November/December 1995, p.6

Motorists Can Save the Subways

By Charles Komanoff

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Psst-Mayor Giuliani- wanna shave a nickel off the 25 cent subway fare increase? In fact, want to stave off the entire fare hike?

Start here: raise the charge for medallion cab rides by a quarter a mile. By re-tooling electronic taxi meters, the City can collect the surcharge from fleet owners and turn over the proceeds to the Transit Authority. Bingo! $90 million a year in new revenues, enough to defray 6 or 7 cents of the fare increase. Can taxi passengers afford to shell out an extra 25 cents a mile (trimmed to a dime at night, when safety is a greater concern)? Better than the rest of us can handle a fare hike. A typical taxi ride, 2 to 3 miles, would cost an extra half a buck. An affluent Manhattanite who can afford four cab rides a day would pay $750 a year. The occasional, twice-a-week rider would fork over $55. The vast majority of New Yorkers who rarely take medallion cabs would pay little or nothing.

But should we charge taxi riders to hold down subway and bus fares? Yes again. Helping mass transit is a way for the cab-using minority to pay back New Yorkers for the fumes, noise, and menace that go with half-a-billion miles a year of taxi travel.
Self-interest also dictates that motorists support the subways. In our crowded metropolis, even modest increments in auto use quickly beget gridlock. Increased road traffic from a $1.50 fare-and from service cuts and a stalled rebuilding program-will make travel even more stressful and time-consuming for motorists as well as straphangers.

Increasingly, motorists understand that transit benefits them by offering others an alternative to the car. In a 1992 poll by the Lehrman Institute, three of five city motorists favored transit spending over highways. Today's transit budget shortfall, caused by city, state and federal cutbacks, warrants the next step: selectively raising motorist fees and tolls.

The taxi fare surcharge is only one such revenue option. A $100 a year increase in auto registration fees would raise almost $200 million. Boosting the statewide wholesale petroleum tax by 20 cents a gallon would generate $250 million for the City-and twice that for the rest of New York State, helping localities fund transit and cut property taxes that pay for road repair.

One of the one hundred T.A. volunteers handing out leaflets in the subways this summer.Just these three measures would provide $530 million a year, about what the Transit Authority needs to hold the $1.25 fare, resume its rebuilding program and eliminate two-fare zones. Eliminating discounts at MTA bridges and tunnels would bring in another $70 million. In a more ambitious plan, the dozen free bridges into Manhattan could be wired with electronic tolling that avoids the need for sprawling toll plazas. Tolls of $3 (each way) on these bridges would raise $750 million a year, enough to finance bridge as well as transit repair.

Mr. Mayor, it's time for you to stand up for transit and leverage driver self-interest into an equitable plan to save the subways.

Note: As we went to press, the City was considering a 27% increase in cab fares.

Charles Komanoff, an economist, is a trustee of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and a former president of Transportation Alternatives.