The New York Daily News broke the story yesterday that New York lawmakers are once again trying to push congestion pricing through the state legislature, a task at which Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed in 2008 after meeting fierce resistance from outer borough and suburban drivers. Learning from his previous failed bid to charge drivers $8/day to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, the plan is being rebranded as “traffic pricing” and will be linked to payroll tax relief for those outside the five boroughs in an attempt to win the support of suburban legislators who torpedoed the 2008 proposal.
Despite being the most transit-saturated city in America, New York City drivers have had free reign of its surface streets since the days when they were maintained by private streetcar companies. Unlike highway users and transit riders, drivers have never been asked to pay a penny in direct fees for the local roads they use. This has created generations of Americans who feel entitled to freeride on the backs of their poorer, car-less fellow citizens, which has made congestion pricing one of Bloomberg’s rare failures during his decade-long tenure as mayor.
New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County) calls it “just another tax,” but it differs from a general tax in one critical way: It is levied solely on those who drive in Manhattan, meaning that it does not redistribute wealth from those who don’t use the roads to those who do. And while the accounting costs for modes of transportation are subsidized to some extent, roads have enormous opportunity costs—far higher than transit, which uses relatively marginal underground land and has a minuscule footprint relative to paved roads. Land is extremely expensive in New York City, so these opportunity costs are larger than they might be out in less dense areas—imagine how much the city could get from auctioning off the land beneath the West Side Highway, and you start to get an idea of the magnitude of these subsidies.
Congestion pricing has been in place for a few years now in London, Copenhagen, and Singapore (cities you may never have heard of, since they were vaporized the instant they started charging for the right to drive), but the motorist lobby in America has so far managed to stave off any attempts to make local road users pay their fair share. San Francisco is mulling over a congestion charge as well, so it’s a race between the nation’s two most notoriously leftist cities to see which one will de-socialize its local roads first.