NYC may take another whack at curbing traffic with fees, which have proved politically challenging. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

Here’s how a governor-backed plan could win this time around.

For the first time in years, congestion pricing might have real political traction in an American city.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has come out in support of the idea as a solution for New York City, with its thickening traffic and dire need for transit funding. “Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” Cuomo told the New York Times on Monday.

London, Stockholm, and Singapore have made huge strides in easing traffic by charging small fees to road users in their urban cores at peak hours. But no U.S. city has taken the plunge. Long viewed as political non-starter, especially after a well-supported proposal in New York City ran aground in 2008, congestion pricing has been something of a pipe dream for U.S. transportation wonks, the only viable treatment for urban traffic no politician dares to prescribe, for fear of angering drivers. So support from a governor like Cuomo, who can be an effective political dealmaker when he wants to be, is a big deal.

What can New York learn from the last time it tried to pass such a scheme?

Create transit alternatives

Between 2007 and 2008, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and a specially appointed state commission pushed to create an $8 fee for inbound car trips into the Manhattan core between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. It was projected to produce $491 million annually for transit improvements, cut driving time spent in standstill traffic by 30 percent, and slash emissions.

Crucially, the plan also included a transit build-out. Expanded local and express bus and subway service was called for, in order to prove transit as a viable alternative for an even greater share of commuters and show the congestion fees weren’t meant to be punitive. With the MTA, the city secured $354 million in federal funds for these improvements, contingent on the passage of the plan. But the plan got blocked in the state legislature—more on that in a moment—and the improvements didn’t come to fruition.

These days, it’s going to be harder to convince New York City car commuters who balk at congestion fees that great transit alternatives exist. On-time performance on the subways is tanking, and the buses are even worse.

But a congestion pricing system would be another motivation—and better yet, a means—to make swift, meaningful improvements to transit. Architected by the famed New York City traffic engineer Sam “Gridlock” Schwartz, a revised version of the Bloomberg congestion pricing plan called Move NY spotlights buses especially, calling to roll back service cuts made in 2010, add express bus options to affected outer boroughs, and speed up plans to run bus rapid transit lines across the city. Move NY projects the plan would generate $1.5 billion in net revenue, to help re-fill MTA’s dried-up coffers.

Whatever Governor Cuomo’s plan includes, says Jon Orcutt, communications and advocacy director at the transportation think-tank TransitCenter, it’s an opportunity to bring surface rides in particular up to speed. Besides better buses, that could also mean city regulations that incentivize shared ride services and discourage “deadheading,” or time taxi and Uber drivers spend without passengers, which Schaller’s research has shown to be a considerable factor NYC’s traffic woes.

Bow before the outer boroughs

The Bloomberg-era plan thad the support of the mayor, a broad coalition of business, labor, and environmental groups, and a surprising share of suburban New Jersey and New York state lawmakers. It might have passed if not for a final political hurdle.

The biggest sticking point came from elected officials and their constituents in New York City boroughs outside Manhattan, particularly eastern Queens and southern Brooklyn. According to a 2010 post-mortem study by Bruce Schaller, a former NYC DOT official, residents had doubts as to whether the revenues would be spent effectively on transit service improvements, or if they’d even reach the MTA to begin in.

Only 5 percent of workers in those areas in particular were commuting into Manhattan by car at the time. But their voices were loud enough that their state assembly leaders blocked action on congestion pricing when it came through the New York legislature. Meanwhile, the governor who had originally supported the plan—Eliot Spitzer—had resigned in disgrace, giving way to David Paterson, who might not have had the political capital to sway those assembly members. “I think that Bloomberg plan would have been enacted if Spitzer had been in office,” says Orcutt. But he wasn’t, and the plan died.

The Move NY plan goes out of its way to court outer-borough residents by reducing existing tolls on bridges and tunnels that don’t connect to Manhattan. To work politically, Cuomo’s plan will have to make gestures of this kind too—but it’s already got the advantage of his leadership behind it.  

Get the mayor on board

Move NY has won the support of several New York city council members and attracted widespread media attention. Mayor Bill de Blasio has never warmed up to the idea, though, stating that it’s not part of his “vision” for congestion in New York. The  congestion plan his administration has offered avoids driver fees entirely, focusing on increased police enforcement, ramping up prices for on-street parking, and encouraging off-peak deliveries.

Of congestion pricing, “I’ve never been in favor of those proposals because I haven’t seen one that I thought was fair, particularly to folks in the outer boroughs,” he said last week. But he’s also said he’s never supported a pricing scheme because he assumed state leadership would never let if fly. “I’m not putting time and energy into something that is not going to happen,” de Blasio said in June.

But Cuomo has now turned that political calculus upside down, and de Blasio could look bad if he doesn’t work with the governor on a plan that advocacy groups and civic leaders are bound to support. Tolling city-owned streets will require his participation. “The state can’t just show up and toll an entry way over Flatbush Avenue,” says Orcutt.

The governor and mayor are known for their political sparring, which isn’t a dynamic that’s particularly benefiting New Yorkers. If they worked together to make this idea idea, it could be great for New York City streets, great for New York City subways, and a vote of confidence for every other American city that’s eyed Stockholm and London streets with curiosity. Congestion pricing isn’t a cure-all for any city’s traffic ills—none really exist—but mixed in with transit investments, it’s the best treatment there is.

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