Home World Congestion pricing is Chicago progressives’ latest cash grab

Congestion pricing is Chicago progressives’ latest cash grab

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Virtually every novel revenue-raising idea floated by Mayor Brandon Johnson and fellow progressives on the City Council has been shot down since he took office, either by Springfield or Chicago voters.

One of the few they haven’t pursued yet is a fee on vehicles in crowded parts of the city, an idea previous mayors have considered and shelved. Ald. Andre Vasquez, 40th, has filed a resolution calling for a subject matter hearing in City Council on so-called congestion pricing.

Vasquez, an avowed progressive who hasn’t always toed the mayor’s line, is doing Johnson a solid here. It’s not much of a leap to expect this hearing to morph quickly into an action item for this cash-hungry bunch.

Past Mayors Rahm Emanuel and Lori Lightfoot looked at congestion pricing. But they did so in the context of a far different city. Before the pandemic the Loop indeed in some years was choked with traffic. Just before COVID struck, in the first year of Lightfoot’s single term, the situation was arguably worse than it ever had been, mainly due to the proliferation of Uber and Lyft drivers in addition to the cabs that served the downtown area. She considered congestion pricing for the Loop in 2019 before opting for less dramatic measures to close what at the time was a budget gap exceeding $800 million.

Then the pandemic struck, and much of what we’d come to think of as fixed reality about downtown Chicago, work life, public transit and, yes, automobile traffic changed overnight.

Today, four years later, the Loop most of the time remains eerily bereft of significant traffic, particularly on weekdays and especially south of Madison Street. Likewise, Michigan Avenue and River North can hardly be described as bustling much of the time, unless there are construction zones.

Yes, there’s traffic congestion in Chicago. But it’s focused on expressways and major diagonal arteries feeding into and through downtown, and DuSable Lake Shore Drive. The West Loop, too, has grown clogged at times as Fulton Market, one of the few economic bright spots right now in Chicago, has become a nightlife magnet.

So the previous justifications for charging people when they drive into the Loop — alleviating central business district traffic jams — aren’t valid anymore. Will those conditions return in the future? Maybe. But for the time being, policymakers ought to be cheering for more Loop action (including the return of our lost old-school taxis) rather than trying to discourage workers and visitors from coming downtown.

The reasonable rationale for congestion pricing, which exists in various forms in other parts of the world, notably London and Singapore, is that promoting alternative forms of city transportation is good for the environment, reduces wear and tear on roads, and enhances pedestrian and cyclist safety. But it’s still a hard sell, even in places where it more obviously makes sense than in Chicago. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul recently shocked lawmakers and others in her state when she reversed course abruptly on plans to impose congestion fees in Manhattan, which is far more clogged than Chicago likely ever will be.

Why? Surely for political reasons (she feared voter backlash) and likely for policy reasons too. Hochul saw unintended consequences likely to be felt in other NYC boroughs not subject to the fee and in what would become a traffic-choked part of Manhattan north of the toll divide. Plus, the governor also heard from less affluent tradespeople for whom an additional toll every time they crossed into most of Manhattan, coming in addition to the existing cost of the bridges and tunnels, would render their trips worthless, even as richer entities just sighed and carried on.



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