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New York City forges ahead with long-debated congestion pricing plan

New York City forges ahead with long-debated congestion pricing plan

New York City officials are planning to make the city the first in the U.S. to levy a fee on vehicles entering a designated downtown zone for the purpose of reducing traffic. But even as Los Angeles, San Francisco and other cities study similar congestion pricing schemes, New York’s plan faces vehement local opposition, complex questions, and a 16-month environmental assessment before it can go into effect. That process will move forward with a set of virtual meetings starting next week.

Once underway, New York’s Central Business District Tolling Program is expected to pay for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s ambitious $51 billion capital investment plan, as revenue would be used to secure $15 billion in bonds towards transit projects, said Ken Lovett, senior advisor to the MTA chairman, in an email. After costs, 80% of funds will go to New York City buses and subways, and 10% each to the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North Railroad.

Vehicles entering Manhattan streets from 60th Street south will pay on a once-a-day basis. The fees will be set by a six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board, which has not yet been appointed. Early discussions cited a range of $12 to $14 for passenger vehicles and $25 for trucks. The congestion pricing program has no end date, said Lovett.

Although New York’s central-city congestion fees would be the first in the U.S., such policies have proven to reduce traffic in London, Stockholm, and Singapore. The oldest program is Singapore’s, which dates to 1975. All three cities saw better traffic flow and reduced air pollution.

“Empirically, from almost any place where we see congestion pricing, it increases transit ridership,” said Michael Manville, professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. That’s something that New York, where subway ridership averaged just about 50% of pre-pandemic levels in August, and other cities would like to see. 

Elsewhere in the U.S., the San Francisco County Transportation Authority is studying a two-zone congestion pricing plan, which could be in place in three to five years. Los Angeles is looking at five options, including one that would charge drivers entering its downtown. Seattle, Portland and Pennsylvania have also considered congestion tolls.

Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association (a New York-New Jersey-Connecticut metropolitan area organization), has worked on congestion pricing for 20 years. She recognizes the national importance of a successful rollout for New York City’s program. “We want the MTA and the city to get it right. We need these kinds of solutions across the country to be able to address the challenges ahead. A lot of eyes have been on New York about this and will continue to be.”

A contentious road ahead

Because the tolling plan needs federal approval, it was submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation shortly after it passed the state legislature in 2019. The Trump administration never responded, which held up the program for 20 months. 

However, the transit agency “worked aggressively” behind the scenes to move the project forward, said Lovett. The agency also contracted with the company TransCore in 2019 to build and operate the electronic toll system, and has been designing and testing the necessary equipment, he said.

The Biden administration lifted the roadblock in March 2021, ordering the environmental assessment in place of a more costly and time-consuming environmental impact statement.

A series of 10 virtual public meetings kicks off Sept. 23, with three more in October for environmental justice communities in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. But vocal opponents across the Hudson River and on Staten Island have raised their hands against the Manhattan congestion tolls.

U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-NJ, and U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, R-NY, who represents Staten Island and southern Brooklyn, introduced federal legislation to require an economic impact statement on all congestion pricing programs. Gottheimer put forward another bill, the Anti-Congestion Tax Act, to give New Jersey drivers entering Manhattan exemptions from the congestion charge.

Although the Newark Star-Ledger endorsed the tolling plan, calling it a “must,” it noted that 20,000 daily commuters who pay $16 to enter Manhattan on the George Washington Bridge, but work in the congestion zone, may end up paying a second toll, amounting to an added cost of $3,000 a year for each driver.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates and maintains the cross-Hudson bridges and tunnels, relies on toll revenue to finance its bond instruments, said Kathryn Wylde, president of the nonprofit Partnership for New York City.

“The primary concern is making sure that the fiscal responsibilities of the Port Authority are not threatened by this,” said Wylde.

The MTA will meet with elected officials, community boards, and agencies in the tri-state region to discuss this and other issues. “This is a transparent process that’s going to require a lot of study, and we’re just asking that the process be allowed to play out,” Lovett said.

With the resignation of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo and a mayoral election on Nov. 2, the political landscape in New York is changing, but the congestion pricing plan seems secure. Eric Adams, the Democratic mayoral candidate, supports congestion pricing.

Jeorge Cymon, a spokesperson for Gov. Kathy Hochul, referred to her statement in the New York Times: “I’ve supported it from its inception. I believe it has to happen for all the reasons we know congestion pricing works.” The Regional Plan Association and 30 co-signers, including Uber and Lyft, sent a letter to Hochul urging the governor’s continued support of the program.

For Manhattan, congestion pricing can’t come soon enough. Bridge and tunnel traffic this July equaled that of July 2019. That’s happening while just 23% of Manhattan office workers have returned, according to data gathered by the Partnership for New York City. 

Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at the Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy organization, believes that 16 months is too long to wait. “We need to get it up and running immediately,” he said.

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