As often happens in New York politics, we are faced again with the prospect of solving New York City’s traffic congestion problem, or at least that is what the advocates of congestion pricing would want you to believe. The city has serious transportation issues that need to be addressed, but another foray into congestion pricing would be not only bad policy but a waste of time politically. It is true that there are severe transportation problems facing the city, but these problems have been years in the making, so instituting a tax on people attempting to drive into work is not going to solve it.
The fact is that most of the transportation infrastructure in the New York metropolitan area was designed when cars still had tail fins and ribbons of highways were laid, encircling our cities and suburbs in an effort to turn New York into a commuter’s utopia. The sprawl that followed, in addition to the neglect of the area’s mass-transit infrastructure, has brought us to the problem we are facing today: too much traffic and too few alternatives.
This being said, taxing commuters as much as $2,000 a year and taxing small businesses that use trucks to ship their goods to Manhattan in excess of $5,000 a year might be a great way to raise money, but it does not solve the problem — it just covers it up at the expense of hardworking New Yorkers.
I believe that if New York really wants to become a 21st-century city, we need to forget these stop-gap proposals and really address how our city is going to function in the long term. A useful exercise to understand the future transportation needs of New York is to imagine the multitude of negative effects a congestion pricing scheme would have on the city. The tax on commuters and businesses is the most obvious, but the stress that this plan would put on the already troubled Metropolitan Transportation Authority would result in giving those who can afford to drive into Manhattan an option while forcing working-class New Yorkers to cram onto already-crowded trains, subways and buses.
What I just described is the best-case scenario. It is just hoped that if people had to pay money to drive into Manhattan, they would see the error of their ways, buy a MetroCard or a bike and be content with not having their car at work. What is more likely to happen is that the outer boroughs will become a park-and-ride lot for people commuting from Long Island and Westchester County.
This proposal also represents an embargo on Manhattan businesses, theaters and restaurants by taxing customers each time they choose to drive into Manhattan to frequent these establishments. Instead of ending congestion and mitigating pollution, a congestion pricing plan would move all of these congestion problems off Manhattan and stick the rest of the city with them. I believe this is unthinkable.
If we want to provide real transportation solutions and are not willing to wait for Washington, Detroit or the MTA to solve our problems, we need to think creatively as to how we want transportation in New York City and the state to function. One common-sense solution to help the MTA raise the funds needed to actually begin to confront this congestion issue is by revving the non-resident income tax, or “commuter tax,” ensuring that part of that revenue be earmarked for the MTA, which is a much less regressive tax than charging working-class New Yorkers to drive around their own city.
I will be introducing a bill that would implement a 1 percent, non-resident commuter tax and would split the revenue equally between the city and the MTA. A plan like this would allow us to raise revenue by not regressively taxing our working-class residents but by collecting the money from those who already use our city’s services regularly but since they live outside the city do not pay taxes for them.
This bill would allow us to begin the hard work of creating the 21st-century transportation infrastructure our city needs. This is the time when we must figure out a long-term solution as to how we can meet our future transportation needs — not just fill a funding gap in the MTA and turn Manhattan into the Forbidden City.
State Assemblyman David Weprin