Of Tolls and Traffic
By Rafael Hoffman
New Yorkers, especially drivers, would welcome the idea of being able to drive around the city’s most crowded areas more quickly. All the more so as the post-pandemic era has made many of the city’s already congested thoroughfares chronically gridlocked. New York state is working on a plan, but it will not be free.
That proposal is the increasingly talked-about Congestion Pricing plan, which aims to decrease vehicle traffic in the city’s busiest areas by charging high tolls to enter Manhattan streets south of 60th Street. Looking at models abroad and realities on the streets of New York, advocates say it is a proven method to reduce traffic, curb emissions, and fund improvements to mass transit that will make it easier for people to travel to the city without their cars.
Yet as enticing as the idea of less traffic sounds, the plan has a diverse group of detractors, some angling for carveouts for their constituencies, others saying that far more needs to be done to mitigate the collateral damage the plan stands to cause, and a group of vociferous opponents who see the plan as a thinly veiled tax aimed chiefly at bailing out New York’s beleaguered Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).
As the MTA, the agency charged with the plan’s implementation, releases a set of studies on effects of Congestion Pricing and holds public hearings on what it says is the runway to implementation, New Yorkers are sounding off with opinions on the ambitious proposal.
Faster and Cleaner
If implemented, New York would be the first American city to use Congestion Pricing. Yet the world has a few examples, most notably London and Stockholm, which advocates say have worked.
“London had an immediate 30% reduction in travel delay, and they sustained 25% of that. Everybody who’s done this achieved its benefits,” said Dr. Rachel Weinberger, Director of Regional Strategy at the Regional Plan Association. “They’ve all seen health benefits like asthma reduction. London says it’s more than doubled its cardiac arrest survival rate, since ambulances were able to get around faster.”
The goal of congestion pricing is to encourage people who presently take their cars into the city to opt for mass transit. Data seems to back up the projection, as a Siena College poll found that when faced with a fee, 42% of New Yorkers would drive to the city less frequently and 64% would use mass transit more often. Only one third said they would pay the fee and keep their routine. It was not clear how often, if ever, the poll responders presently drive to the affected zone. The MTA’s recently released Environmental Assessment projected that the plan would reduce overall vehicular traffic in the area by 20%. Truck traffic in the zone, it says, would drop by 55% to 81% depending on the toll levels used.
An additional benefit advocates hope to see is a significant reduction in carbon emissions from less traffic and fewer vehicles idling in congestion.
Hand in hand with that objective is that the $1 billion in additional revenue the plan is expected to generate for the MTA would enable it to make major capital improvements to make its system more attractive to users.
“I think that a very important goal here is that New York should have a state-of-the-art transit system,” said Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, a Democrat whose lower Manhattan district is in the “congestion zone.”
For those who cannot or do not want to use trains, ferries, or buses, Dr. Weinberger said, the cost will buy them an easier drive.
“Now, you have a lot of people getting a free trip, but it’s costing them in time and delay,” she said adding that most regular commuters already use mass transit and that most affected people travel to the city irregularly, making the expense minimal.
“Just another way to tax people”
The plan’s opponents, however, see it as an unfair burden on residents and doubt its benefits will materialize.
“It’s just another way for the city and state to tax people,” said State Senator Simcha Felder, a Brooklyn Democrat who voted against the plan in 2019. “There’s no real evidence that it’s reduced congestion. If you look at London, I’m certain that it’s just chased traffic to other places. What I’m sure it succeeded in was raising money for the government.”
Assemblyman Michael Lawler, a Rockland County Republican who is seeking a Congressional seat, has introduced a bill to repeal the 2019 law mandating Congestion Pricing. While the opposition legislation has little chance of passage or a floor vote presently, he hoped that public outcry from those impacted could rally support.
“If voters focus in on this, realize what it’s going to do to them and vote out officials who refuse to support a repeal, you’ll see things change very quickly,” he said.
