Congestion pricing is mainly about punishing suburbanites

MUNI Buses

There’s nothing wrong with congestion pricing when it’s a market response. But this is ideological. Officials want to impose a new fee on suburbanites so that they will either move into the city, or rely on public transit because it makes more financial sense for them.

The privilege of working in or visiting Manhattan could soon be higher than the cost of lunch. As U.S. Reps. Mike Lawler and Josh Gottheimer put it in a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece, a proposed increase in the tunnel toll is “a greedy and unnecessary cash grab.”

It is also an effort to manipulate suburbanites, either forcing them out of their cars and into public transit or into the city to live.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved late last year a congestion pricing plan that charges $15 in addition to the regular tolls on cars entering Manhattan from 60th Street and below. The pricing will start at 5 a.m. during weekdays and last until 9 p.m. The weekend window begins at 9 a.m. and will stay open until 9 p.m.

There’s nothing wrong with congestion pricing when it’s a market response. But this is ideological. Officials want to impose a new fee on suburbanites so that they will either move into the city, or rely on public transit because it makes more financial sense for them. Never mind that stuffing more people into a system that in many cases simply doesn’t finish the job – not every destination is near a station or stop – will compound their commuting headaches.

The increase is also punitive, added to the existing toll that for some is already stiff. As Lawler, a Rockland County, N.Y., Republican, and Gottheimer, a New Jersey Democrat representing the northern edge of the state, noted, “New York being New York,” the financial pain “doesn’t stop there.”

“The MTA has unilateral authority to declare ‘Gridlock Alert Days’ whenever it needs to line its pockets more, which will add 25% surge pricing to the daily invoice. The state has also reserved the authority to raise the congestion tax by 10% in 2024, its very first year.”

At the same time, California is being California. The toll to cross what might be the most famous bridge in the world might ​be raised to $11.25 from the current $8.75, which itself was a hike from the $7 toll in 2018. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that “The Golden Gate Bridge, Highway & Transportation District, which oversees the namesake bridge and bus and ferry transit from the North Bay to San Francisco, is considering four increases to narrow a steep budget gap.”

A more direct phrasing would say that officials want drivers to bail out San Francisco’s failing public transit system.

One year ago, BART was headed toward a “fiscal cliff.” The San Francisco Chronicle wondered if the Bay Area would lose BART, and later reported that “BART and Muni’s death spiral  is ‘closer than we think.’” The agencies were looking for a $5 billion taxpayer rescue “to avoid ‘doomsday’ service cuts after they exhaust what’s left of the $4.5 billion in federal aid they’ve used to operate trains, buses and ferries during the pandemic.”

By November, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, made up of elected officials from the nine-county Bay Area, had approved “a $350 million lifeline for the struggling BART system,” Governing reported, the funds “drawn from $5 billion provided by California lawmakers last year to prop up ailing transit agencies.”

The new year did nothing to ease the hardship. In January, the commission had decided to “pursue legislation in Sacramento this year that would enable Bay Area voters to consider a transportation revenue measure as early as November 2026.” The figure in the commissioners’ heads was $1 billion a year. Bridge tolls were “not an option” for covering the gap, Chairman Alfredo Pedroza said. “We think it’s smart to look at more than a regional sales tax.”

Hardly a week later, the news broke of the proposed toll hike to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Nothing about either proposal will make living in cities a better experience. Swabbing the filthy decks of transit systems would help, as would making them safer for patrons who don’t want to think their next ride might be their last. The latest data shows San Francisco hitting a record-high vacancy rate (36.6%), so it’s likely to backfire.

A survey of 1,000 Bay Area residents taken in spring 2023 found that “concerns about safety, fear, and cleanliness” were “the top-cited reasons not to ride BART more often.” People don’t like watching fare jumpers leap gates. Nor do they want to sit or stand next to or near those who’ve made their “homes” in the trains. The mentally ill and addicted who act erratically also make the experience uncomfortable. Sixty-five percent agreed that “BART should focus only on running a clean, safe, and reliable public transit system, and let other public agencies deal with the problems of people in crisis.”

Improving reliability is another target that officials should focus on. The roads are filled with drivers who would rather fight traffic than deal with a system that offers service that can’t be trusted.

We could suggest that transit agencies run their systems as if they were businesses and had to respond to market pressures. But that won’t happen unless the systems are sold to for-profit companies – which isn’t a terrible idea.

Kerry Jackson is the William Clement Fellow in California Reform at the Pacific Research Institute.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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