Thursday, October 2, 2008

Congestion Pricing: Be A Snot-Nosed Rich Prick

Yes siree, if you live in the U.S. of A. it’s coming for you, and the only thing you can do to stop it is to keep an ear to the ground and recognize the greenback beast in all its many incarnations. The idea of congestion pricing, adding new tolls to some or all inbound roads into a city or central business district in the name of traffic control, is a sneaky shape-shifter of an idea recently, but barely, shot down for New York City. I’ve no doubt that it will be revisited, mayor after mayor, snot-nosed rich advisor after snot-nosed rich advisor, and suggested as a solution to every deficit until kingdom come. Learn to fight it here.

Background snippet de jour: New York City is a city made up of five boroughs on four differing land masses. When most people think about NYC, they think of Manhattan, an island. Staten Island, a separate island, is also part of The Big Apple. Brooklyn (Kings County) and Queens are actually city counties on the westernmost geographic body of Long Island (yet a third isle), while the Bronx finishes the city to the north looking to cartographers like a mutant uvula dangling rudely from the mainland. Smaller islands like Rikers Island, Wards/Randalls Island, Roosevelt Island, Governors Island, Coney Island, and the like are also part of NYC. The Hudson River (tidal estuary), Harlem River, East River, Arthur Kill, Atlantic Ocean, and Long Island Sound are a web of water bodies that carve up the city into its component parts, making it no surprise that the metropolis is vivaciously riddled with beautiful bridges of every length and style. Long story short, all the bridges and tunnels controlled by New Jersey’s Port Authority, are tolled. Most bridges controlled by the city itself are currently free. While this has made for some controversy over the years, certain New Yorkers able to get from home to work and back sans toll, others being forced to pay a toll to get into their own neighborhood, it’s not all that difficult to track. Bridges and tunnels closer to the outside of the city or entering the city are tolled, bridges closer to the center of the city are usually free.

Well, borrowing from current practices in places like London and Stockholm, this year saw “congestion pricing” suggested and narrowly defeated in NYC. The idea was to add new tolls to all the currently free Manhattan inbound bridges between certain streets. Functionally, this would have eradicated all remaining free rides on any major bridge. It was meant, in part, as a deterrent from driving for non-city residents. Problem was, the bridges proposed for said tolls are right in the middle of the place, effectively cutting off more than half of the city’s resident drivers from their destinations. I mean, wherever you live, imagine, for the moment, that there is only a single boulevard you can take to get to your job. Then imagine that somebody slapped a big toll booth right on that road. Starting to get the picture? Mayor Bloomberg backed it, pushed for it, and financed an obtuse battalion of elitists to hammer it through. No dice, even as the lie evolved. It was originally brought up as an idea to curtail traffic in Manhattan, but soon became touted as a green initiative. Lie!

What kills me about it is not the suggestion. Ideas come and go. I don’t even horribly much mind that the idea became lumped in with green initiatives. The Bloomberg administration has done quite a lot, in fact, to push through and to support multiple green initiatives, despite a small budget burp early in his 9-11 proximal mayoralty that temporarily quashed the city’s massive recycling program. The congestion pricing idea needed a recognizable home and gravitated toward the easiest one to lie about. What actually feels like the ice pick in my brain, instead, was the argument used by congestion pricing opponents, the freakin’ people on my side! The main argument they chose to combat congestion pricing was such a poor and almost unrelated argument that I am actually amazed this tolls nonsense didn’t pass with flying colors.

