January/February 1995, p.6

From The Streets
Saving the Fare With Roadway Pricing

Charlie Komanoff

In an article in Auto-Free Press last July, I advocated comprehensive "roadway pricing" in New York City. I outlined smog fees, congestion charges and weight-distance taxes to raise billions for transit and wean New Yorkers off reliance on cars.

But it may take years to fully institute the ultimate system, one that meters and charges each vehicle's emissions and miles driven. New York needs roadway pricing now, to defend the subways against budget cuts and fare increases.

Tapping new revenue sources is a transit tradition dating back fifty years. Currently just over half of the transit budget comes from riders; motorists contribute around 10% through bridge and tunnel tolls and the state's Petroleum Business Tax, and the remainder is provided from general city, state and federal sources. But tax-cut fever is squeezing government's share. Looming are a fare of $1.35 or more and deep cuts in the subway rebuilding plan, unless new funding sources can be tapped.

Stiffer charges on driving are the obvious choice. Even with the highest tolls and fees in America, driving in NYC is subsidized heavily, by taxpayers who pay for roads and by everyone who suffers traffic's economic and social harms.

Here are three candidates for raising more money from drivers for transit starting today:

  • Taxi Surcharge--Medallion cabs log three-quarters of a billion miles a year, mostly in Manhattan where driving's cost to life, limb and lungs is greatest. A surcharge of 25/mile on peak-hour fares (10/mile off-peak), paid by passengers, could generate $125 million a year. Drivers would ante up the charge on all cruising (non-fare) miles, encouraging use of cab stands and reducing congestion. Existing meters could be modified easily to record time and distance driven. Extra charge on a nighttime cab ride from midtown Manhattan to Park Slope: about $1.25, cost of a subway token.
  • East River Bridge Tolls--The City Dept of Transportation estimates that $3 tolls on the four East River bridges could raise $375 million a year. Electronic tolling, using the E-Z pass system in place on the Tappan Zee Bridge, would obviate the need for traffic-tying toll plazas. Similar tolls on the Harlem River bridges could net another $300 million.
  • On-Street Parking Permits--Cars parked at curbside take up enormous (and valuable) space--some 3,000 acres worth city-wide. Only a tiny fraction of this space is metered. Without relaxing current parking rules, the city could license curbside parking to residents. Annual fees would reflect land values--perhaps $500 a year in Manhattan below 96th Street $100 a year on Staten Island, and $250 a year everywhere else. Potential revenue from an estimated 1.1 million permits: $280 million.

Subway and bus ridership totals 1.4 billion fares a year, yielding the rule of thumb that each $100 million in new financing offsets a 7 fare boost. Thus, the measures outlined here, with a combined revenue potential approaching $1.1 billion, could offset 75 per fare.

More modestly, just half this amount would more than allow (1) canceling the dime fare hike slated for next January; (ii) free transfers eliminating all 2- and 3-fare zones; and (iii) restoring the city's full contribution to the MTA capital plan, financing the rebuilding of the Franklin Avenue shuttle in Brooklyn, the West Side 72nd St subway station and other key facilities.

T.A. is weighing injecting this plan into the debate over transit financing. Having motorists underwrite subways and buses makes transportation and environmental sense. And it would benefit low-income families, given that well-to-do NYC households drive five times above the city average, whereas transit use is level across income groups.

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