Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about the need for progressivism that builds and why that requires that, Republican obstruction notwithstanding, Democrats face the role they themselves have played in hampering government action. This week I will present a case study.
In 2019, the New York Legislature, with the support of Andrew Cuomo and Bill de Blasio, then governor and mayor, passed an urban toll plan to combat congestion. The plan was simple: Starting in 2021, it would cost money to drive to the busiest areas of Manhattan. The revenue obtained would be used to improve public transport throughout the region.
But some of New York’s streets were built with federal money, and federal law says a state cannot charge tolls on public roads built with federal funds. So New York needed Washington’s cooperation. The Trump administration procrastinated — it didn’t like Cuomo, Blasio, public transit or urban tolls. But the Joe Biden management was very open to cooperation.
And for good reason: it would be difficult to think of a progressive goal that is not favored by the urban toll. People who drive to Manhattan are wealthier, relatively speaking, so the toll is a progressive tax; those using public transport are poorer, so tolls finance infrastructure for those who need it most; Cars emit more pollution per passenger than trains or buses, so tolls benefit the environment and public health.
One study found that Stockholm’s urban toll reduced environmental pollution by 5% to 15% and dramatically decreased severe asthma attacks in children.
But the charge has not yet taken effect in New York. Urban tolls are not technically complicated. They don’t require major new infrastructure. Basically, it’s about hanging sensors on poles. Despite that, I’ve been informed that New York’s urban toll program — approved in 2019, mind you — is slated to begin sometime in 2024.
The question is, why is this taking so long? In 2021, the Biden administration struck a deal with New York. Instead of a full environmental impact report — which federal agencies now take an average of 4.5 years to complete — the city could do a slightly simpler “environmental assessment.” Even so, the process provided for 16 months of public meetings and traffic analysis.
The Metropolitan Transport Authority (MTA) presented a preliminary report in February. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) responded with more than 400 questions and technical comments.
They range from technical traffic issues to distributional impact concerns. The city was asked to make a more accurate estimate of the number of low-income drivers who drive to the financial district and the number of non-white taxi drivers who could be affected by the toll.
Re-running models can take days, simply because of the computing power required. (And it’s worth noting that New York is a big, wealthy city with a lot of resources. These lawsuits are much more onerous for smaller cities.) I’ve heard some arguments in defense of the role the federal government is playing in this case. One is that the government fears that any less-than-perfect environmental assessment could leave the city vulnerable to endless lawsuits.
San Francisco can serve as a warning: in 2005, the city adopted a plan to build bike lanes and bicycle parking lots. The city was sued under the California Environmental Quality Act, leading to an injunction, a 1,353-page environmental impact report (remember, the subject at hand was bicycle infrastructure!) and about four years of delay.
China, middle land
I do not dispute that these fears are well founded. But they do not confirm the value of the process that we have. They only reveal the flaws of laws that make it so easy to obstruct new projects.
The urban toll taxes cars to finance trains. It fights pollution and reduces congestion on public roads. It is not a difficult decision to make for environmental reasons. But everyone involved in the process fears the lawsuits that will be brought thanks to laws such as California’s or the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), passed to protect the environment.
“We live in an extremely litigious environment,” Janno Lieber, director of the Metropolitan Transport Authority, told me. “I cannot resolve this. I cannot resolve the fact that Nepa has become a tool to attack initiatives in favor of the environment. I want the urban toll to go into effect here, in the largest city in the country, to test it and prove its environmental value. And I think that’s going to be a stronger argument against environmental lawsuits than the charge that we forgot to take into account the five low-income cabbies in East New York.”
Another argument is that this will be the first major urban toll plan in the US, and everyone wants it to work. I agree. Imagine that you are an experienced traffic engineer. You read the plan and get ideas on how it could be improved or how the city could collect relevant data that you missed. Of course you will let her know. That’s your job. You want the project to be a success.
In this case, however, what is rational for each individual is irrational for the process. For now, it’s all predictions, modeling exercises, and speculation. To improve the urban toll, it is necessary to put it into practice, collect data and then improve the plan. Delaying the start of the toll puts off the time when authorities can begin to learn from your actual operation.
And there are more direct consequences. Every year the plan is delayed is a year the MTA misses out on the revenue it could use to improve New York’s overloaded buses and subways. A third argument is that this type of review may seem strange when applied to urban tolls, but it is necessary because it often bars racist designs in its design or reckless in its construction.
Think of Robert Moses building expressways through poor communities. And that’s true. The question is whether it remains truer than the opposite: that the fact that construction has been so difficult is causing more damage to the environment or social equity.
Growing cost problems in Democratic-majority cities, and the horror stories I hear from people trying to build climate infrastructure, make me question whether the balance we’ve found is the right one. I think the Department of Transportation, under the direction of Pete Buttigieg, sincerely believes that climate change is an existential threat. He sincerely believes that equity is a primary concern. He sincerely believes that mass transit is a public good. I don’t think I sincerely believe that all of these goals, and more, are threatened by the Democrats’ inability to build infrastructure quickly and experiment with policy freely. Or, if you believe that, you haven’t aligned your process with your values.
The Federal Highway Administration has become the ombudsman of the urban toll, not the accelerator of a project that New York voters are perfectly equipped to evaluate. Elections, not technical reviews, are usually the best way to hold them accountable.
I assure you that I didn’t handpick the most controversial program or the worst lawsuit. Quite the opposite. The urban toll is a useful case study precisely because it is a straightforward policy, with the explicit, even ardent support of all key decision-makers. Instead of costing money, it increases public revenue. It does not require the construction of new tunnels, dams or train lines. In terms of climate policy, it’s an easy decision to make. Even so, it is proving to be very difficult.
I even wonder if the recent fad for simple cash transfer programs doesn’t reflect a quiet lowering of expectations — and I’ve championed these programs myself and I want so much to see the expansion of the children’s tax credit renewed. We’re already sure the government can send checks.
We’re still not sure what he’s capable of building.