Congestion pricing opponents, again and again, chose to harp upon the idea that to toll the many remaining free bridges between Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan was a thinly veiled stratagem seeking to disenfranchise Queens and Brooklyn residents, an unfair tax. Often, without actually saying it, the insinuation was that Queens and Brooklyn, being among the most culturally diverse counties in the entire nation, were being discriminated against by Bloomberg and an army of Manhattanites. Pah-leeeeese! Really? Ten-thousand perfectly logical counter-arguments that could have shown congestion pricing for the poor idea that it was; countless obvious, common-sense reasons, any one of which could have defeated congestion pricing initiatives for a long time to come if not forever, and these concave skulls thought that a watered down version of a race card was the way to go?! They chose a “taxation without representation” argument for a fee that was not a tax and a group of people who they themselves represented? You know, despite the fact that I seem to live in an urban honeycomb of modern liberalism, I do see racism and bigotry every day. It’s here, it’s there, it exists, it’s real, it deserves to be challenged and fought. But to buy the argument that congestion pricing would unfairly “tax” a cross-section of the community even partially based on class or race means I would also have to believe that Bloomberg and his money making robots actually had some sort of investment in discriminating, a Berlin Wall agenda that starts with tolls and ends with a force field. I’d have to believe that Manahattanites, a mosaic of races and classes in and of their own demographic, didn’t simply and selfishly want less traffic around their homes, but also wanted Queens to evaporate and Brooklyn to just go away. It makes no sense. I am insulted by the very people sent to debate for my best interests.

Look, there are forces at work out there that are going to piggy-back a highly unfounded congestion pricing scenario onto every cause, every bill, every earmark they can. They’ll call it something different each time. They’ll renegotiate the price. They’ll petition the feds for backing. They’ll “mitigate” the impact. They’ll take surveys until people are bored with the subject. They’ll cite new impact studies from every angle. It’s not about any of that. It’s about money and only money. It’s about a few too many powerful people who are too self-righteous to sit in traffic like the rest of us, or dare I say, deign to take mass transit. It’s about an endless history of government waste and questionable spending practices that listless entrepreneurs will try to balance by charging the very people who their inane spending habits affected the most. It’s an untapped source of revenue over which businesspeople like Bloomberg salivate as they stare longingly at those poor, untolled, engineering marvels. A makeshift race card defense isn’t going to fly every single time this power brokerage rears its ugly haunches to piss on us.

That said, ringing true to even the soundest of Queens and Brooklyn minds, it’s all phrased as opinion. Opinions don’t win dink! This blog entry is not about my opinion. Imagine that! It is about equipping you, the reader, with all the actual arguments that should have been brought to bear in New York. It is about sharing the layer upon layer of common sense that was ignored from both sides in our case, so that you can adjust to your own city’s attempt at congestion pricing with a full and proper arsenal. I’ve no doubt that some cities are going to sneak it through, but before they do, they are going to have to contend with you and each and every single GOOD point you bring up at the hearings before getting it done. I’ll give you what I can. Please give me yours. Let’s work this out.


First, let us just plainly and logically discount the notion that congestion pricing is a green initiative as proposed in NYC. Perhaps the simplest illustration I can borrow is the fact that all cars would be charged the same toll. Hybrid cars were not going through at half price. Alternative energy cars (like yet to be legalized hydrogen vehicles which only produce water as waste) are not getting through the tolls for free. There would be no pro-rate for cars that use less gas over cars that use more. There would be no 1955 singing Exxon team popping out of each toll booth to check under your hood and validate your energy prudence. If the heart of the matter is an ecological one, certainly no truly green mitigating provision was made in the congestion pricing proposal. Not green $8.00. Completely green, $8.00. Horse and buggy, $8.00. How stupid do they think we are?

Even if future editions of this farce crop up including discount provisions and passes, one still cannot justify the ADDED 40 minute to 2 hour wait that all drivers, hybrid, biodiesel, corn ethanol, and otherwise, would have to wait in the snaky line behind the toll booth. That’s not green. That’s not reasonable. If the current rush hour wait times on the highly tolled west side at the New Jersey bridges and tunnels are any indication, waits that take place on wide open highways, well then the waits through the easterly Chiclet-like neighborhood blocks, fully actuated traffic lights, industrial parks, double-parking, and bus stops are going to be all that much worse. When I am talking about 40 minute to 2 hour waits, I AM ROUNDING DOWN! People we are talking about a different kind of green here, dollar green.

