Is the USA actually ready to charge drivers for the congestion they create?

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Until now, pricing was based on how much time you are willing to spend in traffic, not how much money you are willing to pay. The current debate in New York about pricing access has triggered discussion in several other major US cities: LA, Boston, Seattle and San Francisco so far. If New York implements charges, then the impact could ripple out.

I’ve been involved in the NY Congestion Pricing debate for nearly 40 years (yes, that long) and as this plays out I am reminded of my first conversation with the late NYC Mayor, Ed Koch. I was an assistant to the Mayor responsible for among other departments, the DOT. Ed asked his Deputy Mayor, Bobby Wagner what position the City Planning Commission had taken on charging when he was Chair. Wagner’s response was “We ducked that one”. Not to be deterred, Koch followed up with: “What would your position have been, had you taken a position?” I forget the response to that question.

What does that 1982 conversation mean today? Only that charging drivers to enter the city core, when they are not crossing a tolled facility, has been a third rail issue for a long time. Ed Koch never publicly endorsed it.

In the beginning, the idea was to place tolls on the free bridges into Manhattan and the first study of tolling the free crossings was in the 1970s. At that point, it was physically impractical to build enough booths at the free bridges to collect tolls. The advent of electronic toll collection and free-flow tolling has obviated that constraint.

Under Mayor Dinkins, the DOT announced a scheme to toll the bridges to raise money for their repair and upkeep. Nobody either believed that they needed the money, or that it would actually go to the bridges. The idea quietly died in a few days.

Later, the idea was to toll the free crossings, place a surcharge on those already tolled, and create a cordon line at the southern end of Central Park. Mayor Michael Bloomberg made a serious run at implementing this approach as a congestion charge and ran into the expected firestorm. His argument was that there was too much traffic in midtown. He needed approval from both houses of the state legislature and that’s where it ran aground. In the Assembly the speaker, later himself to go to prison, opposed the idea and killed it. Another iteration died in the Senate.

From these failed attempts, what do we learn and what does it mean for today’s push for cordon pricing in Manhattan? The technical problems of the 1970s are obviated by today’s open road tolling, albeit with some tweaks for Manhattan avenues. Everybody knows how badly public transit needs the money for a subway system in crisis and Manhattan traffic is simply ridiculous. Cross-town speeds are reminiscent of horse-drawn carriage days.

Will it be enacted? It’s still up to the political leadership to corral the votes in Albany. I, for one, hope that they do.

Larry Yermack is strategic advisor to Cubic Transportation Systems, California. He can be reached at lyermack@gmail.com

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