Congestion pricing: Even New York's got a problem with that

The failure of an ambitious tolling plan there holds lessons for metro Puget Sound.
Crosscut archive image.

An early toll booth on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The failure of an ambitious tolling plan there holds lessons for metro Puget Sound.

If congestion pricing can't make it there, can it make it anywhere? Despite the lure of a $390 million federal grant, New York has missed the deadline to initiate the nation's most ambitious congestion pricing plan, one modeled on London's and of the kind being studied for future implementation here on Puget Sound.

The proposal, by New York City's independent mayor, Michael Bloomberg, could not get a vote in Albany, where it died on Monday, April 7, largely due to a lack of support from state Democratic lawmakers. This despite the fact that New Yorkers, according to polls, seemed receptive to the proposal. It would have charged $8 per car and $21 per truck for vehicles entering midtown Manhattan (below 60th Street) during peak hours.

The political process in Albany – former governor Eliot Spitzer's prostitution problems aside – isn't pretty. The last-minute lawmaking and wheeling and dealing there has a name: "the Big Ugly."

Democrats reportedly balked for a variety of reasons. One, they didn't want to hand the former Republican Bloomberg a "win" that could come back to bite them politically – why do the ambitious mayor any favors? But the proposal also drew fire from liberal Democrats who worried that road tolls would fall most heavily on the working class. Their bottom line: Congestion pricing is regressive and involves way too much surveillance equipment. The plan would have put much of Manhattan under the spy-cam, just like London. Another factor: New Jersey Democratic Gov. Jim Corzine was opposed to requiring commuters from his state to pay an additional $3 to $4 toll on top of the $8 tolls they already pay to drive into the city. He threatened to sue over the plan.

The decision in New York is also a setback for the Bush administration, which loves the idea of road tolling and has been offering cities the carrot of federal grants if they start new programs. Seattle is slated to get a $139 million grant for tolling state Highway 520, which the Legislature approved last session. Widespread road tolling offers a new source for highway funds and permits conditions favorable for further privatization of public roads. In addition, because it's a user fee, it allows revenues to be raised without calling them taxes.

Indeed, in a visit to Seattle last week, Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters held out a further carrot, suggesting that the appeal of tolling could be enhanced by rolling back--and eventually repealing--the federal gas tax. Upping gas taxes seems generally off the table as a long-term strategy as we enter an era of $4 gas. However, experience suggests that old taxes never die, or fade away.

One problem with congestion pricing is that while it is favored by many policy wonks, the devil is in the details of making it palatable to the public and specific political constituencies. Polling of residents in central Puget Sound suggests a willingness on the part of citizens to pay bridge tolls that fund specific projects, like the tolls on the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge or 520, but more reluctance at the idea of widespread tolling as a revenue raiser. Lawmakers in Washington clearly like the idea of having maximum "flexibility" on how to spend tolling fees. Tim Eyman has zeroed in on this and will be trying to limit what future tolls can pay for with a new initiative.

Focus groups also revealed that people were concerned about the fairness of tolls and whether they put too much of a burden on people who could least afford to pay them. Proponents argue reducing congestion actually helps working people – take for example delivery drivers, building contractors, or gardeners with pick-ups – who waste a good deal of time stuck in traffic.

But researchers also say that ambitious congestion pricing programs, such as the one proposed for New York and already up and running in London, Stockholm, and Singapore, work best in cities that already have effective mass transit. Those who don't want to pay tolls can ride a train. But America's attachment to cars seems stronger – even in transit-rich New York – which suggests that congestion pricing might be an even tougher sell in cities like Seattle where fast public transportation is lacking.

There are also lessons in the politics of congestion pricing from the London experience. Congestion pricing in London is by no means universally popular, despite reduced emissions and congestion. In fact, a plurality of Londoners still opposes it. Nationwide, road pricing schemes have also been set back. Last year, 1.8 million people signed an online petition broadly opposing any national road pricing schemes. Nearly half of Britons polled are against such plans (48 percent opposed, 33 percent in favor). The citizens of Edinburgh soundly scotched a pricing proposal.

Nevertheless, an IPSOS Mori paper [PDF] from last fall, "Road Pricing at the Crossroads," lays out these challenges but also finds hope. They found that support for congestion pricing goes up if the funds are pledged to improving public transit (polling in Puget Sound found the same thing).

Their analysis suggests a way forward. If pricing schemes are "fiscally neutral" (the increased tolls are matched by equal and demonstrable benefits like more buses), if tolls are linked to the size of a vehicles engine or the amount of emissions produced, if tracking systems protect privacy, if plans can be overseen by non-political, independent entities (say, tied to performance audits or measures), and if the government spends a good deal of time educating people about the plans and building up (or restoring) public trust, then road pricing could have a future. In any event, even in England, road pricing can only make progress, they suggest, if the carrots are bigger than the sticks. In New York, $390 million wasn't much of a carrot – it was chump change.

On the other hand, opponents still have plenty of opportunity to frame the debate to their advantage. One common term heard by pricing opponents elsewhere is "toll tax," which both raises the specter of the old unpopular "poll tax" but also gets to the nub of Eyman's worry: that tolling is a back-door way of imposing general taxes and that "tolls" could be used for non-transportation purposes. That is both a temptation and the recommendation of some policy analysts [PDF] who suggest spreading tolling revenues to local municipalities to get them to "buy in." If they want to spend the funds on schools, fine.

In reaction to the decision to kill his New York pricing plan, Bloomberg said, "It takes true leadership and courage to embrace new concepts and ideas and to be willing to try something. Unfortunately, both are lacking in the Assembly today. If that wasn't shameful enough, it takes a special type of cowardice for elected officials to refuse to stand up and vote their conscience."

That may be true, but it also seems unrealistic. Congestion pricing is clearly neither a policy slam dunk nor universally popular, even where it has been implemented. The Ipsos Mori report also notes that pushing congestion pricing – even in Britain, where is already exists – is "fraught with pitfalls and not one for the faint-hearted or risk-averse politician." The fact that it's not ready for prime time in New York should give policy makers in Puget Sound cause for pause, unless, of course, they like political potholes.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.