Here’s a genius idea during a recession:

Increase the cost of public transportation while you also cut service.

This could have been avoided (or at least somewhat mitigated) by imposing a toll on the Harlem and East River bridges. Some Democrats, though, opposed that measure, because they don’t think drivers should have to subsidize public transportation. I’ll just quote Baratunde:

Wrong. You SHOULD tax drivers precisely to subsidize public transit. That’s how it works. You tax the bad, evil, planet-melting crap to encourage a less apocalypse-inducing lifestyle. We tax smokers to subsidize health care, and we should probably tax short-sighted, incumbent politicians to subsidize the campaigns of thinking people who will run them out of office.


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38 comments for “Here’s a genius idea during a recession:

  1. Netter
    March 25, 2009 at 1:56 pm

    I have a question for those democrats: Why should public transit users and users of other MTA tunnels and bridges subsidize their free drives into the city? Why are these four bridges so special that they need to be free? Why are we subsidizing the pollution of our city?

  2. preying mantis
    March 25, 2009 at 2:03 pm

    “because they don’t think drivers should have to subsidize public transportation.”

    The more people are using public transport, the easier that drive is going to be. They could think of it as paying for convenience.

  3. Tom Foolery
    March 25, 2009 at 2:48 pm

    We tax smokers to subsidize health care…

    This is a bad analogy — smokers are taxed to subsidize health care because they impose a direct cost on health care through that habit. Drivers don’t impose a direct cost on public transit.

  4. RD
    March 25, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    ugh

  5. CTD
    March 25, 2009 at 2:57 pm

    Increase the cost of public transportation while you also cut service.

    I don’t think you can see the forest but for the trees. Because public transit is a huge money pit, it relies on large subsidies from other sources (typically taxes on gasoline purchases) to fund its operating costs (to say nothing of the staggering capital costs). When the economy slows, less gas gets purchased, and therefore, the size of the subsidy has to contract. This means rate increases and service cuts on underused lines. What did you expect to happen?

    This situation is doubly bad for transit authorities operating light rail. In order to keep the massively inefficient rail service running, they have to make cuts in more cost-effective (but less sexy) bus lines.

    Transit advocates should really be careful when they encourage everybody to stop driving cars to save the earth. They just might get what they want someday.

  6. CTD
    March 25, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    smokers are taxed to subsidize health care because they impose a direct cost on health care through that habit.

    No, they don’t. Everyone dies of something, usually something very costly to treat in the final years of life. Smokers tend to die young. If anything, they are a net savings for the system.

    The cigarette tax is just that: another revenue stream for the state. Many states would go bankrupt if everyone stopped smoking tomorrow.

  7. The Opoponax
    March 25, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Because public transit is a huge money pit…

    The bottom line is that, in New York, public transit is how the vast majority of people get around every day. Money pit or no, the city would be absolutely paralyzed without it. And because of this, it also needs to be efficient and affordable. This is the bottom line. This is axiomatic. This is like saying, “humans need to breathe oxygen”. New Yorkers need our subways and buses.

    In comparison, relatively few New Yorkers get around by car, and thus making life easier for noncommercial individual drivers should be relatively low on the city’s list of priorities.

  8. preying mantis
    March 25, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    “Smokers tend to die young. If anything, they are a net savings for the system.”

    There was some central European country that caused a fuss a few years back by shutting down their anti-smoking initiatives when they did the math and came to the conclusion that smokers dying just as they hit their net-drain-on-the-system years was practically all that was keeping their a few of their social safety nets (medical, retirement, etc.) from collapsing. Of course, you have to hit the balance where smokers aren’t causing a lot of long-term collateral damage by smoking around children or in the office for that sort of grim calculation to pan out.

  9. MikeF
    March 25, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    The MTA plan actually does raise bridge and tunnel tolls, just not on two historically free crossings. The proposed plan that would toll the Harlem and East River bridges also included a $1.5B payroll tax on companies and the self-employed, so it’s not as if charging a few bucks to cross the Harlem bridge would be enough to fill the MTA budget gap. That said, I do think that the funding solution should be more focused on getting new revenue rather than cutting service. I wouldn’t be surprised if decreasing mobility in a city has all sorts of nasty secondary effects on shopping and consumption and such things.

