Bobby’s Blue Bombshell: Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing Numbers are ‘Bullshit’

Assembly Member Bobby Carroll. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Assembly Member Bobby Carroll. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

“Let me be blunt. The $15-billion number in the governor’s budget is bullshit.”

Those aren’t the words of a congestion pricing opponent — they’re the words of Assembly Member Bobby Carroll, one of the staunchest supporters of the plan to generate money for transit by tolling drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district.

And they came one day after yet another public display of contempt by many members of the state legislature for Gov. Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, which Cuomo says will raise $1 billion in revenue — which is enough cash to float $15 billion in bonds to fund years of capital improvements. [Recap of the hearing here.]

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

Except $15 billion is insufficient, paltry, puny, a drop in the bucket — use any word including Carroll’s barnyard epithet. NYC Transit President Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan to fix the subway and buses has an estimated cost of $40 to $60 billion. And other MTA entities such as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road also have a laundry list of capital projects.

So $15 billion doesn’t cut it. And that creates a double battle for supporters of congestion pricing: First, they have to convince opponents that tolling drivers is a good thing for transit — and then they have to convince stragglers that even more money is going to be needed, and then entrusted to the MTA, to make real, long-term improvements in public transit that will restore its quality and regain the trust of riders.

Carroll (D-Park Slope) addressed that head on at a press conference on Thursday. His comments are worth reading in full because they address multiple challenges that Cuomo will have in gaining support for congestion pricing — and then raising enough money to really fix the subways and buses, which is ultimately his responsibility. [One caveat: Many experts, including Charles Komanoff, liked what they heard from Cuomo’s budget plan regarding congestion pricing, though agree with Carroll that more money will need to be raised.]:

There’s a lot of hearts and minds that need to be won [in Albany] and I am cognizant of that fact. But let me be blunt: The $15-billion number in the governor’s budget is bullshit. First thing, let’s remember 2015-2019 capital budget. The state still owes the MTA $8 billion. Where is it? In the governor’s budget, he says that congestion pricing won’t start until 2021. That means we will be two years into [the next] capital plan that we already owe $8 billion into that we’re not raising enough revenue for. That capital budget has no estimate yet. Conservatively, it’s $45 billion. This congestion pricing round gets us $15 billion, and then the governor will go to the City of New York and say, “Give me money.” Then there will be a protracted war between the city and state and nothing will get done. The simple fact is that a robust congestion pricing plan that charges $5.76 on all East River crossings and on 60th Street would raise about $1 billion [bondable to $15 billion]. We probably have to raise another billion on top of that. And that’s when we start taling about additional fees on Uber and Lyft, on package deliveries[*], on raising income taxes on millionaires. All of this will be coming from downstate voters. It will be New York City carrying its own weight. This doesn’t have to be a debate about whether Buffalo or Syracuse is paying for it. … We do that, then we actually plan this and upgrade the system. Instead, we’re kicking the can down the road, two or three years, until someone else is governor or mayor and then we go, “Oh, yeah, we never actually did it. We just did a patch job.” We need to have a robust plan that is long-term and fully funded. New York City residents and suburbanites are going to pay for it. Let’s be honest about what it’s going to cost, and that’s $40 million to $60 million. Instead, we keep pretending we’re going to fix it [with less]. It’s absolutely disingenuous. If the governor does not come out with a real proposal, the Senate and Assembly must act. If you’re going to be progressive in New York City in 2019, you have to support funding mass transit because it is the way to make our economy green, to move around people and to keep people safe. If you’re going to be against that, stop calling yourself a progressive.

Carroll would have kept on talking, but reporters needed a break, so someone asked, “Wait a second: What’s ‘bullshit’? The plan or the governor?”

Carroll continued:

The $15-billion number is bullshit. It’s arbitrary. The governor knows it’s arbitrary. It sounds gigantic, but the fact is that it will at best pay for one-third of the upcoming capital budget. Why not come out and say, “Look, we are going to put a robust, direct revenue stream to actually fund our mass transit for a generation to come?” That would be the smart idea. … Otherwise, we’re going to fight about who runs the MTA or who owes what. At the end of the day, we’re all New Yorkers. The number is bullshit and you can quote me on that.

Carroll’s Assembly colleague Jo Anne Simon, who represents a neighboring district in Brooklyn and is also a strong supporter of congestion pricing, added in one more concern: “When you put out a number that’s too low, people start whittling away at that, which is even worse.”

Or money gets diverted to other regional transportation crises … or upstate ski resorts. But remember, the governor’s call to raise $1 billion in revenue from congestion pricing (bondable to $15 billion) could actually raise more, depending on what combination of fees he puts in the final plan, as Komanoff has pointed out.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson left the press conference before Carroll’s remarks, but said he remains optimistic that congestion pricing will pass, which is better than it not passing.

