Richard Brodsky's Congestion Pricing Shell Game

Angus Grieve-Smith
Queens resident, homeowner and small businessman

Today, Westchester Assemblymember Richard Brodsky released a report that was prepared for his office as an attack on the Mayor's congestion pricing plan. This report is a major disappointment, mainly because of its flawed argument that congestion pricing is a regressive tax.

I completely agree that regressive taxes are bad. I lived for two years in New Mexico, which has one of the most regressive taxes of all: a tax on groceries. The rich and the poor both had to pay the same amount of tax on a pound of meat, but the tax was a larger proportion of a poor family's income. One of the reasons that it was particularly evil is that it was inescapable: everyone has to buy groceries.

Here's the core of the argument in Brodsky's report:

A regressive tax is defined as, A tax that takes a larger percentage from the income of low-income people than the income of high-income people. Regressive taxes have been widely criticized as unfair, allowing wealthier citizens to escape the responsibility of supporting public services, and unfairly burdening low and middle income working families.

The congestion pricing proposal meets this definition because the revenues it produces will come disproportionately from middle income drivers. The data provided by the City establishes this pattern.

Did you catch the shell game? Watch it again.

A regressive tax is defined as, A tax that takes a larger percentage from the income of low-income people than the income of high-income people. Regressive taxes have been widely criticized as unfair, allowing wealthier citizens to escape the responsibility of supporting public services, and unfairly burdening low and middle income working families.

The congestion pricing proposal meets this definition because the revenues it produces willcome disproportionately from middle income drivers. The data provided by the City establishes this pattern.

Notice how the definition of a regressive tax (from investopedia.com) has the word "low" in it, but the report's characterization of congestion pricing has the word "middle"? There's a bridge sentence with both words in it, but the original investopedia definition did not have "middle" in it.

What happened to the low-income people? This is what Brodsky's shell game is intended to distract you from. The low-income people are all on the train and the bus. They won't pay the congestion fee at all. So while the congestion fee may be regressive for the 4.6 percent of commuters who drive, it will be progressive for the other 95.4 percent. Being middle-class myself, I'm a big fan of the middle class, but the vast majority of us take transit too. Remember the inescapable New Mexico groceries tax? If you're commuting to Manhattan, it's very easy to escape driving.

The core problem of Brodsky's analysis is that it acts as though only drivers count. This "windshield perspective" is unfortunately common among politicians, but it is particularly egregious here, when Brodsky is using a class-based critique to protect the wealthiest 4.6 percent of Manhattan commuters.

A true investigation of the "regressive tax" question would look into the various taxes and subsidies involved in all commuting modes and how they balance out by percentage of income. But for some reason Brodsky doesn't seem to be interested in such an analysis.

There are a few good parts in this report, and I'll leave you with the best one (emphasis in the original):

Opponents of congestion pricing must offer fair, practical, and effective alternatives to congestion pricing rather than merely oppose the Mayor's congestion pricing proposal. If nothing else the Mayor has correctly identified problems that must be addressed. He deserves partners in the search for solutions.

Assemblymember Brodsky (and this goes for the rest of the Assembly, too): you're a legislator. You have the power to write and introduce legislation. If you don't like the legislation that the mayor's office proposed, please, write your own. Just make sure that it discourages people from driving through my neighborhood, wounding my neighbors and fouling the air. And it'd be nice if you could work something out in time to get that half billion dollars in federal grant money.

We deserve partners. Be a partner, not an obstructionist.