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Issue 015

Ticket to Ride

by Morgan Clendaniel

April 15, 2009

How to appease the interest groups keeping congestion pricing from our cities.

In 2003, London enacted a congestion-pricing plan that charged motorists about $11 to drive into various zones in the city center. The successful implementation of congestion pricing in a major urban area only further emboldened supporters of the concept, who have long argued that congestion pricing is the simplest and most effective way to limit the number of cars in urban settings, thus reducing emissions, fuel use, and traffic.In 2007, New York City's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, announced that he wanted to implement congestion pricing in New York. It was to work like this: Drivers in Manhattan below 60th Street would have to pay $8; commercial drivers would pay $21; taxi passengers would pay $1. (Tolls from bridges or tunnels to and from the pricing zone would be subtracted from the fee.) The revenue would be used to improve the city's public-transit infrastructure, and the decrease in traffic could contribute up to $13 billion in saved costs to businesses. Even better, once the plan was in place, the city was due to get $500 million from the Department of Transportation. People might not be driving, but the subways and buses would be even better.But when the mayor presented the plan to the state government in Albany, it wasn't met with overwhelming approval. In fact, some people downright hated it, most notably the Democratic Speaker of the State Assembly, Sheldon Silver.It's not surprising that people might not be excited about a plan that makes them pay the government for something they used to do for free. But since congestion pricing is something that most experts agree we need across the country, let's take a look at the groups who opposed the plan in New York, and how they might be cajoled into supporting it in the future.

Low-income drivers:

A major concern of congestion pricing is what it does to the people who need to drive into the city but cannot afford to pay the fee. Though studies have found that in New York City, very few lower-income citizens have cars, low-income drivers from the surrounding areas must still enter the city, for example, to see doctors and visit government offices.SOLUTION: Give a tax credit to lower-income drivers. A proposed plan offers tax incentives to anyone who would have to pay a congestion fee and had a low enough income to qualify for the earned-income tax credit ($36,995 or less in annual income for a three-person family in 2008).

Suburban residents who live near public transit:

People who live in the neighborhoods outside of the congestion zone, but with easy access to public transit-those in outer borough neighborhoods with subway lines and towns in New Jersey and on Long Island-fear that, with congestion pricing, their neighborhoods will become parking lots as commuters drive to the closest subway station, park, and take the train, leaving these neighborhoods as congested as the city was before.SOLUTION: Implement permit parking in neighborhoods near subways. This would prevent commuters' clogging up available parking, and also force drivers to find a different way to access public transportation.

Small businesses outside the city:

Small businesses that have employees who must drive into the congestion zone for work on a daily basis-say, a messenger company making a delivery, or a construction company working on a job-worried that the fee would start cutting into their profits and would force them to subsidize a public-transit system that they do not use.SOLUTION: The solution-perhaps not very satisfying-is in the plan itself. These companies will each be saving a chunk of that $13 billion that businesses will gain from having less congestion. Ideally, the money earned in saved time-making deliveries faster, being able to stay on the job until later in the day-would offset the congestion fee.

Gas stations, car-rental businesses, parking garages, and bus companies:

These kinds of companies gave Silver tens of thousands of dollars while the congestion-pricing plan was up for consideration in Albany. Their fears about the effect of the plan on their business are obvious and well founded.SOLUTION: While buses were given an exemption in the plan (50 people riding on a bus is better than each driving), the rest of these interests may simply be looking at a situation in which their profits are fading, at least in the downtown areas of cities. As we move to a transportation model with fewer cars and more public transit, the economy around cars will need to shrink, innovate, or die.
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