KOMANOFF: An Open Letter on Congestion Pricing to Wavering Pols (And You, Gale)

Dear Gale...
Dear Gale...

This post began as an email to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer nearly two weeks ago. Neither it, nor Komanoff’s follow-up, elicited a response. We are releasing it today, one day after President Biden toured climate-ravaged parts of Queens and New Jersey, to underscore the need for federal, state and local officials to expedite congestion pricing, not equivocate over it. This version has been embellished slightly into the “open letter” below:

Charles Komanoff
Charles Komanoff

Dear Gale,

I write to express concern that your Aug. 24 letter to Gov. Hochul regarding congestion pricing is too equivocal, at a time when New York City’s multiple crises of traffic congestion and mayhem, inadequate bus and subway service, and health-destroying emissions cry out for full-throated support to expedite implementation of this gridlock-busting, transit-enhancing, pollution-reducing policy that the legislature authorized nearly two-and-a-half years ago.

In your letter, you call Manhattan “the borough which will experience the most immediate impact” from congestion pricing, without noting that those impacts will be overwhelmingly positive, in the form of lower traffic volumes (especially lesser through-traffic across lower Manhattan between Brooklyn and New Jersey), and faster, safer and more dependable transit service financed by the congestion revenues.

I’m sure that as borough president you’re concerned about Manhattan’s toll “incidence.” Please note that if we exclude the MTA for-hire vehicle surcharges that took effect in early 2019, which do impinge most heavily on Manhattanites, we find that Manhattan residents will be on the hook for just 8 percent of motorists’ prospective congestion tolls. That share is less than that of motorists from Queens (20 percent), Brooklyn (15 percent) and the Bronx (12 percent), and no more than those living in Nassau County (also 8 percent).

Mayor de Blasio, seen here giving the gas face to a 16-month environmental review for congestion pricing. Photo: Mayor's office via YouTube
Mayor de Blasio, seen here giving the gas face to a 16-month environmental review for congestion pricing. Photo: Mayor’s office via YouTube

(To be sure, I generally combine motorist tolls and FHV surcharges when I talk about congestion pricing incidence. Doing so lets me emphasize that Manhattanites will pay more than any other borough, which is useful for  countering the aggrievement of “outer borough” residents and their elected officials. But since the FHV surcharges are a fait accompli, I feel it’s fair to decouple them, as I’ve done here.)

I also question why you advised Gov. Hochul that “there are a litany of outstanding questions” about congestion pricing which the not-yet-named Traffic Mobility Review Board “must weigh in on.” Rather than a litany, there are just this half-a-dozen:

  1. What combination of peak and off-peak tolls are best suited to generate the $1 billion a year of net new revenue stipulated in the 2019 enabling legislation?
  2. How should truck tolls be “graduated” to ensure that “tradespeople with van” aren’t unfairly burdened?
  3. Does the apparent additional efficiency and equity of two-way tolling (at half-price) offset its added cost and complexity vs. one-way tolling?
  4. Should Lincoln and Holland Tunnel trips be congestion-tolled on top of their ongoing Port Authority tolls?
  5. Should taxicab and Uber/Lyft rides into and out of the congestion zone be tolled on top of the FHV surcharges?
  6. What exemptions should be added to those in the legislature’s enabling legislation?

(The short answers are: 1: $13 peak round-trip, $4 off-peak round trip; 2: by axle, per the MTA’s bridge and tunnel tolls for trucks; 3: Yes; 4: No; 5: No; 6: None. Happy to elaborate.)

Why do I seek to steer you away from complicating and “problematizing” congestion pricing? It’s simple: my and others’ experience observing congestion pricing discourse shows that an emphasis on complexity is far more likely to undermine congestion pricing rather than to further it.

Stockholm congestion pricing guru Jonas Eliasson has spoken repeatedly of congestion pricing’s “valley of political death” — the interval between proposing the tolls and putting them in place. During that time, the drawbacks loom large, while the benefits aren’t yet palpable. Keeping congestion pricing stuck in that valley for no good reason will drain political viability from it, perhaps past the point of no return.

I call upon you, as Manhattan borough president and, soon (and once again) a leader in the city council, to accentuate the benefits, value and need for congestion pricing, rather than point unnecessarily to uncertainties and intricacies. Failure to be completely clear and to insist on getting the congestion tolls in place as soon as possible runs a real risk of foregoing congestion pricing’s immense benefits, at the very time that New Yorkers need them the most.

Charles signature _ 8 Sept 2021-1




The MTA’s congestion pricing public hearings begin on Sept. 23 and will continue for two weeks. For a full schedule, or to sign up to testify, click here.