Good Ideas on NYC Congestion

Brad Aaron has news of developments

with NYC’s congestion pricing plan. If you recall, the mayor put forward

a proposal which now needs to be ratified by a whole bunch of constituencies,

including the city and state legislatures. But before it gets there, it needs

to go through the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission first – a commission

which is charged with reviewing the mayor’s plan and making changes which might

improve it without decreasing the amount of congestion relieved.

And it turns out, to my utter astonishment, that the commission’s ideas, as

reported by Erik Engquist of Crain’s, are actually really good.

For one thing, the commission would like to apply the charge to all the cars

from New Jersey which presently clog up New York City’s streets. Those cars

already pay a toll to come through the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, and the

mayor’s plan essentially says that that once they’ve paid that toll they need

not pay a congestion charge on top. That makes New Jersey drivers pretty much

the only drivers who won’t see an increase in charges should the mayor’s

plan come into effect. That’s silly, and the commission’s plan to impose the

congestion charge on New Jersey drivers is a very good one. Reports Engquist:

Hitting toll payers with a congestion fee might discourage so many from driving

that toll revenues would plunge for the Port Authority of New York and New

Jersey, which operates the Holland and Lincoln tunnels, and the Metropolitan

Transportation Authority, which runs other tunnels and bridges. Both authorities

rely on toll money to fund debt obligations.

This sounds very much like an objection that the commission’s proposed scheme

would work too well. Discouraging commuters from driving in from New Jersey

is exactly what the congestion charge is meant to achieve. If that means lower

tunnel tolls, so be it.

The commission also has good ideas on parking:

Much higher fees for on-street parking, and perhaps a new tax on garage parking,

would be imposed to raise revenues and discourage driving in the central business


Again, this is a great idea. At the moment, a large proportion of NYC traffic

is cars driving around in circles, looking for a hugely-valuable Spot. Spots

are so cheap, people will spend an enormous amount of time and effort looking

for them. That’s because they’re mispriced. If Spots are priced more realistically,

that will help reduce some of the most harmful congestion: the slow circling

which is pretty much pure deadweight economic loss.

The commission also wants to make the plan much simpler and much cheaper, by

drastically reducing the number of cameras involved. Rather than placing cameras

only at the periphery of the congestion zone, the mayor’s plan placed them all

over it, so as to catch people driving their cars within the zone. The logistics

were daunting, and administrative costs were projected to eat up 40% of revenues.

The commission has a better idea. Move the northern boundary of the congestion

zone down to 60th Street, from 86th Street. By doing so, you exclude from the

zone the majority of car owners who would otherwise have been in it, which means

that the problem of people living and driving within the zone becomes a tiny

one. You can then basically ignore that problem, and move to a London-style

approach of having cameras only on the periphery.

The one area which remains fraught is the East River crossings. The midtown

tunnel presently has a toll – will that be deductible from the congestion

charge? And should the East River bridges have a charge over and above the congestion

fee? My feeling is that they shouldn’t, since the congestion fee is essentially

going to be a charge for crossing those bridges anyway.

But overall, I like the direction this plan is moving. I only hope that it

has political legs.

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