OPINION: Gov. Cuomo Is Talking Crazy About Congestion Pricing — But He May Be Crazy Like a Fox

Gov. Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr
Gov. Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Gov. Cuomo said the wrong thing about transit on Wednesday — but he said it for the right reason.

In a chat with Brian Lehrer on WNYC, the governor suggested that congestion pricing must pass so that the MTA would not need to raise transit fares to cover an annual operating budget shortfall this year.

“Either the fares go up or you have congestion pricing,” the governor said. “Pick it. It’s A or B. There is no C. My job as governor is … to force the political system to answer the hard question.”

Advocates were quick to remind the governor that it’s not an either/or. The fare hike is meant to close a $270-million operating budget gap this year so that the MTA does not need to make more service cuts. Congestion pricing is meant to raise $1-plus billion per year so that the MTA can sell $15-billion-plus in bonds to undertake major capital improvements and turn around decades of disinvestment in transit.

The operating budget and the capital budget are not interchangeable.

So Cuomo obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Except that he does. His goal is not to debate the nuances of transit funding. His goal is to get recalcitrant legislators — all those car-addicted, out-of-touch lawmakers — to pass congestion pricing. And the governor obviously believes that his best bet is to demagogue the issue — his speciality! — and present lawmakers with a stark choice:

Fix the subway system by taxing transit riders or taxing drivers, or, more accurately, congestion.

I favor taxing the drivers. And not just because I’m punitive, but because transit riders are already suffering with a system that is falling apart because people like Cuomo have long neglected it while building roads and bridges for motorists.

That’s why the Riders Alliance, a leading transit advocacy group, opposes the fare hike. But the group’s spokesman agreed with me that Cuomo’s demagoguery may have a Machiavellian calculation to it.

“He’s making the argument directly at the politicians: your constituents are using a broken system. They need your help,” said Danny Pearlstein. “The governor is asking them to wake up and realize that eight million people are utterly reliant on a transit system that is broken.”

As Streetsblog found in our fact-finding mission to Albany earlier this month, too many legislators reflexively genuflect to drivers — mostly because their commutes are done in cars. Meanwhile, the vast majority of their constituents take public transit to travel to Manhattan and would therefore benefit from congestion pricing. (And — lest we forget — congestion pricing will also give a huge benefit to drivers by making the roadways clearer.)

“The governor has hit on something important,” Pearlstein added. “There is an invisible majority in every district who are desperate for congestion pricing.”

Nicole Gelinas made a similar point about the political dynamic in Wednesday’s New York Post: “Congestion pricing is economically sound. Manhattan’s streets are crowded; many drivers and Uber riders should be taking mass transportation. Yet subways are also crowded and don’t serve outlying areas. Presto: Charge the drivers and give money to the subways and buses.”

The governor’s either/or strategy is already working — just ask Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus (D-Brooklyn). During her campaign against Ethan Lustig-Elgrably this fall, she opposed congestion pricing. But now, she’s come around it because she sees the choice in the over-simplistic manner in which Cuomo framed it on Wednesday.

“My position has evolved,” she told Streetsblog. “Congestion pricing is a viable option which should be seriously considered as a means to raise critical funding for the MTA. I don’t want to see the fares raised for the MTA. It would be a burden on low-income and working families.”

Other politicians will no doubt start saying the same thing soon.

So maybe Cuomo’s comment to Lehrer sounded stupid. But if gets congestion pricing passed, he’s going to look very smart.


  • Joe R.

    If NYC got its fair share of funding from NYS and Washington we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Funding formulas have long been biased in favor of low-density areas. That needs to change.

  • Fool

    “Either the fares go up or you have congestion pricing,” the governor
    said. “Pick it. It’s A or B. There is no C. My job as governor is … to
    force the political system to answer the hard question.”

    But there is a C, fire the conductors.

  • Actually, C is to have taxes that cover the costs of the essential service of transit, just as we pay for other essential services such as police, firefighting, and sanitation with our taxes, with no fee at point of use.

  • Joe R.

    Firing the conductors and other unneeded personnel will help a bit, but the real problem is most of the costs are for past labor and debt, not present labor.

