The blue-collar case for congestion pricing

State Sen. Jessica Ramos.
State Sen. Jessica Ramos.
Jessica Ramos for State Senate
State Sen. Jessica Ramos.

The blue-collar case for congestion pricing

State Sen. Jessica Ramos says investing in public transit is a labor issue.
March 20, 2019

State Sen. Jessica Ramos, the Labor Committee chairwoman, wants her colleagues to think about New York City’s subways in a new way.

Funding repairs to the beleaguered subway system has been one of the most high-profile issues in ongoing state budget talks. But with only days until the April 1 state budget deadline, it remains to be seen whether congestion pricing will make the cut. The proposal would raise billions of dollars for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority by charging drivers to enter the core of Manhattan. Supporters say this would help ensure the city’s future economic growth and global competitiveness. Ramos, however, wants them to also think about it on a personal level.

City & State caught up with the freshman legislator from Queens on a recent morning as she rode the train to Albany, and she discussed her thoughts on congestion pricing and how working people factor into the transportation equation.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you say that transportation is a labor issue?

Two summers ago, when it was the “summer of hell” in the MTA, I experienced a severe train delay on the No. 7 train underneath the East River. We were there for two hours and the woman next to me started hyperventilating. She was really upset because she was now going to be two hours late to work and her pay was going to be docked. We usually think about the concept of time being worth money for rich people. It’s actually much more so for people who are really struggling to make ends meet. This is especially true if people have to leave work extra early to avoid paying penalties for arriving late to pick up their children from after-school (care), which on average is a dollar a minute that you are late.

So what can be done about this?

For starters, we’ve been advocating very much for congestion pricing at the state level. Traditionally, governors have been divesting from public transportation funding for other economic development projects. Having a Republican state Senate in charge for a long time served to placate that trend. What we’re trying to do now is reverse it and have people in the Legislature understand that we can’t pretend to continue to be the best city in the world if our trains don’t work.

Won’t congestion pricing hurt constituents from outer-borough districts like yours?

On average, when people drive into Manhattan, there are about 1.2 or 1.3 people per car. This means that most people are driving as a luxury rather taking public transportation. I have a district that is mostly very well connected with subway lines, but I also have a transit desert in East Elmhurst. We’re not going to be able to have bus rapid transit if we continue to have so many cars on our main thoroughfares. Congestion pricing allows for us to produce some sort of revenue to help with the issues that the MTA has, while also encouraging people to drive less. I do believe in carve-outs, perhaps for seniors and people with disabilities who really can’t depend on public transportation, it’s just something that needs to happen.

What else can be done to mitigate the shortcomings of public transportation on people’s lives?

I know that there have been people who have expressed interest in seeing the MTA somehow refund parents or people for late charges and things like that, but I don’t know how feasible that is. What can be done is ensuring that the MTA is de-prioritizing cosmetic repairs like countdown clocks.

What comes after congestion pricing?

I’m a huge proponent of the pied-à-terre tax and the millionaires tax. I really truly believe that the rich do not pay their fair share in New York. Corporations don’t really pay the taxes they should in New York, and they often are our biggest employers. They should be contributing to a system that ensures that their own employees are arriving on time – especially since we’ve done away with the payroll tax. As labor chair, it’s on me to work with the other two committees who are relevant here. As a member of the committees on transportation, and corporations, authorities and commissions, I want to ensure that we are talking about these issues because we haven’t been. We’ve largely talked about the MTA in terms of tourism and our global competitiveness, but it’s much more of a hyperlocal issue than we would like to admit.

Unions have received some blame for making MTA projects more expensive. Should they make some sacrifices for the greater good?

We can reduce costs in a way that still ensures that the job is done without penalizing the workers and how much they’re being paid. I’m sure there are inefficiencies in the system that need to be corrected and that’s something that should be looked at. But nobody should be paid below the prevailing wage.

What do you make of the city’s Fair Fares program, and is subsidized public transit for low-income people something that should be expanded statewide?

I’m supportive of the program, but it’s a drop in the bucket. We’re not really helping all the people who need it most. There is just a certain threshold that I think should be raised in order to reach more people. I’m also someone who doesn’t understand why students only have three rides on their MetroCard. Students should be able to get around New York City all day every day without a problem. There’s this fallacy about turnstile jumping that doesn’t really (seem) supported by real methodology aside from quote-unquote somebody counting at a station. It is a city program and I think at the state level what we should be doing is fighting for as much funding as possible.

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.