As all sorts of proposals emerge for fixing New York’s transit mess, congestion pricing advocates hope Gov. Andrew Cuomo can move their plan to the front of the queue.
Cuomo of late has begun to speak favorably of the MoveNY plan, which would toll vehicles entering certain parts of Manhattan and on now-free East River bridges. Backers say it would benefit local infrastructure that ranges from street and bridge repair to mass transit.
On June 19, Cuomo referenced truck-toll discounts on the Long Island Expressway as part of a mitigation plan for Long Island Rail Road commuters through Sept. 4 during Amtrak’s emergency work at Penn Station.
“It’s a form of congestion pricing,” he said at the dedication of the new Penn-Farley west concourse. “I’m very curious to see how that works.”
Cuomo, who controls the state-run Metropolitan Transportation Authority, reinforced his support in recent media comments.
Predictably, he and Mayor Bill de Blasio are again in opposite corners.
“For years and years I’ve been uncomfortable with congestion pricing,” de Blasio said during Wednesday’s Democratic mayoral primary debate against former City Councilman Sal Albanese.
Continued opposition is expected from lawmakers in parts of Brooklyn and Queens whose constituents now drive across the bridges for free.
De Blasio predecessor Michael Bloomberg pushed the idea 10 years ago only to find it dead on arrival in Albany.
“When Michael Bloomberg proposed a plan, I thought it was very unfair to the outer boroughs, especially Brooklyn and Queens, and that’s crucial to me if you’re going to have fairness across the five boroughs,” said de Blasio. “The MoveNY plan was certainly better than the Bloomberg plan, but it still does not address a host of equity issues so no, as it’s written now I’m not in favor of it.”
De Blasio has instead called for an increase in the millionaire’s tax, which he said could generate up to $8 billion through bonding. He said the measure stands a fighting chance of winning over Albany should Democrats take over the state Senate.
Or it could be a marker to extract more money from the state, as it was during the debate over pre-kindergarten funding. The city received a $300 million allocation from the state.
“We got the job done because we proposed a millionaire’s tax,” the mayor said. “We forced the discussion.”
Congestion pricing supporters say the latest iteration could generate roughly $1.5 billion in pay-as-you-go funding and up to $15 billion through bonding. Its champion is engineer “Gridlock Sam” Schwartz, the city’s former transportation commissioner.
It calls for tolling now-free East River bridges and imposing a surcharge on vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street, while reducing tolls at other outer borough crossings, including the Verrazano, Whitestone and Throgs Neck bridges.
Paygo funds would feature $965 million for mass transit, $300 million for East River bridge maintenance, $125 million in commuter rail discounts and $75 million for maintenance of other city roads and bridges.
The latter marks a change from the Bloomberg plan and could help offset motorist objections about toll increases.
The bonding package would include $10 billion for the MTA, $3 billion for a so-called transit gap fund, and $1 billion apiece for New York City community and suburban transit needs.
“It’s significant that Gov. Cuomo, who said he is responsible for fixing the subways, is saying that congestion pricing is a concept to look at,” said Nick Sifuentes, deputy director of the Riders Alliance lobbying group, who will become executive director of the 501(c)(3) Tri-State Transportation Campaign next month.
“It has worked well in London and Stockholm,” Sifuentes added.
Congestion pricing is but one idea in a wider discussion on what to do about mass transit during so-called summer of hell, and its spike in track fires, breakdowns and other accidents, and contingencies at Penn Station while Amtrak conducts emergency track and signal-system repair.
While de Blasio has been touting his millionaire’s tax, city Comptroller Scott Stringer called for a $3.5 billion bond act to fund transit projects.
Some City Council members, notably transportation committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez, want half-price fares for low-income people, which de Blasio said would be part of his tax plan. Transport Workers Union Local 100 urged the mayor to tap into city reserves, which total $4 billion in various accounts. State Assemblyman Michael Gianaris, D-Queens, has filed a bill to prevent the state from raiding MTA coffers as it has in the past.
Anthony Figliola, vice president of Empire Government Strategies, proposed a tax amnesty program. Citing the most recent data from the state Department of Tax and Finance, the top 250 individual and corporate tax deadbeats, alone, owe more than $700 million.
“It’s low-hanging fruit,” said Figliola. “Why wouldn’t you consider it?”
Figliola cited a 2011 report he authored with former state Assemblyman Jerry Kremer that found that since 1985, state tax amnesty initiatives have successfully recouped more than $1.7 billion in unpaid taxes.
MTA chairman Joseph Lhota has begun an $856 million plan to fix the creaking subway system. Lhota, a Cuomo appointee, also urged the city to contribute half the cost of long-term projects, which he pegged at $4 billion.
Infrastructure expert Nicole Gelinas said congestion pricing has limited benefits.
“Congestion pricing can be a good idea for the management of New York City’s streets with the availability of funds for the MTA a little extra benefit,” said Gelinas, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.
“But to sell it as a radical transformation of the MTA, that’s not going to be the case. Five years later the MTA will come back unless it gets its costs under control and gets funding for a revenue stream.”
Gelinas cited the payroll mobility tax, which the state legislature enacted in 2009 during a previous subway crisis. “Years later, we have same old MTA,” she said.
Pensions, health care and other post-employment benefits have largely triggered authority’s cost spikes, she wrote in a report last month. They have escalated to $3.1 annually for personnel at New York City Transit, the MTA’s subway-and-bus subdivision, from $1.2 in 1985, in today’s dollars.
Unlike pensions, which involve direct cash payments, health care efficiencies can be an easier sell politically.
Gelinas also called for the authority to streamline its procurement systems. “Doing projects faster cuts costs,” she said.
Frustration over subway and bus malfunctions can unify a variety of political bases, said Rodriguez.
“This is the moment we need to bring everyone together, the city, the state, the corporations, the working class,” Rodriguez said in an interview at Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.
“The private sector, the real estate community, they understand that 21st -century transit is so critical for them. Who will be renting those luxury apartments on the Upper East Side and the Upper West Side? It will be those individuals from Asia and Europe who believe New York City is one of the safest cities in the world.
“They expect to be able to be able to move from point A to point B in a short period of time instead of the mess we have today.”
According to Rodriguez, adopting parts of the various proposals could generate more than $25 billion for transit over a decade.
“At the same time, we expect the leadership of the MTA to bring more transparency on how they use the taxpayers’ money,” he said.