Sam Schwartz’s Master Plan

by Reihan Salam

This is a post of parochial interest: One of the most vexing challenges facing transportation planners in New York city is the fact that while some East River crossings are free, others are subject to steep tolls. This creates a strong incentive to “shop around” that actually exacerbates congestion; rather than taking the most efficient route, drivers will often drive further and longer to save a few dollars. Even more irrationally, trucks have a strong incentive to pass through Lower Manhattan rather than use the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, as doing so will save them $70 (while generating far higher congestion costs for the metropolitan economy as a whole). To help address this problem, Sam Schwartz, the former New York city traffic commissioner, has called for a more coherent pricing system. The goal is to reduce tolls at crossings that are not well-served by transit while using market pricing to ease congestion at crossings that are well-served by transit. 

Though the political barriers will be very high indeed, Schwartz makes a compelling case. I will say, however, that I’d want the MTA to make progress on rolling back onerous work rules and addressing featherbedding across the system to ensure that any new revenues would be well spent. To that end, Schwartz calls for strictly defining where the revenue will go, e.g., to new capital projects that will palpably improve connectivity across the region. If coupled with a citywide embrace of performance parking, the Schwartz proposal could go a long way towards reducing congestion costs and improving quality of life in and around the five boroughs.