KOMANOFF: Good Tidings for Congestion Pricing From Governor Cuomo

Congestion. Let's price it away. Photo: Rgoogin/Wikimedia Commons
Congestion. Let's price it away. Photo: Rgoogin/Wikimedia Commons

Gov. Andrew Cuomo bolstered congestion pricing with a crafty jab and a solid punch in his State of the State address yesterday. The combination bodes well for finally getting a robust toll plan through the legislature by the close of the budget session on March 31.

The governor’s crafty jab was to shape his toll proposal as a revenue target rather than as a particular set of toll rates. Not only does that keep the focus on the gain (revenue for transit) and not the pain (“They’re making me pay this stinkin’ toll?”). It also serves to discourage the legislature from undermining the eventual toll proposal with carve-outs for select roadway users, since any revenue shortfalls would have to be made up by raising toll rates somewhere else. 

Gov. Cuomo started a new push for congestion pricing during his State of the State address on Tuesday.
Gov. Cuomo started a new push for congestion pricing during his State of the State address on Tuesday.

The solid punch is the revenue target itself: The governor called for it to be sufficient to bond $15 billion in transit investment. Using the customary 15-to-1 “debt service ratio,” whereby each dollar’s worth of annual revenue can service 15 dollars of debt, his target requires that the congestion tolls net $1 billion in annual revenue. 

That billion dollars will add up to even more dollars, for two reasons:

First, the $1-billion target pertains only to the cordon toll on cars and trucks. It explicitly excludes the surcharges on for-hire vehicles (yellows, Ubers, Lyfts, etc.) that must be part of comprehensive congestion pricing. These will add hundreds of millions a year, perhaps a half-a-billion or even more, as I discuss below.

Second, the implied $1 billion a year revenue target is net of toll-administration costs. Those will almost certainly exceed $100 million a year.

Revenue Pie-Chart _ Fix NYC Higher-Range Plan _ truncated _ 16 Jan 2019

For comparison, let’s look at one of the most robust versions of congestion pricing laid out a year ago in the governor’s Fix NYC report — what I’ve dubbed the Fix NYC Higher-Range Plan. The cordon toll part of that plan would raise $1.01 billion annually ($430 million from East River bridge tolls, $580 million from the 60th Street tolls). When we take account of toll-administration costs, the governor’s message yesterday actually surpasses the high end of Fix NYC.

As for charges on for-hire vehicles: As Streetsblog readers know, I’ve sketched a plan that would charge FHV’s for every minute they’re carrying a fare in the Manhattan taxi zone (south of 96th Street). Ubers and Lyfts would pay an additional “trawling surcharge” for each minute they hang out in the zone waiting to be pinged — a vexing contributor to gridlock. 

A surcharge program that equalizes yellows’ and Ubers’ “congestion causation” with that of private cars could raise more than $700 million a year ($460 million from Uber/Lyft, $270 million from yellow cabs) in new annual revenue. Getting such a program in place of the surcharges the legislature rushed through last March (which are now tied up in court) needs to be a priority for pricing/transit advocates.

Is there a cloud to the big silver lining I’m seeing in the governor’s address? Some are pointing to the proviso in the executive budget deferring the startup of the cordon tolls to 2021. But everyone schooled in city and state hardball politics has always assumed a two-year buildup, not just to design and build the tolling infrastructure, but to fend off litigation. In that light, a 21-month delay to Jan. 1, 2021 (assuming the bill is passed and signed on March 31) is no great concession.

What should concern transit advocates is the possible watering down of the governor’s $15-billion target by the legislature — especially when key Democrats can’t or won’t articulate a defense of congestion pricing. 

Case in point: During new Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins’s turn Wednesday morning on the Brian Lehrer show, a caller fretted on behalf of an acquaintance who commutes to the central business district by car from the Bronx. Stewart-Cousins toyed with the idea of graduating the toll by income, ignoring not just the administrative costs or the lack of a sliding scale on other tolls (and transit fares), but the benefit to the Bronx commuter and all other drivers of a faster commute as some trips get priced off the streets and highways — not to mention that revenue lost at the bottom must be made up at the top to stay on track to the $15 billion.

(Lehrer didn’t help either, with his inane reference to de Blasio’s millionaire’s tax as “a possible alternative” to congestion pricing when it would raise only half as much revenue and achieve none of the traffic improvements.)

Congestion pricing has never lacked for merits — or, lately, for broad public support. It has lacked a political champion, someone who understands it, wants it and will fight for it. Judging from yesterday’s event, we now have one: Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The governor’s budget message may be downloaded here. The section dealing with congestion tolling is on pp. 295-306.

  • Frank Kotter

    To bring the conversation forward, it would help if you stated that initially. It appears you are doing your best to be deceptive. Especially with a blanket statement like that above.

  • Frank Kotter

    *exempted from any restrictions*

    What does this mean?

  • Frank Kotter

    Yes, I noticed this as it supports your argument. That’s why I asked why you left out an example witch challenges your argument. Your response is that Singapore is different from London? That’s some thin ice.

  • Frank Kotter

    In these comments, you hold up Europe as the bellweather of your transportation goals. I think most of the AltTrans community you claim ‘want everyone to walk and bike’ have a similar goal of moving to a more European model. So, I would think alliance-building would suite your goals better than belligerency.

    One big difference in Europe is the 3x price of petrol due to taxation – causing them to decide to drive half as much. This is then surely something you could get behind, no?

