New York City exemplifies the maxim of the great chess theorist Aron Nimzovich that every strength is also a weakness.
In New York’s case, the great strength is the mass transit network, the centerpiece of which is the subway system. Those lucky enough to live near one can pretty much get by without a car in the Big Apple. Moreover, for everyone—residents, commuters and tourists, it provides an inexpensive and theoretically hassle-free way to get to work and to the abundance of museums, performing arts facilities, parks, beaches, wildlife preserves, libraries, universities, research centers, historic buildings, restaurants and interesting neighborhoods within the city limits of what has become the unofficial capital of the 21st century. Augmented by city buses and a regional bus and rail system, the subway makes the joys and wonders of New York City reachable within an hour or less for more than 25 million people—and the 60 million tourists who visit each year.
But years of neglect and the burgeoning population of both the city and the region have led to a precipitous increase in service outages, accidents and overly crowded cars and platforms. During certain times of day, riding the subway can be a nightmare. And the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) can’t respond by adding more trains because the ancient switching system can’t handle the additional load. Plus, many neighborhoods not served by the subway desperately need stations and tracks, especially in Queens and Brooklyn.
Both progressive New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and centrist accommodationist Governor Andrew Cuomo have proposed ideas for financing the multi-billion dollar, multi-year investment that must be made to replace the switching system, build new stations and renovate existing lines and stations.
Cuomo wants to institute peak congestion pricing, which means that the people who drive into the city during rush hours will be assessed a tax and the funds will go to updating the subway system. The inherent problem with this tax is that it will make it more expensive for the middle class and poor to use the roads, which will send many to mass transit alternatives, further crowding the subway, bus and other rail systems. Of course, the additional funds will enable the subway to handle the additional riders, at least in theory. Additionally, the regressive nature of the tax is offset by the fact that reduced traffic is also good for the environment. Cuomo isn’t proposing it, but a graduated tax on peak users based on their income would address the fairness issue, while raising additional funds.
De Blasio is much less willing to compromise with big money interests than Cuomo and so has proposed a tax on the wealthy earmarked for mass transit, just as a tax on high incomes is funding the city-wide public pre-school program that de Blasio has initiated.
The New York Times is pushing a third alternative, which is to reinstitute a .45% tax on the income of the 800,000 suburbanites who descend on New York City—primarily Manhattan—every work day. There is a certain attractiveness about financing transportation improvements on the people who extract their living from the city but don’t live there.
Tax peak congestion drivers? Tax rich people? Tax suburbanites? What to do? What to do?
How about all three? That way MTA can speed up improvements—do more, more quickly. And I would add a special federal gas tax, with proceeds dedicated to mass transit in the United States, starting with building another tunnel underneath the Hudson River for Amtrak and New Jersey transit trains, something that would already be near completion if it weren’t for the veto by one of our epoch’s most obnoxious supporters of the ultra-wealthy and crony capitalism, Republican New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
And while we’re at it, let’s use taxation to solve the other major problem facing New York City–affordable housing. There are many reasons why housing is so expensive in New York City, including the fact that so many people, especially young people, want to live there. But one major factor driving up rents, especially in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, are the large number of people who own apartments but only stay in them for a few days, weeks or months a year. For example, only about 40-50% of the tenants in my apartment building live there full time. The others use it when they’re in New York, sometimes every weekend, sometimes every few months. In some buildings (not mine), owners rent out their apartments to tourists all or most of the time, often in violation of city and state laws. But whether you keep your apartment empty or rent it out to vacationers, the result is the same: another property is off the market, driving up the rents and prices on all other city real estate. I propose a special tax on properties whose owners don’t live full-time in their New York City apartments, with all proceeds used to make housing more affordable elsewhere in the city. The funds could be used to build city-financed housing for the poor and middle class or for rent subsidies for people making less than a certain amount of money. One positive effect of this new tax would be to discourage some part of the population owning but not living to give up their New York apartments, further driving down rents and prices.
Then there’s the taxes we need to raise to make the entire New York City area more able to withstand the more extreme storms that global warming has started to bring us. But imagine of we were able to make all the improvements New York needs. It would become an urban paradise.
New York is in many ways a microcosm of the United States, except it is much further ahead in supplying affordable and reliable mass transit. Every metropolitan area needs to improve its mass transit, and most have to move from buses to rails. Most regions of the country are facing crumbling roads, bridges and sewer systems. Everywhere, but particularly on the coasts and along rivers, communities have to modify infrastructure and housing to address climate change. And we haven’t even gotten to the pressing need to find more funds for traditional public schools and public colleges.
We have reached a major fork in the road as a nation: Will we slip into widespread societal breakdown?
Will we raise taxes, particular on the wealthy who have enjoyed 30+ years in which continual lowering of their taxes was financed by scrimping on our investments in the future and assuming massive debt?
We know how to solve most of our problems. The plans are out there in detail in government studies, academic papers and engineering plans. We just don’t have the money to pay for it because the ultra-wealthy, whose outsized bank accounts finance politicians and drive our political decisions, decided 40 years ago to withdraw from real civic involvement and selfishly accumulate wealth through lower taxes on their income and assets.