Bringing Back the Commuter Tax

Does anyone get the feeling that Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing plan seems destined to get stuck in the gridlock of the "Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission?" Streetsblog has a good analysis of what needs to happen for congestion pricing to become a reality, and what could happen to derail it. It looks like it has a long, long way to go. So wouldn't now be a good time to bring back the commuter tax, or at least bring back the conversation about it?

A little commuter tax history from Gotham Gazette:

The impetus for eliminating the commuter tax in 1999 came from both Democratic and Republican leaders in Albany who wanted the upper hand in a special election [in Rockland County]. Both sides saw the repeal as a way to woo suburban voters. Albany rolled over New York City and raw politics triumphed over sound fiscal policy. Democratic Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver who represents lower Manhattan played a shortsighted political game and voted to repeal the commuter tax, an act that benefited only upstate voters.

Mayor Bloomberg has tried unsuccessfully before to lobby Albany to bring it back, and surely this time around it would again be nearly impossible to get it passed in the state Senate and Assembly, but why not make some noise about it?

The mayor has shed his Republican skin, denounced the futility of party politics, and has good reason to jab his finger in the eyes of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, who led the charge against the mayor's plan in its original incarnation.

Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat, assailed the congestion pricing plan, among other criticisms, as a regressive tax, saying in a 26-page report that "There is no real dispute that the people whose behavior will be modified, as well as the people from whom the bulk of the money will be extracted, are working families." The Drum Major Institute disagreed saying that most middle class New Yorkers would benefit from the policy without having to pay the $8 fee to enter Manhattan. Brodsky's criticism that the legislation, as initially written, created a pilot program that had no sunset provision was well-founded.

Silver did not want to authorize the city to have the means for collecting the new revenue—congestion pricing— until the MTA had the mass transit improvements in the pipeline. This was also the reason given as to why it was a tough sell for legislators trying to convince outer borough voters that the commuter tax would work for them.

But the commuter tax could bring real money back to the city that could be used to fund mass transit, the very thing that commuters use. If restored, the commuter tax would bring in $699 million in 2008, $734 million in 2009, $774 million in 2010, and $823 million in 2011, according to a report released this year by the New York City Independent Budget Office. That's a lot of new buses and trains. Funding mass improvements through a commuter tax would leave less to the imagination of outer-borough voters.

Was Brodsky worried about a regressive tax? Well, an estimated 54.2% of the people who would pay the commuter tax—about 0.45% of earnings—would have incomes over $100,000, according to the IBO.

And each time Silver has clashed with Bloomberg thus far, he's looked like a hero to certain segment of the population. It happened with the West Side Stadium and again with congestion pricing. But the commuter tax is glaring example of how Silver would sell out his constituents for political expediency. Let him defend it now, and again and again.

Expect the usual arguments that the commuter tax is bad for business. Well, Goldman Sachs got $1.6 billion in post-9/11 Liberty Bonds for their new headquarters. Those jobs aren't going anywhere.

Don't think the city gets shafted? Check out Wayne Barrett's hysterical and maddening story in May of 1999 Train Runs Over Rudy

It's time for "City Residents Only" signs on libraries, ambulances, museums, bridges, toilets, sinks, parks, and roadways. Rudy's cops and firemen should also be ordered to check for resident id, rather than rushing to any commuter's rescue.

With New York City nonresident employees paying a puny 11 percent of the payroll tax rate for residents, less than in virtually any major city, the ongoing legislative move to kill the commuter tax is a declaration of regional war.

If suburban sponges won't pay a ratty average of $180 a year— less than half a percent of their income— to cover a fraction of the cost of the services they soak up from this city, they should have to hold their bowels every day until they can make it to a suburban sewer, and they should only be allowed in and out of town on state highways, bridges, or tunnels.

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