It seems that everyone in New York can agree the subway crisis demands an infusion of cash coupled with an overhaul of transit management. It also seems that everyone can agree that traffic congestion is threatening Manhattan’s ability to thrive as a global center of business and finance.
Why then, can’t everyone agree to adopt congestion pricing, which would raise a big chunk of the necessary dollars for transit and ease traffic on the city’s streets and bridges?
While Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio are now lined up in support, elected officials in Queens and Brooklyn remain the main roadblocks to adoption in Albany. They make two main objections, neither of which stand up to scrutiny.
First: that congestion pricing would be uniquely unfair to constituents who live in so-called transit deserts far from a subway station. There is a valid point here: It’s a long bus-to-subway trip to Manhattan from eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn and an even longer express bus ride from Staten Island.
But what they overlook is that for every person who drives to work in Manhattan from outlying city neighborhoods, there are at least two commuters taking the subway, bus, express bus or Long Island Rail Road — often laboriously using some combination of these.
What is fairness then? Is fairness sparing auto commuters from paying a congestion fee? Or is fairness raising cash to alleviate the even longer and more stressful commutes of their next-door neighbors who take mass transit because, let’s face it, they cannot afford to drive?
Opponents of congestion pricing also ignore the fact that most auto commuters are not from far-flung neighborhoods. The biggest concentration of drivers to the Manhattan business district live, surprisingly, on the Upper East Side.
The second big objection to congestion pricing springs from the question, “What’s in it for me?” Like anyone else, motorists want value for their money.
Stop and think about that for a minute. Why would someone endure stop-and-go traffic to get to Manhattan rather than stay closer to home?
That is like asking Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. People go to Manhattan because that’s where the money is, not to mention the top-flight medical care, restaurants, entertainment, shopping and so forth.
In fact, Manhattan has among the best-paying jobs in the country. Manhattan’s high wages and high productivity are the product of innovation and specialization that comes about by packing so many people so tightly together.
That productivity is transit-dependent. All those workers can be crowded into the Manhattan business district only because the Lexington Ave. express tracks, for example, carry four times more people in the morning rush hour than the three lanes of the FDR Drive combined.
If the subway truly collapses, the roads could never handle the crowds. If, for example, just 10% of transit riders decided to drive one day instead, there would be twice as many cars trying to squeeze into Manhattan.
You do not have to be among the best-educated to get the benefit of high wages, either. The wages of those without a college degree are also higher in the New York area, and far higher in Manhattan than in car-dependent Los Angeles, Houston or Phoenix.
This does not mean that only drivers should pay for transit needs. Subway and bus riders already pay through fares. Companies in Manhattan that thrive only because of the mass of specialized and skilled workers brought by public transportation should also pay more than they do today.
But first, let’s get done what’s on the plate today, and that is congestion pricing.