In a surprise, possibly in response to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal for a millionaires’ tax to pay for improving the subways, Governor Andrew Cuomo suggested to the New York Times he would support a congestion pricing plan.

“Congestion pricing is an idea whose time has come,” Mr. Cuomo said. He declined to provide specifics about how the plan would work and what it would charge, but said that he had been meeting with “interested parties” for months and that the plan would probably be substantially different from Mr. Bloomberg’s proposal.

“We have been going through the problems with the old plan and trying to come up with an updated and frankly better congestion pricing plan,” Mr. Cuomo said. A key priority is making it as palatable as possible to commuters from the suburbs and boroughs outside Manhattan without undercutting the primary goals: providing a dedicated funding stream for the transit system, while reducing traffic squeezing onto some of the country’s most gridlocked streets.

What is congestion pricing?

At its core, a congestion pricing plan would charge drivers going into Manhattan’s central business district (the area south of 59th Street). Transportation and environmental advocates hail the idea for both encouraging drivers to take public transportation and also providing the funding to improve mass transit. Academics point out that traffic imposes a cost and so congestion pricing plans, by reducing traffic, balance out some of that cost for drivers. However, drivers who have to pay those new fees generally feel more negatively.

London pioneered congestion pricing starting in 2003 and Mayor Mike Bloomberg promoted the idea as Mayor.

What happened?

Bloomberg’s plan, which would have charged drivers $8 a day, failed to win approval in the state legislature. Outer borough and suburban legislators vociferously objected to the idea that they would have to pay while wealthy Manhattanites who already lived in the area would not. In the Assembly, the plan was so roundly opposed that Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver never even brought it up to a vote.

Congestion pricing proponents continued the fight after that. A new group, Move New York, emerged. MoveNY proposed lower fees, as low as $2.75 in one version, and built up a political coalition and legal arguments to achieve the change. However, the key change was using some of the money from the tolls to reduce tolls on bridges between the outer boroughs by as much as half. Travelers over the Throgs Neck and Whitestone Bridges (between the Bronx and Queens) and the Triborough Bridge (the Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan) would see the biggest difference with the E-ZPass toll going down $2.72 for those bridges, but drivers in every borough would see a discount unless they drove into downtown or Midtown Manhattan.

Cuomo’s proposal is likely to follow a similar framework.

Does it have a chance?

Surprisingly, the MoveNY plan has attracted bipartisan support. Staten Island Republican Senator Andrew Lanza introduced the bill in the State Senate last year. Jose Peralta, the Queens Senator who was then a regular Democrat but has since joined the Independent Democratic Conference which helps Republicans control the Senate, also supported the idea. The Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, reportedly backed Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan, though has since publicly denied it. However, one Assembly Democrat, East Harlem/El Barrio’s Robert Rodriguez, has enthusiastically supported the MoveNY proposal.

In any case, the pieces are there so that, with enough effort, Gov. Andrew Cuomo could push congestion pricing through the state legislature.

But, the election!

As the Cuomo administration works through the details of their proposal, the 2018 election will be in the background. Andrew Cuomo is already facing a potentially challenging race and both the state of the MTA and congestion pricing are likely to be major factors in the NYC area.

Although experts generally support congestion pricing plans, many voters see them as imposing a price on something that was previously free (regardless of the wider impact). Cuomo needs to keep his base in New York City, Long Island, Westchester and the northern suburbs of the City happy. It’ll be tricky for him to pass congestion pricing–showing that he’s doing something for the MTA–without angering suburban drivers.

Cuomo, a famously skilled and ruthless politician, might be the only one who can thread that needle and successfully pass congestion pricing.

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Posted by Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein

Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein is the founder of ShakingNews.

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