Some politicians give out “candy.” Some give out “medicine.” That’s the nature of politics. But what’s unacceptable is giving people medicine and telling them it’s candy.
That’s what Gov. Kathy Hochul is doing with congestion pricing. As is often the case with problematic legislation, the plan’s sponsors are concealing the real objective. Instead, they appeal to us with noble causes and the promise of feel-good results.
In this case, we’ve been told the new tolls will discourage vehicle use and ease Midtown congestion while compelling commuters to make greater use of mass transit. Our transit system will be flush with cash, gas emissions will be reduced, our air will be cleaner, and New York will be a green leader. We’ll be more energy-independent and less reliant on foreign oil, all of which underscores the larger theme that we can stop climate change and preserve our planet.
It sounds great, and to be clear, these are worthy objectives that those on both sides of the aisle should get behind — except, when it comes to this congestion pricing plan, none of it is true. In fact, it won’t be achieved, because congestion reduction isn’t even the goal. In actuality, this is a fabricated narrative designed to dress up a controversial money grab, one that is desperately needed to bolster the ailing and notoriously inefficient Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
But don’t take my word for it. A simple perusal of the plan’s official budget predictions indicates that its creators expect absolutely no decline in traffic. To the contrary, they’re counting on traffic to remain the same, or increase, in order to meet their budgetary needs. So, while we’re hoping for a greener environment and better mass-transit alternatives, Hochul and her advisers are hoping for greener bank accounts.
You have only to look beyond revenue projections at actual budget allocations for further confirmation. You’ll discover that the bulk of the tolling revenue is already earmarked for the MTA’s Capital Program, which has a current funding shortfall approaching $1 billion. That’s just part of the MTA’s shocking $48 billion in overall debt.
To make matters clearer, not a penny of the congestion-pricing revenue will be used to lower fares on subways, buses or railroads — the very use it supposedly seeks to encourage. That raises the obvious question: If the intention was to promote the use of mass transit, wouldn’t the planners use the funding windfall to reduce fares and make mass transit more accessible to a greater number of commuters? That would do the most good for the most people, and make sense.
Let’s face it. The laws of marketing work in government as they do elsewhere. If a product is needed, good and cost-effective, people will utilize it. Likewise, if mass transit is needed, good and cost-effective, we can popularize it.
But the MTA never achieves the cost-effective, because too many private interests are at stake. So, rather than address the elephant in the room, our leaders will once again try to tax their way out of a problem. In the end, the MTA gets a new funding source. We get the same traffic, same pollution, same train fares, except now we all pay extra for it.
We could get into the weeds on the many reasons this policy is debatable, but that’s the point. Such far-reaching legislation requires honest debate and input from those who must abide by it. But honest is the operative word, because misrepresenting intentions is cynical. False promises do more than advance questionable policy; they break the public’s trust in government. And we just can’t afford that right now.
The real key to going green is to make green the obvious choice. It’s high time we give it a try, but congestion pricing is not a sincere attempt. That would require a non-political audit of the MTA to establish real assessments of how to achieve green goals.
And therein lies the rub. Just once, I’d like my counterparts in government to give it to us straight. If the governor and the MTA want congestion pricing so badly, tell us the truth about why. At least we’d know we’re being force-fed a heaping tablespoon of bad medicine.
Jack M. Martins represents the 7th Senate District.