An Uber executive writes an op-ed in today’s Boston Globe touting the benefits of congestion pricing to reduce traffic in Boston. Andrew Salzberg, Uber’s head of transportation policy, says that it’s a fact that traffic in Boston is among the worst in the country and that are mass transit systems need new investment. But his argument is based on sleight of hand and misdirection and his claims of Uber’s selflessness are misleading.
Before looking at Salzberg’s claims, I should note that congestion pricing and per-mile tolling have long been part of some politicians’ wish lists. As recently as 2016, the Legislature considered a bill to begin a pilot program to tax drivers based on the number of miles traveled. Earlier, the former state governor Deval Patrick floated the idea of toll gates at every exit on every highway in the state. So, this is not some pie-in-the-sky isolated proposal by Salzberg and Uber.
Now to begin, Salzberg claims that “all vehicles should pay to use the roads,” implying that unless you’re paying a toll you’re driving for free. This is false. We arelady pay for the privilege of driving on Massachusetts roads through a use tax that is the gas tax. In fact, we pay 26.54 cents per gallon in state tax 1, which in 2016 brought in $766 million total, a significant growth from prior years due to both an increase in the tax from 24 cents in 2013 and the rebounding economy. Now, advocates will claim that increasing fuel efficiency of vehicles is lowering the amount of gas consumed (that’s not a bad thing!), but as we can see that is a very long term problem, not a short term one. However, the bottom line is that Massachusetts taxpayers are indeed paying a road fee to the tune of three-quarters of a billion dollars per year in just gas taxes.
Of course, we also pay for the roads through other taxes and fees as well, including car sales taxes, registry fees, tolls, and even a portion of the overall sales tax.2 So the truth is that we already “pay to use the roads.” What Uber and its allies want is for us to pay more to use the roads.
His next point claims that this only works when people have “easy and equitable access to transportation alternatives.” He notes that as people live further from the city center, they also live further from mass transit and thus drive more and so he thinks we should build more mass transit. Easier said than done. Salzberg’s examples for possible, in fact, are Boston’s own neighborhoods of Hyde Park, Mattapan, and West Roxbury, which would be relatively easy to reach with more mass transit. But what about people who live in the actual suburbs?
When I was working in Boston every day, I would have loved to have taken a train instead of driving in gridlock, but I didn’t have that choice. The trains only ran a particular schedule that didn’t fit my schedule. I would have had to be away from home even longer hours every day. And that’s only if I got to the stations at a ridiculously early hour to get one of the few parking spots available. And on top of that, I’d have to pay something around $250 per month for my T pass, plus parking fees. Plus the extra hassle of getting from the T stop in Boston to my place of work, making several bus or train transfers. Now as you push more people off the roads with congestion pricing, multiply the crowds and congestion by three and fourfold.
Just build more trains stations and bus stations and parking garages? Not likely. Even now the political pushback on any attempt to expand tracks or trains or parking prevents any meaningful expansion of the mass transit system and people in the feeder towns complain about increased traffic on their roads as commuters head to their local station instead of into the city.
But Salzberg has an answer for that too: If you “choose” to enter Boston’s downtown core at the busiest times, you pay “a bit” more. He writes, “People would have the choice to drive outside of rush hour to save money, choose other means of transportation, or pay more to drive where and when they want.” Yeah, except most people don’t have a choice of when to go to work, which is why there’s a rush hour in the first place. And it also assumes that everyone can afford to pay more, but the reality is that for many people that increased cost will represent a serious decrease in net income for their family needs. And what it means in a practical sense is that the rich (i.e. those who have more available cash reserves) get an elite perquisite while the poor (i.e. those who are or or are closer to just getting by) are forced to give up an opportunity they presently have.
Finally, Salzberg offers the rhetorical question of why Uber is proposing congestion pricing when, it will “obviously” affect their own bottom line. Oh, but don’t you know we all share a responsibility to invest in better transportation infrastructure?
Come on. Congestion pricing benefits Uber because all those people unable to drive their cars into the city will need a way to get around and the T and taxis aren’t going to cut it. Plus all that new money going to transportation infrastructure also improves Uber’s working environment and removes other cars from the road so that they can increase the number of rides they sell. Of course, Uber supports this because it does affect their bottom line, but for the better.
The reality is that congestion in Boston is bad, that the infrastructure isn’t sufficient, that mass transit can’t carry today’s load, never mind an increased load of former drivers. But if we’re going to consider alternatives, let’s not be bamboozled by self-serving rhetoric and public lobbying by the likes of Uber.