Who wants to make a run at East River tolls or congestion pricing in 2013? Anyone?

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Subway on Manhattan Bridge, 1974. (U.S. National Archives, via flickr)
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Late last month, M.T.A. chairman Joe Lhota told reporters that the question of how to fund mass transit would play a big role in the mayor's race in 2013. 

“I do believe that people are focused on this,” he said, following a board meeting. “It’ll probably be a very big item during the mayoral race next year.”

But the question isn't whether the candidates will talk about transit so much as what they'll be willing to do to pay for it.

Yesterday, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer talked about resurrecting a transit-dedicated commuter tax. The proposal made a lot of sense, substantively. But politically, it was easy, since it wouldn't cost city voters anything, and probably unrealistic, since it would require Albany to raise taxes on suburban voters.

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The truth is that as a political issue, transit financing is not generally a crowd-pleaser. This is particularly true at the city level, since serious proposals by New York City officials (with all due respect to Stringer's well-intentioned idea) to improve the M.T.A.'s financial health often involve some form of tolls on the traditionally free East River bridges. 

There are only so many options a New York City mayor has in dealing with the problem anyway, since the M.T.A. is a state agency that runs, for the most part, on state funding. 

One would simply be for the city to pay more: The mayor could upend the long-standing tradition, dating back to the early 1980s, of underwriting only $100 million or so a year in aid to the M.T.A., particularly since $100 million in 1980s money is a lot more than $100 million today. But that probably won't happen.

"We think that paying $500 million every five years is just a super bargain for a system that so extensively serves the city of which you are mayor," said the Straphanger Campaign's Gene Russianoff. "Elected officials have complained, transit advocates have complained. It’s done us no good. The city always pleads poverty, and says it can’t do it."

The city could also use tax-increment-type financing to underwrite one-off expansion projects, like it did with the No. 7 train extension to the far west side. But that won't do much of anything for the existing system that the vast majority of users ride.

Then there's congestion pricing and tolls on free East River bridges, or other pricing schemes that levy taxes or tolls on users. These could happen. But they would require a mayor willing to withstand the blowback.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg was willing to expend political capital on congestion pricing, and almost made it happen in his second term. But he was foiled by the Assembly Democrats.

For Bloomberg, the lesson was that there's no winning on the issue. But his near-success demonstrated, perhaps, that the feat of moving a transit-revenue scheme through the legislature isn't impossible, particularly for a mayor more adept than Bloomberg has been at negotiating with the likes of Sheldon Silver

These issues aren't totally invisible. There are transportation wonks like former D.O.T. traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz, who has been making the rounds of New York’s permanent government lobbying for a more outer-borough- and suburb-friendly version of Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme, which died in Albany in 2008. Lhota, who has spoken with Schwartz about his proposal, also clearly recognizes that the lack of reliable funding for transportation is a problem.

But so far, the 2013 mayoral candidates have proceeded with caution on anything that resembles the Bloomberg congestion-pricing plan.

Perhaps seeing an opportunity to distinguish himself from his would-be 2013 rivals, Stringer gave a speech at an ABNY breakfast in which he advocated a two-part solution to the M.T.A.'s financing woes. He proposed taking some of the real estate proceeds that now feed the authority's operating budget and redirecting them to a public-private partnership bank, where they would be used to underwrite private investment in city infrastructure. To fill the operating void left by that redirection, Stringer would resurrect the commuter tax, which until 1999 was imposed on suburbanites who earn their livings in New York City.

But Stringer's proposals would require the cooperation of the legislature, for which transit funding never seems to be an urgent priority, and which seems even less likely to pass a commuter tax than some form of congestion pricing. (City voters would pay for one, suburban voters would pay for the other.)

I recently reached out about transit funding to all of the other prospective candidates for mayor: former comptroller Bill Thompson, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, and Tom Allon, the C.E.O. of Manhattan Media.

Thompson’s spokesman sent over a copy of an October opinion that he published in the New York Post called “To Fix the M.T.A,” which offers a coherent, if very hard to pull off, plan to provide new transit revenue.  

Thompson supported Bloomberg’s earlier congestion pricing scheme, with some reservations. His 2011 proposal discards the idea altogether.

Thompson’s new plan calls for eliminating the payroll mobility tax, which was implemented in 2009, and which politicians in the counties outside of New York City abhor, and, in a prelude to Stringer, replacing it with a commuter tax (which they would also abhor). Thompson estimates it would create up to $1 billion a year in revenue (more than the $725 million predicted by Stringer). Thompson also calls for a weight-based registration fee in all of the 12 counties comprising the M.T.A. region, which he says would kick in another $1 billion annually. 

“Riders who use the system to commute from New Jersey, Connecticut and Upstate should help pay for its costs,” wrote Thompson.

Allon echoed Thompson’s call for reinstating the commuter tax. “Westchester commuters, for example, use New York City infrastructure and should pay a small amount to keep that infrastructure—including roads, bridges and public transit—in good condition,” he said, calling the M.T.A. an "essential public utility."

Allon also called for evening out tolls "so that all drivers who use our bridges and tunnels pay a fair share."

Neither Quinn, nor de Blasio nor Liu responded with anything specific. But their records provide some guidance.

De Blasio opposed congestion pricing, but supported a Sheldon Silver proposal to put $2 tolls on the East River bridges. He has also said he supported a commuter tax.

Liu voted in favor of congestion pricing when he was on the Council, but has also expressed skepticism that any administration would ever be able to enact a scheme that involves tolls on the traditionally free bridges.

"Tolls get bandied about every time there is a fiscal crisis," Liu told the New York Post in 2008 when he was a councilman and chair of the Council’s transportation committee. He added, "The mayor tried to impose them during the dire fiscal straits in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and even then it went over like a lead balloon."

Liu has also supported reinstating the commuter tax.

Quinn, meanwhile, was a strong advocate for Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan and has, in the past, expressed support for giving the commuter tax another go. But that was years ago. It's not clear where she stands now.