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Congestion pricing, R.I.P.

Just a few days ago I wrote approvingly of New York City’s plan to levy an $8 fee on drivers entering the downtime Manhattan area during peak hours — and now, on the brink of passage, the plan is dead, spiked by a recalcitrant state legislature.

Environmental economist Charles Komanoff has been close to this issue for a while, and he lays out a laundry list of reasons the bill failed. Some of those reasons are intriguing (an overemphasis among the bill’s supporters on climate change, rather than urban quality of life issues), and some strike me as slightly fanciful (Eliot Spitzer and the collapse of a crane in Manhattan have made a lot of local news recently, but the congestion plan has been in the works for years now).

However, I think David Weigel nails the real reason the bill failed: citizens didn’t want it. The benefits seemed too diffuse, and the downsides too concentrated on groups of highly energized and critical voters. Although I happen to disagree with those voters on the merits of this bill, I suspect the bill’s advocates simply didn’t do enough to build a solid base of support among a wary public.

Which is particularly a shame, because the bill’s proponents had managed to stitch together a coalition of support in the business, labor, and environmental communities. This is, in some ways, the holy trinity when it comes to climate change legislation as well, so the failure of the bill is instructive. Any climate change solution that is perceived as forcing costs on the public without corresponding benefits is going to have a tough road to slog.

Instructive, as well as scary: climate change legislation will, almost by definition, involve costs for the public. In a manner of speaking, that’s the whole point. Put a price on carbon so people find reasons to use less of it. Of course, solving climate change has all sorts of obvious benefits as well. Let’s get better at articulating them real quick like, lest cap and trade meets the fate of congestion pricing.

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