A Middle Class Tax

Why Cuomo's Congestion Pricing Plan Is Terrible for Roosevelt Island

Updated 35 weeks ago David Stone
Get ready to pay more...
Get ready to pay more...

Governor Andrew Cuomo's congestions pricing plan, aimed at reducing Manhattan Traffic while providing new funds for the MTA, may or may not be good politics. Time will tell. But it's, in essence, a tax aimed squarely at the middle class, and that's bad for communities like Roosevelt Island.

What Does the Congestion Pricing Plan Do?

Quoting the New York Times, "The plan arbitrarily divides the vehicles that ply our streets into for-hire vehicles and applies a surcharge — $2.50 per trip for taxis, $2.75 for for-hire, $0.75 shared for-hire — and lets all other vehicles go free."

These will be tacked onto every ride south of 96 Street in Manhattan, excluding Roosevelt Island, of course. (Without exception, news articles and reports on television fail to notice that Roosevelt Island is part of the borough, almost entirely within the new tax zone.)

It's even a little worse for the lower middle class, a group more likely to seek savings with shared-for-hire services like Via. That $0.75 charge is per rider. In other words, with a share of four, which is about average, the extra charge is $3.00, more than for taxis or Lyft.

Beneath the surface, this foolishness is as much retaliation by Cuomo targeted at his nemesis, Mayor Bill di Blasio, provoked like much of the new State budget by the emergence of Cynthia Nixon. A di Blasio ally, Nixon is mounting a stiff challenge to Cuomo in the Democratic primary for governor.

What makes the new tax so bad for middle class communities like ours is that it will be paid almost exclusively by middle class riders.

Few of us own cars, and even fewer who do risk high parking fees and congestion in the streets across the East River on the big island. Mostly, we rely on the subway, the Tram and the ferry. But there are times when we need to pull up our Lyft apps or hail a yellow cab.

When I had to get to Mount Sinai very early in the morning last summer for cataract surgery, I knew I couldn't rely on the subway at 5:00 a.m. But Lyft fetched me a driver, right away. Coming home, eye-patch and all, I returned to my usual subway dependence. That ride would now cost me an extra $2.75, not a crusher, but unfair, anyway.

A wealthy New Yorker would have been driven by a chauffeur or taken his or her own vehicle, paying little attention to parking fees. And contributing nothing towards the new tax. 

Riders with tighter budgets would have risked the subway, also escaping the tax.

What Congestion Pricing Doesn't Do

For one thing, it doesn't put the cost for supporting the subway where it should be, that is, on those who benefit most from it.

The subway altered New York City forever by making it possible for business owners to bring in floods of workers from the outer boroughs and ship them back out at day's end. It provides employment, but businesses pay little or nothing extra for the service. Everyday taxpayers foot whatever the fares don't cover.

And if you can afford to drive a private car in Manhattan, you won't pay either.

More fair, if imperfect, is di Blasio's "millionaires tax" to cover subway costs, a plan not hitched to congestion pricing. It pegs the costs to those most able to pay, even if it has a bit of a class warfare odor. The "millionaires" might make a case that they bear a hefty share of expenses already.

But the dirty secret never publicly whispered that weighs on the dilemma of subway funding is that subway deficits are largely driven by 24-hour services to under used lines outside Manhattan. That's a political issue no one hunting for voters is willing to face.

Years ago, discussions rose over adding fare zones where longer distance riders pay more because they get more, but political courage failed when Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx subway riders were angered.

The result, so far, is this badly designed congestion plan New York State will soon foist on the city. It will help with subway funding, but it does so by tapping the wrong resources.

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