As a Democrat-controlled state Legislature gets to work, advocates are getting giddy about the possible passage of congestion pricing. As one of those who has supported the concept ever since I was city transportation commissioner and MTA board member, I am pleased that it has some chance of getting through the historically recalcitrant Senate and Assembly.
But given what has happened to surface transportation in the last five years, I am withholding my support until other things get done. Let me explain.
If congestion is the issue, congestion pricing as currently conceived will not do the trick. Traffic congestion will continue to be a problem.
Why do I say that? First, most of the targeted population drives to NYC either because they must do so since they have no other choice, or they find the choices available excruciatingly slow.
Second, the intolerable level of traffic we have now is due not mainly to the people who will end up paying the price, but to the 100,000 additional for-hire-vehicles, namely the Ubers, Lyfts and Vias, clogging our streets like a plague all day long.
These vehicles snuck into New York right under the noses of city and state officials without paying a congestion charge.
They don’t just drive in and park like the commuters. They drive in and drive around all day. They are the ones causing the terrible conditions. And they are taking rides away from the MTA, particularly the buses.
So if it won’t help congestion, then congestion pricing becomes all about raising money for the MTA. It’s a worthy goal, since without a functioning mass transit system, you can just forget about New York being the No. 1 city in the world.
But if we want both real congestion relief and money for the MTA, other things should be done first.
One: Fix the stupid fee on for-hire vehicles imposed last year.
Last year, the Legislature had the chance to pass a version of congestion pricing, but instead made things worse by imposing a charge on the already overcharged yellow and green industry, as well as a nearly equal fee on FHVs like Uber and Lyft. (The fees have since stalled in court.)
Far wiser would have been charging the app-hail FHVs, and only them, a one-time “entry to the market” fee (like the medallion cost yellow cabs pay) and, say, $15,000 per year to operate in Manhattan. That would have raised at least a half billion dollars per year, or at this point $2.5 billion.
Second, we should actually lower the limit on FHVs allowed to operate in Manhattan. The City Council under exceptional new leadership has wisely taken the first step in limiting their growth, something that should have been done five years ago.
But they should go further. If the city needs more FHVs, sell more taxi medallions and then add FHVs.
Even the most sophisticated transportation experts don’t realize that New York City already has a congestion pricing policy. It is called the medallion cab system. There is a legally and environmentally mandated limit to the number of those vehicles. For the right to operate, they pay a medallion fee and fees totaling about $15,000 per year.
How can anyone support a charge on commuters and other drivers while not charging Uber, Lyft and Via a very high annual fee first? Create a congestion pricing plan for them up front.