Besides, that’s just the autocentric version of the “green” debacle. Though I am in full awareness that the people of our nation are exorbitantly far from green goals, what about those crafty, future Queens homeowners who will have participated in projects enough to completely neutralize or negate their entire carbon footprint? For every bit of gasoline they will have bought and for every molecule of pollution they will have shunted through their tailpipe, they will have also done something else on the homefront to reverse the curse. They will have planted trees and tended to flowers. They will have stuck a windmill on the roof, gone paperless with their bills. They will have taken to buying only green products, reduced, reused, recycled, minimized consumerism, ridden bikes locally, hosted Earth Day, become vegetarians, forgone AC, and donated to the DEP to clean up the East River. You mean to tell me that Inspector 12 is going to come monthly to their homes and fill out a certificate that allows them to cross that very same East River at a discount? No! “You are on four wheels and rollin’ lady, 8 bucks.” Congestion pricing has nothing to do with ecology. Were that the proposition’s only fault, it might have had a chance.

I’m going to start with the absolute broadest reason why congestion pricing is titanically unjust, the reason lawmakers need to have smacked in their faces. It punishes the people who are already doing things correctly! Congestion pricing punishes the people who are presently doing exactly what the city insists that they do to battle congestion! The city wants people to take mass transit. Well, millions of them do just that. They are on a train in a hole in the ground every morning at rush hour and again at rush hour on the way home. They stand, packed, dangerously shoulder to shoulder, not a seat in sight, clutching belongings and unable to reach the nearest pole or strap to hang onto in the speeding subway snarl. They are crowd-pressed to teeter on platform edges as the trains roll into stations, already sardine-full of people from the previous stop, each clipped for two bucks a head to experience the luxury of this risk to life and limb and time and comfort and privacy. Commuters are herded up wide staircases with nary an inch to spare between their own faces and the stranger’s ass in front of them. The sheer mass of the populous sharing their commute, the mass that is mass transit, has so engorged the subway and buses systems that, in typical New York fashion, morning rush hour is actually two and a half hours long. Nighttime rush hour lasts from 4pm to 7:30pm without blinking an eye. Six full hours per business day of people-stuffing, strained backs, picked pockets, squeezed breath, spilled drinks, no seats, danger, dehumanization, and cumulative, inadvertent dry humping; and to this equation Bloomberg wishes to ADD all the people in up to 40% of all the vehicles in Manhattan?! I guess one of us must have bent his grandmother over at Thanksgiving.

Too personal? Perhaps. I mean, the idea of congestion pricing seemed pretty damned personal to me. How about my once pregnant wife, high-risk pregnancy, weekly appointments with her OB, the occasional extra appointment for a test or two here or there? Well, we live in Queens. Her choice of doctor (and we have to add the insurance company’s choice of doctor) was in Manhattan. You mean to tell me that you think it is perfectly fine to implement a congestion pricing scheme that would leave my pregnant wife only two real transit choices for every single appointment as well as for the “big day?” Choice number one, walk eight blocks, go up the subway steps, enter the subway system, up another set of steps, onto the train, 20 minute ride with rush hour bodies knit together like a big B.O. doily, change trains underground, 10 minute ride with rush hour bodies crushed to critical and sometimes urinating mass, up another set of steps, followed by a five block walk to the hospital. Choice number two, get in the car and wait 40 minutes to 2 hours to get through an $8.00 toll, per trip, and over a bridge that without the toll can take 5 minutes? Hey, I realize it is expensive to have a baby in New York, but you just took $416 out of that baby’s mouth. If you consider the time I spend waiting each day to make it through that toll, time I could have been at work after each doctor’s appointment, well even at minimum wage that’s an additional $371.80 you’ve taken from that child’s well-being. This doesn’t even count gas spent while waiting. Might not sound like much, and therefore it might not sound too personal, but let’s keep in mind there are 125,00 babies born in New York City every year. That’s 150,000 to 275,000 pregnant commuters at any given time. There's a hearing I want to hear!

