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7th March

First Published in The New York Sun, March 7, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

We’re coming into the home stretch on Mayor Bloomberg’s “Congestion Pricing” tax plan. The City Council and the state Legislature need to pass or reject this proposal by the end of March, the deadline for coming up with a plan that will enable the city to obtain several hundred millions of federal dollars to help get the scheme underway.

This is money on which we would be well advised to pass, funds that will move us in the wrong direction as we plan for our city’s future.

I have previously noted the congestion tax is designed to “solve” a problem that simply doesn’t exist. In business areas such as Manhattan’s central business district, congestion is a good, not a bad, thing. Congestion is one of the things that defines us a city, an indicator of a healthy economy. Anyone who would like a real life demonstration of what a city without congestion is like should head up the New York State Thruway and check out Buffalo.

If congestion has unfortunate side effects such as pollution, the right move is to encourage innovation of more efficient cars, not discourage people from coming here. People head to Manhattan to do business: buy something, see a show, visit a doctor, or dine in a restaurant. Nobody heads into Manhattan for a leisurely joy ride.

The argument for the congestion tax has shifted to the funding of mass transit, which we are told is a good thing. And during the last century, it was. The mayor and governor and other congestion tax advocates solemnly warn that the congestion tax scheme is the only way to finance the new subways they tell us we need. That is what voters were told in 1950 when they approved what was then a huge bond issue to build the Second Avenue subway. More than a half-century and billions in cost overruns later, the truncated version of that project is still nowhere near completion.

Will the New York economy of the future even have commuters to ride these new trains? I suggest that we step back and consider whether the future of New York and other cities, and the nature of the evolving economy, will need the same infrastructure that seemed so brilliant during the first half of the 20th century. We need to consider whether “going to work” in the year 2050 will mean the same thing it does today. Evidence suggests that we are moving in a different direction.

When the Second Avenue subway was first conceived in the mid-20th century, few imagined the incredible changes in technology that have already radically altered the way business is done. Could it be that subways are nothing more than a 19th century innovation whose time has now passed?

The idea of hoards of people cramming into trains to head to work during a “rush hour” may be a quaint concept to our children and grandchildren decades from now. Many more people may work either at home or nearer to home than they do today, and the concept of the workday, in a global economy, no longer means nine to five.

In 1950, the first huge black and white television sets were being delivered to American homes and only a handful of people were familiar with the experimental room-sized computers then being constructed. Who then could imagine that little more than a half-century later ordinary people would own personal computers so small that they could fit in a briefcase — or as Steve Jobs recently demonstrated, a manila envelope? Who could imagine devices that could wirelessly transmit a live visual and audio image of you to your co-worker, who just might be sitting on the other side of the world?

Is it inconceivable that, fifty years from now when the subways we will fund with our congestion tax dollars today may first be opening, most people will do their jobs from home? Isn’t it increasingly clear that even now many jobs can be done from anywhere? Could a heavy investment in mass transit be the wrong direction in a changing world?

Mayor Bloomberg should recognize this. After all, it was he who helped take the financial markets from ticker tape to computer screens, moving Wall Street from a place in downtown New York to anywhere the world.

If the government wants to intervene to help and not to hurt, it had best take its hands out of our pockets and perhaps figure out ways to enable New York to seize the opportunities of the economy of the future rather than punish those who are still keeping our city’s “old” economy afloat today. We could start by saying “thanks, but no thanks” to the federal money that seems to me to be the funding for a bridge back to the 20th century.

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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