Whither Congestion Pricing?

Ask the Ghost of Meade Esposito

Photo by Michael Short.

From beyond the grave, Meade Esposito, the capo di tutti capi in New York politics, haunts the backrooms in Albany and hearing rooms in New York where the fate of congestion pricing in the city is being debated. His influence threatens the future of the city’s subway and bus system—and in effect threatens the city’s economy in a global marketplace.

Esposito was the Tammany-style boss of the Brooklyn Democratic machine from the early 1970s through the early 90s. He regularly planted his cronies in the leadership of city and state legislatures and Congressional committees, and got mayors and governors elected. Meade, who died in 1993, narrowly avoided federal prison for payoffs that make the recent Brooklyn machine scandals seem trivial. The corpulent character rarely ventured beyond his Court Street office and a restaurant on Montague Street where he held court at a window table—except to be driven to his clubhouse in Canarsie and his home in Mill Basin.

Perhaps Meade was aware that his constituents used subways and busses, but the people he actually listened to assumed it a divine right to drive where they wished. This included three free East River crossings into Manhattan. By the early 1970s, Esposito’s well-placed minions had derailed grand plans for subway expansion into transit-starved areas of southern Brooklyn to accommodate those who saw subway lines as threats to their racial insularity.

Photo by Michael Short.

Today, Meade’s legacy of protecting motorist privileges at any price can be seen in the unnecessarily costly structure of Mayor Bloomberg’s otherwise crucial initiative to get New Yorkers out of their cars and onto better subways and busses. The complex Manhattan-based charging system, designed to avoid the appearance of bridge tolls, would leave far less revenue for transit than is generally understood—which suits the ghost of Meade just fine.

Congestion pricing born as a Clean Air strategy

Congestion pricing first appeared in New York’s plan to meet the Clean Air Act in 1973, authored by a race car designer enticed by the call to public service of the promising Mayor John Lindsay. The comprehensive plan pioneered road pricing as the most effective way to manage use of limited road capacity and to fund public transit. Under a Clean Air Act mandate, two reform Republicans with visions of the White House, Mayor Lindsay and Governor Nelson Rockefeller, signed off on the 1973 Transportation Control Plan which became federal law and a model for the nation.

The Clean Air plan recognized that Manhattan’s position as an island made its road and rail crossings the chokepoints that defined its entry capacity. The plan also took on saving the subway system, which was collapsing from decades of disinvestment. A key strategy was to reduce traffic on uncontrolled vehicle entry points by tolling the East River bridges at the same level as the Triborough Bridge & Tunnel Authority crossings. In 1974, the venerable chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, Nassau Republican John Caemmerer, sponsored a bill to create an East River Bridge Authority to institute tolls and reap the revenue for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

But in 1974, John Lindsay, preoccupied with his faltering national campaign and an incipient fiscal crisis, retreated on the Clean Air plan, which was under attack by special interests. Meade Esposito capitalized on the disarray to put his protégé, Abe Beame, into the mayor’s office; and he elevated another clubhouse loyalist, John Zuccotti, to Cheney-like power as deputy mayor. With the city in the depth of the fiscal crisis, Zuccotti engineered the “Beame shuffle,” which used MTA capital funds to hold off a fare hike, sealing transit’s downward spiral. The Meade team then prevailed on Brooklyn Congressmember Liz Holtzman and Senator Patrick Moynihan to get rid of bridge tolls, touting that Clean Air goals would be better served by a “guarantee” to save the 50 cents fare and a commitment to bring dilapidated subways to a state of good repair. Local pols drummed up support with images of massive traffic pile-ups and pollution from toll collection, easy to do in pre-E-ZPass days. The bridges were presented as extensions of city streets and their defense an act of Brooklyn patriotism. In 1977, the Moynihan-Holtzman Amendment banned East River bridge tolls altogether.

