Thursday, July 19, 2007

Congestion Pricing: R.I.P.?

What a sad week for proponents of congestion pricing in the United States. The New York legislature torpedoed Mayor Bloomberg's ambitious congestion pricing plan for New York City and the City thus missed an apparent deadline for massive federal funding to support that plan and its related public transit improvements.

What was extraordinary about this action is that the congestion pricing plan was backed by many New York editorialists, supported by a network of public interest groups, and would have delivered hundreds of millions of dollars annually for a public transit system that carries the vast majority of the commuters into the Manhattan zone that would be covered by the congestion pricing fee. If that were not enough, New York may have lost approximately $500 million in federal Urban Partnership Program money by failing to proceed with the congestion pricing program.

There are on-going talks to revive the New York congestion pricing plan. Whether the plan can be salvaged and whether the federal government still will be willing to provide the Urban Partnership program money remains to be seen. Until the federal government makes the Urban Partnership Program grant awards to the three lucky finalists, New York still has a chance to tap into those federal funds if its legislature does approve the New York plan. Even if New York ultimately succeeds, however, the bitter struggle over congestion pricing in New York is sure to scare off politicians, transportation agencies and civic organizations in other areas.

Indeed, in the wake of the apparent failure of the New York congestion pricing proposal, Alderman Ed Burke threw in the towel on his congestion pricing proposal for Chicago, declaring that his proposal "has been killed before it could draw breath" and "would not even get a hearing in Chicago City Council."

The conditions in this area are even less favorable for a congestion pricing program than in New York. Here, the editorialists and transportation experts lined up against congestion pricing even before there was a single public hearing on the idea. No major civic group stepped up to support Alderman Burke's proposal, even though there is plenty of evidence from London and elsewhere that congestion pricing has beneficial environmental, quality of life and transportation benefits. Our public transportation service boards and the RTA were silent, as was the Illinois Department of Transportation and CMAP, our region's planning agency. Our government transportation team was eliminated in the first round of the Urban Partnership Program competition so there is no big carrot of federal funding to support congestion pricing, at least in the short term. The Mayor of Chicago, despite highly-publicized visits to innovative public transit cities like Paris and Curitiba, is no Mayor Bloomberg when it comes to vision on public transportation issues.

What accounts for the resistance to congestion pricing? After all, we charge people to access government owned property all the time. Is anyone up in arms that park districts, for example, charge people to occupy space in crowded parks for a summer group picnic? Nor is their a public outcry when government charges for parking.

Why should the public reaction be any different when government charges for occupying valuable highway real estate? Is there just a collective delusion that vehicles and vehicle miles traveled can continue to grow more rapidly than highway capacity with congestion increasing? Have we been so brainwashed by anti-tax right wingers to view any government charge--even those endorsed by conservative economists--with disdain?

My sense is that public transit proponents consistently fail to recognize the powerful hold the private automobile has over the collective imagination. It is all too easy for public transit proponents to view an additional charge on a car as a minor thing that will be more than offset by many of beneficial effects, including an improved environment, increased funding and ridership for public transit, and improved traffic flow in the central city. Those who walk to access public transit and whose commutes are up to 50% longer because we choose to take public transit rather than a car are just not sympathetic to auto users. In our eyes auto users have many transportation advantages over public transit--in terms of speed and comfort--yet they eat up a disproportionate share of resources to get around--e.g., fuel, land space for roads, parking and garages, and clean air. That auto users are being asked to pay a relatively small amount to access the central city seems to us like a minor price to pay.

We just don't get it. For all I know, we are genetically and culturally wired to want to roam without restriction. The private auto radically expanded the roaming powers of everyman. Direct restrictions on that ability to roam, such as congestion pricing, trigger a certain visceral threat response that makes such restrictions hard to implement.

Enough pop psychology. We do know that tolled highways can fly when the tolls are spent on those highways. Witness the Illinois Tollway, which appears to be the only transportation agency in the state right now with sufficient resources to do its job. Maybe Alderman Burke's congestion pricing proposal needs to be retooled so that the money raised goes directly into central city street and traffic improvements rather than into public transit operations. These improvements might benefit public transit at the street level, but the congestion pricing plan would not be pitched as a way for drivers to bail out the public transit system. Rather, it would be pitched as a way to deliver improvements to all those who use city streets, including public transit vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.

Of course, this new source of revenue might free up City of Chicago resources that could be used to provide more capital for public transit improvements (e.g., rail station rebuilds). But that would be a subtle (but important) side effect rather than the point of the congestion pricing system.

Is this a path out of the congestion pricing political gridlock in this area?


Amanda said...

While most of this article is accurate and well-written, one of the points about public opinion is flat-out wrong. To say that no one cares about parks charging people to "take up space" in crowded parks is simply not true. Plenty of people are up in arms about this, because it prevents disadvantaged youth from spending their time in a healthy way and in a safe environment. Those types of issues are on people's minds, and being attentive to the opinions of people "outside the mainstream" is vital to breaking down the public opinion barrier facing congestion pricing.

Anonymous said...

The point that tolls on the Tollway are used to maintain the Tollway hits the issue on the head. The most that can be said about that is that politicians in Illinois and elsewhere committed a fraud by saying that the toll roads would be free once the bonds were paid. The cost of constructing other roads was supposedly paid by the gas tax.

Unless general revenues are pledged, as might be inferred from a Tribune article today, the convention centers are supported by taxes on activities helped by the convention business--use of hotels and restaurants. The only comparable "user fee" for transit is fares, and could also consist of property tax increment districts on those properties that benefit from transit. Anything else is a tax, and the only justification for it would be like for the cigarette tax--it either discourages behavior or supposedly imposes the costs of it on the persons engaging in it. Not much different from using red light or speed cameras as a revenue raising device.

Finally, parking is now operated privately in Chicago, as is the Skyway. You might ask what the mayor is doing with the proceeds of those leases, as well as the TIF funds. They apparently are not being directed to transit.

Anonymous said...

You're not being as insightful as usual Sick Transit. The NYC plan -- which btw is now going forward -- was not delayed because of the content of the proposal or some sort of underestimated windshield lobby, but in order for a key politician to hold out for some key concessions on totally separate issues. There was remarkably wide spread support for congestion pricing in NYC and the state legislature, but the politics there are such that the Speaker of their state house can delay anything he wants in order to extract concessions on campaign finance reform, legislative pay raises, etc. Sound familiar?

Elected officials in the Chicago area are even more navel gazing than the ones in New York, but that doesn't mean that the region can't get behind a congestion pricing plan that does, among other things, fund public transportation, if only we ... had a real leader.

Tom Bamonte said...


That's a pretty low bar to jump and I agree I missed it. Haste makes waste.

See today's post. You were right. NYC's congestion pricing plan lives.