    I think the NY state legislature is in some sort of stalemate mode right now, so I guess there’s a chance that they’ll eventually come through with a package to mitigate the service cuts.

  10. Rob
    March 25, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Public transportation is not necessarily a money pit. Part of the “lower” cost of cars is actually hidden away in private maintainence, for example. If all costs of driving were included, driving could well be more expensive on a per passenger-mile basis.

  11. joe_D
    March 25, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    In comparison, relatively few New Yorkers get around by car

    That’s true for people who live in the five boroughs but the proposed tax on driving would affect those commuting from Westchester, New Jersey, and Long Island. It might be nice if public transportation were convenient in the suburbs but it’s not realistic right now. Car payments, insurance, & gas add up and it’s basically a necessary in most of the country.

  12. March 25, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    …really? Agreed that car payments, insurance and gas are necessities in most of hte country, but driving into Manhattan for work every day isn’t a necessity for most people. I’m happy to concede that it is a necessity for some, but areas like Westchester, Long Island and NJ have some of the best regional transportation services in the country. Are there really a ton of cities in Jersey from where it’s easy to drive into Manhattan but difficult to drive to a train station?

    I dunno, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about, but where I work, EVERYONE I know who lives in Jersey, Westchester or LI takes the train in.

  13. Lyndsay
    March 25, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Public transit is a money pit? Cars are not free, even to the government. Building and expanding roads and paving parking lots is pretty expensive. That’s not including the individual cost of owning a car.

  14. joe_D
    March 25, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Good point, Jill. Let me qualify that. Training into Manhattan is uniquely convenient. However, “reverse” commuting to the ‘burbs is a pain in the ass, as is going from Westchester to Queens, Jersey to Brooklyn, etc. But I realize that isn’t directly relevant to the proposed tax here.

  15. The Opoponax
    March 25, 2009 at 7:40 pm

    That’s true for people who live in the five boroughs but the proposed tax on driving would affect those commuting from Westchester, New Jersey, and Long Island.

    So?

    Why is it that people commuting from outside the city should matter more than people commuting from within the city? I’ve never really understood the fixation on But Teh B&T’s! Ohnoes!

    Besides which, considering the sheer mass of people commuting into Manhattan every day and the relative dearth of private individual car traffic, I would highly doubt that “most” commuters coming in from outside the city drive in. Last I heard, New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island were quite well connected to the city via public transit.

  16. The Opoponax
    March 25, 2009 at 7:44 pm

    “reverse” commuting to the ‘burbs is a pain in the ass, as is going from Westchester to Queens, Jersey to Brooklyn, etc.

    Nobody in this thread is talking about banning cars from New York City. People who need to commute by car will continue to do so, I’m sure, even if they have to pay a toll. It’s not as if the toll bridges that exist go unused.

  17. March 25, 2009 at 9:24 pm

    The Long Island Rail Road . . .is a commuter rail system serving the length of Long Island, New York . . . It is the busiest commuter railroad in North America, servicing around 81 million passengers each year . . . There are 124 stations on the LIRR, and more than 700 miles (1100 km) of track…on its two lines to the two forks of the island and eight major branches. Each weekday, the LIRR provides more than 280,000 rides to customers.” From wikipedia: the ridership citation is to a page that currently gives average weekday ridership as close to 302,000 (from December 2007).

  18. March 25, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    Why is it that people commuting from outside the city should matter more than people commuting from within the city? I’ve never really understood the fixation on But Teh B&T’s! Ohnoes!

