Editorial, Opinion

EDITORIAL: Proposed Boston congestion pricing plan will hurt lower and middle-income Bostonians

In 2016, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh requested that the Green Ribbon Commission — a group of business, institutional and civic leaders in Boston — develop strategies to achieve Boston’s 2050 carbon neutrality targets. The GRC partnered with the Institute for Sustainable Energy at Boston University to create the 2019 Carbon Free Boston report.

The report recommends a congestion fee of $5 for every trip a private vehicle takes in an area that includes Downtown, Back Bay, the Seaport and the Longwood Medical Areas. This fee would be on the higher end of congestion fees, compared with currently-implemented congestion fees in other major cities.

Moreover, the report recommends charging private vehicles a $0.20 fee for every mile traveled in the city, a $5 parking fee for every trip into Boston that ends anywhere excluding personal residences, and a $1 per mile fee for rideshare trips.

The City of Boston plans to become carbon neutral by 2050 and has 25 and 50 percent reduction benchmarks for 2020 and 2030, respectively, compared to a 2005 baseline.

Congestion pricing will do little to meet these goals — instead, it would come at a high cost to lower and middle-income families.

“I have a record of leading and supporting pro-environment causes,” City Councilor At-Large Michael Flaherty said to the Boston Herald on the proposed congestion pricing plan. “But not at the sake of our working-class families. This is overly bureaucratic. Charging $5 for people to come in and out of the city, would have grave consequences. The cost of living in Boston has become unlivable for too many families and individuals.”

Several U.S. cities — New York, Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco — have considered congestion pricing. But congestion pricing is mostly limited to European cities such as Stockholm and London.

In 2003, London created a congestion pricing program to help curb traffic in Central London. Looking back almost 16 years, the program has been generally successful. The number of vehicles driving in the congestion zone is about 25 percent lower compared to 10 years ago.

But Boston does not have a public transportation system that can compete with London’s expansive subway and buses. In 2013, 75.6 percent of Boston metropolitan area residents commuted by car, according to the Boston Globe. On the other hand, in London only 35 percent of commuters used cars to get work in 2015, according to CityLab.

Supporters argue that congestion fees allow consumers to realize the full costs of driving. Drivers — through tax revenue — indirectly pay for construction and maintenance costs. With a congestion fee, drivers directly face negative externalities such as congestion, pollution and driving accidents.

Moreover, revenue can help fund improved transit service, sidewalks, bike lanes and other transportation infrastructure.

But a standard $5 congestion fee will cause a whole new set of problems. It will negatively affect lower-income citizens who may not be able to afford the fee. If public transportation was a viable option, more people would take it.

City Councilor Matt O’Malley said that addressing the MBTA first is important in any talks about reducing vehicle congestion.

“The focus needs to be working with the state,” he said to the Herald. “We could have a lot more people riding the T.”

Creating a congestion fee will result in a regressive tax that primarily hurts the lower and middle classes. The rich will be able to absorb the tax and continue to contribute to climate change. Before even considering implementing a congestion tax, Boston must invest more in the MBTA, so people are incentivized to take it.

In Dorchester, for example, 56.3 percent of people commute via a car, truck or van, according to a report from the Boston Redevelopment Authority Research Division. In 2015, the median household income in Dorchester was $47,200, lower than the citywide median of $55,777.

Congestion pricing is also not popular within Boston. Only 38 percent of 709 individuals surveyed in a poll conducted by the Barr Foundation and advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts wanted a congestion fee during busier periods, and 55 percent opposed the idea.

A congestion fee would simply serve as another tax that would hurt the middle-and-lower income residents of Boston. In order to fight climate change, subsidies for renewable energy projects and electric cars should be prioritized. Sure, the congestion pricing plan would reduce traffic — but at an unreasonable cost to most Bostonians.

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