Congestion tax in New York could be Green New Deal litmus test

If successful, the fee on driving into Manhattan might pave way for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s climate legislation.

US Congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been the primary advocate for the Green New Deal at the national level [Cliff Owen/AP]
A previous version of this article did not make sufficiently clear that New York City congestion pricing is not part of the federal Green New Deal proposal. This has now been reflected below.

Sumaiya Nur, a recent immigrant from Bangladesh, has not heard much about the congestion tax – likely around $12 – slated to hit the streets of New York City in early 2021.

The 21-year-old pharmacy clerk lives and works in Jackson Heights, Queens. She only travels across the river to Manhattan once a week – every Saturday in her brother’s car – to watch movies and walk around destinations like Times Square.

When asked whether she supported an additional car toll for entering the clogged thoroughfares of the tourist and commuter core of the city, her reaction was: “That’s too much. I don’t even earn that in an hour!”

Nur was unaware that New York State legislators recently passed an historic budget plan that could significantly change the way New Yorkers get around.

But beyond the congestion fee most drivers will be required to pay upon entering the central business district of Manhattan, the concept – pioneered by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo – is a key regional test of the public appetite for new taxes, increased mass-transit investment, and environmentally progressive policy.

Jump-started by a February agreement between the city and the state, the tax aims to generate revenue that will go exclusively to the New York City subway system, which is in need of colossal upgrades.

Inspired by successful emissions-cutting models in London, Stockholm and Singapore, the tax that vehicles pay – depending on road conditions and the time of day – will be determined by a six-member mobility board formed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

As is the case with the Green New Deal – a proposal to build a renewable-energy future through fossil-fuel disincentives and jobs creation – the congestion plan would raise funds from consumers by penalising driving into the busiest part of New York City. In theory, not only will traffic problems abate, but the subway administration will use the estimated $1bn generated annually by the tax to fix trains, repair tracks, and modernise the ageing signal network.

If the plan works, it could encourage officials at all levels in the United States to continue experiments with making consumers pay more for environmentally unsound habits. Transportation, after all, is the biggest contributor to carbon emissions in the country.

‘All the money is there’

While the Green New Deal struggles to gain momentum in the halls of the US Congress, New York congestion pricing – which is not part of the federal Green New Deal proposal – might be seen as the vanguard in a war against not just the automobile, but perhaps also the internal combustion engine.

Robeson Hilton, a financial consultant with AXA Advisors, resides east of New York City in a Long Island suburb and drives into Manhattan only to meet clients. But he feels the congestion tax “on regular folks” is unwarranted.

Many in Queens are sceptical about the congestion charge [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]
Many in Queens are sceptical about the congestion charge [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

“Me driving on the road isn’t the problem with regards to climate change,” Hilton said. “We need to [transition] from gas, not just stop my car from going into the city.”

“Oil companies are thriving and blocking green technology,” he said. “Hybrid and electric cars are too expensive.”

“Hopefully by 2030, there’s no gas [vehicles]. All the money is there for the government to do the right thing. There’s no need to increase [consumer] taxes.”

Hilton’s view is common among New Yorkers who were surveyed on the issue, especially black and Hispanic residents of the outer boroughs and many suburbs.

One poll suggests 54 percent of city voters oppose the idea, with a solid majority sceptical that the plan will even reduce traffic. The tax appears to make transportation to Manhattan more of a hardship for less-affluent people. But that does not seem to have stopped legislators.

Even in the home district of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the New York representative who co-sponsored the Green New Deal in Congress with Senator Ed Markey, it’s hard to find enthusiastic supporters of the local climate-related reform that could be a precursor to even bolder local and national ideas.

‘Red, white and blue’

Manuel Torres drives to work every day from his home in Suffolk County to Jackson Heights, a heterogeneous neighbourhood in north-central Queens that teems with commerce and stands at the intersection of several key subway lines. The area has large South Asian and South American populations, with public transit – and the famously diverse 7 train – functioning as the great equalizer for working people.

For Torres, using mass transit would take even longer than his daily two-hour drive to Jackson Heights. Although his leased SUV may not be the pinnacle of energy efficiency, he runs a parking garage that installed Tesla electric charging stations six months ago.

Manuel Torres poses with three Tesla electric cars that he supervises in a Queens garage [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]
Manuel Torres poses with three Tesla electric cars that he supervises in a Queens garage [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

Torres explains how the facility charges customers $250 per month for regular spots or $300 for access to the Tesla power docks.

“I’ve got three of them over there: red, white and blue,” said Torres, pointing towards the Tesla vehicles – belonging to Queens residents – that he parks in a dedicated area.

In a nod to the patriotic spirit of climate action, Torres says he would happily drive an electric car if these vehicles were more affordable and spacious: “I’d trade mine in a heartbeat, for the same-sized Tesla.”

“We came this far with cars, so now we should get everyone going with these [electric] types of cars,” Torres told Al Jazeera. “It’s better for the environment.”

Torres also says his garage stands to benefit from the upcoming implementation of the congestion tax, as more outer-borough residents could park in Queens then hop on the subway to save money.

“But they shouldn’t charge you the $12 [to enter midtown] if you have an electric car.”

Environmental protection

New York Assembly Member Michael DenDekker represents Jackson Heights in Albany, the state capital. He is adamant that the congestion plan should include a “carve-out” for low-emissions automobiles and he advocates for unique license plates to set those vehicles apart.

DenDekker’s staff cruise around his district in an electric car and he says: “I like to think I’m the greenest person in the world….and [I] believe in protecting our environment a great deal.”

Jackson Heights has plentiful public transit but trains and buses are often overcrowded [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]
Jackson Heights has plentiful public transit but trains and buses are often overcrowded [Ben Piven/Al Jazeera]

However, DenDekker argues that the congestion plan was sold to the public first and foremost as a revenue generator, and secondarily as a traffic reducer. He hopes that carbon emissions numbers and health indicators will also improve as a result.

To be sure, DenDekker supports the congestion plan. He has much more faith in ongoing state and citywide climate mobilisation efforts – now being branded politically as local Green New Deals – than in far-reaching proposals stuck in Congress.

Corbin Trent, a spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez, told Al Jazeera that the congresswoman supports all Green New Deal efforts and would continue to sound a “rallying cry” for climate efforts. But he said the federal government was needed to finance mass mobilisation.

Nur, the Jackson Heights store clerk whose business is just across 37th Avenue from Ocasio-Cortez’s only district field office, concedes that her family would be “ready to pay” the congestion tax if necessary, but would likely opt for public transit instead.

“We can just take the 7, E, F, M, or R train into Manhattan,” she says, also acknowledging that perhaps she would be more willing to accept this trade-off if it helps lessen the impact of climate change in her Bangladeshi hometown of Dhaka, where storms and flooding have worsened in recent years.

“The train is fine,” she concluded. “But there should be more frequent trains because a lot of people need them.”

This article is the second in a four-part series looking at the economic and political context of Green New Deal policies around Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s district. With local details and global significance, we examine the people and places most affected by climate proposals. Click on the stories below:

Part 1: NYC Green New Deal has Trump Tower in its sights

Part 2: Congestion tax in New York could be Green New Deal litmus test 

Part 3: As US Green New Deal stalls, NY charging ahead with local versions

Part 4: Green New Deal promises jobs for AOC’s Bronx hometown

Source: Al Jazeera