    Hey, those of us here in Philly got to read a lovely piece of concern trolling by some Jersey suburbanite two weeks back about how the city really just has to shut down the libraries and swimming pools – so sad – because if it dares raise parking meter fees or commuter taxes or anything that even slightly inconveniences suburbanites, they’re all going to take their ball and stay home. (Nice city you have there – it would be a shame if anything happened to its tourist revenue . . . ). Although they add that an ever better idea would be to stick user fees on the city parks. It goes unspoken, of course, how effective this sort of rather regressive measure would be at keeping those dreary riffraff out. ( In theory; of course, the cost of hiring enough folks to make this sort of all-purpose user fee work in a 9,200 acre park system . . . existing permits to bike or ride horses off the main trail in a specific area are one thing, but this . . . . . .).
    – Atrios had a nice succinct response, rather neatly summed up in the post title: Not an urban theme park.

  19. Kate J.
    March 26, 2009 at 9:07 am

    They did this in St. Louis, too, raised the fare and cut buses lines WAY down. Basically, I don’t have a car, and if I didn’t have a co-worker to pick me up now, I would have to cab to and from work, which is monstrously expensive. I used to have a long light rail and bus ride, but I could do it, now it’s not even an option. They also eliminated “Call-a-Ride” altogether, which is a really big problem for people with disabilities.

  20. GallingGalla
    March 26, 2009 at 9:28 am

    then thing that is being kinda missed here (or at least not stated explicitly) is that this is a fine example of systemic racism and classism. t’ain’t middle-class white people who are most heavily impacted by this – it’s poc and working-class people who will be substantially harmed by this.

    @CTD @5: that’s a bunch of bull. public transit is not a business. it is an essential part of the lives of people who live in NYC and many other major cities (including philadelphia where i live), and is, i believe, a fundamental right of all people. therefore it needs to be funded to the extent necessary to ensure that it is efficient and *affordable*. if it means that the owners of cars need to pay tolls and higher gas prices, then so be it. its interesting that a hell of a lot of these “it’s a big money pit” folks seem to be pretty uncomfortable with the idea of riding a subway car with people who are not like them, which points to the real motivation for statements like that.

    and to be clear, yes i do own a car, due to the lack of effective mass-transit in the suburbs. but it sits on the curb for a week at a time while i take a wonderful thing called the market-frankford elevated into center city 4 days a week, in 20 minutes vs. the 45 minutes it takes by car. also, i am white and rapidly-downwardly-mobile middle-class.

  21. voz
    March 26, 2009 at 10:29 am

    American car culture hurts everybody. The amount of money that gets dumped into maintaining the car culture infrastructure is simply…insane.
    The amount of natural resources that are squandered on what is patently a luxury item for most folks could feed and give healthcare to a nation.

    Now, essential services are being hosed to pay for…u guessed it…car culture.

    (US centric warning)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Effects_of_the_automobile_on_societies

    @GallingGalla, ur rt. This is most definitely a class issue, and a race issue, too.

  22. William
    March 26, 2009 at 10:41 am

    because if it dares raise parking meter fees or commuter taxes or anything that even slightly inconveniences suburbanites, they’re all going to take their ball and stay home.

    Actually, cities probably should be wary of raising meter rates. I live in Chicago and our lovely autocrat just leased all of the city’s parking meters to a private company for 70 years. The major street a block from my house (which isn’t in a business district or in a chic part of the city) had meters that were a quarter an hour less than a month ago. Now its 8 quarters an hour. Its even worse in other parts of the city. Complicating things is the fact that we have a shit public trans system. Aside from a lot of businesses losing money and the disabled having a harder time getting around there is now a huge problem with meter vandalism (running from people gluing quarters into every meter on a block to people burning meters out with home-made thermite).

    I’m not sure what a better solution would be, but in a recession these cost of living increases are going to drive businesses (and jobs) out of the parts of the city which don’t have easy train access.

  23. Charlie
    March 26, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Most people around here (Puget Sound) drive, especially since the area is mostly suburbs and we have a shit public transportation system.

