Sunday, 19 February 2012

Finding a way to give something back if New York gets congestion pricing

Capital New York reports that Jeffrey Zupan, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association of New York, has suggested, as part of a a panel on traffic congestion at the Museum of the City of New York, that for congestion pricing to be politically acceptable for New York "Something has to be given back to people in their cars".

He proposes that tolls on the outer borough crossings be reduced to, in part, compensate for imposing tolls on the East River bridges.  The suggestion being that the Bronx-Whitestone, Throgs Neck and Cross Bay Veterans' Memorial Bridge tolls be reduced so that travel further away from Manhatten is charged less, focusing on the congested area. However, as can be seen in the image below, the three bridges (in blue) are miles away from the proposed additional crossings at the East River (along the red line).   I doubt very much whether this will be seen by most motorists entering Manhatten as making much of a difference.

East River crossings and their relationship to the three other bridges
The concept makes sense, but in practical application that offsetting reduction is not going to mean much to many motorists.  Those tolls should be set based on recovery of long run capital costs and also, if necessary, include a congestion peak component (with offsetting off peak discount).   

However, I think the bigger issue is using some of the money raised from congestion pricing to benefit motorists and the most economically efficient way to do so is to spend money on deferred maintenance - fixing potholes, smoothing surfaces, renewing signs, lighting and upgrading traffic signals.   Yet the problem with this is that the funding framework would mean this would risk a cut in funding for those types of items, without countervailing spending elsewhere.  If the desire is more money for transit, having a way to shift road maintenance funding more towards tolls, and then take such funds to use for transit may make some sense and mean that there is a more sustainable source of funding for maintenance.  Few would argue that New York's roads couldn't do with better standards of maintenance.

I'm encouraged about the debate.  It has long been argued by some that congestion pricing would be great as a way of raising funds for public transport, but I firmly believe that unless motorists get at least some of that money raised recycled in ways that benefit them directly - either by paying for improvements to the highway or by reducing other taxes they pay, it is going to persist in being unacceptable to many, as it wont be seen as "user pays" but just another tax.  True, the biggest benefit for motorists is less congestion, but they will only believe that when it happens - and so it is important that congestion pricing include, at least in part, some revenue being used to benefit motorists.

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