Congestion Taxes

It sounds like an April Fool’s Day joke, but it isn’t:  New York lawmakers have approved a budget that will impose a tax on drivers who venture into Manhattan — one of the most congested driving areas in the world.  Drivers in New York City not only will be cursing the gridlock, now they’ll be paying extra for the privilege, too.

maxresdefaultThe budget deal will create a six-member commission that will set the fee to be paid by drivers who cross into Manhattan below 61st Street.  Because the idea is to use the tax to reduce congestion, pricing is expected to be variable, with higher rates during the peak periods and lower rates at night and on weekends.  Electronic readers will assess the tolls, which are expected to be between $11 and $12 for cars during daylight periods and about $25 for trucks.  The tax is forecast to generate about $1 billion in revenues, which New York lawmakers promise to use to address desperate repair needs in New York City’s subway and commuter rail systems.

Congestion taxes are used in other congested cities of the world, like London, but New York City will be the first U.S. city to adopt them.  And if the taxes work as planned in the Big Apple, it isn’t hard to foresee other congested areas of the country, like southern California, adopting them, too.  After all, local governments are always looking for new revenue sources, and this particular approach can be pitched as a method of using taxes to achieve a virtuous result — reduced road congestion and, if the tax revenues are earmarked, improved mass transit.

I’ve driven through New York City exactly once, in a rental car on a Saturday morning when the roads weren’t bad.  I can’t imagine what how nerve-wracking it would be to drive there on a daily basis — and now to pay special taxes for that added stress.

And here’s what’s interesting, too:  if congestion taxes are, in fact, designed to reduce congestion, that reflects an acknowledgement that taxes influence behavior.  That is, such taxes presuppose that some drivers will forgo taking their cars into the congested zone in order to avoid the tax — otherwise, the tax would have no effect on congestion.  But if taxes do in fact affect behavior, and people take action to avoid taxes, what does that mean for New York and New York City generally, which have some of the highest income taxes and other taxes in the U.S.?

Time Versus Stress

Lately my commute to and from work has become more and more difficult.  It’s forcing me to make one of those tough choices that often confront modern Americans — between time and stress.

In days gone by I would leave the house a little before 7 a.m., encounter light traffic on 161, see a moderate increase in traffic as I moved onto I-270 and finally I-670, and then cruise down Third Street.  Absent an accident, I made it downtown in about 25 minutes and almost never had to stop on the freeway.

Those days, sadly, are over.  Even though I leave at the same time, traffic has gotten much worse.  I often hit bumper-to-bumper congestion as soon as I merge onto 161 and routinely have to come to a dead stop on I-270 and I-670 as I inch my way downtown.  It may be the increasing number of people who are living in the northeast part of town, or perhaps it’s a change in traffic patterns brought about by the highway construction that has occurred over the past few years.  Whatever the reason, there are many more cars clogging up my formerly free-wheeling route.

The bad traffic means more stress.  People who are frustrated by the gridlock change lanes abruptly.  Some drivers — always the ones in front of you, of course — make no effort to close up gaps between them and the traffic ahead, so cars cut in constantly.  You’re stuck behind a bus or a semi and can’t see what’s going on down the road.  When traffic comes to a sudden stop, you worry about whether the driver of the car charging up to your rear is paying attention or will plow into you because he’s been checking his Facebook page on his cell phone.

Avoiding this kind of nerve-jangling commute is why I started leaving the house just before 7 a.m. in the first place.  So now I’ve got a new choice — leave 15 minutes earlier and beat the increased traffic, or just endure the increased stress.  Today I’ve decided to sacrifice the time to avoid the stress, but I’m not particularly happy about it.