Cuomo Bets on NYC Traffic-Fee Plan as Transit System Crumbles

London, Stockholm and Singapore charge motorists to use the most congested streets. Now Governor Andrew Cuomo is risking his political capital on a pitch to do the same in New York City.

Cuomo, a Democrat, has scored Republican support on tough issues in the past, including raising the minimum wage and legalizing gay marriage. The transportation issue is crucial to the city’s future: The city’s deteriorating subway system, its economic lifeblood and the busiest in the U.S., needs an immediate multibillion-dollar fix.

The hitch is that Cuomo is up for re-election next year and may run for president in 2020. So-called congestion pricing could offer a solution for a city needing to reduce clogged streets and pollution, and increase revenue for transit. Yet in London, where inner-city traffic decreased 40 percent over 12 years, the program is now seen largely as outdated. But as New Yorkers endure mounting subway delays and train breakdowns, Cuomo says it’s time to start charging motorists to enter Manhattan’s most crowded streets.

“If the governor stands behind congestion pricing as strong as he has for other initiatives, it has a good chance of being enacted,” said Maria Doulis, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a business-funded fiscal research group. “City taxpayers already pay a large share of MTA funding support. It’s time for motorists to contribute more.”

Tried Before

Cuomo, 59, is likely to benefit from lawmakers’ opposition to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s even more unpopular call to tax the rich to fund repairs by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the subways. That proposal has been “tried before and has failed several times,” the governor said Tuesday.

New York’s subway system serves about 5.7 million riders a day along 665 miles of track. A series of derailments and track fires, power outages and malfunctions of its 80-year-old signal system have occurred this summer. It’s been a steady deterioration of service, with delays more than doubling in the past five years. 

In New York, concern about Manhattan gridlock has become a secondary consideration to the transit system’s “summer of hell,” as Cuomo calls it.

“You’re trying to discourage the traffic from coming in, and you want to encourage mass transit,” Cuomo said.

Pointing Fingers

The governor has seen his approval rating drop in recent months as more voters blame him for the mass-transit crisis.  

He’s tried to deflect some of the criticism to de Blasio, insisting that the city pay half of an $835 million emergency overhaul proposed by his MTA chairman, Joseph Lhota. Billions of dollars more are needed in future years just to keep the system in a state of good repair.

De Blasio, 56, rejected the demand, then changed his position to condition the city’s contribution on state approval of his tax-the-rich proposal. That’s not going to happen, said the governor and Republican state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan.

“I think it’s terrific that there’s a fight over funding mass transit because there’s no question that the subway system and the city’s traffic congestion have reached a crisis,” said Alex Matthiessen, spokesman for Move NY, a transit advocacy group that has already gained bipartisan support for its own version of congestion pricing.

Bipartisan Plan

Flanagan, a staunch opponent of higher taxes, fees and tolls, hasn’t shut the door on the governor, while awaiting specifics of Cuomo’s plan due early next year. Meanwhile, the Move NY plan was introduced this year as a bill sponsored by Republican Senator Andrew Lanza of Staten Island and Democratic Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez of East Harlem. Its backers say the plan would be fairer because it would reduce tolls where there’s less traffic while imposing fees on motorists driving into Manhattan’s central business area.

“I’m confident I have a pretty good shot at getting this done,” Lanza said.

London started charging incoming motorists a fee in 2003. While raising a net 164 million pounds ($210 million) for transit last year, traffic returned to 2003 levels thanks to delivery trucks, taxis and ride-sharing services such as Uber, according to Transport for London.

Traffic is so bad that it costs the city economy about 5.5 billion pounds ($7 billion) annually, a 30 percent increase in the past two years, according to Caroline Pidgeon, a lawmaker on the Greater London Authority and former head of the city’s Assembly Transport Committee. Still, traffic likely would be even greater if the fees had not been implemented.

No Vote

In New York, the plan will have to pass muster in a legislature that in 2008 didn’t even allow a vote on former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal. Bloomberg’s plan would have raised $420 million a year using license-plate scanners to charge motorists $8 to enter or leave Manhattan’s core. (The former mayor is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.)  

The Move NY plan could raise as much as $1.5 billion a year for transit, according to Matthiessen, the spokesman. That money could be used for regional road and bridge improvements, fare discounts for poor residents and to pay debt service on $15 billion in municipal bonds — enough to finance a 10-year transit maintenance and improvement plan, Matthiessen says.

Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, said the group of corporate chief executives opposes de Blasio’s millionaires’ tax while remaining open to congestion pricing.

The Move NY plan “has some good features, but they don’t have the data to be able to credibly make a claim for how much it will raise,” Wylde said. “Now that the governor has embraced the concept, it is really up to his people and agencies to lead this effort.”

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