It’s High Noon for congestion pricing in New York City.
If by week’s end the City Council and State Legislature haven’t enacted a fee to drive into Manhattan’s central business district, the city will forfeit a substantial federal mass-transit grant and congestion pricing will probably be a dead issue for the remainder of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s second and final term.
Coincidentally, this month also brings a deadline of sorts for the Cape Wind project off Cape Cod. The federal Minerals Management Service is accepting comments on its Draft Environmental Impact Statement on Cape Wind through April 21.
What do a wind farm for Nantucket Sound and congestion pricing for Manhattan have in common, and why are both so significant for the environmental cause?
Both would directly reduce the burning of fossil fuel — in oil-fired generating plants and gasoline-burning tailpipes, respectively — thus cutting greenhouse gas emissions. And both have been on the table for a good half-dozen years, if not more, which shows you just how hard it is to take away entitlements cherished by powerful minorities. The entitlements in question are a kind of unpurchased, appropriated ownership of the Nantucket Sound “viewshed” enjoyed by wealthy Cape Cod landowners and an equally groundless right to drive for free enjoyed primarily by relatively well-off New York commuters.
Both proposals demand of citizens that they make connections which are not obvious yet are quite real: that windmills keep fossil fuels elsewhere in the ground, and that congestion pricing is the only sure way for drivers to compensate for the harms they inflict on the city.
At the dawn of the Cape Wind controversy, in 2002, M.I.T. Professor William Shutkin wrote:
The story of the Cape Wind proposal is not about wind turbines, or fisheries, or pristine seascapes. It is about the capacity of environmentalists — of citizens — to match their public positions with the private choices necessary to move toward a more environmentally and economically sustainable way of life.
Cape Wind objectors are, more often than not, people whose private choices don’t match their public positions — who tout their environmental credentials and proclaim their support for windmills, “just not here.” Their language finds an uncanny echo in the carping against congestion pricing, like this in a letter yesterday to my local weekly:
Although congestion pricing on a macro level is a forward-thinking plan that addresses 75 years of wrongheaded social planning that favors the automobile at the expense of communities and the environment, congestion pricing [as now proposed] will do virtually nothing to improve the lives of downtown residents.
The writer recites a litany of non-problems — e.g., the plan won’t cut train delays, when in fact the congestion pricing revenues will bond billions of investment in new subway cars and other system upgrades to facilitate more frequent service. But underneath these counter-factualisms, his emotional tenor is redolent of Cape Wind opponents who wail that while the windmills would supply three-fourths of the Cape and Islands’ annual power, they “wouldn’t stop coal mining” altogether, which makes them inadequate.
My downtown neighbor did at least concede that “The tipping point for me [against the congestion pricing proposal] is the removal of the 18% parking tax exemption that will cost Manhattan families $1,000 per year.” Indeed. To assuage demands by “outer-borough” legislators for a more even distribution of monetary pain, the plan’s backers recently agreed to zero out a decades-old sales tax exemption on Manhattan residents’ garage fees.
There you have it. What “tipped” my neighbor into opposing what he concedes is a constructive policy is the loss of his own entitlement — a public subsidy to garage his automobile.
My neighbor is not a fiend. He’s a respected community activist. But his tortured, self-serving sophistries show how hard it can be “to match [our] public positions with the private choices necessary to move toward a more environmentally and economically sustainable way of life,” as Prof. Shutkin urged.
As I read the tea leaves, the Cape Wind proposal appears likely to succeed, whereas the congestion pricing proposal is in trouble. Mayor Bloomberg last week obtained the support of the new governor, David Paterson, and reportedly is ready to cut major deals to win votes, but insiders say that the necessary majorities may be too hard to assemble. What may doom the pricing proposal is not that outer-borough opposition was too strong, but that natural allies like Manhattan legislators didn’t give it full-throated support — partly, alas, because of people like my environmentalist neighbor who nevertheless likes his subsidized parking.
A defeat for congestion pricing in New York would be a blow to the environmental movement and the campaign against global warming. It would tell the world that when it really counts, this city of eight million — and, by extension, the nation it symbolizes — just can’t transcend narrow interests and act together for the common good.