Electeds Still Need to Hear From Pricing Supporters

After nearly a year of personally advocating for congestion pricing, I shared my fellow Streetsbloggers’ frustration as the current round ended not with a decisive vote, but with the clock running out on a federal funding deadline. As this great New York political battle fades into memory, I hope future historians will not remember this as a Bloomberg second-term failure along the lines of the West Side stadium fight with Speaker Silver and Assembly Democrats. Rather, I hope they recognize this as a case of Albany legislative dysfunction undermining pretty much all of the major civic, environmental, transportation and labor organizations. In fact, organizations like Transportation Alternatives, Partnership for NYC and Citizens for NYC lead this initiative from the beginning and got the mayor to sign on last year as part of PlaNYC.

This was round one and we lost, but pricing opponents may have won a Pyrrhic victory. They will find that they will ultimately have very few people thanking them and a whole load of people continuing to complain about fare increases, service cuts and high levels of congestion in their neighborhoods.

The ball is now firmly in the court of Silver, Brodsky and Weprin, et al. They and the entire Legislature will have to answer for this once the MTA has to revise its capital plan. They will need to convince us as to how they will remedy likely budget shortfalls. And if Bloomberg continues to act on initiatives within the city’s purview — ending placard abuse, market rate pricing for parking, better bus lanes, more protected bike lanes, etc. — he can still create a lasting legacy as a bold leader on sustainability issues.

I encourage all of you who feel discouraged to channel some of that into reminding electeds of what we expect from them. Here is a letter I sent to all my representatives immediately after pricing’s defeat.

This is a sad day for environmentalists, transit advocates and anyone concerned about the long term sustainability of our great city. Congestion Pricing, after much debate, analysis and even significant refinement by the state legislature, deserved an up or down vote from our legislators.

This is also the day that I lost faith in Albany as a democratic institution that can be held accountable to the two-thirds of New Yorkers that support congestion pricing. So now – it’s up to you to fill the $17 billion MTA Capital Plan. No Excuses – how exactly are you going to work toward that? Where exactly will the money come from? How will people be encouraged to take mass transit if they can drive for free but it costs $2 and rising to take the subway?

The environmental movement is changing and evolving. I hope you evolve your thinking will along with us. Part of the disconnect I felt during the congestion pricing debate is that environmental policy is not as rooted in the traditional class and identity politics that the New York Democratic Party still seems overly locked into (and believe me, I’m a lifelong Democrat from a union household and care deeply about equity issues). While I’m all for a progressive income tax structure, there are limits to taxing good behavior (like working and contributing to society) and much more opportunity for the tax structure to discourage actions that harm the environment (like driving into congested areas when a transit alternative exists or wasting water/energy).
For instance, a millionaire tax dedicated to mass transit is frankly not a very creative idea and does not really attack the root of a problem, which is too many people driving into a congested area, causing health problems, pollution and economic losses. I hope you’ll keep an open mind about using market mechanisms like user fees for roads/bridges, gas taxes, higher parking meter fees to advance the goals of environmental protection to fund automobile alternatives like mass transit, cycling infrastructure and more pedestrian friendly streetscapes. 
Environmentalists are looking for our elected officials to not just merely represent a jumbled set of constituent desires, but to stand on principle for protecting the environment against often narrow, short-sighted and frankly extremely selfish desires. Sometimes that might mean that you need to explain to your constituents why you disagree with them, encourage them to think of the greater good and point out to them what they stand to benefit if lots of people behave in more environmentally friendly ways in their neighborhood. In the end, I think your constituents will respect you more for having core beliefs and explaining your position on issues based on your principles.
Glenn McAnanama
President, Upper Green Side

It’s still a good time to write something to your elected officials and tell them how you feel. Another great next step is to give money to the NYLCV’s Climate PAC, Transportation Alternatives and other city and neighborhood organizations that supported congestion pricing. Finally, stay in touch with your electeds, get to know their staff members, get active in campaigns for candidates you believe in, and go to community board meetings.

This is not over.