Monday, December 15, 2008

Taxing Congestion Credulity

The NY Times has a fascinating story in yesterday's edition on the diminishing traffic headed into midtown over the past few years: "As the city’s economy soared and its population grew from 2003 through 2007, something unusual was happening on the streets and in the subway tunnels. All those tens of thousands of new jobs and residents meant that more people were moving around the city, going to work, going shopping, visiting friends. And yet, according to a new city study, the volume of traffic on the streets and highways remained largely unchanged, in fact declining slightly."

So, let's get this straight. Mike Bloomberg plays Chicken Little for a year in a failed attempt to get his congestion tax passed, and now we find out that: "Instead, virtually the entire increase in New Yorkers’ means of transportation during those robust years occurred in mass transit, with a surge in subway, bus and commuter rail riders. “What you see is that for the first time since at least World War II, all of the growth in travel in the city has been absorbed by non-auto modes, primarily by mass transit,” said Bruce Schaller, New York’s deputy transportation commissioner for planning and sustainability, who wrote the study, which is to be released on Monday."

So New Yorkers were moving to mass transit in what amounts to an organic process, unaided by any particular city policy, and the mayor decides to tax us to drive more folks to-well, mass transit; in a system that was becoming overcrowded and in need of expansion and repair. Yet, these trends fail to convince the tax plotters of the need to first do the improvements before increasing the tax burden on New Yorkers.

As the Times points out: "The city’s sprawling public transportation system was able to handle such a surge because of vast improvements in service in recent years, Mr. Schaller said, as well as the advent of the MetroCard, which made using the system more efficient. A steep drop in crime made people more willing to use the system, and the construction of housing in areas well served by subways also brought in many more riders."

What the mayor should have been doing in his first two terms, was advocating for the mass transit system first-not promoting a tax that set the city up into two antagonistic camps; realizing at the same time that many of us drive because of the unavailability of convenient mass transit alternatives.

And remember the arguments about traffic in the CBD-a cause for such environmental concern? "Mr. Schaller said that vehicle trips citywide peaked in 1999 and then leveled off, with a dip in 2001 as a result of the terror attack on the World Trade Center. The overall trend has been largely stable traffic volumes across the city from 1999 through 2007. In contrast, during the years when the economy was most buoyant, from 2003 to 2007, transit ridership soared, increasing about 9 percent during those years, according to the city study. The difference is even greater when the focus is on the core commercial district of Manhattan, south of 60th Street. From 2003 to 2007, the study found, traffic entering that area fell by 3 percent. During the same period, transit ridership into the same zone rose 12 percent."

In our mind, this crucial study should have been part of a proper due diligence before any congestion tax scheme was proposed. As the Times tells us: "The flattening of overall traffic volumes, with an actual decline in Manhattan’s main business district, raises questions about the need for congestion pricing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s failed plan to charge drivers to enter the busiest parts of Manhattan."

All of this underscores the extent to which Mike Bloomberg shoots from the hip-advocating policies that advance his own political agenda but that fail the smell test of data-driven credibility. And now he also wants to add more bike lanes, further congesting local streets. Its time to change our leadership, and get a mayor who's more accountable to the people.