Tolls have always been about funding transit

New York City’s crumbling transit system in the mid-1970s reflected the malaise of a powerless city on the edge of bankruptcy and polarized over Westway, a $2.2 billion tunnel/land development plan along the Hudson waterfront. The well-heeled pro-highway camp fervently painted the infusion of federal funding as the city’s economic salvation. Grassroots opponents fought, ultimately successfully, to trade the highway for billions of dollars to salvage the sinking subway system.

Photo by Michael Short.

By the early 80s, the fortuitous combination of Westway trade-in funds and a succession of can-do MTA leaders who laid out rebuilding plans and new management systems led to the rebirth of the transit system–which helped reinvigorate the city’s economy. The upsurge in ridership (due, in part, to MetroCard discounts) fostered a public conviction that the fortunes of the two—transit and a booming economy—are inextricably linked. This is the rallying cry behind congestion pricing today.

Seeing the power of pricing for good or ill

The transformative power of road pricing was best seen when in 1986 the strange bedfellows of Staten Island politics got Congress to specify the toll direction on a single U.S. bridge—the Verrazano-Narrows—imposing it one-way, out of town. As the tidal wave of toll-free eastbound Verrazano traffic poured into Brooklyn, crumbling the elevated Gowanus Expressway and forcing BQE traffic into adjacent neighborhoods, civic and political leaders of Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan coalesced around restoration of two-way Verrazano tolls. Savvy critics began to see that it was the free East River bridges that created the great sucking sound that pulled Verrazano drivers (and more from south Brooklyn and points east) through Bay Ridge and Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods. During the latter days of the Koch mayoralty, business leaders of the New York Partnership advanced a detailed bridge toll proposal, but the mayor, with an eye on Albany, had no interest. Another attempt under the more progressive Dinkins administration found no champion in City Hall.

During Giuliani time, the volume of traffic bypassing the tolled Brooklyn Battery Tunnel for the free bridges grew after toll hikes on MTA crossings. Ambitious citizen initiatives to tame it with traffic calming and freight plans ultimately succumbed to City Hall policy that ruled out any attempt to curtail traffic volumes. By the time the current Republican mayor unleashed his Robert Moses-like scale of redevelopment plans, the environmental review process had perfected techniques to negate and evade responsibility for traffic and transit consequences of massive development.

Two long-time road pricing advocates, reaching for the one untouched tool to counter foreseeable citywide gridlock, campaigned to get the government to model the effect of tolling the free bridges. Although the new mayor toyed with the concept, he soon gave in to the Meade mentality. Stymied by reticent officials, habitually terrified of pricing, the two-man team, an economist and a traffic engineer, took on the job themselves and in mid-2003, issued a detailed, but transparent analysis. It demonstrated that tolls on the four free bridges equal to those on the MTA crossings would cut more than 9% of the time that motorists, truckers and bus riders citywide now waste stuck in traffic. Most of the travel time savings would be in Brooklyn and Queens, enjoyed as much by motorists not even using the bridges, due to the ripple effect of faster travel across the boroughs.

Studies by the Regional Plan Association, Environmental Defense with Columbia University, the City’s Independent Budget Office and Schaller Consulting came to similar conclusions about the effect of equalizing bridge tolls on Manhattan. None got much attention. But worsening traffic did. As Brooklyn-wide development boomed, the paralysis of all roads leading to untolled East River crossings was undeniable. The lure of the free bridges was confirmed by city consultants in a 2004 report—notable for its landmark candor—as the cause of nearly half the traffic plaguing downtown Brooklyn, effectively limiting development. By then, widespread use of E-ZPass made old bugaboos about toll plazas irrelevant to Brooklyn homesteaders, fed up with traffic. But timid editors and elected officials remained silent until the summer of 2006, when, after six years of promoting growth at any price, Mayor Bloomberg began to realize that New York’s stature as a world class city would slip away if he didn’t seriously tackle the problem of unfettered traffic growth. With the fervor of a recent convert, Bloomberg seized on congestion pricing as the most reliable remedy.

