Last year, New York City was dealt a one-two punch of frightening news. First, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the city’s underperforming subway system after commuters’ complaints about delays, crumbling infrastructure and even derailments came to a fever pitch during the summer. Three months later, a comprehensive study conducted by several prominent climate scientists concluded that by 2030, New York will see extreme flooding, like the kind from Superstorm Sandy, every five years.
With the aging subway system in crisis, Manhattan’s streets choked with gridlock traffic and sea levels rising at an alarming rate due to man-made climate change, legislative action is needed as quickly as humanly possible. Congestion pricing, a long-debated policy suggestion, is now no longer just an economic issue. It has become a moral necessity for New York City’s future and the future of the earth itself.
Congestion pricing is a policy which would charge motorists a small fee for driving into Manhattan below 60th Street from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. The funds would then be allocated to the MTA, allowing for much-needed subway maintenance and improvements. Most importantly, by adopting congestion pricing, New York City could join the ranks of London and Singapore in setting an example for urban sustainability all over the world.
First introduced in City Hall under Mayor John Lindsay in 1973, congestion pricing was originally intended to make the city compliant with the Clean Air Act — a landmark piece of federal legislation focused on decreasing air pollution and car traffic in urban centers. Given that the added fee of car travel would disincentivize people from driving into Manhattan, and that the ensuing funds would be directed toward sustainable public transit, the concept was seen as a win-win for the city’s environmental standards. Yet, after facing considerable pushback from the taxi industry and the mafia-controlled trucking industry, two New York Congressional Democrats — Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman and Sen. Daniel Moynihan — amended the Clean Air Act to exempt New York City from enacting the new tax on its bridges.
Since then, the environmental toll of climate change has grown much worse, due in large part to the continued dominance of automobile travel. Human use of fossil fuels like those in gasoline has accounted for 90 percent of sea level rise since 1970. If levels continue to rise, New York City will be flooded, physically destroyed by the elements, and its most vulnerable residents will suffer.
Given impending climate disaster, it is imperative that New York politicians work to protect their own constituents and set an example for other cities using their outsized influence. Singapore, the first major city to adopt congestion pricing, has seen a 10 to 15 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions in its core since the policy’s implementation in 1975. During this same time, use of public transportation has shot up 15 percent. After adopting congestion pricing in 2003, London’s annual greenhouse gas emissions have dropped by 16 percent, while bus and bike use has risen to historic rates.
Despite the proven success of congestion pricing in other cities, private industries and unscrupulous politicians have repeatedly been able to block the policy in New York. In the 1980s, when a congestion pricing bill passed the city council under Mayor Ed Koch to raise funds for subway improvements, it was struck down in Albany after a lawsuit was filed by the Automobile Club of New York and influential members of the parking garage industry. When Mayor Bloomberg proposed congestion pricing as part of his NYC 2030 environmental sustainability plan in the late 2000s, State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver — now in prison on federal corruption charges — struck the bill down before it could see the Assembly floor.
As mayor, Bill de Blasio has previously argued against congestion pricing, claiming that its costs would fall most heavily on low-income residents of the outer boroughs. While well-intentioned, this idea overstates the number of city residents who drive in and out of Manhattan for work. Studies show that only 4 percent of outer borough commuters make that drive each day, and of that slim percentage, more than half are considered higher earning. Also, with the comprehensive congestion pricing plan MoveNY laid out by former New York City Traffic Commissioner “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz, new sources of revenue could be used to expand the city’s subway and bus network to the transit-starved communities where some of those motorists live, in addition to providing funding for discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers on the city’s margins.
If leaders like Cuomo and de Blasio wish to ensure a prosperous, healthy future for New York City, they must make the moral decision to push for congestion pricing. No longer should the city’s common-sense environmental and economic measures be blocked by knuckle-dragging, profit-oriented companies and politicians. With its ability to raise extra funds for the struggling MTA, decrease the presence of polluting automobiles in Manhattan and ultimately begin a progressive campaign toward the end of car-dependency in major cities, the time for congestion pricing is now.
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Email Jonathan Marty at [email protected]