Let us, for the moment, turn to discounting some of the lesser riddles embedded with the pro-congestion pricing pulpit. How about the idea that the intention of congestion pricing was to encourage people outside of the city to take mass transit? Well, we are getting closer here, but still untrue. Placing the toll booths on the bridges smack in the middle of the city means you are not looking to curtail outside cars from entering NYC, but that you are trying to curtail any cars, including the cars belonging to your own hard-working residents, from going to one particular area (the area where most of your citizens work). Bridges, sadly, form the perfect traffic bottleneck for toll booths. It makes sense that a money-monger would WANT to put the tolls on bridges, but if one is truly to encourage “outsiders” to opt for mass transit, than the toll booths logically need to be placed on the far more voluminous inbound roads on the outskirts of one’s jurisdiction. There would have to be sudden, expensive booth eyesores placed on each Nassau County road leading into Queens, the city’s largest county. Impossible!

Instead, bridges were the target, and perhaps luckily for naysayers. See, the proposed placement of the booths couldn’t have any better illustrated all the flaws with the idea. One key argument I never heard brought up to combat congestion pricing was its effect. In effect, as a proposed method to “curtail” traffic in Manhattan by 13% to 40%, such was not a curtailing at all. It was a manner in which to EXPORT the traffic to other boroughs within the same city. Up to a Manhattan-sized 40% increase in traffic would be diverted to the local roads and neighborhoods housing the very citizens who predominantly support NYC’s central business nexus. That flat traffic increase is then additionally lumped on top of the then 40% more monstrous bottle-neck caused by the toll itself. Mosquito infestation? Blah! We’ll fix it. Send 40% of those mosquitoes to your brother’s house. It’s poor business ethic, plain and simple.

I truly thought that Bloomberg, who ran as a Republican and later changed to a more Independent approach, was a person learning lessons. If so, it might then follow that at least some of those lessons would be the lessons of history. The congestion pricing proposal for NYC flagrantly ignored so many of the lessons of history that it became quite difficult to see anything inspired in the idea.

It ignored the countless news broadcasts, two toll hikes ago in 2001, that showed New Jersey drivers furious over NYC inbound tolls going up as they commuted to work, but surprisingly showed Manhattanites who were happy as pie and grossly over-thankful for the increase, figuring the hike would keep more cars out of “their” city. It didn’t, at least not until 9 months had passed and even then to a tune of a trivial 2%. Such broadcasts overtly laid those Manhattanite desires right out for everyone to hear. Do we really think those desires faded in just five or six years? Do Manhattanites deserve special treatment over others in their own city, OUR city?

It also ignored the history of the bridges bringing the city together as a single entity, a story founded on more than just matters of transit, money, trade and traffic, but one deeply rooted in culture, immersion, freedom, and empowerment. The History Channel even ran an ironically recent special on these giant NYC bridges and how they made the city whole. Cast in the light of bridge-building past, the congestion pricing proposal cannot hope to achieve any greater reputation than that of purposeful division.

