Q&A: Will Carl Heastie Lead on Congestion Pricing? Don’t Count on It.
Streetsblog spoke with Heastie on Wednesday in his Albany office.
Don’t count on Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie to strong-arm his caucus to pass congestion pricing program.
In a 10-minute sit-down with Streetsblog on Wednesday, the Bronx rep reiterated his longtime support for some sort of pricing program, as well as his desire to begin to fund the MTA’s $40-billion capital plan. But he also indicated a willingness to look elsewhere for funding, such as from President Trump and the federal government. And he declined to criticize assembly members who are reluctant to sign onto congestion pricing, putting the onus on the MTA to show that the money will be well-spent.
Below is a transcript of the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve supported congestion pricing for a long time. Ten years ago you were part of a very small minority who supported Mayor Bloomberg’s plan. What’s changed since? What are your members thinking about differently than the caucus was 10 years ago?
The first time you hear an idea, sometimes it’s not always well-received. Ten years can pass. Some people can start to see we don’t have a lot of options. I think some people can also start to get a further understanding. And then also, it’s a different group of members. The members who were elected today aren’t the same. There’s been a tremendous turnover since 2009. Some of newer members that have come in have been more open to congestion pricing.
Many assembly members say they need to know what the money’s going to go to. That they need to know the money is going to be properly spent. What does the governor need to do to convince your members to get on board with congestion pricing?
I think for … the people that represent transit deserts, the people who have the districts where you have to take two buses to get to a train, I think there has to be an answer for them — because if they feel that, for their constituents who … either they drive into Lower Manhattan or they take two buses to the train, you’re now going to raise the cost of them driving in Manhattan. [If] you want to steer people towards public transportation, then you have to give them a better option than two trains to a bus. So I think that’s what has to be addressed. You have to give people — if you’re trying to steer people to public transportation — options. And I think that will take trying to come up with, particularly in the outer-boroughs, more opportunities for people to have access to public transportation.
Does that mean you need the MTA to itemize what the money’s going fund before you pass this year’s budget?
Well, congestion pricing is really to fund the capital plan, but there still should be some, you know … for our suburban members and our outer-borough members, there should be funds set up to deal with their transportation issues. Whether that can cover people who would have to pay two tolls — you know double-tolling or extra tolling — access, maybe the MTA has to set up more commuter bus lines. Things like that. There has to be a firm commitment for funds to address those things, I think, for the members to be okay with it.
[Fact check: There’s no doubt Heastie is hearing this from assembly members, but it’s just not true. Even in districts where transit riders have to take a bus or two to the train, very few if any people are choosing between that and driving to the Central Business District, according to census data analyzed by Tri-State Transportation Campaign. There’s not a single train staton in Assembly Member Nily Rozic’s Eastern Queens, for example, but only 4.8 percent of her constituents commute regularly by car into or through the Central Business District [PDF]. Far more take transit. Even fewer people drive into the CBD in Alicia Hyndman’s adjacent district: just three percent [PDF]. In both district, car commuters tend have higher average incomes than their transit-using neighbors.]
How much money are you trying to raise? Isn’t congestion pricing the only thing that gets you there?
Well, it depends. The MTA is saying they need upwards of $40 billion. Congestion pricing doesn’t get you over that. It maybe gets you somewhere around halfway there. We also need to rely on the federal government. The Democrats are the majority. Even though the Senate Democrats are in the minority, you still can’t do a budget without Senate Democratic participation. And one thing that President Trump has talked about is, you know, investing in infrastructure. And I think any investment in infrastructure could help with a massive investment in the MTA.
Congestion pricing is one of the options. You know, there’s other options, but which are palatable to whom? We supported the pied-à-terre tax. We didn’t earmark it for anything, but I’m sure some of it can go to help the MTA.
Even if you did congestion pricing, it probably only gets you halfway there, and then you have to start to pile on whatever other opportunities we can have to come up with a sustainable source of revenue.
[What he’s saying: The assembly’s proposed one-house budget, printed on Monday night, completely punted on the question of both MTA funding and MTA oversight. In contrast, the senate’s budget endorsed congestion pricing and floated legislation called the MTA RAIL Act, which included provisions related to MTA accountability and oversight.
Heastie’s reference to palatability, meanwhile, hints at the governor’s stubborn opposition to most tax increases, save for the pied-à-terre tax, which the assembly did include in its budget, as the speaker noted.]
If you don’t get congestion pricing, and you get some set of fees or taxes that get you halfway [to $15 billion], have you failed?
Coming up with the bonding capacity for $40 billion — that’s not like it’s an easy thing. You can’t just blink and hope it’s there. It’s like building a building. You have to do maybe floor by floor. So if the first leg is congestion pricing or some other revenue source that brings it up. … I think you just have to try and build on these things. Congestion pricing, if people end up not wanting to do it, that was a big chunk of getting us there.
[Assembly members who spoke to Streetsblog this week insisted that they’re working towards some sort of funding resolution, and by all accounts, the momentum is there for congestion pricing. Otherwise, the only alternative Heastie has mentioned is a gas tax hike, which hits the exact same people as congestion pricing: drivers. And it raises a lot less than money than congestion pricing, which would yield around $1 billion annually that could be bonded to about $15 billion. To match that, the gas tax would have to be raised a whopping $.50-cents per gallon, according to transportation tax whiz Charlie Komanoff.]
What are you telling your members who are on the fence or still reluctant?
That I think it’s very important for us to pass a budget that gives the MTA a sustainable [funding] resource. I think it’s very important for us to get that done, to get some certainty to the MTA and to our constituents that we have to come up with resources for the capital plan.
We all know that the transit system is like the artery system behind the body. If there’s no transit system, the body can’t survive. And I think the members for sure know that. I think the members absolutely know that, and I’m just hoping we’ll get to the point where they’ll be comfortable enough because you don’t want to put members in a position to say, alright, “I took this vote, [but] we still have no access to public transportation and, oh, by the way it’s going to cost you more money to drive into the city.” When members represent those types of areas, you don’t want to put them in that position to have to go back home and tell their constituents that.
[This week, the Permanent Citizens Budget Committee to the MTA released an interactive tool that details each of the potential revenue sources, and guess what? All of them pale in comparison to the amount of money congestion pricing would raise. It’s telling that Heastie won’t just come out and say: “Look, congestion pricing is the best bet. It’s the most politically viable and will raise the most money.”]