An Interesting Idea

Robert Frank is trying to defuse the political opposition to congestion pricing in Manhattan:

Essentially the same strategy could salvage the proposed congestion fee for Manhattan and other cities. Most people who commute regularly by car into Manhattan are not poor, and most low-income workers in Manhattan already use public transportation for their daily commute. The problem cases are low-income workers who must occasionally drive into the city on weekdays. For such people, congestion fees would indeed constitute a new burden.

But this burden could easily be eliminated by giving every low-income worker in Manhattan an annual allotment of transferable congestion vouchers. On the rare occasions when these workers needed to drive into the city, they could do so free of charge. And they could earn some extra money by selling any vouchers they didn’t need on Craigslist.

I certainly think this is worth trying, but I suppose I wonder whether it will actually change the political dynamic all that much. It’s worth recalling that revenues from the charge were meant to fund transit, and that outer borough legislators opposing the plan largely came from Districts where lower income workers overwhelmingly used transit to commute. In other words, the crucial opposing push came from self-interested drivers, mostly middle and upper income individuals who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the vouchers.

I suppose the introduction of the vouchers might be expected to amplify the voices of the low income commuters who would most benefit from the plan, which might be enough to put it over the top. But the biggest problem in getting market prices for scarce public resources introduced is that regular users just don’t seem to imagine that they’ll benefit. I don’t know how you get around that.


  1. Dan says:

    There was talk of rebates for the poor when the proposal was being debated as a means of pacifying the opposition. It didn’t work. Everyone was against it. CP supporters thought it would water down the system through eventual civil service exemptions and opponents of CP just switched to saying that sick people taking car services would be hurt instead.

    I don’t think New York is a good general example for why road pricing failed. The mayor was for it. The City Council voted for it. The DOT was in favor. Local civic and business groups were supportive. If that was all it took the city would have priced the roads last year. It was really the insanely corrupt and notorious state government apparatus that pushed the whole thing off the rails. And certainly there’s plenty of debate as to why that happened and what would have made a difference, but one of the most important things to keep in mind here is that at the state level corruption is out of control and legislators rarely face electoral challenges. If you only had to get a handful of outer borough city council members on board, that would be one thing, but to get this passed you’re going to need to get someone from Utica to vote for it.

    I hate to admit that I can’t imagine CP being implemented in New York but after watching various road tolling and pricing plans go down to HUGE defeats in the past year I think it’s safe to say that the New York State Legislature would rather vote for pay cuts for members before they would vote to price the roads.

  2. Aaron says:

    Dan nailed it.

    Congestion pricing didn’t lose due to any failure in policy. It failed because of the decrepit culture and politics of Albany. New York’s state legislators, for the most part, don’t particularly care about policy.