A Middle Class Tax

Cuomo's Congestion Pricing Plan: What it means for Roosevelt Island

Updated 29 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 and now nearing approval, may or may not be good politics. Time will tell. But it's, in essence, a tax aimed like a slightly poisoned arrow at the middle class. That's bad for Roosevelt Island.

What Does the Congestion Pricing Plan Do?

Now that Democrats have now seized control of both houses of the State legislature, reports are that congestion pricing, a solution for reducing Manhattan traffic while funding subway upgrades at the same time, is nearing approval with Assembly Speaker Carl E Heastie getting credit for merging a diversity of interests in his chamber.

A vegetable soup of exceptions are being considered. So far, Roosevelt Island's name hasn't surfaced, and our Assembly representative Rebecca Seawright, who specializes in PR, has been invisible. 

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No one anywhere has yet called attention to the fact that another new tax is being heaped on what's already a hefty burden because the State needs to catch up on decades of neglect or catch hell from voters. And there's no hint that some main beneficiaries of reliable subway service - Manhattan real estate developers and outer borough riders - will pay a fair share.

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."

The unfair for-hire piece of the solution is already in place. Yesterday, my Lyft to our vets office on 66th Street included charges for a Congestion Surcharge of $2.75, a Black Car Fund Surcharge of $.44 along with the usual State Sales Tax of $1.56. That's a 27% tax penalty for living on Roosevelt Island.

Now, we're about to get soaked for not for hire vehicles too.

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, Lyft or Uber.

Beneath the surface, this foolishness is as much retaliation by Cuomo targeted at his nemesis, Mayor Bill di Blasio, provoked by the emergence of Cynthia Nixon. A di Blasio ally, Nixon mounted a stiff enough challenge to Cuomo in the Democratic primary last year to whip him into becoming the liberal he always claimed he was, if not a progressive.

What makes the new tax so bad for 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 in 2017 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, if not already locations safely within the zone, would have been driven by a chauffeur, maybe even driven his or her own vehicle, paying little attention to parking fees.

And contributing nothing towards the subway fix. 

Riders with tighter budgets take 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.

More fair, if imperfect, is Mayor Bill de 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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