By Ben Kallos
New Yorkers get stuck in traffic every day. Car traffic, bus traffic, even somehow subway traffic.
As New York City grows, our city and state have failed to adequately invest in new transportation infrastructure, making it harder and harder for 8.6 million residents, 4.4 million workers and 60.7 million annual visitors to get around.
Congestion pricing offers an opportunity to reverse this decades-long trend, but it will only truly transform the way New Yorkers get around if it is focused on actually reducing the number of vehicles on the road and if the revenues are dedicated to expanding public transportation.
Unfortunately, the conversation around congestion pricing has been dominated by questions of political feasibility, limiting our view of what we can achieve. The leading proposal for several years has focused on Manhattan and its Central Business District, from 60th St. to the southern tip. But anybody who has driven in New York City knows congestion is no longer a single-borough issue, with traffic grinding to a halt daily during rush hour in four out of the five boroughs.
Citywide, MTA buses have been getting slower, with average speeds falling to an embarrassing new low of 7.4 miles per hour during the evening rush. Every day, 4.4 million vehicles travel through New York City, but only 717,000 vehicles travel through Manhattan’s CBD daily. Instead of thinking really big, we’ve spent more than a decade fighting over a small sliver of the problem.
Congestion in New York City is not caused by city residents driving into Manhattan, in part because only 1.4 million New York City households own a car. The picture is clear: The vast majority of vehicles in traffic on any given day are from outside the city.
A toll on all entrances to New York City paired with new development revenue going into a lock box restricted to public transportation could transform public transit outside Manhattan as well as fund commuter buses and rails on Long Island, Westchester and in the Hudson Valley. The improvements would provide a real alternative for suburban drivers otherwise facing new tolls, the same New Yorkers whose reticence has stymied congestion proposals of the past.
The discussion around congestion pricing has evolved from earlier goals of transforming our streets and fighting climate change to today’s single-minded focus on raising money for a failing transit system. There is an understandable urge among some transit advocates to focus only on the plan at hand as a practical way to stop the bleeding at the MTA. Certainly the Manhattan-centric plan is an improvement to the status quo, but it hasn’t changed much in more than a decade, and with minor variations it has been defeated repeatedly.
Now may be the time to try something different. With a fresh look at the evidence we can devise a plan that would more dramatically reduce congestion. Such a plan would:
Toll all entry points to New York City for all vehicles. All 4.4 million drivers — not just 717,000 — would pay a price to enter and drive around on New York City streets, likely getting hundreds of thousands if not over a million vehicles off the city’s crowded streets.
New development must fund public infrastructure. Projects that would bring hundreds or thousands of new residents to a neighborhood should be required to set aside funds at the outset so the transit system can add capacity in time for the project’s completion.
Expand and improve existing transit infrastructure throughout New York City as well as counties on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley to make it easier for commuters to choose public transportation.
High-speed automated tolling. Institute a universal system using now-ubiquitous license plate readers for tolls at all entry points to New York City.
Dynamic pricing could take advantage of electronic tolling to charge vehicles more during rush hours in the mornings and afternoons, while reducing or eliminating charges in the evening to allow residents to come home and to encourage deliveries overnight.
Real accountability is necessary to end the tug-of-war and blame games between state and city officials. New York City Speaker Corey Johnson’s idea for municipal control is a welcome answer here.
A lock box would be created by securing capital against new revenue, as suggested by former Lieutenant Gov. Dick Ravitch. We should borrow to build a transit infrastructure today that is ready for tomorrow when millions of commuters would transition from vehicles to a new and improved public transit system.
The time is now for New York to finally implement congestion pricing. We should take an honest look at our traffic and address the whole problem by expanding the congestion zone to all of New York City. The revenues from such a plan could build a true 21st-century public transit system, so that everyone can actually have a decent commute to and from working in the big city.