Why do the 2013 candidates treat congestion pricing like a third rail?

why-do-2013-candidates-treat-congestion-pricing-third-rail
J train on the Williamsburg Bridge. (Reinhold Behringer via Flickr)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

This week, subway and bus riders in New York City got hit with their fourth fare hike in five years.

Such fare hikes are unpopular, of course, and there's not a ton that a mayor can do about them: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a state agency that costs a lot of money to run, and a good portion of that cost burden is borne by riders.

But the mayoral candidate who commits to doing something about it, one would think, could have a lot to gain. 

There is one concrete measure that would lessen the burden, one that advocates seem to think ought to be politically doable for a mayoral candidate who cares about the issue of transit: congestion pricing.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

So far, it's not something any of the major 2013 candidates have talked about with any level of seriousness.

“I just don’t know why they’re so afraid of congestion pricing, but there appears to be a good deal of that fear out there,” NYPIRG’s Gene Russianoff told me.

A lot of it has to do with recent history.

Bloomberg tried to get a congestion pricing plan through Albany in his second term, and failed.

Its failure had as much to do with politics as substance: Bloomberg's barely concealed disdain for Albany legislators won him few friends up there, and the administration didn't do much to build public pressure for congestion pricing by selling the program to commuters citywide.

The mayor eventually gave up, explicitly.

But Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan is not the only one out there. 

And perhaps more to the point, polling on congestion pricing and its popularity in the outer boroughs doesn't seem to be conclusive enough to warrant its near-third-rail status in the mayor's race.

"I think congestion pricing is different from tolling the bridges," said Kathryn Wylde, president and C.E.O. of the Partnership for New York City, the city's most prominent business lobby.

Placing tolls on the currently free East River bridges "mobilizes Queens and Brooklyn to go crazy," Wylde said. "I think that’s an issue that’s too hot to handle. But talking about a congestion pricing district in Manhattan along the lines we did, I don’t think it’s untenable."

“I think there’s a huge opening for one of the mayoral candidates to take this on, communicate this better, to really lead rather than follow on this,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, referring to congestion pricing.

“Whether you’re in Canarsie or Midwood or the south shore of Staten Island, you’ve still got a lot of people who are dependent on the transit system," said Bowles. "And the fare keeps going up, service cuts are being enacted, and congestion pricing is really the only way to make sure the system is in a state of good repair going forward.”

David Birdsell, dean of the Baruch College School of Public Affairs, argues these sorts of issues could be wrapped into a "green agenda," that a candidate could "cast this in the context of environmental bona fides."

"There’s ample, ample political space" for a forward-thinking transportation candidate, argued Noah Budnick, deputy director of Transportation Alternatives. "There’s 100,000 supporters in our network that are on the edge of their seats waiting to hear leadership from the candidates, and then there’s almost 9 million New Yorkers, most of us who leave the house and transport ourselves somewhere every day, whether it’s access to jobs or to school, culture, shopping."

Those New Yorkers will probably still be on the edge of their seats come November.

The Friday evening before last, the union that represents most subway workers held a mayoral forum in Midtown.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who supports congestion pricing in theory, but like her ally Bloomberg is no longer pushing for it, called for a commuter tax, something former Comptroller Bill Thompson supports too.

A commuter tax would, as the name indicates, impose a fee on suburbanites who work in the city. It might be a good idea, from a policy perspective, but it's also a political nonstarter, since the legislators who represent suburbanites are never going to approve that sort of thing in Albany. So calling for a commuter tax, if you're running for mayor, is more a gesture than anything.

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio spoke about defending the revenue streams the M.T.A. already has, and said there should be more federal funding for mass transit, which, sure. 

Comptroller John Liu also wants more federal funding, and also more state and local funding, though he didn't say how he would make that funding happen.

Only one candidate made a strong argument for congestion pricing: former councilman Sal Albanese.