OPINION: Gov. Cuomo Is Talking Crazy About Congestion Pricing — But He May Be Crazy Like a Fox

Gov. Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr
Gov. Cuomo. Photo: Governor’s Office/Flickr

Gov. Cuomo said the wrong thing about transit on Wednesday — but he said it for the right reason.

In a chat with Brian Lehrer on WNYC, the governor suggested that congestion pricing must pass so that the MTA would not need to raise transit fares to cover an annual operating budget shortfall this year.

“Either the fares go up or you have congestion pricing,” the governor said. “Pick it. It’s A or B. There is no C. My job as governor is … to force the political system to answer the hard question.”

Advocates were quick to remind the governor that it’s not an either/or. The fare hike is meant to close a $270-million operating budget gap this year so that the MTA does not need to make more service cuts. Congestion pricing is meant to raise $1-plus billion per year so that the MTA can sell $15-billion-plus in bonds to undertake major capital improvements and turn around decades of disinvestment in transit.

The operating budget and the capital budget are not interchangeable.

So Cuomo obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Except that he does. His goal is not to debate the nuances of transit funding. His goal is to get recalcitrant legislators — all those car-addicted, out-of-touch lawmakers — to pass congestion pricing. And the governor obviously believes that his best bet is to demagogue the issue — his speciality! — and present lawmakers with a stark choice:

Fix the subway system by taxing transit riders or taxing drivers, or, more accurately, congestion.

I favor taxing the drivers. And not just because I’m punitive, but because transit riders are already suffering with a system that is falling apart because people like Cuomo have long neglected it while building roads and bridges for motorists.

That’s why the Riders Alliance, a leading transit advocacy group, opposes the fare hike. But the group’s spokesman agreed with me that Cuomo’s demagoguery may have a Machiavellian calculation to it.

“He’s making the argument directly at the politicians: your constituents are using a broken system. They need your help,” said Danny Pearlstein. “The governor is asking them to wake up and realize that eight million people are utterly reliant on a transit system that is broken.”

As Streetsblog found in our fact-finding mission to Albany earlier this month, too many legislators reflexively genuflect to drivers — mostly because their commutes are done in cars. Meanwhile, the vast majority of their constituents take public transit to travel to Manhattan and would therefore benefit from congestion pricing. (And — lest we forget — congestion pricing will also give a huge benefit to drivers by making the roadways clearer.)

“The governor has hit on something important,” Pearlstein added. “There is an invisible majority in every district who are desperate for congestion pricing.”

Nicole Gelinas made a similar point about the political dynamic in Wednesday’s New York Post: “Congestion pricing is economically sound. Manhattan’s streets are crowded; many drivers and Uber riders should be taking mass transportation. Yet subways are also crowded and don’t serve outlying areas. Presto: Charge the drivers and give money to the subways and buses.”

The governor’s either/or strategy is already working — just ask Assembly Member Mathylde Frontus (D-Brooklyn). During her campaign against Ethan Lustig-Elgrably this fall, she opposed congestion pricing. But now, she’s come around it because she sees the choice in the over-simplistic manner in which Cuomo framed it on Wednesday.

“My position has evolved,” she told Streetsblog. “Congestion pricing is a viable option which should be seriously considered as a means to raise critical funding for the MTA. I don’t want to see the fares raised for the MTA. It would be a burden on low-income and working families.”

Other politicians will no doubt start saying the same thing soon.

So maybe Cuomo’s comment to Lehrer sounded stupid. But if gets congestion pricing passed, he’s going to look very smart.