    Public transportation is used by tons of middle class people. At least it is here. The majority of people one sees on the buses around here are students, commuters going to Seattle for work, and stay-at-home moms going to do some shopping or whatever. So don’t assume it’s affecting just a majority of lower class citizens. It’s affecting tons of middle class people, as well. I’m lucky enough to have free fare on a system that takes me almost two hours to get to school if I didn’t drive my car just seven minutes up the road to catch the second bus in my commute. That’s shitty public transportation. Yeah, it sucks that it’s going to cost New Yorkers more money for less public transportation, but shut the hell up. Until your public transportation really is bad, like those of us who live in the suburbs, I don’t want to hear any whining. Being forced to use a car really sucks, and I would use public transportation all the time if I could, like I did in New York when I was on vacation there just this past week. I was in awe with all the places I could get to in a short amount of time. That would never happen here. Hell, it would take me an hour and forty minutes to get to the mall just a city over.

  24. The Opoponax
    March 26, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    then thing that is being kinda missed here (or at least not stated explicitly) is that this is a fine example of systemic racism and classism. t’ain’t middle-class white people who are most heavily impacted by this – it’s poc and working-class people who will be substantially harmed by this.

    In New York, not really. The only people here who can afford not to use mass transit are the wealthy (or telecommuters, maybe). In fact, I’d say that’s the cutoff between whether someone is middle class or wealthy here – people who never need to use the subway system are wealthy. (Again, with the exception of outliers like telecommuters, people who luck into an affordable apartment in walking distance from work, the unemployed…)

  25. L-K
    March 26, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    There’s the assumption that one either takes public transportation or drives in NYC, or that this is about people who are coming in from places like Westchester or Long Island. There’s a reason why Democrats who opposed this represent the outer boroughs: many people who lives in New York City do both (perhaps even more so in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens). The streets of the outer boroughs are not at all empty.

    People need to take into consideration that public transportation is not as accessible or reliable in the outer parts of the outer boroughs, unlike Manhattan, which is in most instances. For many people, sometimes driving in or driving over all is a better alternative that attempting to take public transportation (for example, night-time workers, or people who have to clock in at work between the hours of 2AM-5AM, what the MTA considers to be their late night hours and service is spotty at best). It’s no surprise that many of these people are from communities of color and/or immigrant communities. And the MTA never has expressed a genuine intention to extend or improve services in these outer parts.

    In regards to the tolls on the East River bridges, I think what Brooklyn politicians have been saying is right. Since three out of the four bridges are connected to Brooklyn, the tolls would disproportionately fall on Brooklyn residents.

    These tolls would also have a negative impact on small businesses that make deliveries in or travel into Manhattan. For instance, in a realistic scenario, an independent small taxi company with ten cars that drive in Manhattan twice a day, every day, paying $2 for each way, will have to pay nearly $30,000 a year in tolls. That’s quite an expense for a small business!

    Regardless of the measure passed, the people who are disproportionately going to be impacted are people of color and low-income folks (because yes, we are both straphangers and drivers).

    What is truly needed at the moment are measures to address and tackle both the lack of transparency and accountability in the MTA.

  26. The Opoponax
    March 26, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    People need to take into consideration that public transportation is not as accessible or reliable in the outer parts of the outer boroughs, unlike Manhattan, which is in most instances.

    I live in Brooklyn and take three subways and a bus to work. As do all of my friends (many of whom live even further from Manhattan than I do). Yes, some parts of Queens are not very accessible by public transit. Those parts of Queens, however, tend to be more suburban and also tend to be served by the LIRR. If people in Nassau and Suffolk counties can drive to the LIRR, people in eastern Queens can, too.

    I would also mention the network of express buses which service parts of the outer boroughs which are not close to a subway line.

    The bottom line about outer borough drivers vs. outer borough straphangers is that if they’re going to have to make a cut somewhere, it makes a lot more sense for drivers to take the hit since there are much fewer of them, they already have multiple options for getting into the city, and they’re more likely to be able to afford to take the hit since they can afford to own and maintain a car in New York City. Whereas if the monthly metrocard fare goes over $100 I’ll probably be priced out of mass transit altogether. And I consider myself “middle class”, so I can’t even imagine what it’s going to do to people who are really struggling.

  27. The Opoponax
    March 26, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Also, taxi passengers are responsible for tolls, and other businesses generally take the existence of tolls into account already. But nice try!

  28. preying mantis
    March 26, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    “Actually, cities probably should be wary of raising meter rates.”

