Albany was roadblock for congestion pricing
Facing an apparent recession, increasingly overcrowded subway trains, massive mass transit capital shortfalls, traffic pollution and a state budget deficit to boot, Albany sat on its hands Monday and said no to $500 million per year for transportation improvements and no to $354 million in federal aid to implement a congestion pricing plan that would have reduced traffic.
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, one of many culprits in this failure, was a late supporter of the plan, but he steadfastly refused to try and get it passed. This mass transit advocate has now helped heap another $4.5 billion on the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s capital budget deficit, which ballooned to nearly $14 billion with the loss of congestion pricing bond revenue. The measure might have died anyway even with Silver’s strong advocacy, but his inertia made approval impossible.
Mayor Mike Bloomberg deserves enormous credit for pushing this visionary plan to charge drivers $8 to pollute and clog our busiest streets, but he and his advisers made serious missteps that aggravated fence sitters and even supporters.
Bloomberg can also solve part of the problem by fulfilling his pledge to crack down on parking abuses by government workers. As we reported last week, a long-delayed city report on Downtown parking recently showed that the placard permit system is so out of control that there are not nearly enough free legal placard spots in Lower Manhattan to accommodate all of the police and other government employees who get this perk. Many of these workers end up hurting businesses, residents, public safety and the public till by parking in loading zones, taking up metered spaces or blocking fire hydrants.
Enforcement of city laws will be of some help, but Albany has to come up with the funds to expand and repair the subway system or else it will deliver another blow to the city’s economy. So far, we’ve heard plans to raise various taxes. Hiking taxes may prove necessary anyway, but it should be something to be avoided in this already high-taxed city, particularly during an economic downturn. And passage of such increases is far from certain. A resumption of the commuter tax, which Silver helped end nine years ago probably his worst mistake prior to this latest one still seems like an empty wish.
One of the many beauties of congestion pricing is that, unlike most other taxes, the fees themselves would encourage desirable behavior: Taking mass transit instead of cars.
Opponents used the narrow definition of a regressive tax to argue against the plan. But Monday’s defeat is likely to have truly damaging regressive consequences by increasing the pressure to raise fares on the poor and working class, who use the subway in disproportionate numbers. Congestion pricing would be progressive in effect because the poor would get more of the benefits while the wealthy and upper middle class would pay more of the costs.
Traffic pricing is too good an idea to stay dead forever. Hopefully, it won’t take Albany 100 years to get with the 21st century.