, Brooklyn, or The Bronx, and parking in most areas of Manhattan – especially midtown – costs a small fortune. When you add the 18.375% parking tax on top of that you might want to bring a brinks truck to pay the costs. Continually taxing drivers is obviously not deterring them, and you are drinking Kool-Aid if you think it does. If someone has decided to use a certain mode of transit they will. By raising the cost, you are merely raising the costs of “doing business” in New York. It is one of the reasons everything is so damned expensive in New York. Collecting more money only raises everyone’s costs. Even non-drivers.

  • AnoNYC

    There’s a lot wrong with your post but I will just address this point:

    As for costs to drive in Manhattan, Drivers are already assessed with a $15 toll if they come from the New Jersey side of the Hudson (including Rockland County, NY), or $17 round trip if they take a tunnel or a toll bridge from Queens, Brooklyn, or The Bronx, and parking in most areas of Manhattan – especially midtown – costs a small fortune. When you add the 18.375% parking tax on top of that you might want to bring a brinks truck to pay the costs. Continually taxing drivers is obviously not deterring them,

    Drivers from from points east and north of the Manhattan CBD do not have to pay anything to enter the proposed cordon today. How are they being discouraged through tolling when they don’t have to pay to entire the area? That’s the vast majority of drivers because that’s the vast majority of people in the NYC metro area.

    And tell me, does it make any sense to have a tolled crossing adjacent to a free one?

    Also, what is your solution to reduce congestion in the city?

  • Great piece, Charles. This should help to put to rest these faux populist arguments against #congestionpricing. As to whether CP is progressive or regressive (“elite”), I’ll put my money on Community Service Society, arguably New York’s leading anti-poverty organization, which concluded in a report last year that CP is decidedly progressive.

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