Bad News for the Big Apple

It’s not often that politicians say no to free money, but that’s exactly what New York’s lawmakers did earlier this week by rebuffing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed emission-busting congestion charge. Hoping that the Big Apple’s example would lead other cities to adopt greener approaches to traffic management, the federal government made it clear that up to half a billion dollars in federal funding were up for grabs. Bizarrely, though, Albany greeted the offer with an indifference that bordered on outright disdain. The state’s elected representatives initially snubbed the cash altogether, heading off on vacation without submitting an application for the funds. Only after a media uproar did they grudgingly reconvene for long enough to shelve the congestion plan altogether.

The lawmakers argued they hadn’t been given enough information about the proposal; Bloomberg said he’d mailed them everything they could need, and that it wasn’t his fault if they hadn’t bothered to read it. The real problem, though, was the same, old turf wars that have dogged New York politics for decades: Albany’s political elite were affronted by Mayor Mike’s brusque management style, and worried that by allowing his office to take control of the charge’s expected $380m annual revenues, they’d cede him control over the city’s transport policies. 

Away from the backroom politicking, it’s New Yorkers who’ll lose out. I lived in London during the introduction of the city’s enormously successful traffic charge, which the New York plan was modeled after. While Londoners grumbled about having to pay to drive around their own city, the benefits of the system quickly became obvious: Traffic jams melted away almost overnight, buses began to run on schedule, and the air seemed cleaner. These days, everyone - or almost everyone - pays up without batting an eyelid.  

And the benefits of congestion charging go beyond simply cutting emissions and tacking a few miles-per-hour onto average traffic speeds. Managing a citywide traffic program requires designing, building, and maintaining a complex network of computers and cameras, thus boosting the economy and contributing to the development of a highly skilled workforce. Thomas Friedman convincingly argued recently that by creating these “green collar” jobs, which are inherently resistant to outsourcing, ambitious environmental projects have a crucial role to play in helping the US remain competitive in a globalized economy. Bad for New York, bad for the environment, and bad for America, it seems that Albany’s short-sighted and apathetic approach to solving the Big Apple’s congestion woes could prove an extremely expensive mistake.