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1st February

First Published in The New York Sun, February 1, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

The commission appointed to “study” the mayor’s congestion pricing initiative has come up with a proposal that hardly changes the original plan. This commission was front-loaded with committed proponents of the idea, a kangaroo court if ever there was one - if kangaroos acquit.

There now seems to be a shift in emphasis away from claims by proponents that congestion pricing reduces traffic (only a 6% reduction is projected) or will clear pollution from the air and cure children of asthma. There is now more of an acknowlegement that the plan is about only one thing - creating a new revenue stream.

We are told that these funds will be earmarked for mass transit improvements. Governor Spitzer solemnly speaks of a “lockbox,” but be not fooled, my fellow taxpayers. This money will no more exclusively be used to build mass transit than the state lottery funds are used for education. Government is expert at this.

After all, a sales tax increase of 1% levied a generation ago during Gotham’s budget crisis, designed to pull us out of the financial hole we then found ourselves in, is now due to expire. The tax is apparently here to stay, as they mayor has requested, and nary a peep of protest is to be heard in the Council and state legislature.

So look at this for what it is, a tax increase. When the first 2% sales tax was imposed by Mayor LaGuardia during the Depression, merchants typically threw the small proceeds in a little box next to the cash register. Some purchases, notably on low end dining, were exempt, only to be added in 1971 through the imposition of what was termed the “hot dog tax.” Like the sales tax, the congestion tax is sure to grow.

If imposed, the proposed $8 fee is sure to balloon to $12, $16, even $20 in the future; a similar levy imposed in London has already doubled. The revised congestion zone boundary, now set at 60th Street will surely creep north.

The congestion tax can be looked at as a politically more palatable way to impose tolls on the Harlem and East River Bridges, an idea that has been rejected by generations of New Yorkers. Such tolls were raised by the commission as an alternative, largely to make the proposed congestion levy look better to angry motorists.

Imposing tolls on the currently free bridges would be a betrayal of the compact that in 1898 consolidated a handful of cities, notably Brooklyn and New York, into one greater City of New York. From where I sit in the northern reaches of the city in what is today the Bronx, Harlem River tolls are particularly objectionable. In 1898, the Bronx was already part of New York City, annexed in two parts years earlier. No one then would ever consider placing a toll on tiny spans such as the University Heights Bridge or Broadway Bridge any more than they would charge for crossing the Grand Concourse.

That tolls impeded the development of the newly unified city was probably behind Mayor Gaynor’s initiative to remove the tolls on the Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, and Queensboro Bridges on July 18, 1911. Gaynor is best known for surviving, at least for a while, an assassination attempt in 1910; he succumbed to his injuries in September 1913.

The congestion levy can be looked on as a “reverse commuter tax.” Unlike the old commuter tax, which extracted a small income tax from those who worked in Gotham and enjoyed the benefits and protections afforded to them while toiling here, the congestion tax as proposed actually rewards commuters from New Jersey, who end up not being taxed at all. Commuters from the Garden State will merrily dance into town while local residents will have to pay the piper to get from point A to point B in their own city.

This is because the Hudson River tolls imposed by the Port Authority will be deducted from the fee, effectively canceling it out. This loophole, much criticized, remains in the plan.

Ironically, it once falls on the capacious shoulders of that paragon civic strength, Speaker Sheldon Silver, to save us from this folly. I am told that there is little support among his caucus for the congestion tax, particularly from the outer boroughs. Chairman of the congestion pricing study commission, Marc Shaw, met with the legislators secretly earlier this week, and I understand was met with the chilliest of receptions.

Unless Mr. Silver twists arms, the plan will not make it through the legislature and will die. Should that occur, I propose that to commemorate the event, a statue be erected of Mr. Silver, who comes from Manhattan, shaking hands across the generations with Mayor Gaynor, who came from Brooklyn, to symbolize the unity of the city against those who would pick our pockets.

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

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