Congestion pricing or not, the underlying sentiment from all fronts is to fix New York regional transportation. Period.
“Number one -- and I’m not evasive about this -- the subway system is key to the economy of this city, and it is in terrible trouble,” said Richard Ravitch, who chaired the Metropolitan Transportation Authority in the early 1980s and crafted its initial five-year capital plan.
“It is deteriorating because of a failure to invest enough money to maintain a state of good repair,” Ravitch, a former lieutenant governor, said in an interview in midtown Manhattan.
“Since I think that is the most critical issue facing the city’s economy, I don’t give a tinker’s damn where the revenue comes from. I take it from any source because it’s going to have to finance billions upon billions of capital investment.”
The give-and-take over the past month after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 15-member Fix NYC panel released its far-reaching congestion pricing proposal for Manhattan has resembled an adventuresome ride on one of its subway trains.
January alone featured upstate lawmakers grilling the head of the MTA for a half-day in Albany; advocacy-group press conferences in biting cold; a Manhattan community board meeting shut down as it spiraled out of control; waves of data from multiple interest groups; and state lawmakers inside the city’s five boroughs shaping debate through parochial filters.
“Was congestion pricing my first choice? No,” said Ravitch, who favors funding through gas taxes, payroll surcharges, wholesale fuel tax and real estate transfers.
The problem, though, is clear to him.
“We have an infrastructure crisis. What isn’t quantifiable, because depreciation is not an expense under government accounting rules, is the collapse of our infrastructure.”
Cuomo and lawmakers are weighing the proposal, which would impose surcharges on vehicles entering Manhattan, with a two-pronged intention: to ease congestion and provide up to $1.5 billion for trains and buses.
The move could profoundly change operational and capital budgeting for regional mass transit during a breakdowns-and-delays crisis period that prompted Cuomo last year to declare a state of emergency at the MTA, one of the largest municipal issuers with roughly $37 billion in debt.
It's not a new idea; former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's congestion charge proposal failed in Albany 10 years ago.
The surcharge would apply to vehicles entering Manhattan borough south of 60th Street, beginning in 2020. Car drivers would pay a surcharge of up to $11.52, truckers $25.34. Taxis and passengers of app-based ride services such as Uber and Lyft would pay a surcharge of $2 to $5 to enter the core part of Manhattan.
Infrastructure firm HNTB Corp. compiled the report.
Variables include what Cuomo and the MTA would do with up to $1.5 billion projected for mass transit, the city’s management of its streets -- online retail orders, for example, have caused a spike in double-parked delivery trucks -- and whether any additional support in city funding for transit might come from Cuomo’s longtime adversary, Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Additionally, given Republican control of the state Senate thanks to a handful of breakaway Democrats, a final package could include some sweeteners for upstate constituencies.
Some critics call the measure a mere cash grab and even suggest the advocates themselves have manufactured a worsening of the problem -- through bicycle lanes and other measures -- in furtherance of social agendas.
Critics also say north-south tolling won't solve notorious logjams on Manhattan's east-west streets.
Emotions boiled over Thursday night at a lower Manhattan community board meeting – prompting a shutdown of the meeting and a rescheduling of a vote on a plan by the city’s Department of Transportation to add one-way bike lanes along 26th and 29th streets.
Congestion pricing has the solid backing of one major city official – the City Council’s new speaker, Corey Johnson.
“We need congestion pricing and we need it in this legislative session,” Johnson told 800 business and leaders at an Association for a Better New York breakfast on Tuesday.
“I’ll work with the mayor. I’ll work with the governor. I’ll even work with the Senate Republicans,” Johnson, a liberal Democrat, told reporters afterward.
Calls for immediate transit funding have refocused a spotlight on the MTA, the state-run authority that operates the city’s subways and buses, Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads, and several intraborough bridges and tunnels.
At a joint legislative budget hearing on transportation at the state capitol in Albany on Jan. 25, lawmakers from all reaches of the state put MTA chairman Joe Lhota on the hot seat for four hours.
