Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Congestion Clouds Clear Thinking

There's an interesting post today on the Gotham Gazette website by Bruce Schaller in defense of the mayor's congestion pricing plan. Schaller, a transportation advisor, ventures into the political realm in his post today and foresees that New Yorkers will eventually buy into the mayor's scheme. Let's examine his prediction.

The major thrust of his argument is that once New Yorkers are apprised of the benefits of the plan they won't hesitate to sign on to the proposal; "As the debate continues, it is likely that New Yorkers will focus more on the benefits to them personally and the city at large." The problem with Schaller's assertion is that it is premised on his strong belief in a mass transportation ethos, and he is so convinced of the rectitude of his belief that he can't help but believe that his fellow citizens will follow in the path of righteousness.

What Schaller envisions is all of the wonderful things that the congestion tax revenue would subsidize ( money that, "would fund the $31 billion in transit projects"). It is literally a transportation advocates wet dream, a cornucopia of subway construction, bridge repair and infrastructure bolstering. As he points out, "Far more people will benefit from the mayor's plan than will be affected by the congestion fee."

Ah yes, but Bruce neglects an important axiom of politics, one that was articulated by Robert Dahl many years ago: "An intense minority will overwhelm an apathetic majority." There will be a passionate and intense opposition to the mayor's plan, and the majority of folks who would supposedly benefit from it may not be as susceptible, as Bruce is, to the putative future benefits.

In addition, there are a great number of cynical New Yorkers who will see the generation of this kind of money, and the creation of a "transportation financing authority," as a boondoggle in the making (And won't, we believe, see clearly the environmental benefits that Schaller does). Also, don't forget that most New Yorkers will be very lucky to live long enough to see any of these grandiose plans come to fruition.

Yet all of the questionable political musings are in fact a cover for the ideological-tax and spend-mindset that animates Schaller's arguments. He points out, tendentiously in our view, that "outer borough auto commuters tend to have higher incomes than subway commuters, so a fee that improves transit is actually more equitable than the current system. In fact, auto commuters who use the free bridges are being subsidized by transit users whose taxes pay for bridge reconstruction and maintenance. Is that equitable?"

Why yes, it is eminently equitable because, as Schaller indicates, the higher income folks are the ones coming in in this manner and it is their greater income generation that fuels the economic engine. Equity in this case is not encompassed in by a redistributive mentality, but by a system that innervates the most ambitious wealth generators (who in turn raise employment levels and incomes for the transit riders).

One final thought. Schaller concludes his piece by talking about the fact that "childhood asthma rates are four times higher in the city than nationally." In regards to the mayor's plan this is a classic straw man argument. The reason it is inheres in the glaring lacuna in the mayor's Utopian greening of New York proposal. The gap here devolves from the fact that the mayor fails to mention, not a single word, his five years of oute borough big box shopping center development that will add millions of more tons of CO2 emissions to the city's air.

What are we to make of the building of over 500,000 square feet of box store malls on the site of the old Bronx Terminal Market-the geographic area that has been labelled 'asthma alley'?" What about the expansion of Gateway Estates in Brooklyn, the mall that chokes the Belt Parkway every weekend? Exacerbating these developments, and don't forget Willets Point on the horizon, is the fact that they pull shoppers off of the neighborhood walk-to-shop areas that the mayor hasn't shown the slightest degree of appreciation for.

Any view of a sustainable New York that doesn't address these issues is not only a diluted one, it is also hypocritical, since the man spearheading PlaNYC is none other than Deputy Dan, the major cheerleader for all of the box store projects of his friend at Related, Steve Ross. So our view is that Schaller needs to get out more and get a better grip on the pulse of the city. We strongly believe that Anthony Weiner's political instincts are more prescient than BMT Bruce.