Bobby’s Blue Bombshell: Cuomo’s Congestion Pricing Numbers are ‘Bullshit’

Assembly Member Bobby Carroll. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.
Assembly Member Bobby Carroll. Photo: Clarence Eckerson Jr.

“Let me be blunt. The $15-billion number in the governor’s budget is bullshit.”

Those aren’t the words of a congestion pricing opponent — they’re the words of Assembly Member Bobby Carroll, one of the staunchest supporters of the plan to generate money for transit by tolling drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district.

And they came one day after yet another public display of contempt by many members of the state legislature for Gov. Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, which Cuomo says will raise $1 billion in revenue — which is enough cash to float $15 billion in bonds to fund years of capital improvements. [Recap of the hearing here.]

Congestion. Let's price it away. Photo: Rgoogin/Wikimedia Commons
Congestion. Let’s price it away. Photo: Rgoogin/Wikimedia Commons

Except $15 billion is insufficient, paltry, puny, a drop in the bucket — use any word including Carroll’s barnyard epithet. NYC Transit President Andy Byford’s “Fast Forward” plan to fix the subway and buses has an estimated cost of $40 to $60 billion. And other MTA entities such as Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road also have a laundry list of capital projects.

So $15 billion doesn’t cut it. And that creates a double battle for supporters of congestion pricing: First, they have to convince opponents that tolling drivers is a good thing for transit — and then they have to convince stragglers that even more money is going to be needed, and then entrusted to the MTA, to make real, long-term improvements in public transit that will restore its quality and regain the trust of riders.

Carroll (D-Park Slope) addressed that head on at a press conference on Thursday. His comments are worth reading in full because they address multiple challenges that Cuomo will have in gaining support for congestion pricing — and then raising enough money to really fix the subways and buses, which is ultimately his responsibility. [One caveat: Many experts, including Charles Komanoff, liked what they heard from Cuomo’s budget plan regarding congestion pricing, though agree with Carroll that more money will need to be raised.]:

There’s a lot of hearts and minds that need to be won [in Albany] and I am cognizant of that fact. But let me be blunt: The $15-billion number in the governor’s budget is bullshit. First thing, let’s remember 2015-2019 capital budget. The state still owes the MTA $8 billion. Where is it? In the governor’s budget, he says that congestion pricing won’t start until 2021. That means we will be two years into [the next] capital plan that we already owe $8 billion into that we’re not raising enough revenue for. That capital budget has no estimate yet. Conservatively, it’s $45 billion. This congestion pricing round gets us $15 billion, and then the governor will go to the City of New York and say, “Give me money.” Then there will be a protracted war between the city and state and nothing will get done. The simple fact is that a robust congestion pricing plan that charges $5.76 on all East River crossings and on 60th Street would raise about $1 billion [bondable to $15 billion]. We probably have to raise another billion on top of that. And that’s when we start taling about additional fees on Uber and Lyft, on package deliveries[*], on raising income taxes on millionaires. All of this will be coming from downstate voters. It will be New York City carrying its own weight. This doesn’t have to be a debate about whether Buffalo or Syracuse is paying for it. … We do that, then we actually plan this and upgrade the system. Instead, we’re kicking the can down the road, two or three years, until someone else is governor or mayor and then we go, “Oh, yeah, we never actually did it. We just did a patch job.” We need to have a robust plan that is long-term and fully funded. New York City residents and suburbanites are going to pay for it. Let’s be honest about what it’s going to cost, and that’s $40 million to $60 million. Instead, we keep pretending we’re going to fix it [with less]. It’s absolutely disingenuous. If the governor does not come out with a real proposal, the Senate and Assembly must act. If you’re going to be progressive in New York City in 2019, you have to support funding mass transit because it is the way to make our economy green, to move around people and to keep people safe. If you’re going to be against that, stop calling yourself a progressive.

Carroll would have kept on talking, but reporters needed a break, so someone asked, “Wait a second: What’s ‘bullshit’? The plan or the governor?”

Carroll continued:

The $15-billion number is bullshit. It’s arbitrary. The governor knows it’s arbitrary. It sounds gigantic, but the fact is that it will at best pay for one-third of the upcoming capital budget. Why not come out and say, “Look, we are going to put a robust, direct revenue stream to actually fund our mass transit for a generation to come?” That would be the smart idea. … Otherwise, we’re going to fight about who runs the MTA or who owes what. At the end of the day, we’re all New Yorkers. The number is bullshit and you can quote me on that.

Carroll’s Assembly colleague Jo Anne Simon, who represents a neighboring district in Brooklyn and is also a strong supporter of congestion pricing, added in one more concern: “When you put out a number that’s too low, people start whittling away at that, which is even worse.”

Or money gets diverted to other regional transportation crises … or upstate ski resorts. But remember, the governor’s call to raise $1 billion in revenue from congestion pricing (bondable to $15 billion) could actually raise more, depending on what combination of fees he puts in the final plan, as Komanoff has pointed out.

Council Speaker Corey Johnson left the press conference before Carroll’s remarks, but said he remains optimistic that congestion pricing will pass, which is better than it not passing.

“I am gratified by [Assembly] Speaker Heastie’s longtime leadership and commitment on congestion pricing,” said Johnson, who has called for the city to undertake congestion pricing by itself if the state does not act. “He’s supported it for years, and that portends good things in the Assembly. And in the Senate, we have 17 new members. … I may not agree with everything Gov. Cuomo has put forward on congestion pricing, but he has made it front and center and said, ‘It must happen for the future of the MTA and transit in NYC.’ That’s vital and important. So I still feel optimistic.”

Let the record show, Johnson did not call the governor’s plan “bullshit.” (Neither did State Senator John Liu in an interview with NY1 on Friday. Liu is a congestion pricing skeptic, yet he made some of the same points as Carroll.)

Cuomo’s office hasn’t been commenting much on the congestion pricing debate. Spokesman Patrick Muncie said only, “The goal of congestion pricing is to create a revenue stream that will cover a total of $15 billion for the MTA’s capital budget and limit congestion in Manhattan’s central business district. … The pricing structure will be determined once all variables are analyzed to meet the goals of the plan.”

* Apparently this is going to be a big proposal next week. Look for updates.

This video, What it Means to Be Progressive on Transportation: NYS Assembly’s Robert C. Carroll from STREETFILMS, was filmed after Carroll’s comments at Thursday’s press conference. As such, the speech may not match up to the earlier comments exactly.