“I am gratified by [Assembly] Speaker Heastie’s longtime leadership and commitment on congestion pricing,” said Johnson, who has called for the city to undertake congestion pricing by itself if the state does not act. “He’s supported it for years, and that portends good things in the Assembly. And in the Senate, we have 17 new members. … I may not agree with everything Gov. Cuomo has put forward on congestion pricing, but he has made it front and center and said, ‘It must happen for the future of the MTA and transit in NYC.’ That’s vital and important. So I still feel optimistic.”

Let the record show, Johnson did not call the governor’s plan “bullshit.” (Neither did State Senator John Liu in an interview with NY1 on Friday. Liu is a congestion pricing skeptic, yet he made some of the same points as Carroll.)

Cuomo’s office hasn’t been commenting much on the congestion pricing debate. Spokesman Patrick Muncie said only, “The goal of congestion pricing is to create a revenue stream that will cover a total of $15 billion for the MTA’s capital budget and limit congestion in Manhattan’s central business district. … The pricing structure will be determined once all variables are analyzed to meet the goals of the plan.”

* Apparently this is going to be a big proposal next week. Look for updates.

This video, What it Means to Be Progressive on Transportation: NYS Assembly’s Robert C. Carroll from STREETFILMS, was filmed after Carroll’s comments at Thursday’s press conference. As such, the speech may not match up to the earlier comments exactly.

  • kevd

    $60 Billion.
    The NY MSA is 20 Million People.
    that’s $3,000 each over 10 years or $300/year.
    Certainly nothing to sneeze at but doable if we weren’t also paying for so much of upstate’s transportation and education.

    Before Pataki we had an NYC Commuter income tax. How much would that generate?

  • Joe R.

    Let me be blunt—the idea of bonding against congestion pricing revenue is bullshit. We can have a one-time cash infusion of $15 billion to pay for much needed repairs/expansion, or we can have ~$1 billion annually forever. It seems to me we would get a lot more money with the latter.

  • crazytrainmatt

    When I saw the title, I figured someone finally had the courage to argue for not spending the money all at once.

    Imagine if I offered a job cleaning toilets at an annual salary of $10k…if you bond that out, it’s like you’re making $200k a year!

    Nobody takes out a loan to pay their rent 11 months out of 12. And yet somehow the budgetary political process at all levels focuses on the bottom line this year because the rest is someone else’s problem.

  • redbike

    Before Pataki we had a NYC commuter income tax

    Chronologically, you’re right, but point the finger at the correct culprit: Sheldon Silver.

  • Larry Littlefield

    And what are we getting really? It’s a ten year plan. If you bond against it, they say, $1 billion per year gets you $15 billion, so you get to spend $15 billion in ten years — and then nothing for the next 20.

    Or you can have $1 billion a year for 30 years, including $10 billion in the first 10. They are going to give up 20 years of revenues for an extra $5 billion in the short term!

    They have so sold out the future, they are getting almost nothing for selling the future even more.

    I’ll say it again, those under age 60 have very little moral obligation for any of those debts, and those under the age of 40 have absolutely none.

  • Larry Littlefield

    You’ve got to limit that to adults with earnings, excluding those who somehow don’t have to pay for anything.

    But keep they eye on the ball. Taxpayer pension contributions by the City of New York went from $4.4 billion in 2006 to $10.8 billion in 2016 as a result of retroactive pension increases that cost nothing, and they are going to go significantly higher in the future. Despite our economic boom, that was an increase from 1.2% of the personal income of everyone living in NYC to 1.9%.

    That extra 0.7% of personal income is about $4 billion that could have been spent on something else.

    Interest payments on debt actually fell from about 1.1% of personal income to around 1.0%, but only because of zero percent interest rates from the Fed. Going higher too.

  • Joe R.

    In a nutshell, over 30 years $15 billion goes to the MTA, and $15 billion will go to (mostly) rich bondholders. Seems a lot of important people are looking for a tax-free place to park their money. That’s why this deal stinks. We the people have to let our representatives know we want the money spent as it comes in. And not for another round of retroactive pension increases, either.

  • kevd

    Yes. If there is one thing you’ve made us very aware of, it is that NYC’s pension costs have risen dramatically.

  • We absolutely need congestion pricing to reduce congestion… no matter how much money is raised.
    Second, we probably need much less capital for MTA if we are smart about it:
    For example bus speeds and reliability could be massively improved at NO COST by installing real exclusive bus lanes in congested corridors . With bus lane separators … cost virtually nothing..
    no cameras, no advanced green light system, no offboard payment.