The Joke That Is Home Rule: A New York Story

Slate's blog on legal issues.
April 9 2008 9:46 AM

The Joke That Is Home Rule: A New York Story

An unintentionally amusing editorial in the New York Times today reveals just how little home rule major American cities have.   The Big Apple is one of the great cities in the world.   So isn’t it a bit odd that it can’t do much of anything about a problem as basic as alleviating traffic congestion on its own streets?   And yet that’s the case.   As is now well known, New York City wants to implement a congestion pricing plan.   It would apply to residents and nonresidents equally.   And the federal government wants to fund it.   But under New York law, even though the city has home rule, the city can’t impose such a fee without first obtaining express state legislative approval— approval that the state legislature this week once again declined to provide.   Today’s optimistic editorial suggests that the city can pursue a number of alternatives instead.   But guess what?  Most of them also require the city to get specific legislative approval.   That’s true even if the city wants to address the problem by issuing, as many cities do, residential parking permits to reduce the number of residents trolling the roads for a space.   In other words, arguably the greatest city in the world has to go hat-in-hand to Albany just to be able to set aside parking spaces for its own residents? This is nuts. Meanwhile, New York’s prime global competitor, London, hums merrily along with its now well-established, popular, and—by most accounts—effective congestion pricing plan.   And why was London able to do this?   Because when England reorganized that city’s legal status about 10 years ago, it put the choice to adopt such a policy squarely in the city’s hands. So is there anything New York can do on its own? Well, the editorial notes, the city can increase metered parking rates—a bold option indeed (assuming they can even do that!) but also not an option that would even have the same effects. 

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