Hold on to Your Money! Move NY’s Congestion Pricing Proposal Is Deeply Flawed

The Brooklyn Bridge  Photo by Joe Mabel. 7/30/13 / Wikipedia
The Brooklyn Bridge
Photo by Joe Mabel. 7/30/13 / Wikipedia

The following is a guest article by John Rozankowski, PhD

In his New York Daily News op-ed, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr. discussed the newest proposal by Move NY to impose tolls on the currently free East River bridges and for driving in Manhattan below 60th Street. The novelty in this proposal is that prices on bridges close to mass transit would be raised while those in “transit deserts” would be lowered. In spite of herculean efforts by proponents to avoid the term, Diaz correctly identified this proposal as “congestion pricing.”

The Borough President goes on to criticize congestion pricing. In contrast, I will probe deeper into the Move NY proposal to emphasize major flaws which point to another public rip-off in the making.

Question #1: Just who will set the prices for the tolls?

Move NY is silent on this all important aspect. Currently the MTA controls seven bridges & 2 vehicular tunnels, which are tolled while NYC controls the remaining four bridges, which are free.

Whether the free bridges are surrendered to the MTA or placed under a new public authority, the tolls are certain to rise as Diaz predicts.

Too many people are unaware that a public authority like the MTA is completely immune from the political process. This means that they can set prices for fares and tolls at their pleasure and that our elected officials can do nothing about it. The elected officials make some fine speeches at MTA public hearings but know that whatever they say is meaningless. Most New Yorkers have already learned this.

Diaz argues that the tolls would be low at first to get the measure approved and would rise dramatically afterwards. With a public authority like the MTA in charge that’s exactly what would happen. In London’s congestion pricing arrangement, for example, the price started at an equivalent of $8.70 and rose to $13.90 only two years later.

In addition, the MTA already collects tolls from 7 NYC bridges and 2 tunnels according to a formula which allocates much of the revenue to subsidize commuter rail riders and keep their fares low–the very people who can afford to pay more!1 This in spite of the fact that a huge majority of those using East River bridges come from NYC.2

In the mayoral election of 2013, candidate Joe Lhota campaigned on the need of New York City to take back the tolled bridges since the MTA is ripping us off. As the former Chair of the MTA, he knows what he’s talking about.

Move NY, aware that the MTA’s credibility with the public is zero, is suggesting that a new public authority take over the bridges.3 This new public authority would simply funnel our money to the MTA in a more round-about route. And as with the MTA, the new public authority would be out of the reach of the public.

If Move NY wants a serious discussion of its congestion pricing proposal, the question “who will control the bridges and administer the tolls?” must be answered. If it’s the MTA or some new public authority, the response of the people must be a resounding “NO.”

The only acceptable administrator would be the Mayor and the City Council. In this setup, these officials would have to demonstrate to the people in no uncertain terms why tolls should be raised. If they raised them without convincing proof, we could vote them out of office. After all, aren’t these officials elected to do a job, make the hard decisions, etc.?

Question #2: Where Will the Revenues Really Go?

Already the so-called transportation advocacy groups are at it with their grandiose promises of what the estimated toll revenue of 1.45 Billion would do: “restore more (not all) of the 2010 service cuts, more Select Bus services, a subway fare on Metro-North and the LIRR within New York City limits, more express bus services (at a discount), new Metro North Bronx stations, more buses and trains, etc. What advocates fail to say is that this is just a wish list of what they think the people want to hear. They have no grounds to say these things.

It’s time for a reality check!

Old timers will remember the Transportation Bond Act of 1951. In the November election of that year, the people voted for funding for a 2nd Avenue subway—a four track line with express services serving not only Manhattan but the outer boroughs as well.

In 1953, New York City made the horrible mistake of leasing the subways and buses to the New York City Transit Authority. When the approved money came in, this predecessor to the MTA took all of it and used it for the current system, instead of building the 2nd Avenue subway. The public authority defied the will of the people, expressed in the ballot box, and got away with it!

The indisputable fact is that once a public authority gets public money, it can do whatever it wants to do with it in the finest dictatorial tradition.

Today the MTA is using our money to fund programs to remove all station agents. (Please sign the petition to save them: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/station-agents-must-remain).

The agency also plans to get rid of the conductors. Riders on the #7 line in Queens have been saddled with severe service disruptions for years because the MTA is investing hundreds of millions of dollars (our money) to launch automatic trains on that line, which don’t even improve the ride.4 The conductors would go first and in time so would the train operators. Imagine being on the F train which derailed on May 2nd without any personnel aboard! That’s the MTA’s vision for our system and we would be funding it! It must be noted that the agency rarely says this. It is just “improving signaling.”

People would be waiting for the promised improvements in vain since the extra revenue would be used for more of the same: waste, lavish projects in wealthy neighborhoods, automation, modernization for the sake of modernization, payments for the huge debt that these have accrued already, etc.
If Move NY wants a serious discussion of congestion pricing, it must address the question “where the revenues will go?” directly. There are two conditions which must be met:

(1) Since Manhattan will be the prime beneficiary with fewer cars and less air pollution, all revenues must be assigned to keep the bridges in shape and for mass transit projects exclusively in the outer boroughs and Washington Heights.

(2) As with determining the price of the tolls, the Mayor and New York City Council must choose and budget the projects, which these revenues raised would fund. It is a fundamental principle of democracy that the people must have a voice through their elected officials in how their hard earned money is spent.

Without these conditions, the public must hold on to their money and say “No” to the Move New York’s congestion pricing proposal!

Notes

1 Richard Schwartz, “Bus & Subway Riders Should Sue the MTA,” New York Daily News, February 5, 2004.
2 Report to the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission & Recommended Implementation Plan, January 31, 2008.
3 I attended Move NY’s presentation of its plan at Hunter College on 3/21/14. Buried near the bottom of page 3 of their handout was the recognition that New Yorkers don’t trust the MTA and that a new public authority could be a solution.
4 Bronx #6 riders are in for an unpleasant surprise. The MTA will shift the R62A subway cars from the #7 line to the #6 and place the relatively new R142A subway cars, currently on the #6, on the #7 line. The switch has already begun. The reason is that the R142A subway cars are equipped for automatic train operation while the R62A’s are not.

About John Rozankowski, PhD

Although born in Brooklyn, John Rozankowski, PhD spent most of his life in the Bronx and received his Ph.D. in history from Fordham University at Rose Hill.

After selling his rental property, John became a community activist fighting against the new Yankee Stadium, the term limit extension, the Kingsbridge Armory Shops-in-the-Armory proposal and for Bronx Borough President Reuben Diaz’s living wage campaign.  Last year, he was a volunteer in the Letitia James for Public Advocate campaign and continues to campaign in Queens for the reactivation of the Rockaway line.

John has a very strong interest in mass transit issues especially relating to the subways and buses.  The outer boroughs have always been shafted and it’s high time that Bronxites did something about it.

In addition, he is a writer and blogger on New York City issues.”

Dr Rozankowski has lived in the Bronx for 58 years and currently resides in the Bedford Park neighborhood of the Bronx.

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