January 15, 2019 12:00 AM Why I love congestion pricing but hate the taxi-Uber surcharge

Judge should reject initial traffic fee imposed on Manhattan traffic

For half a century the dream of taming New York City traffic with congestion pricing has eluded a Nobel economist, a billionaire mayor and legions of transit champions, myself included. Yet on Thursday I’ll be joining other advocates and stakeholders in court to ask a state judge to strike down the first phase of a congestion pricing plan.

The initial phase would raise hundreds of millions for subway repairs through surcharges on yellow cabs and Ubers in Manhattan's central business district. My argument, submitted in an affidavit to the court, is that the surcharge is discriminatory, arbitrary and unjust. I’ll be asking Supreme Court Judge Lynn R. Kotler to invalidate the enabling legislation that Albany concocted last March with its customary shortsighted stealth.

And in the coming weeks, alongside thousands of fellow transit advocates, I’ll be campaigning for fair and more inclusive congestion pricing that eases the squeeze on cab drivers and medallion owners rather than tightening it.

Such a program is simple to sketch. Indeed, an expert panel convened by Gov. Andrew Cuomo did just that a year ago in its “Fix NYC” report. Just charge private cars and trucks a toll to enter the central business district via 60th Street or an East River bridge and add a surcharge to trips in cabs and Ubers in Manhattan south of 96th Street. Using a spreadsheet model I’ve spent years constructing, the panel found that this combination could raise over $1 billion a year for mass transit while cutting travel times by more than 10% on trips within and to the CBD.

Alas, this comprehensive approach didn’t advance past first base last year. The legislature’s consolation prize—taxicab and Uber surcharges—was really a sucker-punch to cabbies and medallion owners. Here’s why:

  • Without a charge for personal vehicles, city and suburban motorists will fill up much of the street space cleared out by diminished use of for-hire vehicles. In effect, taxis and Ubers will subsidize faster rides in private cars.
  • Uber and Lyft can use their deep pockets to absorb some of the new surcharges at the outset. Yellow cabs, with no such cushion and with fares strictly regulated, will lose even more business.
  • Every fare trip in a yellow is continuously wired by GPS to city officials; not so for Uber or Lyft. Guess which sector will have an easier time evading the surcharge?
  • Albany mandated surcharge discounts of nearly 75% for so-called pooled rides in Ubers and Lyfts, even if no additional passenger comes on board—another nail in the coffin of yellow cabbies.

It’s no exaggeration to speak of coffins. In the past 17 months eight professional drivers have taken their own lives—an epidemic without precedent and unquestionably related to the industry’s financial meltdown.

The policy remedy is straightforward. The Legislature should delay any yellow-cab surcharge until congestion fees on cars and trucks take effect. It should require Ubers and Lyfts to be wired up to the Taxi and Limousine Commission and add a “trawling” fee on each minute those vehicles spend hanging out in Manhattan, clogging traffic while waiting to be pinged. And it should dial down the discount on pooled rides to a level that encourages shared trips but discourages gaming the system.

Such a program could generate more revenue for transit than the surcharges that the legislature enacted last March, while preserving the taxicab sector, according to my traffic modeling.

The first step is for the judge to permanently enjoin the surcharges. Legislative sausage-making that could peremptorily plunge thousands of hard-working New Yorkers deeper into the fiscal abyss may have been the norm in 2018, but it’s time to turn the page.

Cabbies along with the rest of us deserve lawmaking that’s judicious, not capricious. And congestion pricing is too essential to our city to discredit it before it’s had a chance to shine.

Charles Komanoff, an economist and environmental activist, lives and works in lower Manhattan.

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