Debates of the Century @ NYU Wagner: “New York City should implement congestion pricing”

By Gretha Suarez (MUP) and Aldana Vales (Journalism-Studio 20)


On Wednesday, February 26, 2019, NYU Wagner and The Century Foundation hosted the eleventh Debates of the Century on whether New York City should implement congestion pricing to tackle the mounting traffic gridlock and public transit issues facing its residents. The public debate series has covered an array of topics over the past three years ranging from education, Medicaid, gentrification, and national security. In her opening remarks, Dean Sherry Glied announced that the topic of transportation had not yet been covered, and the president of The Century Foundation Mark Zuckerman pointed out the serendipitous timing of the debate discussion—Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio released a joint endorsement of congestion pricing only hours before the debate began.

“The Debates of the Century series has brought thoughtful and informed dialogue and perspectives on vital issues. Helping to educate our students to make an impact is to provide all sides of a contentious issue,” said NYU Wagner Dean Sherry Glied, opening the evening’s event.

As traffic gridlock and challenges from a crumbling subway system in New York City near crisis level, congestion pricing has once again been proposed as a viable solution. The idea is to use the revenue generated from surcharges to drivers entering heavily-trafficked zones in Manhattan to support infrastructure repairs and transit upgrades.

Before the discussion, a poll showed a clear trend among the audience: 82 percent voted for the implementation of congestion pricing, while 10 percent were against. Eight percent were still undecided.

The debate featured Polly Trottenberg, current Commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation as the moderator. For the motion was Nicole Gelinas, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who has supported congestion pricing in various publications. During her opening statement, Gelinas pointed out that the building of the MTA was possible thanks to an already implemented congestion pricing, including the fees that drivers pay on tolls that go toward financing the transit system.

“This is not a radical new step for New York. It is just the natural evolution of what we have been doing for half a century,” she said. She highlighted that the MTA was rebuilt in the late 1960s from the surplus generated from fuel taxes and bridge toll taxes. Gelinas noted that in the past three decades the City’s newfound success has brought a million more residents, with 8 out of 10 people taking public transit, making it necessary to take action to reduce traffic gridlock by taxing the behavior we want to see less of in heavily congested zones.

Against the motion was Richard Brodsky, a former member of the New York State Assembly and a leading opponent of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing proposal and the current proposal under Mayor de Blasio with belief that the policy will be regressive and unfair for low-income, outer borough residents.

In response to imposing congestion pricing to tax behavior, Brodsky remarked, “Whose behavior do you think you will change? We have decided that for good or bad reasons that we are going to modify access based on the ability to pay.”

He opposed congestion pricing on the principle that the market place should not drive behavior and policy decisions. Brodksy stressed that a flat tax on drivers in Manhattan is unfair and arbitrary because congestion pricing will be more of a burden to the working class than to the rich.

At one point, Brodsky asked Gelinas, “Would you vote for a congestion fee without knowing what the fee is?” After a pause, Gelinas answered that she would vote for it. She responded, “What Governor Cuomo is asking people to vote for is a concept, that this is finite street space and it has a price that should be levied to deter people who have never thought about it before, just like the 5-cent plastic bag fee, and to put money into the subway system.”

Both debaters agreed on one point, though: New York City should have greater parking enforcement and off-hour deliveries in order to help free street space.

In her closing remarks, Gelinas repeated that congestion pricing is not an outlandish, radical, new idea because a large plurality of people is already paying to drive into Manhattan through the east river bridges. She called attention to truck drivers who go out of their way to avoid paying tolls by finding alternative free routes that cause traffic, pollution, congestion, and danger to pedestrians. She said, “I think it’s important to take a step back and say, ‘all we are doing is rationalizing an existing system that has actually worked very well for half a century.’”

Brodsky closed the evening celebrating the debate as proof that “civil discourse, even spirited and edgy is still possible.” In the end, he suggested to the audience: “Do as you want your elected representatives in Albany and Washington to do, do what you think is right and principled, and take the consequences.”

The closing poll showed that the vast majority of the audience (69 percent) was still in favor of congestion pricing, but the number of people who voted against rose to 19 percent, while 12 percent was undecided.

A woman looks at the screen with the results of the closing poll.
A woman looks at the screen with the results of the closing poll