Congestion Pricing Haunts New York

Regressive fees for access to public goods are the darling of the right, and they’re showing up with greater frequency. New York should not be legitimizing the concept.
09/06/2017 08:27 am ET Updated Sep 07, 2017

Here’s an idea. Let’s charge a fee for coming into Midtown Manhattan. Eight bucks. And everybody ― rich, poor, middle-income ― pays the same eight bucks. Driving an ’89 Chevy? Eight bucks. Driving a new Maserati? Eight bucks.

This will keep the riff-raff off the roads and continue the trend that makes NYC safe for Russian billionaires and investment bankers.

Usually, when someone suggests a flat fee for access to public lands or services, there is appropriate outrage from the left (of which I count myself a member). Flat fees are regressive, they are paid at the same rate, regardless of ability to pay. Progressive taxation, the bedrock of American policy since FDR, says we make the rich and super-rich pay more. That’s fair and sensible and, well, progressive.

Opposition to regressive flat fees used to be a bedrock principle of American progressivism. Unless. Let’s give it a fancy name, suggestive of environmental sensitivity and, voila, it’s not so bad. Let’s call it “congestion pricing” and normally sensible folks drink the Kool-Aid and support it.

Such is life in New York right now. Congestion pricing was the brainchild of our last Republican billionaire mayor, Mike Bloomberg. A sometimes estimable mayor, he tried to jam a flat fee for Manhattan access 10 years ago and was justly routed. The ostensible reason then was to reduce traffic congestion.

Now it’s back at the behest of Governor Andrew Cuomo. The reason is money.

Cuomo has presided over the deterioration of the subway system in our recently concluded “summer of hell.” Years of intentional neglect of rails, tunnels, signal systems, cars, etc. have left riders fuming and Cuomo searching for quick cash infusions.

By the by, the Bloomberg/Cuomo goals of reduced traffic and more money for mass transit are perfectly sensible. It’s the decision to smack working families and let the moneyed off the hook that grates.

And there is a progressive alternative out there. Mayor de Blasio, a real progressive, wants a millionaire’s tax to fund the subways. No, says Cuomo, we are not in support of a millionaire’s tax.

Putting aside the politics, there’s danger here. Regressive fees for access to public goods are the darling of the right, and they’re showing up with greater frequency (see the proposals for a fee to drive in an express lane, the bastard child of HOV theory, and the increase in library, park, education and recreation fees everywhere). New York should not be legitimizing the concept.

The arguments in favor don’t hold water. Because the money from the regressive fee goes to mass transit, it’s ok. Nope. Regressive is regressive, even when the money goes to good causes, like property-tax funded public schools. We have to change the pro-auto culture harming our big cities. OK, but why do it on the backs of moderate income folks?

There are lots of NYC specific problems that Cuomo has not yet addressed. Most of the fee will be paid by residents of the outer boroughs ― Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island and the Bronx ― while the immediate benefits, if any, will go to Manhattan. Expect increased congestion in neighborhoods just outside the congestion zone, as people try to park without paying a fee. It’s unclear how much cash is generated and who gets it. It may or may not affect the now toll-less East River bridges.

But in the end, this is about first principles and the long-standing failure of the environmental movement to address issues of class and race. Fairness and progressive principles can’t be tossed aside when they pose problems. The embrace of flat, regressive taxation in iterations of a carbon tax, or zero-emission programs, is beginning to cause problems, and some of the brighter bulbs in the movement have proposals to mitigate the problem.

It won’t be dull. Cuomo and de Blasio are bitter rivals, and could end up competing for the Governorship. City officials are not thrilled that Cuomo is excluding them from a decision that affects only NYC. The specifics of the plan are unknown. Some environmentalists, who love reducing auto use, are having second thoughts about a regressive fee structure.

A final note on the politics. It is a fair criticism of the Democratic Party that it has been insensitive to the needs and perceptions of middle-income folks. It would do everyone a whole lot of good to think through congestion pricing, as a matter of progressive principle, and as a matter of practical politics. Neither of those things has happened yet.

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