I guess it also doesn’t help that the proposal ignored years of widely publicized complaints from Triborough Bridge users. In a nutshell, users of this bridge are chiefly New York City residents who are forced to pay a toll to get both to and from work within their own home town, the folks whom I’d mentioned earlier as being charged to get into their own neighborhoods. The Triborough Bridge, a bridge with three legs (plus) that actually reaches three city destinations, while placed perfectly to service three boroughs, is also at a cross-purposed niche in the city geography. It is both near the center of the city and used as an entry point. It is controlled by The Metropolitan Transit Authority and tolled much as the New Jersey crossings are despite the fact that no end of it touches New Jersey, no end leaves NYC, and it stretches across the same river as all the free bridges. The weirdness of the Triborough’s status aside, years of complaints from commuters have yielded years of responses from city officials. For decades now the typical response had been that if Queens residents wish not to pay Triborough tolls to enter Manhattan, they already have another free alternative, the 59th Street Bridge (Queensboro Bridge). Well, that response seems to imply that if Queens residents had no alternative, the Triborough Bridge toll would be eliminated. Did I say implied? The wording of this repeatedly visited response, when stated officially, is practically a promise. Under congestion pricing, there would be no alternative. Yet, was there any provision to address this historical fact, any provision that would have city officials and the MTA make good on their promise? Nope. In fact, it is more likely the Triborough Bridge toll would need be nearly doubled to match congestion pricing on the other bridges. Voilà! Another turbulent verbal history of citizen voice verses government rationalization ignored as Bloomberg’s skirmishers beseeched Albany to pass the bill.

Perhaps the easiest reel of history for our representatives to have shelved was the common sense episode. Tolls, for the most part, are meant to help pay for new thoroughfares. They offset new bridge costs and new highway costs, ensuring that public projects eventually pay for themselves. Specifically, they are a plan to guarantee that those who foot the bill are those who use the road, and not an additional tax hike on six million people who stayed at home summer Fridays picking their toes. Sometimes, tolls are instead worked into a broader shard of the revenue system, not only paying for the road over which one travels, but additionally helping to pay for related initiatives, like transit in general, or unrelated initiatives like public schools, police protection, and the Mayor’s penis pump. In either case, there is an unavoidable chronology in the purposing of tolls. In the first case mentioned, tolls have a built-in end date. They are placed for a number of years and then removed when the road construction and maintenance costs have been superseded. New York City need only look to its near neighbor, the Southern State Parkway for this example. In the second case mentioned, tolls are placed when the road is built and are planned to remain in that location indefinitely. NYC’s other near neighbor, The New Jersey Turnpike, is a shining and despicably expensive example of this usage. However, does anyone care that in neither case is a road allowed to remain free for a century and then get tolled later on? That’s a step backwards! A twelve year old kid can tell that's a decision that moves in completely the wrong direction. This concept is consumately un-American. To find its like, one has to stretch for examples all the way across the Atlantic Ocean or into nations with whom we would never share economic policy. We are not Stockholm on the Hudson. You know, the plain common sense of it is that Manhattan traffic will not be viabley curtailed. For every vehicle you get out of the area, another one will take its place eventually, usually from within Manhattan by people living there. Where do we get off suggesting a rigid policy that even distantly approaches the ideal of, “If you want to drive here, you have to be rich...and we're willing to move backwards to enforce that?”

In the end, maybe the folks on my side in Albany had it right. Maybe all these many solid arguments were just too common, too easy to overlook as non-points and non-politics. Maybe the “race card” or the “unfair tax” approach had more on the ball than I’d realized. I mean, after all, it is one more well known lesson of history that Robert Moses, power broker who saw to the construction of the Northern and Southern State Parkways, each stretching east over Long Island from NYC, sought to prejudicially exclude. All the cross-street bridges over both parkways were purposely built too low to allow buses to pass thereunder. It was an artifice specifically employed to disallow poorer people (urban minorities) from making their way to Long Island. That’s a bit of a Berlin Wall, a kind of lowbrow force field. Well, what is Bloomberg, but a rich power broker? I personally don’t hear a speck of bigotry in his speeches. That shows he’s careful, careful enough to tailor every quip, careful enough not to use language that divides. It begs the question then, why he as such a careful, rich, power broker would elect to back a policy that so clearly lumps him into historical association with another who deliberately sought to divide, maybe even conquer. Aren’t appearances everything?


Anonymous said...

Wow! Great, informative post. Your attention to historic and geographic detail was fascinating. Thanks.

Pockets said...

Update, 11/2008, The Triborough Bridge has been renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge.