On congestion and MTA funding, choose goals before making policies

City and State ny

Instead of randomly choosing fees on certain vehicles, first decide how much to reduce traffic.

While the state of New York did not pass congestion pricing in the recently adopted budget, Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the new surcharge on yellow and green taxis ($2.50), for-hire vehicles ($2.75) and pooled-ride services ($0.75) as a step toward improving gridlock in Manhattan and providing funding to improve New York City’s deteriorating mass transit system.

Adding fees to these types of vehicles isn’t inherently bad – especially since so many good transit options abound in the zone below 96th Street – but it’s neither an effective way to reduce congestion nor fund transit. According to Charles Komanoff, the analyst behind the MoveNY congestion pricing and toll reform plan, these new fees will improve travel speeds in the zone by 3 percent. Komanoff is too generous by reporting a percentage. A 3 percent increase in travel speeds will result in less than a 0.3 miles per hour boost. The reason he anticipates such a minor increase is that while the fees will take taxis and for-hire vehicles off the road, that newly opened up road space will encourage more drivers of private cars, for whom there is no financial disincentive, into the road network.

Cuomo predicts the new fees will create an ongoing revenue stream of $400 million per year to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. On its face that sounds promising, but the MTA has demonstrated such an ability to waste money that, absent reform, that sum might buy very little improvement. In light of the ongoing cost overruns and delays that hampered Phase 1 of the Second Avenue subway or reports that East Side Access, a project to bring Long Island Rail Road trains to Grand Central Terminal, will require another billion dollars to complete are stark reminders that the MTA’s spending is out of control.

So, instead of inadequate piecemeal responses to transit infrastructure funding needs and traffic-clogged streets, New York City and New York state must set goals – all buses south of 96th Street in Manhattan should travel at least 10 miles per hour, say, or a pollution reduction target – before selecting a policy to accomplish it. We can play with the current composition of traffic and estimate how much each mode – taxi, private vehicle, truck, pooled-ride vehicle – contributes to traffic, greenhouse gas emissions or other social harms. (In fairness to the new surcharges, because they drive around all day, taxis and for-hire vehicles are worse offenders in terms of pollution and congestion than the average commuter driving to Midtown from Queens.)

Then, with those goals in mind, we can tailor solutions by developing models that test different scenarios. That may include protected bus lanes, a fee to enter Manhattan’s central business district, eliminating parking placards, or more drastic measures such as an outright ban on specific types of vehicles during the peak period or a rationing scheme similar to the one used in some European and Asian cities on high-smog days in which only even or odd-numbered license plates can enter the city center.

Of course, any policy that restricts or charges for driving may be unpopular and unable to pass in Albany. Technical debates cannot escape politics. But if we identify benchmarks and work through scenarios based on accurate data, we can at least attempt make policy rationally rather than just pulling numbers out of thin air to decide what fees will be charged.

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