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It's Time to Address New York's Growing Gridlock

Today, congestion is costing the New York region more than $13 billion a year in lost productivity from time spent in traffic jams, wasted fuel, higher operating costs, and vehicle maintenance.
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Here in New York City, we are once again focused on new forms of transportation. In the past several weeks, the city has launched a new bike share program, and a recent court decision will now permit the expansion of a new kind of cab in the parts of New York underserved by yellow cabs. These initiatives remind us of some of the Bloomberg administration's successful innovations in moving people around the nation's largest city. New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has been a consistent voice for bold experimentation in addressing the city's massive traffic problems. The construction of bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly plazas, such as the one at Times Square, has been part of an effort to rationalize the use of New York's always scarce street space. Despite these important success stories, transportation also includes one of the greatest political failures of the Bloomberg administration: the failure to enact congestion pricing in New York City's Central Business District.

There are two reasons for that failure. One is political and one is substantive. Credit, or rather blame, for the political failure should be assigned to the manipulative, secretive and closed-door partisan maneuvering of New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Silver killed this important innovation, and along with it hundreds of millions of federal aid dollars that could have been used to set up the system. The other political factor that killed the congestion proposal arose from months of attacks directed at New York's billionaire mayor and focused attention on outer-borough resentment of Manhattan's wealth.

The heart of the substantive opposition to congestion pricing is opposition to tolling bridges over the East River. Many New Yorkers consider those bridges to be an extension of Manhattan's street grid into Queens and Brooklyn. New York has made a few attempts to toll these bridges. Mayors Lindsay and Koch supported bridge tolls that were never imposed. In Koch's case, the tolls were designed to meet federal air pollution rules, and it is not clear he really supported tolling. The problem with imposing tolls on the East River bridges is that it appears to be an anti-middle class, anti-outer borough policy. The paradox is that most of the people who would benefit from improved mass transit would be the millions of people living in the outer boroughs. But politics is often more about symbols than reality.

Today the bridges over the East River have no tolls and drivers from Brooklyn and Queens do not have to pay any fees or congestion charges to enter Manhattan. The Queens-Midtown tunnel and the Brooklyn-Battery tunnel require tolls, so drivers crossing the East River have the option to pay for a less congested route to the city. However, once they get to the city they can look forward to massive congestion.

What do I mean by congestion? In the United States, there is no street space as crowded as the streets of New York City's Central Business District. The population of Manhattan more than doubles each day with the influx of commuters and tourists combined with its 1.6 million residents. Though only 4.6 percent of New Yorkers commute to Manhattan by car, average commute times are amongst the worst in the United States. Across New York City, 55 percent of New Yorkers take the subway, bus, or railroad to get to work. A 2011 American Community Survey (ACS) found that New Yorkers spent the longest average commute time at 34.9 minutes - well above the national average of 25.5 minutes (McKenzie 2013: 2). It also reported that of the 231 counties with populations of 250,000 or more covered by the survey, Queens (41.7 minutes), Richmond (41.3 minutes), Bronx (40.8 minutes) and Kings (Brooklyn) (39.7 minutes) - four of the five counties that comprise New York City, experienced the longest average commute-to-work-times (US Census Bureau 2005). This in turn affects bus travel times, which are the slowest on average in the country at about 8 mph in 2006 (Giles 2011: 5).

New York's public transit and subway system is one of the most extensive in the world and public transit is used by the majority of the city's commuters. The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) moves more than 7 million people every day (MTA 2013). By 2006, subway ridership had increased to the highest levels since 1952, but the system network has actually shrunk by 8 route miles in that time. The lack of expansion has resulted in the subway system underserving the east side of Manhattan and whole areas of the outer boroughs.

Today, congestion is costing the New York region more than $13 billion a year in lost productivity from time spent in traffic jams, wasted fuel, higher operating costs, and vehicle maintenance. Time and productivity are not the only negative effects of congestion, as time spent idling contributes steady streams of pollution. New York City's cars and trucks are responsible for 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions and most of the ozone in the city.

The solution today, is the same one proposed by the Bloomberg team back when George W. Bush was President: congestion pricing. We need to open up a new revenue stream to fund mass transit expansion and upkeep. We need to ration the scarce street space in New York City's Central Business District. It can be done in such a way to allow New Yorkers to drive in for free for medical care and other important occasions. If we don't figure out a more efficient way to move people around New York City, congestion will degrade the city's quality of life and its economic development. An improved mass transit system can allow the city to accommodate future growth, but it must be funded. Congestion pricing is a fair and intelligent way to subsidize a better subway system.

Eventually we will figure this out and frankly, the sooner we get started, the better. It takes time to finance and build huge capital projects. Perhaps the politics will be different next year, and we can try again. Opponents will no longer have the symbol of a billionaire Manhattan-based mayor as a political target. Possibly Sheldon Silver's self-dealing, quasi-corruption will finally catch up with him and he'll be removed from office. Perhaps Governor Cuomo could demonstrate some outer-borough political courage and put some muscle behind this idea.

The real problem will be the next mayor. It is likely that whoever gets elected mayor in November, 2013 will have a wide range of political debts to pay. A term-limited mayor will very quickly focus on re-election and is unlikely to push for unpopular taxes and fees. I suppose the trick will be to make the fee popular. I'd suggest the campaign start below ground with the city's subway riders. New York City's growing population and economic growth will gridlock the place if the mass transit system is not expanded and maintained. A congestion fee could help fund this upgrade, while reducing surface traffic during the workday. It was a good idea in 2007, and it is an even better idea today.

Giles, David. (2011). "Behind the Curb." Center for an Urban Future.

McKenzie, Brian. (2013). "Out-of-State and Long Commutes: 211: American Community Survey Reports." United States Census Bureau. U.S. Department of Commerce.

Metropolitan Transit Authority. (2013). "Subway and Bus Ridership." Web. Accessed June 6, 2013.

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