Is Congestion Pricing Progressive or Regressive

By Donathan Salkaln, CRDC Executive Committee Member

It's so easy to become mesmerized by a Niagara Falls of money from the proposed surcharge on vehicles south of Manhattan's 60th street that will pay for subway improvements. It is also promised that Congestion Pricing will solve all traffic woes caused by trucks, buses, cars, construction sites, bike lanes, avenue seating plazas, and over an additional 100,000 Uber-type lifts. Attendees of Chelsea Reform Democratic Club 's program called "Congestion Pricing: Can it Solve Our Traffic Nightmare," were flooded with statistics on the pros and cons. The event was often vocal, held at the Hudson Guild on the evening of January 17th.

    Speaking in favor of congestion pricing was Danny Pearlstein, Policy & Communications Director of Riders Alliance, an advocacy for mass transportation. On the other side of the road was former Marine Park NYC Council Member Lew Fidler, who voiced support for workers in the outer boroughs and Staten Island where subways don't exist, and everyday New Yorkers that go to NYC museums, cultural centers, hospitals, or even visit relatives who might live at the Elliott Houses surrounding the meeting venue. Directing the traffic of the debate was Judy Richheimer, CRDC Executive Vice President.

    "We are in a transit crises," began Pearlstein. "It's causing millions of riders anxiety and frustration of missed work, missed doctors appointments, missed school, and even time with friends and families. Thirty-five thousand hours of work are lost every rush-hour due to delays. The Partnership of NYC has estimated that congestion costs the city collectively $20 billion a year."

    Pearlstein told the group that a vehicle surcharge would not only solve congestion on the city streets but also fund much needed improvements to mass transit including all new subway signals up and down the lines, hundreds of new subway cars, an expanded fleet to handle more riders, and hundreds of additional subway elevators. "The Governor wants to see a plan that will raise $15 billion for the transit system," Pearlstein exclaimed. "The plan would roughly decrease traffic by about twenty percent, because of the amount of traffic it would take off the road. It would increase bus speeds, cab speeds and other car and truck speeds, and less pollution!"  Pearlstein added, "Car-owning households in the city, on average, earn more than twice those of households without cars. So it's a progressive form of revenue, in that it takes more from the people that can afford to pay it."

    Fidler countered, "Since when did car access to the heart of our city, based upon who can and can not afford to pay the fee, become progressive instead of regressive. There is no debate that we must fund mass transit, but let's not grab the money because it's the easiest solution. When Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing in 2007, I called that argument 'Get your Fords and Chevys out of the way of my big black limousine.' Who is it that we are excluding from the heart of our city?" Fidler asked. "People who can't afford it!"

    Fidler stressed that the city needs to build for a real sustainable future that includes buses, subways, trucks, and cars. He suggested Jerrold Nadler's decades old plan for a cross-harbor freight tunnel which would remove from the streets many of the trucks headed to Queens and Long Island, a subway connecting Staten Island with the rest of the city, and to have all city buses and vehicles run on hydrogen (pollution free).  He also called for more waiting areas for cabs, so they won't be cruising for fares.

    When Richhiemer opened the meeting to the floor, other ideas were presented. Community Board 4's Christine Berthet suggested that when the NYC nears vehicle capacity, a system is in place to delay more entry. 

    Another attendee suggested a surcharge to construction sites that take over street lanes. CRDC member Linsday Boylan drew concern about congestion pricing as being a suicide tax for the yellow cabs who are struggling with the new reality of NYC not fairly supporting the medallions they sold. Besides Congestion Pricing, Mayor Bloomberg tried for another money grab. His implementation of no-free Sunday parking went over like a barrel on the Niagara Falls.

    After the debate, the group heard about all the approved legislation in Albany from the Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and a report on a west-side summit meeting organized by Speaker of the City Council, Corey Johnson, on sanitation issues, delivered by Erik Bottcher, Johnson's Chief of Staff.

    Began a very jubilant Gottfried, "A whole slew of things that were passed in the Assembly and then bottle-necked in the Senate, year after year, are now being passed in Albany like a warm knife through butter, and they will all be signed by the Governor," Gottfried said, alluding to the new reality of both the NYS's Assembly and Senate with democratic majorities. "We just got the Transgender Protection Bill passed that I introduced to the Assembly in '03. Also a whole bunch of election law bills that will include early voting and combined elections in June. I expect we will be enacting campaign financing similar to the system in NYC. That's a bill I first drafted in 1979 and it will become law."

    Gottfried was also confident that the state will strengthen its rent laws, and his sponsored bill, Medicare for All, will come out of committees and go for a vote as soon as May. Gottfried didn't announce odds on whether Governor Cuomo would sign such a bill.

    Bottcher described a recent summit that brought together leaders of block associations stretching from Canal Street up to Columbus Circle, west of Broadway, together with the NYC Department of Sanitation, the Department of Health, and the Parks Department to discuss sanitation issues. "The district has a population of 170,000, but during the day it goes up to over 2 million, so that's why there are over-flowing waste baskets," Bottcher said. "They fill up faster than sanitation can come." 

"The district has a population of 170,000, but during the day it goes up to over 2 million, so that's why there are over-flowing waste baskets," said Bottcher.

    Bottcher reported that block associations provided the summit with a list of problem areas. Johnson's district office kicked in money for additional street sweeping, purchased larger waste baskets, and hired a non-profit program for the homeless to bag overflowing baskets during the day. "We are going to meet again in a couple of months to revisit this and see how sanitation did."

Chelsea Reform Democratic Club
PO Box 1120,
Old Chelsea Station,
New York, NY, 10113-1120