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Thoughts on congestion pricing exemptions and the reaction from New Jersey

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New Jersey politicians are arguing for exemptions to congestion pricing, a call that should be resisted by the Traffic Mobility Review Board. (Photo via flickr user Elvert Barnes)

In the week following Albany’s approval of congestion pricing, I wrote a piece for Curbed New York warning against an exemption-laden plan. The argument is a simple one: Small carve-outs can have a big impact on the effectiveness of both the revenue generation and traffic reduction pieces of congestion pricing, and the Traffic Mobility Review Board tasked with formulating the fees and structure of the plan should resist the political pressure and lobbying over fee exemptions as it works to formulate a plan throughout the next eighteen months.

Already, we’re seeing this lobbying unfold in predictable ways. Unions representing police officers have laughably called for a blanket exemption for all personal vehicles of any NYPD personnel stationed within the congestion pricing zone. Considering cops are the biggest offenders and non-enforcers of NYC’s traffic and parking laws, this demand hardly comes as a surprise, but it should be resisted at every turn. We’ve also seen New York politicians undercut the goals of congestion pricing by securing legislatively-mandated toll rebates for certain constitutions, and I’ll come back to that shortly. I instead want to focus on the reaction from New Jersey and how it underscores the way in which local politicians treat transit riders as second class citizens even when they far outnumber drivers.

What New Jersey Wants

New Jersey leaders have been making noises about congestion pricing for the past three weeks. We first heard Gov. Phil Murphy complaint reported by The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. The Garden State governor is worried — worried! — that congestion pricing will cause New Jersey commuters to abandon their cars and use transit (which is of course the point), and he’s also worried congestion pricing will make traffic worse. “The solution cannot be one with the unintended consequences of making traffic worse and increasing reliance on the regional rail partners without their receiving additional support,” he said a few weeks ago.

At first, Murphy’s comments seemed to strike the right balance between concern for an overburdened and underfunded New Jersey transit network, but in recent days, he and other New Jersey politicians have shifted their focus back to drivers. In an eye-opening piece in The Times, Emma Fitzsimmons took a deep dive into these complaints and the “revenge” politicians in New Jersey want to enact on New Yorkers:

The mayor of Jersey City suggested that New Jerseyans should toll New Yorkers entering their state. A congressman is calling for federal legislation to guarantee that drivers — who already pay tolls to cross between the states — are not charged twice. Others believe a lawsuit could be filed to stop the tolls. “We are a little confounded about why suddenly New York would turn around and take a two-by-four to New Jersey,” said Representative Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat who represents a slice of New Jersey suburbs near Manhattan and plans to introduce a bill he hopes will pressure New York to give his state’s drivers a break.

Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said he would fight any effort to double toll drivers using the George Washington Bridge, the world’s busiest span. “I won’t stand for it,” he told reporters, though he stopped short of summoning what he called a full “Jersey attitude” like other leaders seeking payback…

Drivers already pay as much as $15 to use the Lincoln and Holland tunnels or the George Washington Bridge to enter Manhattan. Some might switch to New Jersey Transit, the state’s commuter railroad and bus network. But the system is often no more reliable than the subway and also suffers from years of neglect. For that reason, some New Jersey leaders, including Loretta Weinberg, the Senate majority leader, argue that it would only be fair for New Jersey Transit to get a cut of the revenue from congestion pricing…

[Gottenheimer] plans to introduce a bill this week that could cut federal funding to New York or the transportation authority if New Jersey drivers are forced to pay two tolls for one trip into Manhattan. “I don’t look at it as retaliation,” Mr. Gottheimer said. “I look at it as encouraging continued cooperation.”

Fitzsimmons also tracked down some New Jersey-based Facebook commenters who have “threatened” not to drive into New York City any longer (which is, of course, the point). In a way, it’s quite the tempter tantrum from our neighbors to the west, but it also underscores how politicians view their constituents primarily as drivers and then secondarily, if that, as transit riders. In each case, these politicians object to an additional fee being levied on drivers and seem to focus on transit investment as an after-thought. That’s not the right way to look at things.

Each year, the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council releases a hub-bound travel report, counting the number of people who enter New York City’s Central Business District and breaking it down by modality. This is convenient for us now because it overlaps 1:1 with the congestion pricing zone. Here are the latest numbers from 2017, and you’ll see that far more people from New Jersey rely on transit to reach Manhattan than on cars. The columns are, from left to right, “Entering,” “Leaving” and “Total.”

