Not Your Father’s Traffic Pricing Proposal
Despite growing support for the Move NY Fair Plan [Deputy Leader and former Chair of the Transportation Committee, Council Member James Vacca (13th District, Bronx) and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA are the latest to endorse Move NY], two Queens politicians – Senator Avella and Assemblyman Miller – denounced the plan last week as bad for hardworking New Yorkers and for small businesses. They mistakenly equated it to Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing scheme from 2008, portraying it as just another tax.
In actuality, Move NY isn’t simply a new fee on top of existing ones. It instead proposes a toll swap that would offset new proposed charges on the East River bridges with lower ones on the MTA crossings. In Queens alone, motorists would enjoy reduced costs on four of the five East River crossings – a key for truckers and their business owners who pay dearly to use the Throgs Neck and Bronx-Whitestone Bridges when heading to markets. In addition, under the Move NY Fair Plan, commercial vehicles only pay one round-trip fare per day when crossing into Manhattan’s Central Business District.
Move NY is more than just a traffic-pricing plan, however, as it offers a host of improvements critical to the continued viability of the region’s transportation network. Our transit systems, roads, and bridges are the foundation of the area’s livelihood and economic prosperity, but they are deteriorating due to systemic neglect.
The status quo, in which no one stands up for a lasting funding mechanism, is too expensive and no longer sustainable. It is the real tax, as borne out by an incessant drumbeat of bad news highlighting the price we pay when transportation is starved for funds. Consider the following announcements from the last two weeks alone:
- Breathing the region’s air can literally be deadly. That nugget from an NYU Langone Medical Center study that found a direct link between air pollution and the odds of stroke. The correlation is highest in the most polluted zip codes, which include the neighborhoods around the heavily trafficked free East River Bridges.
- Walking the streets of New York can be just as fatal, according to a report from the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Several city arteries were among the leaders for pedestrian deaths in the 2011-2013 period.
- Subway delays were up 45% in 2014 compared to 2013, at a staggering 43,339 per month vs. 29,774. This announcement by the MTA came just ahead of another round of fare increases taking effect on March 22nd.
The Real Problem
The true culprit is not the declining state of our transportation network. That’s merely a symptom. The fundamental issue is the irrational funding and pricing scheme for mass transit and the roads and bridges.
The MTA is chronically underfunded. In the last twenty years, its primary means to fund investment in its capital system has been borrowing on top of borrowing, which has driven the cost of debt service to 17 cents for every dollar it spends. The service cuts, fare increases, and deteriorating service quality are all predictable byproducts of such reliance on fare-backed bonds.
The rising cost of debt is also why the MTA continues to pump up the tolls on its bridges and tunnels. MTA Bridges & Tunnels is what currently sustains the transit and commuter rail networks, the surplus toll revenue used to fund both their operating and capital programs.
In turn, massive amounts of vehicular traffic “bridge shop,” choosing the city-run East River Bridges in disproportionate volumes because they’re free. But as the shop-worn adage goes, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Roads, bridges, bike lanes, even the air that we breathe are scarce commodities that impose some type of toll – even if not monetary – when we use them.
Vehicle-pedestrian crashes are so prevalent in the areas around the East River Bridges that they are nothing more than a blur on the above “heat map.” As the NYU study shows, residents of the same neighborhoods are at higher risk of stroke because of the pollutants spewed out by the stream of “bridge shoppers,” particularly heavy-duty trucks that leave highways built for them to avoid high tolls and instead traverse (and idle in traffic) our city neighborhoods and streets. Small business owners can recognize that sending their drivers over the currently non-tolled bridges may appear cheap, but that there is a very real economic cost of being stuck in traffic: motorists lose $2.2 billion annually in time spent in traffic.
Progress, But More Needed
To their credit, Governor Cuomo and Mayor De Blasio are using their bully pulpits to push programs that will help. Mayor De Blasio has made “Vision Zero” a centerpiece of his mayoralty and has enacted landmark policy changes in support, most prominently reducing the speed limit to 25 mph most everywhere. The drop – 5 mph from the prior 30-mph standard – may seem modest, but it actually can be a dramatic lifesaver. A pedestrian is 74% more likely to survive when hit by a car going 25 mph than one traveling 30 mph, according to a 2011 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Enforcement.
