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Amy Traub

Congestion Pricing: STILL Good for New York’s Middle Class

This year on Earth Day, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled a sweeping 127-point plan for New York City to confront the challenges of population growth, aging infrastructure, and environmental sustainability over the next 25 years. As many New Yorkers know, one part of the plan is a proposal to implement congestion pricing in Manhattan below 86th Street. The Drum Major Institute analyzed the congestion pricing proposal, invited the Deputy Mayor of London to speak with New York City policymakers about her city's experience with congestion pricing, and concluded that the congestion pricing proposal would have a positive impact on the city's current and aspiring middle class. By the end, we were so impressed overall by PlaNYC's bold vision for a sustainable city that DMI honored Mayor Bloomberg for creating it.

But like so many policies crucial to the city's fate, congestion pricing requires approval from Albany before it can be implemented. Governor Spitzer supports the plan. The State Senate passed legislation to implement it. But the State Assembly has refused to act, despite the fact that $500 million in federal transportation funding may depend on quick action.

Today a new report (not yet available online) released by the Assembly Committee on Corporations, Authorities, and Commissions, chaired by Richard Brodsky, sheds some light on the Assembly's disagreement with the plan. Unfortunately, at a time when New Yorkers need a serious discussion about the city’s growth over the next 25 years, about how we will deal with clogged streets, poor air quality, underfunded mass transit system, and the threat of global warming, the Assemblyman Brodsky's report instead offers a grab bag of critiques that fail to understand crucial aspects of PlaNYC 2030 and the congestion pricing plan specifically.

First of all, it is absurd to describe a plan that would massively redistribute resources from drivers, who have a higher average income, to transit riders, many of whom who have very low incomes, as regressive. By proceeding as though the right to drive a private car cheaply into Manhattan were an evenly distributed "public good" to begin with, Assemblyman Brodsky fails to notice the millions of New Yorkers trying to work their way into the middle class who don't own cars and have no choice but to take mass transit, no matter how poor the quality. These New Yorkers are among those with the most to gain from congestion pricing and the nearly half a billion dollars in transit investment it would generate annually.

"Equity" cannot be defined as everyone having a chance to engage in behavior that has inherently inequitable impacts. As demonstrated in DMI's recent report, "Congestion Pricing: Good Policy for New York’s Middle Class," congestion itself disproportionately impacts the city's current and aspiring middle class. Middle-class New Yorkers already pay price for congestion with poor health, environmental damage, lower quality of life, and less economic growth, even though the majority of them never drive a car into midtown Manhattan.

Assemblyman Brodsky's critique systematically overlooks the negative impact of driving cars as compared to other means of transportation. Despite the fact that concern about reducing greenhouse gases is a major motivation for the congestion pricing plan, no reference to climate change or global warming can be found anywhere in the Committee report.

As an alternative to congestion pricing, Assemblyman Brodsky suggests we consider a far more regressive plan -- raising fees on mass transit riders (that is, "time of day pricing on mass transit.") Not only would this proposal disproportionately burden lower-income transit riders, it would do little to alleviate congestion in our streets, would not improve air quality, and would worsen global warming by discouraging New Yorkers from taking less-polluting mass transit. Suggesting an increase in mass transit fees as an alternative to congestion pricing shows that Assemblyman Brodsky fundamentally misunderstands the aims of the congestion pricing plan.

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Posted at 2:01 PM, Jul 09, 2007 in Drum Major Institute | Middle-class squeeze | New York | Politics | Transportation | public services
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