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TESTIMONY OF DR. JOHN TEPPER MARLIN ON CONGESTION PRICING BEFORE A PUBLIC HEARING BY MANHATTAN COMMUNITY BOARDS 4, 5 AND 6, FASHION INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY, 6 P.M., JULY 9, 2007
Thank you for the opportunity to present my views on congestion pricing. I am representing two people – myself and my wife Alice.
My first comment is that congestion is a good thing up to a point. It’s a sign of a thriving business community. In the 19th century, smokestacks were proudly shown in city postcards to make clear the prosperity of the local businesses. Some economically depressed communities upstate would welcome Manhattan’s congestion problem in place of their boarded-up stores and office buildings. The hostility to the City’s congestion pricing plan may in fact stem from congestion envy in upstate cities – or even in some of the other boroughs. Congestion envy may help explain why the state legislature has been cool to solving Manhattan’s problem.
Traffic congestion is not only a sign of economic health. It has some other positive aspects. For example, rural traffic moves faster and results in far more fatalities. The problem comes when traffic is so bad that no one moves. It’s dangerous for traffic to be at a standstill when someone is in an ambulance trying to get to the hospital, or a fire engine is trying to get to a fire, or a police car is trying to get to the scene of a crime.
I remember taking a taxi to Newark airport earlier this year. The driver told me he proposed to go by the Lincoln Tunnel. “It’s a half-hour wait,” he said. “So then why not go via the Holland Tunnel,” I asked. He answered: “Listen to the radio. It’s an hour’s wait at the Holland Tunnel.” That kind of waiting is no fun and is wasteful. Time is money, so we are already paying for congestion, but we are paying in unpredictable and inefficient ways.
The person who understood all this long before most of the rest of us is someone I would like to pay tribute to. He was the first person in the world to think deeply about congestion pricing - Bill Vickrey, a Columbia professor whom I got to know through the City Club of New York, where we were both active members. Bill received the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1996 and was very excited about the increased influence the award would give to his policy prescriptions. Alas, he died within a few days after the announcement of his award, in a car on his way up to a conference of like-minded economists. Bill was keenly interested in giving advice to policymakers in the City and testified at an economic hearing I organized as Chief Economist for then City Comptroller Liz Holtzman in 1992. I have a summary of his 12 principles of congestion pricing that I will hand out to those who are interested and will post at http://tinyurl.com/29vz7n. Some of his principles are still hard to introduce because of the technology that would be required, but more of them are feasible now than when they were first proposed, and all of them are sound from the perspective of creating an efficient city. For those who are concerned that the MTA can't handle the additional burden on the subway system from those who leave their cars at home, Bill Vickrey had a well-researched answer that the system could handle a lot more volume than it does. He favored investment in upgrading the signal system to permit shorter headways between subways, and he said that a skip-stop system for the local trains would shorten travel time without great inconveience.
So to sum up, I am in favor of congestion pricing – any form of it is better than nothing, But the most efficient form, and the best for New York City, would follow as many of Bill Vickrey’s principles as are practicable.