On congestion and MTA funding, choose goals before making policies

Instead of randomly choosing fees on certain vehicles, first decide how much to reduce traffic.

Traffic in Times Square

Traffic in Times Square f11photo/Shutterstock

While the state of New York did not pass congestion pricing in the recently adopted budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the new surcharge on yellow and green taxis ($2.50), for-hire vehicles ($2.75) and pooled-ride services ($0.75) as a step toward improving gridlock in Manhattan and providing funding to improve New York City’s deteriorating mass transit system.

Adding fees to these types of vehicles isn’t inherently bad – especially since so many good transit options abound in the zone below 96th Street – but it’s neither an effective way to reduce congestion nor fund transit. According to Charles Komanoff, the analyst behind the MoveNY congestion pricing and toll reform plan, these new fees will improve travel speeds in the zone by 3 percent. Komanoff is too generous by reporting a percentage. A 3 percent increase in travel speeds will result in less than a 0.3 miles per hour boost. The reason he anticipates such a minor increase is that while the fees will take taxis and for-hire vehicles off the road, that newly opened up road space will encourage more drivers of private cars, for whom there is no financial disincentive, into the road network.

Cuomo predicts the new fees will create an ongoing revenue stream of $400 million per year to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On its face that sounds promising, but the MTA has demonstrated such an ability to waste money that, absent reform, that sum might buy very little improvement. In light of the ongoing cost overruns and delays that hampered Phase 1 of the Second Avenue subway or reports that East Side Access, a project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal, will require another billion dollars to complete are stark reminders that the MTA’s spending is out of control.

So, instead of inadequate piecemeal responses to transit infrastructure funding needs and traffic-clogged streets, New York City and New York state must set goals – all buses south of 96th Street in Manhattan should travel at least 10 miles per hour, say, or a pollution reduction target – before selecting a policy to accomplish it. We can play with the current composition of traffic and estimate how much each mode – taxi, private vehicle, truck, pooled-ride vehicle – contributes to traffic, greenhouse gas emissions or other social harms. (In fairness to the new surcharges, because they drive around all day, taxis and for-hire vehicles are worse offenders in terms of pollution and congestion than the average commuter driving to Midtown from Queens.)

Then, with those goals in mind, we can tailor solutions by developing models that test different scenarios. That may include protected bus lanes, a fee to enter Manhattan’s central business district, eliminating parking placards, or more drastic measures such as an outright ban on specific types of vehicles during the peak period or a rationing scheme similar to the one used in some European and Asian cities on high-smog days in which only even or odd-numbered license plates can enter the city center.

Of course, any policy that restricts or charges for driving may be unpopular and unable to pass in Albany. Technical debates cannot escape politics. But if we identify benchmarks and work through scenarios based on accurate data, we can at least attempt make policy rationally rather than just pulling numbers out of thin air to decide what fees will be charged.

Instead of fetishizing a magic dollar amount that needs to be raised and focusing on what needs to happen, New York can start to tackle congestion and transit infrastructure improvements intelligently.

It’s also worth stepping back and asking why we expect mass transit infrastructure to be paid for primarily through dedicated revenue streams. The city of New York will spend $14 billion repaving roads and maintaining bridges over the next 10 years, in large part through debt financing, specifically General Obligation and Future Tax Secured bonds. Why do roads and bridges get a blank check, paid from future taxes, while transit requires an entirely new pot of money? Repaving roads will exacerbate rather than alleviate congestion, as drivers are induced to use smoother, faster roads, which in turn will undercut the small gains of a fee on taxis and for-hire vehicles.  

The rich transit options south of 96th Street makes it hard to argue against a fee on taxis and for-hire vehicles. By that same logic, however, one could just as well apply it to all vehicles.

If state legislators are concerned that residents in the far reaches of the outerboroughs need to drive to work in Manhattan, perhaps they can normalize fares across different MTA services. Neighborhoods in Queens or the Bronx often have Long Island Rail Road or Metro-North stations, respectively, but the cost can be much higher than a subway ride. Reducing those fares and also those of express buses that serve much of Staten Island and subway-less areas of southern and eastern Brooklyn and Queens would give potential drivers an affordable transit option. (Like the “Fair Fares” proposal for discounted subway and bus rides, these discounts could be limited to those below a certain income threshold.) Redesigning bus service to be more frequent, reliable, and fast would also make it a better option for rushed commuters.

We also need to give a long, hard look at how the MTA spends money. Recent investigations and headlines continue to show that we pay more for infrastructure and expansion than peer cities in Europe and Asia. Rather than just writing bigger checks, the governor needs to demand accountability from the MTA that he runs. According to Jonathan English, phase one of the Second Avenue subway cost about $2.5 billion per mile. While this cost is nearly five times what Paris recently paid to construct line 14 of its Metro, it is bargain-rate when compared to the $4 billion per mile projections that have been announced for phase two. At this rate of increase, the MTA will spend $10 billion per mile to construct the fourth and final phase of the Second Avenue subway. This cost escalation jeopardizes service expansion anywhere else in the system and makes it hard to imagine that the full plan for the Second Avenue line will ever materialize.

A surcharge on taxis and for-hire vehicles is meant to appease a bunch of interest groups who will all end up not much better off. The core problems – all of the vehicles that make New York’s congestion unbearable and the MTA’s spending habits that make Imelda Marcos’ shoe hobby look like a rounding error – remain unaddressed and solutions that skirt those issues promise little long-term relief.