    My solution is to default on some or all of the debt, and buy out pensions by giving retirees an amount roughly equal to 5 times their annual pension. If they can invest it at 20% returns, they’ll still get the same amount. If not, they’ll get less. Either way the MTA is off the hook. And it’s fair because pension funds were underfunded by assuming 20% returns would last forever, which they obviously don’t. We can use the same logic for a pension buyout.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Either the fares go up and there is no money to maintain the system, or you get congestion pricing and there is no money to maintain the system.

  • ReinventAlbany

    If ugly reality and actual facts are ever allowed in the MTA funding debate, we will learn that Cuomo is currently reneging on his $7.3B funding commitment to the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan; congestion pricing will raise about $15B for the 2020-2024 capital plan which needs at least $40B for the Transit Authority’s Fast Forward Plan for buses and subways and another $20B for commuter rail and the black hole that is East Side Access. In other words, MTA needs congestion pricing, multiple fare hikes, new dedicated taxes, value capture of some kind, and management reforms that reduce the world’s most bloated operating and capital expenses. It’s laughable that Cuomo has framed the debate as fare hike vs congestion pricing, when the discussion should really be about how MTA is dead broke, running significant deficits, facing exploding debt payments and needs every possible source of new funding. It’s that bad.

  • Larry Littlefield

    Shouldn’t you be mentioning the good things that went along with this?

    The huge decrease in inflation-adjusted fares with the introduction of the Metrocard, the massive 2000 pension increase and the others, the lower taxes and more spending on other things made possible by the eliminate of general revenue for the MTA from 1994 to 2012, and the vastly higher contract prices for MTA contractors — all to benefit those cashing in and moving to Florida?

    They didn’t burn $100 bills to put us in this situation. And they didn’t just do it at the MTA. And they haven’t stopped.

  • Sanjeev Ram

    Raising the MTA’s sales tax rate by 0.625% (to equal 1%) in NYC will provide the necessary revenue as an alternative to congestion pricing.

  • motorock

    So, he joins the group of people taking money away from MTA for years and now wants everyone else to pay for it? Congestion Pricing isn’t going to be enough even though it is a decent solution. In the end, the govt has to provide New Yorkers a way to travel, including alternatives. These can even be escooters and ebikes- I am sure the tech companies will pump in some money in taxes etc. However, a ready-made solution already exists that has proven successful in every single European city that has some form of congestion pricing- exempting motorcycles and scooters.
    This gives people an incentive to switch to an alternative that takes off some pressure from the subway. The cars that cause congestion and owned by the wealthier folk can & may/will pay the toll- and even if they switch to powered two-wheelers, the city still sees lower congestion and pollution- as proven by multiple studies and facts collected from cities with congestion pricing.
    With MTA so broke, seeing any noticeable change in service is a pipe dream for the next 5 or 10 years, esp for residents who do not live close enough to their work. New Yorkers are always on the move and we need alternatives, now!

  • Rickey Behel

    Where does all the money go from lottos, tolls, real estate taxes, fares etc etc?? Now poor cab drivers are forced into this mess caused by these politicians giving too many licenses for Uber and other deliveries companies. Yellow cabs have nothing to do with this mess. Subways will be always crowded and breaking down. No one will be there to answer where all the money went…Don’t believe that subways fares won’t go up…MTA is moving ten million people a day and find a good accountant to figure out how much money MTA is making already. Just pay half a million to few good accountants to figure out before you make a stupid mistake of charging poor cab drivers who already paying the city through their nose.

  • Rickey Behel

    Exactly like raising gas prices and liquor taxes etc etc. Easy way out is not the best way out. It took decades to pass the laws by legislation. You just can’t change them without city legislation. After all city has their own political system.

  • He is not crazy: yes fares cover operational expenses, but with antiquated equipment operational expenses go up ( more repairs, less automations ), where with new technology and equipment operational expenses go down. So he is right on all levels – not to mention that Trumpian reductionist style seems to be working really well on the public and on the elected officials .

  • Now that doe into excuse the fact that he has been robbing the MTA for years for his pet projects and now has the nerve to hold elected and transit riders hostage. some balls on this guy..