    Dude, there’s “raising meter rates,” and then there’s “jacking meter rates up to 8 times what they were.” People tend not to expect the latter when they hear the former.

  29. L-K
    March 26, 2009 at 4:28 pm

    @The Opoponax:

    Nice try? I simply wasn’t aware of that. No need for snarky remarks.

    I live in Brooklyn as well, all my life. While I’m fortunate enough to live minutes away from Manhattan, many people who I know again (majority working class/lower middle-class PoC) simply do not have access or it’s rather difficult to travel, particularly nighttime workers or those going in the early hours (after 11pm, particularly at 2AM-5AM, when again service is spotty).

    In regards to express buses, express buses in Brooklyn only are accessible in western Brooklyn (Bay Ridge, Sea Gate, Bensonhurst, Coney Island), not in eastern Brooklyn.

    I don’t think that anyone should be taking the hit right now, if the suspect itself (the MTA) does haven’t their act together in the first place, especially if these efforts are to just to keep themselves afloat for the next five years. And after that, then what? Raise fares again, cut out more services, screw NYers even more, particularly low-income folks?

    Also, it cannot be assumed that all drivers would be able to take the hit. Working-class, low-income folks are drivers, too; and not only that but we are straphangers as well.

    Again, for redundancy sake, what is needed is measures to finally address the lack of accountability and transparency in the MTA. If these measures are put in place, then I would be pretty sure that the deficit would look a lot different.

  30. The Opoponax
    March 26, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    I’m sorry, L-K, I just heard all these same arguments trotted out during the discussions about congestion pricing last year. Mainly by upper middle class Manhattanites who enjoy the privilege of driving and don’t want it taken away. Or by comparatively well-off B&T types who think they have a constitutional right to drive everywhere all the time. There is an element of class in this discussion, but it’s not that the poor or people of color are disproportionately targeted by toll bridges and mass transit caters primarily to upper class whites*.

    And unfortunately turf wars in re “this legislation would impact my constituents more, NIMBY NIMBY Waaaaah!” is par for the course with all politicians. I’m sure the folks who represent Brooklyn Heights and Park Slope were in there with the best of ’em.

    many people who I know again (majority working class/lower middle-class PoC) simply do not have access or it’s rather difficult to travel, particularly nighttime workers or those going in the early hours (after 11pm, particularly at 2AM-5AM, when again service is spotty).

    I’m one of those people, and I’ll repeat that if fares rise above a certain point (basically anything beyond the proposed increases) I’ll be priced out of mass transit entirely. While it can be onerous getting from Brooklyn to the west side of Manhattan and vice versa at somewhat odd hours, doing it by bike would be much worse. In comparison, people who drive have multiple other options.

    *and insofar as it does, where do you think services are going to be cut? It sure as hell isn’t going to be parts of the system that serve wealthy neighborhoods. Or times of day that are convenient for middle class nine-to-fivers. Instead it’s going to take longer to commute in from the outer boroughs (especially if you have an unconventional work schedule), and it’s going to be even tougher to travel between Manhattan and the outer boroughs in the evenings and on weekends.

  31. L-K
    March 26, 2009 at 6:19 pm

    @Opoponax

    Well there’s something that needs to be understood: the discussion is also happening, has been happening, among low-income/lower middle class individuals not in living in Manhattan, including members of my own family (and I haven’t been directly mentioning myself as I do not drive, but I do have access to a car). And if the fare goes above a certain point, just like you, they/we will be priced out, too. Two $103 monthly riders + 2 pay-per-ride riders in a single family, as my household will be, totally almost $5000 per year is ridiculous, when we are a working class household, plus the car, which we find ourselves needing to use (for e.g., my dad rides into Manhattan on the weekends into work before 5am, because it just makes more sense for him to do so for various reasons; or when he needs to travel into the Bronx, which he frequently needs to, etc). But, this is the reality of many low-income households.

    And the spotty/crappy services and further potential service cuts I am referring to are exactly where I have been mentioning all along since I put up my first comment in this thread: the outer parts of the outer boroughs.

