The holiday season coincides with the period between election day and the new legislative session after New Year’s. Not much gets done, of course, but that doesn’t stop politicians and well-connected interest groups from trying to get the public excited about leftover ideas and re-purposed public images. Let’s peak inside the kitchen and see what’s on the menu.
First, we have repurposed politicians. It seems like only yesterday that some Queens politicians were advocating for removal of neighborhood parking and traffic lanes and the installation of bike lanes without the benefit of public hearings or environmental review. And now, having been shut out of the Amazon negotiation process, where the internet behemoth got $3 billion in tax breaks for agreeing to locate a new east coast headquarters in Long Island City, these same politicians say that the City’s Uniform Land Use Review Process and environmental review must be followed.
Then there’s congestion pricing. Big money think tanks and politicians have been kicking around the idea of tolls on the East River bridges since the 90’s. As nature abhors a vacuum, why let something with controlled access be free? The original proposal was to use the funds to maintain infrastructure and throw money into the City’s general fund. That never made it to a vote. Granted, 1990’s technology wasn’t there yet. Mayor Bloomberg blew the dust off that plan and tried to sell it to New Yorkers. Among the reasons it didn’t go down well was that there was no clear plan about how the toll revenue would be used. Under the Move NY and Fix NYC plans, that dish has been repurposed to provide a “reliable revenue stream” for our mismanaged and wasteful subways.
So even as our politicians’ distance themselves from responsibility for the MTA, they and their big money backers work to sell the public on this unfair toll scheme. Let’s see what they’re cooking up for us.
First, they play us with a lot of whine:
- There’s no money!– They found $12 billion over the last 15 years to build Taj Mahals like the 2ndAve subway, the 7 extension to Hudson Yards & Fulton Center. And that was before the $3 billion in tax breaks for Amazon! The real estate industry gets $7 billion a year in tax breaks to, in part, create affordable housing. But with the homeless population doubled over the last few years and the City spending over $1 million each day to house them, is that tax break well spent?
- There’s too much traffic!– Really? Traffic is down by 10% over the last 6 years – Congestion is caused by construction, Vision Zero “traffic calming”, loss of parking and traffic lanes to bike and bus lanes & the flood of for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft.
- It’s not fair that cars and trucks pay nothing!Really? The trucking industry pays up to $17,000 per vehicle per year in taxes. APP apportioned plate fees, IFTA MVT, PVB OATH, DMV, HUT – all agencies with their hands out, a veritable alphabet soup!
- There’s no other option! We can think of several that are fairer than congestion pricing like reinstating the commuter tax, creative zoning with value capture, clawing back some of the real estate tax breaks, and increasing the real estate transfer tax for luxury residential properties. Mayor de Blasio’s millionaire’s tax is a red herring…. The millionaire’s he wants to target don’t necessarily reside in New York for tax purposes.
To make this dish attractive to the politicians who must approve it, there’s lots of pork. Well-connected companies would get the lucrative contracts to build-out and run the tolling system and handle collections. Of course, there would be some new agencies run by political appointees to oversee the contracts and manage the revenue. After paying for toll infrastructure and operations, the bulk of the anticipated toll revenue is to be used as leverage to borrow billions in new debt for the MTA – They’re already $37 billion in the hole! That’s more than 3 times the combined debt of bankrupt Sears and Toys Are Us! The investment bankers would make money selling the bonds and new agencies would be needed to dole out the windfall.
That bond money, as of the Move NY plan, was to be used for a whole wish list of projects with small portions of which even earmarked for local projects in individual local legislators’’ districts!
Of course, congestion pricing won’t be palatable without a generous helping of mushrooms. Just like mushrooms, they keep us in the dark and feed us a lot of crap about the true nature of this unfair toll scheme. Lies and disinformation abound like blaming traffic on double parked trucks when it is the removal of parking spaces and traffic lanes and idling for-hire vehicles that are responsible.
Before gorging on this menu, consider the desserts. Beware, though, like many tempting sweets, you may regret them after you devour them…
- They tell us that a sustainable income stream will solve all the MTA’s problems. But with $37 billion in debt already and the ability to borrow more, without a plan to fix the mismanaged MTA, the debt problem will only get worse.
- They tell us that traffic will improve. Really? How? The current plan will not stop NJ vehicles from coming through the tunnels. If there is less Manhattan traffic, won’t there be less toll revenue AND less commerce? Will there be more traffic in the outer boroughs?
- They tell us its progressive. Actually, tolls are the opposite – a textbook case of regressive taxation where the poor pay the same as the rich. And, most often, these tolls fall on those who have no other transportation options, those who need their vehicles for work or to travel between multiple jobs.
- They tell us that there is a plan for expanding mass transit.If that plan only expands bus lanes in the outer boroughs, that will lead to even more traffic and less productivity.
With the start of the new legislative session, congestion pricing advocates will tell you that leftovers are all they can serve up. It’s up to us, businesses, commuters, and residents to tell our representatives, we want a fresh, fair and economically smart menu.