Editorial: Here comes the latest cash grab — congestion pricing

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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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Take a cue from New York, Alderman Vasquez and fellow progressives. For multiple reasons, now is not the time for congestion fees in Chicago.

First is that the city isn’t healthy in many key respects at the moment. Any policy that dissuades people from visiting downtown or city neighborhoods and patronizing businesses and generally adding some needed street vitality should be a dead letter.

Second, even if the above weren’t true, the state of public transit in Chicago is abysmal: unacceptably infrequent trains and buses and justified concerns about public safety on the “L.” Until the Chicago Transit Authority is returned to an acceptable level of service, congestion pricing should be off the table.

Third, there’s no reason to feel confident a city government that has stumbled badly when confronted with unexpected challenges could manage the logistical complications inherent in any congestion-pricing scheme . Such a program likely would involve urging drivers to procure E-ZPass transponders used by those who frequently drive the tollroads, backed by a system of cameras to track the license plates of those who drive into affected neighborhoods. Drivers without the transponders then would have to pony up online after returning home, and the city would have to set up an enforcement apparatus to force compliance. You think the backlash to red-light cameras was bad? Wait until people — which would include Chicagoans, not just the suburbanites Vasquez is targeting — get “pay up” notices in the mail.

For all the talk of the environment and promoting public transit usage, let’s be honest. The primary reason the Johnson administration and its progressive aldermanic allies find congestion pricing intriguing is the revenue such a charge might raise. The mayor’s many efforts to boost resources for his programmatic visions have come to naught thus far. Most dramatic was voters’ rejection in March of the Bring Chicago Home referendum that would have quadrupled the tax on sales of most commercial real estate in order to fund homelessness programs. But that’s not the only instance. Gov. J.B. Pritzker and lawmakers in Springfield have rejected out of hand suggestions such as taxing trades on Chicago’s futures and options exchanges. Johnson’s trial balloon to bring back the so-called head tax — a levy that used to be paid by employers for each worker they employ, a colossally counterproductive idea — has gone nowhere.

So Vasquez’s move to get the ball rolling on congestion pricing isn’t surprising, and the motivation is clear, even if you hear protests to the contrary. It should join the dust heap of this administration’s other failed cash grabs.

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