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Green Sticker Shock

An ambitious plan to implement congestion traffic pricing in New York City met a quiet death today. The initiative would have taxed drivers into parts of Manhattan $8 in an effort to reduce the number of cars on the road. The project, considered a keystone of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC sustainability program, would have garnered an additional $350 million in federal subsidies earmarked to rehab and expand the city’s public transport system.

Never mind the precedent New York could have set for the numerous American cities (Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, DC) with two-hour lines of cars stretching past the horizon daily. A three-fourths wave of opponents representing outer boroughs and suburbs of the city claimed their constituents resent the “elitist” tax on those wishing to come into Manhattan. The rest of the assembly just failed to think the reduction in driving was a good idea.

This makes Bloomberg’s failure to close here a matter of political salesmanship. For a clear analog, see California’s Proposition 87, which would have imposed a tax on oil producers in order to create a massive renewable energy fund. Prop 87 drowned at the ballot box last year—victim of a backlash alliance between polluters and lower-income voters more worried about gas price increases than glacial flow. Despite a $40 million ad campaign backed by Silicon Valley and Hollywood greens, consumers weren’t told a compelling narrative about the savings inherent to future energy efficiency. The fear of marginal cost increases was enough to sink both plans. Nonplussed borough legislators, convinced the New York tax was also regressive, felt equally free to ignore Bloomberg’s “open skies” approach.

Today’s flameout reinforces the need for other reform-minded local governors to focus on pocketbook issues in pursuit of environmental progress. The common cause is there. As Van Jones put it in an open letter on the California failure: “The polluters will organize everyone we exclude.”

--Dayo Olopade