Assemblyman Lawler said that his constituents, many of whom commute to Manhattan for work, have additional cause to oppose the plan, as the MTA has failed to provide the area with adequate mass transit options.
“We are the only county in the state with a value gap between what we pay the MTA and what we receive,” he said.
Echoing skepticism that charging drivers for entry would reduce congestion, Assemblyman Lawler said more effective ideas were apparent.
“Some of these decisions were well-intentioned to address environmental issues, but the approach is misguided,” he said. “If you want to address congestion, stop taking so much of the roadway for bikers and restaurant seating on streets. Stop limiting the ability of people to travel in lower Manhattan.”
Many supporters of Congestion Pricing tout the plan as a way to finance infrastructure improvements to the city’s mass transit system. Yet the debt-laden MTA is already significantly lagging in implementing its current $50 billion five-year plan of capital improvements. As such, it is hard to imagine new projects like a long-discussed subway to connect Queens and Brooklyn happening in the foreseeable future — with or without the additional tolls. With a $2.5 billion deficit per year, some doubt that the windfall from the program will do much to improve MTA’s situation, much less the city’s transportation infrastructure.
Given the MTA’s chronic financial problems, critics of the plan are skeptical about making the agency its beneficiary and relying on it to manage its fallout.
“The MTA never has enough money,” said Senator Felder. “It’s just going to eat and eat whatever you give it. If anything is going to change, there needs to be new management in the MTA that can run it efficiently.”
A Congested Road to Congestion Pricing
The idea of using tolls to discourage cars from driving into Manhattan has been discussed for decades by multiple administrations in the city and state. Mayors dating back to the 1960s through former Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered various proposals, but all hit an array of snags and opposition from business sectors, the federal government, or officials in suburban areas and outer boroughs.
In 2017, as the MTA’s financial woes continued to worsen, with no path in sight for it to finance a long list of much-needed improvements or achieve solvency, an altered plan of the version proposed by Mayor Bloomberg was amended by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio and presented to the New York legislature. Later, the MTA claimed that state tax revenue was sufficient to support its operations, but plans went ahead. In 2019, Congestion Pricing was passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Cuomo.
The plan called for the MTA to review and work towards implementation, which was set to happen by 2020 but was delayed by the COVID pandemic. Various reviews and approvals by the federal government have also delayed the process. One of the most interesting of these hitches from Washington came in the form of legislation from two New Jersey congressmen, Democrat Josh Gottheimer and Republican Jeff Van Drew, who threatened a bill holding back federal grants to the Transit Authority if drivers from their state are not exempted. Congressman Gottheimer recently joined with New York Republican Congresswoman Nicole Malliotakis in sponsoring a bill that would prevent the federal Department of Transportation from signing off on Congestion Pricing programs until Washington conducts analyses on their economic impact.
The hearings presently being held by the MTA are examining the benefits and costs of seven different ways to implement Congestion Pricing. The plans would place tolls ranging from $9 to $23 on cars entering Manhattan from streets, bridges, or tunnels anywhere below 60th Street during peak hours. Small trucks would pay between $12 and $65, large ones between $12 and $82. Tolls would be collected via E-ZPass, and avenues intersecting with 60th Street, river crossings, and entrances from highways would be equipped with electronic sensors.
Rates are significantly decreased during non-peak times like nights and weekends, and vehicles that stay on the two highways that bracket the city’s sides, the FDR-Harlem River Drive and the West Side Highway, would not be charged.
A central concern that both skeptics and some cautious advocates of Congestion Pricing share is how vehicles taking alternative routes to avoid high tolls will affect traffic and emissions in other areas of the city. The MTA’s estimates say the plan could add, per day, approximately 826 vehicles to the George Washington Bridge, an 8.8% volume increase; 350 to the Harlem River Drive; 110 to the Major Deegan Expressway; and 220 to the Cross Bronx Expressway. Traffic is also projected to increase on the RFK (Triborough) Bridge, and Staten Island would likely see a significant increase, particularly in truck traffic.
