The New York State legislature failed today to adopt a congestive pricing proposal that would have guaranteed the city $354 million in federal transportation aid and an estimated $390 million a year in revenue earmarked for public transportation upgrades. The plan would have charged drivers $8 each time they crossed into downtown Manhattan during peak hours, using electronic monitoring of license plates and the existing E-ZPass tags that most commuters already use to avoid long lines at tollbooths. San Francisco and Washington, D.C. are considering similar programs.
Congestion fees may be a new concept in the United States, but the idea dates back decades and has been implemented in dozens of traffic-heavy highways and urban areas throughout Europe and Asia. Such measures have usually been successful in reducing congestion and encouraging the use of public transportation, while helping to raise the funds necessary to build alternative transportation infrastructure. In some instances, drivers of fuel efficient vehicles are even rewarded with discounted fees.
But despite the environmental and quality of life advantages that these programs offer, many see them as nothing more than a form of regressive taxation, placing a disproportionate burden on the poor and effectively closing city streets to all but the wealthiest residents.
So is congestive pricing the answer to the traffic deadlock, smog, and carbon emissions crisis that America’s car culture brings to urban areas? In cities like Los Angeles and Dallas, where residents have complained for years about inadequate public transportation, the answer is probably no—the first step to getting cars off the roads is always a major investment in public transportation. But in places like New York, Washington and San Francisco, where traffic congestion has itself acted as a natural driving deterrent for generations, it’s difficult to ignore the massive benefits that these fees offer.
In the coming decades, cities across the country are expected to experience massive population booms and a great deal of money will be required to update existing public transportation infrastructure. In the past, the brunt of this burden has fallen on those who already use public transportation in the form of fare hikes.