New York CIty Council Member Ben Kallos

New York Daily News How to set up a fair congestion pricing program by Ben Kallos

How to set up a fair congestion pricing program

New York City desperately needs relief from congestion, but the current “congestion pricing” plan was never intended to do that. It was a thinly veiled tax on low-income workers who must still show up in person to raise funds for a mass transit system crumbling under the weight of its own corruption and bureaucracy. Now is the time for a better plan that will actually reduce congestion.

The proposal that Gov. Hochul wisely pulled was far too greedy, extorting $15 a day from low-wage workers living in transit deserts who must still commute into the city. The plan was nonsensical tolling people for traveling less than 100 feet on a street in Manhattan.

It also failed to address congestion outside Manhattan below 60th St. Too many details were left for a dysfunctional MTA, which put out a plan that even the most progressive of politicians had to hold their nose and support as better than nothing.

In 2019 I advocated in the Daily News for a bigger, better, bolder plan that would actually address congestion throughout our city. Five years later, some of the proposals have already been implemented such as “high-speed automated tolling,” and updated for the times might be worth considering.

Toll all entry points to New York City for all vehicles. Instead of putting exorbitant tolls on 700,000 vehicles entering the central business district, put more modest tolls on all 4.4 million drivers entering the city each day, to relieve congestion in all five boroughs, neighboring Nassau and Westchester counties, and New Jersey.

Expand public infrastructure today with toll increases tied to milestones. The biggest problem with the current plan is that many commuters were faced with the choice of losing $3,600 a year or doubling their commutes from 40-minutes each way, to an hour and a half. That’s more than 3 hours a day waiting for and sitting stuck on public transit. Taking 15 hours a week from low-wage workers is a lot. Just the income taxes lost are far more than would be collected in tolls.

Instead, congestion pricing must be implemented modestly at first, with funds used to expand and improve service for NJTransit, Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North. We could even invest in high-speed rail that could expand economic opportunity for upstate New York by reducing travel time from Poughkeepsie from 90 minutes to less than 30 minutes. As new infrastructure comes online and public transit commuting times get faster, tolls could increase to encourage ridership and fund new improvements in a virtuous cycle.

Dynamic Pricing Tied to Time and Vehicle Registrations. The plan failed to use dynamic pricing in a way that could actually reduce congestion during peak times. Anyone coming into the city between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m. should not pay peak rates, they aren’t contributing to congestion. Charging a peak rate from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. would only devastate nightlife in our city, which is still in recovery.

We also now have the power to use tolls like a scalpel, with the ability to toll people within a certain distance of the border or coming from transit deserts less while tolling those coming from transit rich areas more. If this or any plan were actually about the environment, there is no reason to wait on adopting London’s ultra-low emissions toll which charges more for vehicles that pollute.

Reduce Out of Control Spending at the MTA with Lock Box Protections from Politicians. Lost in the pleas to fund the MTA are the billions in waste from corruption and bureaucracy that makes it 10 times more expensive to build transit infrastructure here than anywhere else in the world. We cannot continue to pay $4.6 billion per mile of subway in New York City while Paris pays $250 million.

Fixing runaway costs should be priorities 1, 2, and 3, even if it means dissolving the MTA and starting over. With the history of bait and switch from politicians who are tempted to steal money in each budget cycle, we must create a lock box by securing capital to fund new infrastructure projects against this new revenue source, as originally proposed by former Lt. Gov. Dick Ravitch.

Rather than continue to fight over a deeply flawed plan, let’s bring New Jersey, Long Island and points north of the city to the table. We can start from these proposals and work together on real improvements that will make public transit faster than taking the car, expand economic opportunity, reduce vehicles on the road, and save our planet.

Kallos represented the Upper East Side on the City Council from 2014 to 2021.

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