Besides adding volume to some already traffic-heavy roadways, some of these figures, especially predictions of increased truck traffic in the Bronx, led some elected officials and experts to ask for the issue to be addressed before implementation.
“If everything works as planned, this will have a good effect on emissions in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. But in Bergen County, Staten Island, and the Bronx, it will either make no difference or at worst might add emissions,” said Nicole Gelinas, an expert in Urban Economics at the Manhattan Institute. “You have to consider not only the miles of travel added but the speed they’re traveling at and what a diesel truck does when it’s in an idling position.”
Some have questioned the logic of possibly decreasing emissions in Manhattan only to increase them in the South Bronx, where air pollution and asthma rates are already higher than many other areas of the city.
Dr. Weinberger questioned the MTA’s estimates on truck traffic, positing that most such vehicles need to be in the city for deliveries and cannot divert by choice. Yet, she said that if accurate, the ill effects could be mitigated by ancillary efforts to reduce emissions in those neighborhoods.
“We have other ways to do mitigation,” she said. “We might not reduce truck traffic in the Bronx, but we have ways to address it, like adding more clean busing. We have to make sure the MTA has a robust plan to add additional transit service to help these neighborhoods that are being asked to shoulder the burden.”
Mrs. Gelinas argued that managing collateral damage should not be left to be addressed outside of the plan itself.
“Mitigation has to be a legal part of the plan, and it should not be approved until it is,” she said. “They need to rewrite this and make sure this does not go into effect until these issues are resolved and their solutions are funded.”
A Good Time?
With the possibility of trucks delivering goods to the congestion zone being charged up to $82 for entry, many think it likely that the added expense will quickly find its way to consumers.
“Without question, this will increase prices,” said Senator Felder. “With inflation rampant as it is, stores are finding ways to raise prices. They’re not just going to swallow these fees; it’ll end up by customers.”
Assemblyman Epstein acknowledged the possibility of an effect on retail prices but felt that what he saw as a greater good made it a worthy tradeoff.
“It’s already expensive to live in Manhattan, and I don’t want people to have to pay more for groceries, but we have to balance that cost with the future of the planet,” he said. “We have real problems with congestion and pollution and climate change. We need to use the tools we have in our belt to address them.”
No formal assessment has been made of how tolls would affect prices, and it is unlikely to be able to predict the outcome before the policy is in place. As most predictions now put that in 2024, economic conditions in the country are likely to be significantly different then.
Some posited that price impacts were likely to be minimal but would still hit some sectors.
“If you’re looking at a fee of $60-80 spread out over a lot of consumers, I don’t think that will have a significant impact for most businesses,” said Mrs. Gelinas. “But some businesses and consumers are in a better place to absorb those costs than others, and for some small restaurants and retailers, it could be adding a lot of money to every delivery.”
Another issue leading some to question whether now is the ideal time to introduce a plan dependent on more mass transit use is higher rates of violent crime on New York’s subways. Mrs. Gelinas referenced the efforts in the 1970s and ’80s to encourage more train use, which were accompanied by campaigns to improve lighting, clean off graffiti, increase policing and other efforts to make people feel more comfortable on subways.
“They realized that you can’t force people to use trains by punishing them. They have to want to use them,” she said.
Dr. Weinberger said that subway crime would likely be a challenge to accomplishing the goals of Congestion Pricing but was hopeful that time would improve the situation and did not feel it was a reason to delay implementation.
“It’s a big change and it’s a hard sell no matter what,” she said. “It’s never going to be a good time.”
Great Idea, Just not for Me
One of the most complicated issues facing the MTA’s commission is the long line of communities and sectors arguing they should be exempt from Congestion Pricing.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy supports the idea of using tolls to decrease traffic but has issued increasingly militant demands that residents of his state must be credited since they already must pay to use the various crossings that connect their state to the city.