“I’m used to delays,” Lhota quipped afterward.
Hinged on a common denominator of a lack of confidence in the MTA, talking points included the authority’s cost structure, expenses per mile, cumbersome procurement practices, phantom “train traffic ahead” announcements on subway cars and even reports that the authority tweaked outage statistics to shift blame to power company Consolidated Edison for breakdowns.
The MTA’s capital costs run about five to six times above those of comparable cities worldwide. Operating costs run 50% higher.
Lhota, in his second tenure as MTA chairman and a 2013 mayoral candidate, admitted the authority must streamline its contracting and bring more bidders to the table. He has formed board member working groups to examine the problem.
“Our procurement process is burdened with a lot of bureaucracy,” said Lhota. “We have a lot to do on the inside but we need legislative finds as well.”
Predictably, political reaction to congestion pricing has been parochial.
City Council member Mark Weprin from Queens has been one of the most vocal opponents, even though Cuomo removed tolls for four now-free East River bridges from the table. The MoveNY initiative championed by engineer and former city transportation commissioner “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz had included such a move.
State Rep. Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Chinatown and other parts of Manhattan, wants her district exempt from any plan. Some of the Staten Island and Brooklyn delegations are pushing for toll reductions on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which connect those two boroughs.
In Queens, Assembly members Stacey Pheffer Amato and Mike Miller, and Sen. Joseph Addabbo, want to remove tolls altogether from the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge, the only tolled intra-borough or intra-county bridge in the state.
De Blasio and Cuomo continue to bicker. The mayor has balked at funding half of the first phase the MTA’s $836 million subway improvement plan, announced last summer. Cuomo has committed the other half.
“Not under current circumstances. No,” de Blasio told reporters Thursday, when he released his $88.67 billion preliminary budget. “Look, I never say never in terms of … if a bunch of things change, but under the dynamics we know now, no.”
Johnson, speaking with reporters in the City Hall lobby right before the mayor's speech, said he would favor extra city funding for the MTA with the right safeguards and for the right projects.
Looking to counter congestion-pricing objections from outer-borough lawmakers, the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Group on Tuesday released data showing that in all 140 state Senate and Assembly districts, only single-digit percentages of commuters travel by car or taxi into the would-be tolled zone daily, and that in some districts, as many as 30 times more commuters use mass transit daily.
“You’ll hear some legislators out there say ‘Oh, but so many of our constituents drive,’ and our data shows that that’s just not true,” Tri-State executive director Nick Sifuentes told reporters Tuesday outside a Columbus Circle subway entrance. “Only single-digit percentages of people traveling into the tolled zone of Manhattan drive in their vehicles.”
Congestion pricing also has the support of other transportation think tanks and advocacy groups, including Tri-State, Regional Plan Association and the Straphangers Campaign.
In an earlier study, Tri-State examined London, Stockholm and Singapore, all of which have some form of congestion pricing.
On the launch date of its original zone, London added 300 buses, introduced new routes and increased frequency or lengthened existing routes. It also established more than 8,500 park-and-ride spaces in anticipation of increased bicycle and pedestrian travel, with additional infrastructure established for safety.
In Stockholm, which consists of 14 islands linked by 57 bridges on Sweden's largest archipelago, voters after a trial period approved making the system permanent.
Island nation Singapore, which pioneered the concept in 1975, benefited from a centralized power structure and "a distinctly pragmatic political culture," according to Tri-State.
Basic lessons for New York, said Tri-State, include the need to improve mass transit before congestion pricing even begins, and the reinvestment of related revenues directly into transit.
“If we’re going to do this, we need to make sure the money is spent correctly,” Sifuentes said of the MTA. “The money does need to be lockboxed. We need to make sure the money not only goes directly to subways and buses, but the money is actually spent on the kinds of things the system needs, like getting more trains on the track and improving the tracks themselves.”