New York City’s Subways Need Congestion Pricing Now

11/20/2017 08:18 am ET Updated Nov 20, 2017

In a major, thorough and truly important piece of investigative reporting, Brian M. Rosenthal, Emma G. Fitzsimmons and Michael LaForgia of the New York Times sorted through the discouraging financial history of New York City’s subway system during the past quarter century. It is a story of uniformly terrible leadership from all of our mayors and governors. No one escapes criticism, but at least one, Mike Bloomberg, has an excuse. His proposal for congestion pricing for lower Manhattan and a lockbox source of funds for the New York City Transit Authority was the only creative and realistic effort to open up a new revenue stream to reduce the MTA’s dependence on transit fares to fund the system. It had the added benefit of reducing gridlock in New York City.

Other than overt raids on the MTA budget by all of New York’s governors, including the current one, another central piece of the story is the constant political preference for visible projects over investments in less visible, but vital, infrastructure. The Times report refers to a “perennial lack of investment in tracks, trains and signals.” And perhaps as troubling, they found that: “the M.T.A. has used sloppy data collection and accounting games that hide from the public the true causes of the subway’s problems.”

The key to fixing the horrific problem underground is effective management–something MTA chair Joe Lhota is capable of–and meaningful political partnership between New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and the city’s mayor Bill de Blasio. The two of them need to stop blaming each other for the problem, stop acting like spoiled children fighting in a school yard, and agree to work together in the public interest. They should both be ashamed of themselves for their ridiculous relationship. It is an insult to the voters and the people they are supposed to be serving. The subway and its riders are the victims here and it is time for these two very talented people to work together to solve this problem.

As with many public problems, a key issue is the need for more money. Union agreements that pay MTA workers more than transit workers in other cities are baked in, but we still need to hire more people to work on maintaining the basic system. That requires a larger annual budget. We also need to invest capital resources in tracks, signals and cars. I would also add stations to the list of both capital and annual budget needs. To attract more riders, we need a system that moves people with speed and comfort, and the stations must be safe and clean–or at least not disgusting.

Congestion pricing is the fundamental answer to the need for new revenues. Manhattan’s streets are choking in traffic and double-parked delivery trucks. We need to make it much more expensive to bring delivery trucks into the city during the day and should provide an economic inventive to move those activities into the late evening. We need to make sure that all vehicles–Ubers, cabs and private vehicles–pay extra to enter congested parts of the city. We need to make the subways and buses attractive alternatives to private vehicles. The money generated from the congestion fee should be sent directly to the MTA for the exclusive use of mass transit in New York City. The fee should be set high enough to bring in the additional resources needed and to reduce congestion on the streets.

Congestion pricing failed in 2008 because outer-borough politicians and enemies of Mike Bloomberg turned it into an outer-borough vs. Manhattan issue of “tolling the East River bridges.” Never mind that most people in Brooklyn and Queens never drive into lower Manhattan. Once the spin began, the issue was lost. To enact congestion pricing in Albany we need determined and unified political leadership. The current mayor’s proposal to fund mass transit through increased taxes on the rich attacks only half of the problem. It would generate revenue, but do nothing to reduce traffic on the street. The city’s gridlock problem reduces productivity, quality of life, discourages tourism and will ultimately drive business away from the city. A revenue source that simultaneously reduces traffic congestion solves two huge problems with a single policy.

I don’t underestimate the political difficulty of enacting congestion pricing, and unlike the 2008 version, its implementation will not benefit from a federal transportation grant. The state will need to pay for the technology to implement the fee. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed that New York City registered voters opposed congestion pricing by 50% to 42% and favored a millionaires’ tax by 72% to 22%. By a 2-1 margin, city residents rated mass transit services negatively, and both the mayor and the governor are blamed for the bad transit service. While the governor is blamed for the bad service by more of the poll respondents (37%), the mayor is also blamed by many (31%). The polling tells me that determined, unified political leadership could build support for a solution to the subway’s crisis. I believe that congestion pricing could be a key part of that solution.

One way to make the fee more attractive is to provide residents of the outer boroughs with a few free passes each year, to allow them to drive into “the city” when they have no other choice. Another is to develop and communicate specific projects that the fee would fund: more frequent subway runs on specific lines to the outer boroughs, new cars on those lines, and station upgrades outside of Manhattan. Finally, enactment of the fee requires the enthusiastic support of both the mayor and the governor along with the leaders of the state’s senate, assembly, and the New York City Council. Both the governor and the mayor will need to invest personal political capital to get this done. Given what we’ve seen in the past, there is no reason to be optimistic, but I am prepared to be surprised.

While revenue is the most important part of the problem underground, it is far from the only problem. As the Times report indicates, politicians have interfered with the transit system on finance, capital projects and labor relations. Part of the problem is the “authority” form of governance. We see this with both the MTA within New York State and with the bi-state Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. These structures were originally designed to reduce political influence in technical decision making and enhance the professionalism of infrastructure development and management. And for a while things worked that way. But as tax increases became politically unpopular, elected leaders started to view the authorities and their revenues as off-budget resources too enticing to ignore. Unfortunately, legislative oversight of authorities was insignificant and financial arrangements were often too complex and difficult to understand. For these reasons, MTA and Port Authority accountability to the public was largely eliminated.

The good news about local government services is that at some point there is a bottom line. Local services are visible to the public. We may not understand the process, but we see the product. The public was educated about political interference in the Port Authority when they learned about “Bridgegate,” the manufactured traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge. New Yorkers are learning every day about the impact of political interference and mismanagement in the MTA. The delays, crowds, and deterioration of service cannot be hidden. The public holds both the mayor and the governor accountable for deteriorating service, and it would be wonderful and refreshing if these two important elected leaders could sit down together, and come up with a plan to save our subways. New York City’s mass transit system are the arteries that allow the city’s circulatory system to function. If we repair that system we strengthen the heart and life of New York City.