NYC vs. London

For a model, the mayor could point to London which, in 2003, instituted a £5 ($8) congestion fee on vehicles to enter the city’s core, diverting through-trips around the area and drivers onto public transit, producing the combined effect of reducing traffic on radial roads and in surrounding neighborhoods. An overall 15% reduction in vehicle entries into the core achieved a 30% decrease in travel delays in the charging zone and a 12% reduction of traffic on radial roads. In July 2005, when London doubled the entry fee to £10 ($20) on the remaining hard core drivers, the higher fee produced a modest further reduction to 34%. The cost of collecting and enforcing fees at 230 locations along a single cordon around the center remains about 42% of total revenues—in 2006, this left $250 million in net revenues which the city pledged to specific transit and road improvements.

However, there is a quite glaring difference between the two cities: Manhattan is an island that already has tolls on all but five direct entries to the Central Business District (CBD), historically defined as south of 60th Street river to river. When Deputy Mayor of London Nicole Gabon was asked by an inquiring New Yorker whether London would have charged congestion fees differently if it were an island, she responded: “You have it easy, you have bridges and tunnels. We had to create a cordon.” In London, all entering vehicles (except, obviously, the exempt) felt the full impact of the fee. In New York, a substantial increase in cost would be the case only for those on free bridges or not in taxis or limos from northern Manhattan.

How the Ghost of Meade steals transit dollars today

The Mayor’s congestion pricing brain trust, including purveyors of high-tech traffic detection, saw in London’s on-street charging system a way to make an end-run around what they saw as the lingering Meade mindset regarding bridge tolls. Ignoring the recent comprehensive studies about the effectiveness of various scenarios of tolling the free bridges, the mayoral team proposed a charging system entirely in Manhattan that had a single political benefit.

For years, planners have advocated a London-style cordon, which would run across the 60th Street boundary of the Manhattan Central Business District, river to river, and impose tolls at all river crossings leading to the CBD. Instead, the Mayor’s plan calls for thousands of camera and E-ZPass monitors at hundreds of sites around and within the charging zone. The internal charging stations are intended to charge car trips that begin and end within the zone a fee of $4 per day, and charge trucks $21. When the Deputy Mayor of London was told about charging intrazone fees, she said, “It’s complicated enough with a single cordon. Why would you want to do that?” Whereas London only charges residents of the charging zone a 10% fee on re-entry and trucks the same as cars, the Mayor’s plan banks heavily on intrazone trips for revenues. Without any explanatory data, it’s difficult to discern if the forecasts account for the more than a third of intra-zonal trips that are by taxis or livery vehicles and would be exempt from any fee. Most of all, there is no accounting for the cost of operating a network of multiple charging cordons, which will surely exceed the 42% collection and enforcement cost of London’s single cordon system, possibly adding up to more than half of gross revenues.

The bottom line is that an unnecessarily elaborate congestion charging network will reduce revenues for transit to about $250 million a year. In contrast, installing E-ZPass monitors on the four free bridges and across 60th Street would likely net more than $500 million a year for transit and more reliably garner the desired benefits in reduced congestion and faster commutes. These revenues would increase as MTA tolls increased and could be dedicated to improving transit service, not keeping transit afloat.

Can the need to circumvent Meade Esposito’s legacy be worth the loss of $2.5 billion over a decade in revenues for transit? Or will the fact-finding process over the coming months reveal what makes a pricing system that equalizes tolls on all entries so effective: it benefits motorists with faster travel everywhere; it provides transit riders with the most revenue for transit; and it boosts local economies by freeing up road space for drivers with local destinations.

When will New Yorkers come to see their true self-interest and exorcize Meade’s ghost?

Photo by Michael Short.

Contributor

Carolyn Konheim

Carolyn Konheim, a Brooklyn resident, has been at the forefront of environmental controversies since founding Citizens for Clean Air in the 60s. For years, she and her partner, Brian Ketcham, have provided pro bono technical services to community leaders on transportation and environmental matters (www.communityconsulting.org).

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