Considering these numbers, why are New Jersey politicians being so blind to the benefits of congestion pricing? By limiting the number of cars that enter Manhattan, the hundreds of thousands of New Jersey residents who rely on buses will have shorter trips into the city, and the surrounding communities will see less pollution due to fewer cars, say, on the Lincoln Tunnel helix or jammed throughout the streets of Weehawken. Plus, most of these New Jersey residents then have to use New York City’s streets and its transit network once they arrive in Manhattan, and these commuters and visitors will continue to enjoy the benefits of increased New York City transit funding and fewer cars on city streets. These people count, and they are more of them. New Jersey politicians would do well to remember that as they fight against a rational congestion pricing.

What New Jersey Can Do

Ultimately, New York City does not exist as a place for New Jersey drivers to have unfettered free access to limited city streets. New York City and New York State can determine its own transportation and transit future, and if drivers form Missouri have to pay, so too must drivers from New Jersey who make the choice to drive into Manhattan. But that doesn’t mean New Jersey can’t do anything.

I’m somewhat sympathetic to the claim that New Jersey’s own transit system may not be able to handle increased passenger loads due to mode shift following implementation of congestion pricing in early 2021, but that’s also a good 20 or 21 months away. New Jersey has plenty of time to get its house in order. It can reconfigure lanes heading into the Lincoln Tunnel to ensure buses have more space and priority. It can also begin the process of building out its PATH service and tackling the problems with New Jersey Transit. But it must focus on bolstering transit and not being overly protective of drivers.

For years, regional transit wonks have tried to raise alarms over New Jersey’s approach to spending transportation dollars. When governor, Chris Christie shifted millions away from rail and New Jersey Transit to widen the turnpike and engage in other road-related work. It’s not New York’s responsibility now to fund New Jersey’s transit deficits, and if the Garden State politicians are concerned about capacity and reliability constraints, they need to start working on these issues today while congestion pricing is in the planning stages. Ultimately, if NJ Transit fails to meet demand in a post-congestion pricing world, that blame will fall squarely on the shoulders of politicians who aren’t listening when there’s still time to act. Threatening federal action or imposing higher user fees on New Jersey roads as revenge seems laughable, but at the least the latter could be a rational step toward funding New York’s transit investments.

Unfortunately, our own governor seems amenable to negotiating with New Jersey on some limits on the impact of the fee, and New Jersey’s State Senate President Steve Sweeney appeared to back that up in a statement. “After conferring with Governor Cuomo on the MTA’s efforts to implement Manhattan’s central business district tolling, I am confident that we will have a voice in the process that will allow us to protect the interests of New Jersey’s motorists. We will work in a coordinated way with the MTA, New York State, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and with other jurisdictions to develop a fair tolling system,” he said.

Whether it’s an elimination of a potential double-tolling scenario for drivers using the George Washington Bridge and heading south or a waiver related to tunnel usage, exemptions should be resisted. If New Jersey drivers want to use New York City streets, they can pay to do so. That is, after all, the entire point of congestion pricing.

It’s Not Just New Jersey

While New Jersey is raising the biggest stink right now, they’re not the only ones making moves to limit the impact of traffic-reduction fees. Assembly rep. Jeffrey Dinowitz announced a full rebate of all Henry Hudson Bridge tolls for any Bronx resident regardless of whether the final destination is within the congestion pricing zone or not. This is a mistake, and it’s designed to encourage more driving at a time when New York City needs to limit auto usage for both environmental and productivity reasons. Certain Queens drivers are getting toll breaks as well, and politicians are pushing for exemptions for motorcycles, so-called “green” cars, Staten Island drivers and Queens residents (as I explored in my Curbed piece).

Congestion pricing and crafting the proper plan was always going to devolve into a tough political fight, and we’re seeing the contours of it take shape. It would serve politicians well to remember that even if a few people have to pay the fee, the benefits — and the number of people who enjoy those benefits — far outweigh this new cost. As the climate changes around us, we don’t have time as a society to waste arguing over the edges of a congestion pricing fee, and as a city stuck in a transportation rut, we need to clear streets of cars and repurpose them for a higher and better use while funding transit. That’s what congestion pricing does, and exemptions should be resisted.





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