They’re worried because they know this shortfall will affect every thing. This budget shortfall may indeed be one of the largest financial challenges that NYC has faced in decades, maybe ever. It is so large and daunting that it borders on the exciting because we can finally start a public debate about big civic ideas that can transform the urban landscape and redefine the experience of living in the largest American City.
One idea would be to completely re-think how we use our streets with the goal of changing the balance between cars and people back towards people-a relationship that has been out of balance since the introduction of automobiles a century ago. With our streets clogged with cars, over 14,000 pedestrians injured every year, 1 in 4 children afflicted with asthma in certain neighborhoods, and more pedestrians and drivers killed in crashes than murdered, the time is right for asking big questions that can lead to long overdue changes.
For instance, why does it costs the residents of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx $1.50 to commute to work in Manhattan by subway when residents who choose to drive are not charged for using the East River Bridges? There are many fair ways to toll the East River Bridges (revenue estimates range between 600 million to 1.2 billion dollars a year). Tolling the bridges would also bring congestion relief to communities near the bridges. This relief would have the secondary effect of increasing real estate values which the city also benefits from.
The taxi industry is worth taking a fresh look at too. The last time the city sold taxi medallions the cost was $35.00. These medallions are now worth $300,000 a piece and there are about 12,000 of them in circulation that trade privately. This amounts to a 4 billion-dollar market that has been transferred from public to private ownership. Does an industry known for dangerous and untrained drivers who injure 20,000 New Yorkers in crashes every year deserve what amounts to a 4 billion-dollar subsidy by the city? New Yorkers deserve a safe courteous taxi fleet. Drivers deserve to earn a fair wage for their efforts. Currently the city provides neither. A modest goal of increasing medallions by 10% (when was the last time you were able to catch a cab in the rain?) can add 300 million in revenue to the city. A more ambitious plan of transferring back ownership of medallions to the public at the rate of 25% a year, could add 1 billion to our budget every year for the next 4 years.
Parking is another area where the city can make up lost revenue. People who own cars in New York City pay on average $300 a month in parking fees at private garages. The city gives away over 2 million parking spots for free (public space reserved for the exclusive use of parking private automobiles). If the city leased only 10% of these spaces for the modest fee of $100 a month this could raise another 240 million dollars a year in revenue.
While pedestrian safety is on no ones political radar scope it is the largest public health threat facing city residents. The city writes over 7,000 parking tickets a day generating 150 million in revenue. By contrast, virtually no tickets are issued for drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians. A similar aggressive program to ticket drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians would go a long way to make the city safer for residents. It could also generate 100 million dollars in revenue.
Along a similar theme there are approximately 12,000 signalized intersections in New York City. At every light cycle (approximately a minute each) thousands of cars just try to make it through the light but don’t, making them red light runners. The amount of money that could be raised by fining these dangerous drivers, alone, could put New York City back in the black.
Why don’t we push this line of thinking just a little bit further and take the radical step to bring NYC in compliance with the Clean Air Act? An aggressive program to fine cars with malfunctioning exhaust systems that spew out smoke could make a difference. We could also create a pollution tax where incentives would be given for people to drive the most efficient vehicles available and charge fees to owners of vehicles that pollute the most? Millions could be generated and everyone could breathe a little easier.
During the great wave of immigration at the turn of the last century many people arrived in NYC thinking that our streets were paved with gold. In fact they are, it’s just a matter of knowing where to look for it.