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Commentary By Nicole Gelinas

The Good, Bad and Ugly of Congestion Pricing

Cities, Cities Infrastructure & Transportation, New York City

Congratulations to Gov. Cuomo. He’s taken a risk by acknowledging that people who drive into Manhattan are imposing a burden on everyone else, and should pay a toll. Alas, the details of his plan to address this — which amounts to a cash grab from the city to the state with no guarantee that we’ll get better subways or roads — don’t add up.

On Friday, Cuomo’s panel on congestion released its report. The traffic part is solid. A record number of cars, SUVs and trucks are trying to get around in less space, since we also have a record number of cyclists, walkers and construction sites.

So the panel proposed a solution: Over two years, gradually impose tolls on drivers. Taxi, Lyft and Uber riders would pay a $2 to $5 surcharge during the day and evening to enter core Manhattan, either from 96th Street or 60th Street, or to take a ride within Manhattan below 60th Street.

“Cuomo is acting in part because when it comes to order on the streets, Mayor de Blasio has failed.”

Truckers would pay $25.34 to enter Manhattan below 60th Street. Car drivers, up to $11.52. They’d get a rebate on their tunnel tolls if they didn’t take a free bridge.

This would raise about $1.5 billion, all of it going to transit — including much better transit to eastern Queens and Brooklyn.

That’s all good.

And Cuomo is acting in part because when it comes to order on the streets, Mayor de Blasio has failed. As the report notes, the NYPD has fallen down in stopping drivers from blocking the box at intersections and double-parking.

“No one will change their behavior when no one is holding them accountable,” the report says.

Then, too, city workers park their private cars all over Manhattan, using city-issued documents to commit this theft of city property. “These placards are used illegally,” the report says. So the city is contributing to massive financial fraud in plain sight by its workforce.

But congestion pricing fails big in one way: None of the money would go toward the upkeep of the East River bridges that many drivers have to travel over to get to Manhattan. Nor would the money go to keeping up roads within the city.

Drivers who pay a fee should expect better roads in return. Every other downstate bridge and tunnel, whether run by the MTA or the Port Authority, charges drivers a toll and pays for bridge upkeep, plus transit, out of that toll.

The risk is that eventually, drivers will face both a congestion-pricing fee and new bridge tolls, as the city must get the money to maintain the bridges from somewhere.

Having the state take in congestion-toll money while the city pays to keep up roads and bridges creates a bizarre disconnect. Why should the city pay to maintain them when the state derives the money from the people who use them?

True, the money is supposed to go to the MTA, which is good for city residents and visitors.

Except it’s not clear we’ll get our fair share. We already don’t. Money in MTA taxes from the five boroughs subsidizes MTA projects that don’t benefit subway riders, like the East Side Access project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central.

The danger is that congestion money frees up more of the MTA’s existing billions from the city for such projects.

It’s not a good sign that the report, even as it proposes to raise this new $1.5 billion from car and truck users over the next two years, still wants the city to pay an additional $418 million for the MTA’s current “subway action plan.”

That plan, remember, is for the MTA’s emergency investments in subway signals and tracks, to try to fix a broken system. For six months, Cuomo has been trying to make the city pay half the $836 million cost.

But this “emergency” arose only because the MTA failed to do its job in the first place. And now, the congestion-pricing panel sneaks in a doozy: The “emergency” requiring extra city money is permanent. That’s right — after 2020, and after congestion pricing, the MTA will still want that extra city money, $150 million annually.

City lawmakers should take the concept of tolling drivers as a promising start. But they should insist that the state-run MTA do far more for the city, in choosing its projects and providing existing service, before approving any new funds.

This piece originally appeared in the New York Post


Nicole Gelinas is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal. Follow her on Twitter here.

This piece originally appeared in New York Post