Thursday 16 January 2014

New York isn't pursuing congestion pricing/toll reform soon

So Michael Bloomberg is no longer Mayor of New York.  He was an advocate of congestion pricing, but got shot down by the New York State Legislature and plans were never revived again.  Given the city has a new Mayor, and the Governor said in 2012 he would consider the tolling reform plan put forward by Sam Schwartz, I thought it would be interesting to review where things have got to for New York.

The answer is, not very far.  

In February 2013, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn (who was New York City Council Speaker until the end of last year), who came third in the primary to stand for the Democratic Party as its Mayoral candidate, said (according to Capital New York) that she didn't think the proposal had much of a future, even though she supported Bloomberg's original proposal. 

The reason? Pure politics as she didn't think she could get outer borough support for reforms.  The article does say she still supports the idea, but wasn't going to advance it because she didn't think it would get State legislative support.  

In an article by Azi Paybarah in Capital New York, a survey about congestion pricing, undertaken by Quinnipiac University in 2007-2008 shows some interesting results (bearing in mind the limitations based on how dated this is and ensuring people understand the question)

The survey indicated around 60% of Democrats opposed the idea, with 40% supportive.  Support increased to 60% if the charge was linked to preventing public transport fare hikes or toll hikes on existing tolls.   In other words, what was key was people seeing what the money might be used for.  Support also reversed to around 60% if the money was to be used to improve public transport.

In March 2013, Capital New York reported that the New York City Progressive Caucus (an association of left-wing organisations) was advocating "fairer toll pricing" (something like the Schwartz plan). It is contained under "Idea Number 7" in this leaflet (PDF).  

In June 2013, Capital New York reported that Mayor Bloomberg supported consideration of Sam Schwartz's plan for toll reform as part of his post Hurricane Sandy resilience report.  It was, to be fair, a bit of a swansong in leaving a strategic report on the future, but it indicated Bloomberg hadn't abandoned the idea in principle.

Yet despite that, none of the major contenders for the Mayoralty included it in their platforms.

So when Bill De Blasio won the election as Mayor, it wasn't on a platform of supporting any form of toll reforms. De Blasio opposed Bloomberg's plan and specifically said he opposed tolling the East River Bridges.

Yet efforts are being made to try to convince him according to the NY Times with a group called Move NY.

It has been rebranded "fair tolls and transportation investment" and is an effort to convince politicians that it isn't about charging everyone more, but about a more equitable tolling arrangement that will put more money into transport including roads now.  Sam Schwartz is working hard to convince people that it isn't political suicide to support his plan.

De Blasio appears more focused on new taxes to pay for universal kindergarten access.  His election is a significant swing to the left for New York, but it appears to be old left beliefs that charging for road use is bad for the poor - rather than the new left that believes it can help them by reducing pollution and funding better public transport, cycling and pedestrian facilities.

So the Mayor is unlikely to move on this soon.

The NY Daily News reports that Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to have made a conscious decision that toll reform isn't a good idea, doesn't understand tolling or road pricing and doesn't think he can win any votes by supporting is, so is taking the thoroughly political stance that:

"The East River bridge tools were brought up may times before—it’s a proposal that’s been brought up almost every year for the past several years," he said. "It hasn’t passed in the past and I don’t believe it will pass now."

In other words, he wont support it because others wont support it.  He's a follower, not a leader and certainly doesn't have the wherewithal to consider a reform that could generate substantial benefits for highway users and communities facing relatively high tolls.  It's a position that has drawn a little flack as LA has spent Federal funds to support congestion pricing initiatives on developing HOT lanes, whilst New York has nothing.


Despite the logic of Schwartz's plan it suffers because of ignorance and a tragic lack of any courage or long-sighted vision on transport in New York.   However, the way to get greater support is going to be to campaign, long and hard, to argue that the concept makes sense and is a vote winner.  You might think that with the Democrats commanding such dominance in city politics, it ought to be easy - after all, few fear Republicans winning in this climate.  

Supporters don’t plan to go to the Legislature for a year or two, after Cuomo’s re-election campaign is over and, they hope, after de Blasio has found money for his education agenda.

You may have your own opinion as to the value of principle, economic rationalism and environmental goals, over simplistic populism in politics in New York.  Regardless, it seems more likely that Shanghai will adopt a more market oriented approach to managing its roads than New York, for the medium term at least.

Meanwhile, I wish Move NY the best.  

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