OPINION: The Real ‘Cash Grab’ Isn’t Congestion Pricing — It’s Car Culture

It pays to remember who profits as complainants line up on central business district tolling.

Here's the real cash grab — for everyone, not just drivers.
Here's the real cash grab — for everyone, not just drivers.

Opponents of congestion pricing have been out in full force — testifying for hours at the MTA hearings that central business district tolling amounts to a “cash grab” that would disproportionately hit the middle- and lower-classes who drive, including people on fixed incomes.

Nicole A. Murray
Nicole A. Murray

It’s true that a small group would be hurt: Even if only 1 percent of the 700,000 or so drivers entering the CBD daily are low- or middle-income, that’s 7,000 real people who must cut into tight budgets while wages and benefits stagnate behind inflation. The congestion pricing hearings reminded me that it’s nearly impossible to convince working people that it’s good to pay more for their transportation, even if the benefits of doing so — less traffic and better public transit — would be felt by all.

But all the complaining misses the real “cash grab”: the silent hands that the automotive and subsidiary industries have in our pockets — all of our pockets — every day. That “highway robbery” gobbles up far more hard-earned dollars than the MTA ever could — with almost none of it benefiting the public. Instead, that cash flows into a handful of private corporations and the pockets of their owners and shareholders, who would be happy to see public transportation die if it meant more consumer spending on cars, petroleum and related products.

Yet there are no hours-long public hearings putting oil, auto, or insurance executives on trial for squeezing the working class, cannibalizing public transportation, encouraging sprawl or fouling the air. There is no public agency to write to, no mid-level bureaucrat to berate, no PowerPoint presentation to dissect or pricing scheme to debate publicly. When layers of middlemen from a hundred different corporations make decisions for us in faraway board rooms, we become conditioned to accept fees, environmental degradation and hidden taxes as their cost of doing business.

Gas companies deliberately inflicted the “pain at the pump” that car owners have experienced recently. Chevron, ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips, and seven other U.S. oil companies earned $43 billion in pretax profits in 2021. These windfall profits have not “trickled down” to consumers: gas prices are the highest they’ve been in decades, yet oil companies aren’t increasing supply. Instead, they’re blaming Wall Street: In a March 2022 Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas survey of oil executives, almost 60 percent cited “investor pressure to maintain capital discipline” as the primary reason they aren’t producing more gas; only 11 percent cited environmental, social and governance issues.

Nor are the oil companies’ profits taxed at anything like a fair rate. The entire 2021 state and federal tax bill of the top-10 oil companies — about $3 billion  — would barely cover two or three months of MTA’s operating expenses.

Meanwhile, however, owing to the political pressure of the motorists’ lobby, Gov. Hochul has suspended the gas tax for the past seven months, at a cost of $585 million to the state’s coffers — the same sum that congestion pricing could generate for the MTA in the same time period.

Even infrequent and electric-car drivers get soaked by car companies. America’s collective auto-loan debt is seven times higher than its medical debt — about $1.4 trillion versus $195 billion. In New York, banks may not charge more than 16 percent interest on a loan. But about 80 percent of car buyers get their loans, re-packaged as “retail installment sales contracts,” directly through the dealership. RICs conveniently are exempted from state usury laws. In 2018, Jalopnik found that of 3,000 RICs opened that year in New York, 57 percent had rates that would have violated usury laws had banks issued them. Efforts to legislate away this predatory practice have stalled.

Finally, insurance companies must get their cut. New York City metro-area drivers pay some of the highest car-insurance rates in the country, usually more than $3,000 a year. It’s not an especially burdensome expense compared to gas and debt repayment, but it’s another bucket of money that isn’t going to the public. And good luck with the paltry payouts should you get hit by a car driver.

I’ve experienced firsthand the true costs and burdens of car ownership — and the freedom public transportation can bring.

I grew up in the suburbs sharing an old beater with several family members. Few destinations were in walking or biking distance; my independence was tied to the car. Because of maintenance, gas, and two minor crashes that cost thousands in repairs and higher insurance rates, the car drained our family financially and emotionally during my teens and early adulthood. After graduating from college, I needed more self-sufficiency and better access to job opportunities than car sharing could provide. Instead of going into debt for my own vehicle, I moved to New York City — where I knew I could rely on public transportation. I bought a monthly Metrocard on my first day and found work in no time.

I took the 7 train from Queens to midtown five nights a week for a year to my first good-paying job: as a receptionist at a Manhattan hotel. It was unionized, which meant excellent wages, but it also meant I was bottom-of-the-rung and had to work the night shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. There were always dozens of people on the platform, the same faces going to and from work day after day. I felt safe as a 23-year-old woman using public transportation at night.

More than a decade later, I work from home. Yet the ability to escape the crushing burden of car dependency and join millions of others on this public service changed the course of my life.

Public transportation gives people not only freedom from the ravages of the for-profit auto industry, but also a voice in how it’s done.

That’s priceless.

Nicole A. Murray (@nicoleamurray) is a member of the Ecosocialist Working Group of NYC-Democratic Socialists of America.