Monday, August 20, 2007

Congestion Taxing: It's Debatable

Yesterday, on Channel 4's News Forum, Jay DeDapper hosted a lively debate between Assemblyman Richard Brodsky and the NYC Partnership's Kathy Wylde on the merits and prospects for the mayor's congestion tax plan. Liz Benjamin happily supplied the transcript last Friday. The debate was revealing for a number of important reasons.

In the first place, what comes through clearly is the degree of skepticism that Brodsky, and apparently his colleagues as well, have for, not only the substance of the mayor's plan, but for the methods that he has used to gain acceptance for it. The key Brodsky phrase: "Bum's rush."

In addition, Brodsky feels that the commission's mandate is more expansive than what the mayor and his supporters apparently conceive it should be. The money quote: "...congestion's a problem, and we haven't funded our mass transit system adequately. Whether we need to do a pricing mechanism, whether there are other things that would work as well is really what the commission's mandate is..."

Brodsky also bristled at DeDapper's statement that the mayor's people feel that "the fix's in." He goes on to tell the host that this is the kind of hubris that got the mayor into trouble in the first place; an example, he says, of Mike Bloomberg " at his worst."

What's fascinating here as well, is how Wylde characterizes the process. She tells DeDapper that she has been working for two years on this. Say what? Is she saying that the Bloomberg administration, in partnership with the city's power elite, has been planning this scheme before anyone was publicly made aware of what was going on? What is Wylde saying about doing "three years of study" on the congestion issue?

What did her study say? "We did a study that showed $13 billion a year in new-in additional costs and losses of revenue and another 50,000 jobs that are lost because of the delays...associated with traffic congestion." A heckuva study Ms. Wylde! What's interesting here-aside from the study's provenance-is that the Partnership has endorsed a long-held view on the "externality costs" of traffic congestion that has been pioneered in this area by Brian Ketcham. Brian has employed this analysis to critique the proliferation of box stores and large shopping centers in NYC.

The twist here is that the critique has been leveled at those major developers who make up the leadership structure of the Partnership itself. And guess what? The Ketcham analysis has been uniformly ridiculed and discounted by the consultants in the employ of these good real estate moguls. But now we see it trotted out in support of the mayor's plan-but not for the Gateway Malls in the Bronx and Brooklyn, or the Vronado Mall in Rego Park-neighborhoods where congestion has actually increased in the past few years, and areas where asthma rates are much higher than in the CBD.

But if the Partnership has been studying this issue for three years, pray tell us what is its ulterior motive? Surely, no one believes that it is motivated purely by the public interest. There are multi-billion dollar real estate projects to be bid, and there is reason to conclude that there may be some connection between the Partnership's new-found environmentalism and the prospect of favored nation status with the Bloombergistas.

In any case, if it took the Partnership three years to reach its conclusion-in research that wasn't vetted by anyone independent of the organization's interests-than it is reasonable to demand that a full independent review of the Partnership's work be done in a time-frame that would allow the same degree of due diligence. Don't you think?

So we are back to the original Brodsky point about the mayor's hubris. He colludes behind the scenes for years with the city's major real estate elites and then- Voila!-introduces an absolutely essential global plan to save the city from the deleterious effects of traffic and pollution. And by the way, you need to approve this, tout de suite.

All the more reason why we need to not suspend our disbelief when all of these masters of the universe get together to save us from ourselves. Quite frankly, their motives need to be thoroughly examined; at the same time that their environmental assumptions are put to a very independent test.