    I’m gonna say it, like I’ve telling people all along, I think that these attempts are just part of a greater scheme to rid NYC of us low-income individuals, particularly people of color. It’s just too much. There are alternative solutions that would minimize impact to NYC commuters and drivers, especially those who are both. But again, I think my theory holds up too well for that.

  32. William
    March 26, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    Dude, there’s “raising meter rates,” and then there’s “jacking meter rates up to 8 times what they were.” People tend not to expect the latter when they hear the former.

    When the rate raises were first mentioned Daley said during a press conference that at worst the rates in the loop might double. I’m just saying city leaders tend to be short sighted, stupid, and arrogant. If I trusted a government official to be responsible, I might not say that cities ought to be careful, but once every jackass with a mob connection or a hand out gets theirs the costs are ALWAYS higher than anticipated.

    Also, I’m not saying the whining suburbanites in Jersey aren’t assholes. I just think the asshole party is one everyone can attend. ;)

  33. Sappho
    March 26, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Agreed with L-K. Toll roads are a major deal for low-income workers, especially as cities gentrify and push poorer folks further and further from commercial centers. Disproportionately burdening the poor to pay for public transportation is pretty nasty, especially when that transportation still doesn’t serve them. Higher taxes on expensive/luxury cars would be much fairer.

  34. William
    March 27, 2009 at 10:17 am

    Higher taxes on expensive/luxury cars would be much fairer.

    Fairer, perhaps, but unrealistic. Even in a city the size of New York the number of luxury vehicles sold in a given year is going to be too small for a tax to really make much of a difference. Too high of a tax and people will simply choose to buy outside of the city/county/state which is charging the tax. If you meant an ownership tax you run into a problem there as well because the people most likely to own the types of cars to be taxed are also the people most able to sidestep the tax by registering the vehicle in a different location. Any ownership tax low enough to not be worth avoiding would be unlikely to generate enough revenue to help pay for public trans in a meaningful way.

  35. olivetti
    March 27, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    For all you folks who are talking about tolls affecting late night/early morning workers: if I recall the congestion pricing proposal correctly, it only would have imposed tolls during certain high-traffic hours — like 8:30 to 6 on weekdays.

    I got into tons of arguments with my boyfriend about this; we live in brooklyn, he has a car. We frequently drive places in the outer boroughs (like flushing, queens and some places in south brooklyn) which are either not that easily accessible by subway from where we live (transfers in manhattan to double back into brooklyn) or on the only intermittently reliable G train. However, he will often drive into lower manhattan, even though getting there is super easy (like, one stop) by subway. He was vociferously against congestion pricing, because he thought it would interfere with his “freedom” to go to the city whenever he wanted; i argued that what it would do would force him to reconsider his choices. The cost of driving to the city during peak hours and the cost of taking public transportation would be effectively equalized, which actually kind of seems fair. His other argument was that the MTA is mismanaged and they wouldn’t spend the money wisely anyways — which I called out as totally self-defeating.

    We’d probably still be arguing about this if the plan hadn’t been voted down.

  36. supersoygrrrl
    March 28, 2009 at 11:25 am

    my boyfriend is a new york city cab driver and has to take these bridges all the time.
    this plan was nixed because of practicalities, not because of anyone’s agenda. these bridges are physically not large enough to accomadate toll booths added to them. they’re both constructed before 1909 and are unable to be widened.
    tolling them would cause excess pollution and back up traffic something fierce.

    i’m against the fare hike too but this would not have staved it off. the fault relies with albany and the greedy but irresponsible heads of the mta.

  37. supersoygrrrl
    March 28, 2009 at 11:29 am

    my boyfriend is a new york city cab driver and has to take these bridges all the time.
    this plan was nixed because of practicalities, not because of anyone’s agenda. these bridges are physically not large enough to accomadate toll booths added to them. all of these bridges were constructed before 1909 and are unable to be widened.
    tolling them would cause excess pollution and back up traffic something fierce.

    i’m against the fare hike too but this would not have staved it off. the fault relies with albany and the greedy but irresponsible heads of the mta.

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