  • motorock

    Yes, why not? Only in addition to giving tax credits and other ways that these cities have been promoting electric alternatives (Oslo gives $1200 to every citizen to get a ebike for example) and really making public transit work for all. Simple, right?

  • motorock

    Maybe you should read the Human Rights Watch report on Singapore and let me know if Singapore is similar to any of the other (democratic) cities I am talking about. Plus, pay a visit and be honest in comparing their level of public transit to NYC or even other European cities.

  • motorock

    Am I speaking Greek? It means not banned nor charged any toll in congestion pricing zones, ultra low-emission zones and the like.

  • motorock

    For some reason, my detailed responses keep getting flagged on this site so I have shortened it massively here, so pardon if it comes off as vague- but Joe, I am glad that you sound like a sensible guy and have some great points. I agree with you that once electrics become cheaper and also have better range, people like me will have no issue in switching.

    Electric motos are either too expensive (Lightning) or too small in range (CSC City slicker) and ebikes that meet my needs cost nearly the same as the CSC option. The return on investment is still very low on ebikes- inability to carry heavy payloads. slower speeds or range-anxiety are major factors- and not everyone in NYC has money to spare on something that is so limiting.

    The present situation is that the trains are not working properly at the moment. The congestion on the roads is quite a bit a result of that. Considering motorcycles and scooters barely make up 1% of daily traffic -if we assume that half of registered motos/scoots were used daily in Manhattan, which is improbable- they are obviously not the ones causing this congestion. The city has barely any infrastructure for electrics that is usable for all. The city does not even allow all classes of ebikes.

    In the current situation in NYC, the logical and sensible thing to do is reduce that congestion by starting a congestion plan that makes sense and gives peoples alternatives at the same time. The plan should charge the larger automobiles and encourage alternatives like motorcycles an scooters and all class of ebikes by exempting them- real examples and multiple studies have shown them to reduce congestion (and pollution as well) even when a nodal shift takes place from cars to motos.

  • motorock

    Meanwhile, the city should promote electrics by giving tax credits and other monetary benefits to citizens to encourage/help them to adopt and switch. At the same time as fixing the subways, the city should also start placing a robust infrastructure for electrics (all over NYC, not just in gentrified or White-dominant areas) so that after a few years, there is no good excuse to not switch to electric versions and tolling powered two vehicles wouldn’t look as autocratic or illogical.

    We need to find solutions that are realistic and democratic and socio-economically fair. We cannot ignore realities of the current situation or people from all parts just because it does not fit the bigger picture. Having worked in environmentalism for many years, that is the kind of narrow thinking that pits us “green-liberals” against the other folks and nothing gets done. When we pursue sensible solutions that help everyone, it leads to achieving that bigger picture in a more realistic, scientific, achievable and holistic manner.

  • motorock

    Among the 75% of crashes that did involve another vehicle, two-thirds of motorcycle-car crashes occurred when the car driver failed to see the approaching motorcycle and violated the rider’s right-of-way. That’s 50% of all crashes.

    And how many of those crashes could have been avoided by taking precautions like reduced speed? Also take into consideration that many motorcycle collisions are unreported because there are also many more minor collisions when compared to drivers, like low speed drops.

    Victim-blaming much? Perhaps with a tinge of irony? If the city used your arguments for cyclists, we would have never got the bike lanes. Pretty sure most (probably all) of “minor collisions” for cyclists also never gets reported- comes with riding 2-wheeled vehicles.

    And for your own sake, stop using data from a 20 year old study. Find something for NYC from the last five years perhaps?

    And again, accidents have NOTHING to do with this or any congestion pricing policy. Just because you have a beef with motorcycles, you guys want to bring other things into the equation. Kind of pathetic. This is why you guys are totally unqualified and inexperienced when it comes to thinking about policy for an entire city- unlike the planners for London, Stockholm and other European cities where they sit down with all parties, look at the logic and science and then implement policies based on that. Not just get swayed by hardliner-extremist agenda.

  • Frank Kotter

    Please, stay civil. There are indeed restrictions in the Netherlands, including but not limited to, mofas using bike paths (must be below 60 CC) riding on pedestrian areas (non motorized allowed, motorized not), as well as licensing for operators, etc…

    This is why accuracy of communication matters and questioning your overgeneralized statements is absolutely appropriate.

    You are really bad at building alliances. Sorry.

  • Frank Kotter

    If this happened and gas cost 6 USD, we would have nothing to argue about. There would be no congestion, you could drive your ultra efficient moto around and I could have my kid cross the street alone because the roads would be safer due to the reduction in traffic.

    See! That’s how you build alliances! I look forward to hear you lobbying for European level gas taxes going forward.

  • motorock

    Let’s have the congestion pricing with the exemption first and then we can talk gas prices. Also, let’s not forget European level transit and support for EVs.

  • motorock

    You can stop the pretense you want to build alliance when all you are trying to do is find every petty way you can use to push your point. I was very clear about what exemptions are. I never asked to use bike paths for motorcycles. Netherlands allows motorcycles in more ways than NYC does and more ways than you TransAlt folks want. However, smart folks in Europe including Netherlands still see motorcycles as congestion busting, people-friendly transport option. And if 10 is the goal for electrics or bikes, they are already somewhere near 8 and can actually start phasing out ICE vehicles. Meanwhile, here- because of myopic arguments- we are barely at 3.

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