Monday 11 March 2013

Why are New York mayoral candidates ignoring congestion pricing?

Capital New York reports with a question - why are the 2013 Mayoral candidates treating congestion pricing "like a third rail" (i.e. avoiding it as being too dangerous to talk about)?

Give fare hikes are unpopular, is it so much more unpopular to charge vehicles for driving into Manhatten?  If so, does this indicate that motoring is just too important to New York City to introduce higher charges, compared to increasing fares (of course some may point out that if the financial issues are around public transport, then raising extra money from the users may be justified).  

It points out Bloomberg's failure, but noted that he didn't do much to build a coalition of support at the state level, nor was enough done to sell the idea to New Yorkers (e.g. it ought to be have been possible to get support from Manhatten residents and businesses, cyclists and public transit users).

However, Sam Schwartz's excellent toll reform plan has also not caught on, although I'd argue it is superior to the plan of Bloomberg (which was far closer to what London has done).

Kathryn Wylde, CEO of business lobby group, Partnership for New York, says tolling the bridges on East River Bridges just "mobilizes Queens and Brooklyn to go crazy", but that a cordon around Manhatten would be "more tenable".

The article seems to conclude that this should be sold as an idea, perhaps part of a wider environmental agenda.  

That may be one approach, but I think it has to be more of a quid-pro-quo that has some reason behind the charging (Schwartz's plan has a rational basis to it), that is able to be seen as equitable (which means a charge somewhere across the north of Manhatten), but pays for improvements to roads (there is an enormous backlog of deferred maintenance across the network) and offsetting reductions in general tax contributions to transport.  Of course there is going to be fear that using some form of road pricing will see funding from other sources dry up, that needs to be worked through with the state.

The case for congestion pricing of some kind in New York is compelling, it would improve access by improving trip reliability, improving speeds for freight, buses, taxis and cars, reduce pollution and raise funds that can be used to improve the entire road corridor - and indeed, that is what should be the focus.  

Less congestion, better quality infrastructure and with alternatives in the forms of public transit, active modes and shifting travel times (having different charges for peak and offpeak trips is critical).

However, it would appear that politicians don't have the intellectual fortitude to confront kneejerk opposition, and concern that it looks like a new tax which will be wasted.  No sound argument can be made for New York State to raise the gas tax to pay for the city alone, although there are sound arguments to use competitive tendering, commercialisation and private contracting to reduce public transit costs.   Given the existence today of tolled access to Manhatten on some routes, but not others, the case for equity is strong, but the case for efficiency is stronger still.

Candidates on the left with an environmental bent should be able to argue for this, particularly if it means funding other modes and reducing tolls beyond Manhatten.  Candidates on the right with a bent for reducing congestion and improving competitiveness, should be able to argue for this too, if it is about improving existing roads and even reducing other taxes (if there is no interest in a net increase in revenues).

Do they simply fear whoever argues for it first gives an automatic issue to argue against for the others?

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