New York City subways are falling apart. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a $38 billion debt and $18 billion in unfunded health-care obligations. Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio spend most of their time blaming each other for the region’s transportation woes.
The New York Times thinks it has a solution: “Make commuters pay their share again.” That sounds like a great idea! The people who ride the trains should be the ones to pay for them.
But that’s not what the Times means. Instead, it wants people who live outside the city to pay a commuter tax to work in the city. Such a tax, equal to 0.45 percent of each commuter’s income, once was in place, but was repealed in 1999. If renewed, the Times estimates, it would add nearly a billion dollars a year to the city’s coffers, which it could use to restore the subways, though it is more likely that it would spend it on such frivolities as extending the Second Avenue subway.
This is an example of the old adage, “don’t tax you; don’t tax me; tax the fellow behind the tree.” Or, as someone on Manty Python once said, we should “tax foreigners living abroad.” The best part is that people who live outside of New York City don’t get to vote for New York City politicians or ballot measures, so they can be taxed without their approval (at least if they cross the line into the city).
The argument is that suburbanites use urban resources, so should pay a tax. But they only use those resources through the businesses they work for, and those businesses already pay taxes for those services. Commuters also pay to ride New Jersey Transit and other transportation services and/or tolls to cross the bridges into Manhattan. If the transit services are subsidized, then it’s time to raise the fares, not ask other people to pay for them.
The Times is being hypocritical here. It wants commuters to pay their share, but only some commuters. It doesn’t want the commuters who actually ride New York City subways to pay for them (unless they happen to be non-New York City residents). It only wants to tax “foreigners.” But if we really want fairness, we should get back to the idea that people should pay for what they use and not expect others to pay for it for them.