Sunday night, as most New Yorkers were asleep, Governor Andrew Cuomo carried off one of the biggest political and fiscal heists in modern history: effectively seizing control of New York City’s streets by signing into law a congestion-pricing plan that will impose tolls on vehicles traveling below 60th Street in Manhattan. Don’t accuse the governor, though, of sneakiness, because he achieved this feat with the full cooperation of his victims. In supporting congestion pricing, Cuomo-style, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the state lawmakers supposedly looking out for city taxpayers handed over a multibillion-dollar asset to the governor’s expanding empire: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA). If history is any guide, the city will never get this resource back.
In theory, congestion pricing is a good idea. Because of the proliferation of Lyft and Uber, as well as record construction and a record population, speeds on Gotham’s streets have never been slower (less than 5 miles per hour at peak hours in Midtown). Meantime, the city’s subway and bus system badly needs modernization; digital subway signals, for example, could let the MTA run subway trains more closely together, thus adding new capacity without having to build new subway lines. Theory, however, has now met Cuomo’s considerable political acumen. The new plan not only doesn’t give the city any more power over transportation; it also takes away what little power the city had. New York City never passed a home-rule resolution for this congestion-pricing plan, as was the case with then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s plan a decade ago. It is simply a state money grab.
That’s not even the boldest part. Under the new law, the city will have zero say over the cost of congestion pricing for individual drivers, or when and where below 60th Street in Manhattan the price will apply. The MTA—the state-controlled entity that has controlled far too much of New York’s fate for more than five decades—will decide everything. A new entity called the “traffic mobility review board” will recommend Manhattan tolls by the end of next year, with the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority—an MTA entity—approving them. The traffic-mobility board will consider “traffic patterns, traffic-mitigation measures, operating costs, public impact, public safety, hardships, vehicle type, discounts for motorcycles, peak and off-peak rates, . . . and environmental impacts, including but not limited to air quality and emissions.” The board will also decide who gets exemptions: the elderly, the disabled, public-sector workers and retirees, and the poor. (The new law already exempts Manhattan congestion-zone residents with incomes below $60,000.)
The traffic-mobility board will not be staffed with representatives from the mayor’s office, the city council, or the city’s department of transportation, historically responsible for managing New York traffic. Instead, the new law requires that of the traffic-review board’s six members, only one be recommended by New York’s mayor. Two others will hail from the suburbs: one “shall reside” in the Metro-North region, north of New York City, and one other “in the Long Island Rail Road region,” east of the city. Already then, New York’s local interests—by definition, less wedded to the private automobile—are outnumbered two-to-one by suburban interests. The MTA itself must approve all the members, including the mayor’s recommendation, eliminating any hope of checks and balances. One of the key points of congestion pricing was to give the city more control over the out-of-town traffic that inundates its streets. Now, suburbanites from swing-vote districts, which have always held outsize power over the MTA, will control traffic volumes and thus effectively tell the city how the traffic should flow.
The electronic transponders that will collect the tolls throughout Manhattan will operate under the purview of the MTA’s Triborough Authority. This infrastructure won’t be subject to any “local law of the city of New York,” including “approvals or charges associated with the use of property owned and maintained by the city of New York,” the new law notes. In building this infrastructure, Triborough must adhere only to an as-yet unwritten “memorandum of understanding” between it and the city. And in negotiating that memorandum over the coming months, Triborough, not the city, starts out with the stronger hand.
All this means that the MTA—not local elected officials—is now in charge of deciding what the city’s traffic goals are. The MTA will determine whether the goal is to keep traffic moving at 6 or 10 miles per hour at different times of day; or to rebate charges on bridge or tunnel tolls; or to prioritize the reduction of emissions by giving electric vehicles a discount. In practical terms, the city cannot determine, for example, if it would like a higher toll rate during a busy Christmas Saturday and a lower one for an empty January Sunday; the MTA will decide such things. Under an aggressive reading of the law, state control over tolling infrastructure could preclude future street pedestrianizations. The city has ceded control of its own streets.
And what is the city getting in return? It will have little say over how congestion-pricing revenue is spent. No money will go toward the roads. It’s true that 80 percent will go to mass-transit projects that benefit the five boroughs, but the law already carves out another 20 percent for Long Island Rail Road and Metro North, though the Long Island Rail Road, in particular, has garnered far more than its fair share of funding over the past 15 years. An objective needs assessment may eventually show that commuter railroads need 20 percent of the money, but the new budget doesn’t require the MTA to produce such an assessment until 2023, by which time much of the congestion-pricing money—$15 billion in bonds, backed by $1.5 billion in annual congestion-charge revenue—may have been spent.
It’s hard to blame Cuomo for this power and money consolidation: he simply took what the state legislature gave him. Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie hails from the Bronx and should have had an interest in safeguarding city powers; he doesn’t appear to realize what he has let the city give up. Mayor de Blasio, too, could have marshalled some power over city representatives; instead, more than a month ago, he freely signed over any practical interest in congestion pricing to the governor, freeing up time to tend to his vain presidential hopes in New Hampshire and Iowa.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s laudable goal to wrest some local power and accountability over subways and buses back from the MTA is now an even dimmer reality than it was last month, when Johnson proposed it. The city would first have to win back power over its own streets—but the MTA, in 51 years of operation, has never given up anything once it gets it.
Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images