“While we love the concept, there is no way, no how, that will happen with the double taxation of New Jersey commuters,” he said when asked by media about the project. “I’m an optimist. I believe we’ll get through it with a good resolution. But it won’t happen with a double tax.”
The Governor argues that the long-stalled $12.3 billion Gateway project, now getting underway, to construct two new rail tunnels under the Hudson River, as well as other initiatives like replacing the Port Authority Bus Terminal and building an additional tunnel, would need to be realities before the time would be ripe for Congestion Pricing.
Staten Island residents, who are unlikely to see benefits in their access to mass transit, are also protesting the plan, and Congresswoman Malliotakis introduced a bill to federally mandate that anyone living on the other side of a toll bridge be exempted from “double tolling.”
Two of the scenarios the MTA is presently considering exempt medallion taxis but not Uber and other car services. Three exempt city buses.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams is an outspoken supporter of Congestion Pricing but also has a list of what he wants exempted from its tolls.
“We can’t be charging New York City buses congestion prices. That’s like taking money out of our pockets, giving it to the state. That’s not making any sense. We can’t charge police vehicles, ambulances. We can’t charge garbage trucks. So if we start charging our service vehicles a congestion price, we’re taking our tax dollars and giving it to the state,” he said at a recent event. “We have to get it right. We should do it in an expeditious fashion to get it done. It’s been a long time, but we have to be smart at how we do it, not to overburden New York City, because these are our roads.”
Many advocates have pushed back against exclusions, such as State Senator Leroy Comire, a Queens Democrat who told reporters that “there should be no exemptions.”
Assemblyman Epstein said the plan “won’t work” if the gamut of requested exemptions and credits are granted. Yet he is the co-sponsor of legislation to exempt residents of the zone from Congestion Pricing tolls.
“People who live in Manhattan shouldn’t be charged for driving home,” he said. As the goal is reduction of vehicle traffic during peak hours, the Assemblyman said that most residents driving during those times would be headed out of the city, returning at less busy times, and charging them would not reduce congestion.
Citing London’s plan, which exempts residents, he said the exemption he is advocating for is inherently different than what suburban commuters and others have asked for.
“Others are still choosing to drive at these congested times,” he said.
Yet Assemblyman Lawler was critical of those who supported the plan while advocating for exemptions.
“Stop being mealymouthed and asking for exemptions for your constituency,” he said. “Just say clearly that you don’t support Congestion Pricing.”
Attention to Detail
In addition to deciding on exemptions and fixing rates, there are a fair number of yet unresolved details the MTA must decide on.
One of them is devising ways to discourage drivers from “toll shopping,” taking circuitous routes to avoid paying tolls.
“It’s important that all access points to the zone have equal tolls,” said Dr. Weinberger. “Whenever you introduce an incentive to drive out of the way, that adds to the traffic problem you are trying to reduce.”
Decisions also have yet to be made on whether vehicles, especially Uber and other services, will be charged once or multiple times if they enter and exit the zone in one day, and some worry that encouraging them to circulate there will be counterproductive.
Mrs. Gelinas has drawn attention to projections on current plans that show short-term reductions but do not forecast a sustainable reduction in congestion. In a recent article in the City Journal, she highlighted that Congestion Pricing would decrease traffic by .7% to 1.5% in its first year, but that levels begin to rise again as drivers grow accustomed to additional charges.
In London as well, she said, while the city saw initial reductions, they were reversed in a few years. Mrs. Gelinas said that she was still supportive of the concept of using tolls to reduce congestion but that attitude and attention to detail were key to achieving the plan’s goals.
“There’s a tendency among some in the advocacy community to say we have to punish drivers and that we have to accept this plan or that we won’t have anything, but that’s not what this process is for,” she said. “London teaches us that the details really matter and that you can’t say any plan will do … It’s a good idea to reduce congestion in the core of Manhattan by charging people who have better options, but if you do that by burdening other parts of the city, and without providing options for those who don’t have good mass transit access, it won’t work.”
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