The Mayor also mapped out significant transit improvements for outer borough residents in his State of the City Address. He has committed to five-borough ferry service, with the cost to ride set at the subway fare, and has pledged to bring the number of Select Bus Service (SBS) routes to 20 from 7. When the full network is in place, it will do more than just improve mobility and economic opportunities for the constituencies served. As experienced on the existing corridors, SBS improves the streetscape for all users, making conditions safer for pedestrians and bicyclists alike, as well as motorists.
Governor Cuomo is putting his muscle behind bringing Metro-North service to Penn Station. The initiative, Penn Station Access, will start with connectivity for the New Haven Line. Aside from direct access for riders north of the city, the spur would open four new stations in the East Bronx, an area ill served by the MTA network.
However, when these programs are tallied up, they fall well short of what the downstate market needs. Without a seismic shift in transportation financing, reversing the troubling trends could be a Sisyphean exercise in futility.
The MTA’s next five-year plan is only a bit more than half funded, with just $17 billion identified so far. In the coming weeks and months, we need our leaders to make the hard decisions necessary to close the $15 billion gap.
New York City’s share of the Capital Program has held steady at the same $100 million per year it first contributed in 1982. That slice would have been $360 million in 2014 ($1.8 billion over 5 years) if it had grown at the rate of inflation, as estimated by the Independent Budget Office (IBO). The city is actually seriously weighing slashing its subsidy by 60%, to a mere $40 million annually.
New York State proposes to contribute a total of $750 million to the program. By contrast, Albany provided an average of $240 million per year during the first two MTA Capital Programs, according to a 1997 report by the PCAC. Based on the IBO’s calculations, that equates to $871 million annually in 2014 dollars or $4.4 billion over the 2015-2019 period.
The standard fallback option – more borrowing backed by fares – is not feasible. As NYS Comptroller di Napoli warned in October of last year, for every $1 billion of debt the MTA takes on, a 1% fare and toll hike is imposed on the transit rider and driver. With a $15 billion budget gap, we could see a 15% increase in fares and tolls on top of the already planned 4% increases. This is simply too heavy a load to bear for New Yorkers.
Move NY: The Answer
Fortunately, there is a solution that will go a long way toward redressing the region’s transportation woes. The Move NY Fair Plan would rationalize traffic pricing by charging drivers their proper share for traveling through the area. It would lower tolls on the MTA river crossings, place a modest fee on the city-run bridges, and proposes implementing time-of-day pricing to divert some trips to less congested times.
Contrary to naysayers, Move NY is actually a money saver, not just another levy on the hard working New Yorkers and small business owners. The plan would reduce daily motor vehicle trips by 18% or 100,000 vehicles, which will speed trip times by up to 15-20% in the Central Business District and save drivers 40 million hours per year. For commercial vehicles, less congested streets will allow 3-4 more service calls and/or deliveries per day under the Move NY Fair Plan. In monetary terms, this is equal to $2.2 billion annually; these are real gains that will lower the costs of living, working, and doing business in the city. The productivity that truckers, and by extension business owners, lose while idling in gridlock is the true tax. For a full analysis, read HR&A’s report, Economic and Fiscal Impact Analysis of the Move New York Plan.
Fewer vehicles mean a reduction in air pollution and crashes that take on average the lives of 171 pedestrians and cyclists each year. The neighborhoods surrounding the East River Bridges – Chinatown, northwest Brooklyn, and Long Island City – stand to reap the most benefits.
Lastly, but as critically, the Move NY Plan would stabilize the region’s transportation finances by creating a sustainable revenue stream. Some $375 million per year would be dedicated to fixing the area’s roads and bridges, as well as sustaining their upkeep. Every driver has their own war story of navigating the poorly maintained area roadways.
When bonded, the funds would completely cover the $15 billion gap in the MTA’s 2015-2019 Capital Program. This would enable system investments fundamental to drawing commuters from cars and making mass transit a viable and attractive option for working communities in the city’s outer reaches. Key enhancements include:
- Expanded and enhanced bus service
- Discounted fares on the faster commuter rails and express buses
- Metro-North service in cut-off areas of the East Bronx
- A full-length Second Avenue Subway that would connect to the F line for Queens riders
A winning formula is tantalizingly within our grasp. But this opportunity can be as easily lost as gained if the doomsday message is the only one heard. Make your voice count. Separate the fact from the fiction and let your leaders know that Move NY is the cure the region needs.