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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adam

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  1. Bill - April 9, 2008

    Unfortunately we seem excessively preoccupied with arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. By the time we “see the light” of inconvenience I fear it will be coming through the bottom of our ship.

  2. Damon - April 9, 2008

    I was in Stockholm when they instituted a congestion charge. Most people didn’t want it, but the City started a 6 month trial anyway. People so loved the cleaner air, emptier streets, and faster travel, that they later decided the fee was a good idea! Stockholm wasn’t even congested to begin with, if New Yorkers could see the effect this would have, I think they’d approve.

  3. Misanthropic Scott - April 9, 2008

    I live in New York City and know the benefits we could have had. I’m sure we need it more than Stockholm ever did. Unfortunately, New York State and New York City are very different politically.
    The cretins in Albany didn’t even have the decency to vote it down. They never even brought up the topic for vote. They don’t live here. What do they care?
    Why not let us do what we know we need to?
    Why do we even need their permission for this?

  4. Steve - April 9, 2008

    Cognitive dissonance abounds in the mind of the American voter. ‘Cut my taxes but not my benefits, please.’ Congestion taxes, while perhaps a good idea for traffic control, fail the test of prioritization.
    Eyes on the prize: If we’re going to pass the legislation we need to pair up the costs of carbon with ALL carbon-intensive behaviors, we need to do it right and do it once. The patchwork approach will fail. That means either a carbon tax, or capping carbon emissions for each social security number. Wanna drive a hummer? Fine. Purchase credits on the open market from people driving a Prius. Each year, the carbon allowance goes down.

  5. Steve - April 9, 2008

    Cognitive dissonance abounds in the mind of the American voter. ‘Cut my taxes but not my benefits, please.’ Congestion taxes, while perhaps a good idea for traffic control, fail the test of prioritization when it comes to addressing climate change.
    Eyes on the prize: If we’re going to pass the legislation we need to pair up the FULL costs of carbon emissions with ALL carbon-intensive behaviors, we need to do it right and do it once. The patchwork approach (such as congestion taxes) will fail. That means either a carbon tax, or capping carbon emissions for each social security number and corporate tax ID.
    Wanna drive a Hummer? Fine. Purchase credits on the carbon credit exchange from people driving a Prius.
    Wanna build a coal-fired power plant? Fine. Good luck selling the electricity after you’d paid for the carbon allowances you’ll need. Nuclear, wind and solar will all look like bargains when suppliers pay for the damage they do.
    Each year, your carbon allowance goes down. You can always buy more, but each year the price will go up.
    When the full cost of any behavior is paid for by the consumer, market efficiency is a beautiful thing to watch.
    When we understand what it will cost us to replace all of the wonderful things that Nature and the wilderness provide to us (fresh water and clean air for example)for free, we will begin to charge a hefty price for it to those who seem not to care otherwise.

  6. Tom Harrison - April 12, 2008

    Adam — I share your pain. In college (in 1984) I wrote my Economics thesis on various congestion pricing plans. Because of the lack of real-time information, few were practical at the time — the shared resource I demonstrated was feasible was a time-share computer system.
    What I concluded then was that the economic incentives and trade offs would be effective, but the real problem was finding a plan that was easy enough to communicate, equitable, and politically feasible.
    So often, we (and by we, I also mean TerraPass :-) look at issues from a strongly economic view without reflecting on the behavior modification issues that are at the root of many of our real carbon problems.
    We have to work on showing people why these plans benefit them, rather than just focusing on the numbers.
    Tom

  7. Typical Non-Lemming - April 15, 2008

    [Ed. — Holy cow. You make lemmings look like geniuses.]

  8. Typical Non-Lemming - April 15, 2008

    [Ed. — did you describe someone else as “frothing at the mouth”? Seriously?]

  9. hujorgen - April 22, 2008

    Congestion pricing is certainly controversial, but there’s a strong case to be made that it benefits the poor and drivers.

  10. hujorgen - April 22, 2008

    PS. Of course, congestion pricing was probably oversold as a climate change solution. Really it should have been sold on the merits as a quality of life improvement for people who live and work in the city.

  11. Hujorgen - April 24, 2008

    By the way, I thought people might be interested in my Earth Day pledge: I’m going to study up on the science of global warming. It’s really quite interesting stuff, and there’s so much misinformation out there. I’d like to spread the word.

  12. hujorgen - April 24, 2008

    Another thing I don’t understand is the weird resentment so many people seem to have towards the basic reality of global warming. They’ll cling to anything — global cooling, sunspots, “science” reports from paid lobbyists — that will keep them from having to upset their worldview. Crazy!

  13. hujorgen - April 25, 2008

    One interesting thing I learned about CFL bulbs is that they actually reduce environmental mercury. Because coal-generated electricity is such a big source of mercury pollution, the reduced power usage from CFLs slashes the amount mercury released into the environment.
    Of course, you should still be careful when disposing CFLs or cleaning up a broken bulb. But the amount of mercury contained in a CFL is roughly equivalent to the amount contained in a few cans of tuna, so there’s no need to panic!
    The good news is that retailers like Wal-Mart are already pushing aggressively to reduce the amount of mercury in CFLs. And in a few years we’ll probably be using LEDs anyway.

  14. hujorgen - April 25, 2008

    Ed.! Shame on you! Get in the house right now and eat your vegetables. You know you are to feeble minded to play with real people. Your and you imaginary friends have to stay off the internet for the rest of the day.
    hu jorgen

  15. hujorgen - April 25, 2008

    Yes I do think LED light sources are the best alternative we have. With continued development they will perform as good as an incandescent bulb. If you compare the energy required to manufacture a CFL bulb vs an incandescent the power savings virtually disapear.
    About the mercury issue – CFLs result in a net decrease of mercury pollution, as I previously mentioned. However, I’m going to disregard this fact. I’m not sure why I do this. Do I have a political agenda? That doesn’t really make sense — what political agenda would cause me to ignore simple facts about light bulbs, energy use, and mercury pollution? I guess it’s just because I hate environmentalists so much that I stake out an opposition to everything they say out of sheer spite. It’s sad to be me.
    Hu stands by what he says. Hu refers to himself in the third person. Hu provides much merriment to others.