New Yorkers skeptical that their city and state governments can ever make anything better can find some reason for hope in the August 10 release of an Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Central Business District Tolling Program—widely known as “congestion pricing.” The EA indicates that the winners from congestion pricing greatly outnumber the losers. While sweeping change is never easy to accomplish, this one actually could overcome the political hurdles.
The voluminous document, with many chapters and appendices, was submitted by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, along with the state and city Departments of Transportation, to the federal Department of Transportation. It’s drafted under the federal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) rules, which apply because congestion pricing affects both roads in the national interstate system and roads that were built or reconstructed with federal funds.
Congestion pricing in Manhattan has been talked about in various forms for decades. More vehicles want to come into Manhattan at peak times than the street network can accommodate. At present, access effectively is priced through lost time: people who drive consider the convenience of driving more important than the value of lost time spent sitting in traffic, while those who value their time more take transit.
This arrangement is noisy, dirty, and polluting. Moreover, while drivers pay a price in terms of lost time, no one benefits from their spending: it’s pure economic loss. In such situations, economists recommend pricing. If entering scarce Manhattan road space requires a cash outlay, some people will be willing to pay, while others will avoid driving into the pricing zone. By calibrating the payment, policymakers can achieve the desired volume and mix of vehicles: cars, trucks or buses, emissions-free vehicles or gas-powered, and so forth. Fewer cars and free-flowing traffic mean less noise and pollution; drivers get a more predictable trip; bus riders get a faster trip; and the tolls can be used to improve transit, creating a virtuous circle in which better transit means fewer drivers and less pollution.
The current scheme—in which a congestion-charging zone would be created in Manhattan south of 60th Street, excluding peripheral highways, and would operate via automated tolling based on reading E-Z Pass transponders or photographing license plates—resembles a plan proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2007. Bloomberg’s proposal would have charged drivers $8 and trucks $21 to enter a charging zone south of 86th Street (later scaled back to 60th Street), though only on weekdays. The then-mayor asserted that the plan would reduce greenhouse gas emissions while raising money for transit. One big difference between the current plan and Bloomberg’s is that under the earlier plan, the city would have controlled the on-street infrastructure and the revenue.
Unfortunately, the state legislature greeted Bloomberg’s plan with hostility and rejected it in 2008. By 2019, however, the legislature was more inclined to emphasize its environmental credentials than to pander to drivers from outlying parts of the city and the suburbs. The budget deal that year between Governor Andrew Cuomo and the legislature included a new congestion-pricing plan. This time—critically for Cuomo’s need for control—the city was a bit player. The MTA would control the charging infrastructure, and the money would go toward the MTA’s capital plan. While the legislation specified that passenger cars could be tolled only once a day, many details—what the charges would be; who would be exempted; and how many times per day taxis, for-hire vehicles (FHVs), and trucks could be charged—were left for future determination by a six-member Traffic Mobility Review Board (five appointed by the MTA and one by the mayor) that could be overruled by the MTA board. The EA studies the effects of a number of charging alternatives, ranging from $9 to $23 for passenger cars at peak times, with lower charges for off-peak and overnight. Small and large trucks would be charged more than passenger cars, a surcharge would be assessed on all vehicles without E-Z Passes. Some options would reduce the cost for cars by charging taxis, FHVs, and trucks multiple times if they passed into and out of the charging zone, and back again, during a single day.
The EA finds that all the pricing options would result in fewer auto and truck trips into the Manhattan charging zone, compared with what’s expected if the congestion charging system is not put into operation. Transit trips would increase. Vehicle miles traveled would drop by 7 percent to 9 percent within the charging zone, drop perhaps a little in the rest of New York City and the northern New York suburbs, and wouldn’t change much in the Long Island, New Jersey, and Connecticut suburbs. Many of the auto trips that no longer came into the charging zones wouldn’t happen at all, as commuters switch to transit.
That’s not true for trucks, which still need to make deliveries. Truck trips that now pass through Manhattan to take advantage of the free East River bridges would be diverted to peripheral highways. The largest reported effects are at the RFK/Triborough Bridge, but the greatest concern to the sponsoring agencies appears to be a smaller diversion of trucks to the Cross-Bronx Expressway because of its proximity to low-income minority neighborhoods. Some of the pricing scenarios increase truck traffic on the expressway at Macombs Road (in the West Bronx) by 500–700 vehicles a day, about 2 percent to 3 percent of the base volume. While the EA does not project adverse air-quality impacts, it adds a pricing option in which truck charges in the pricing zone are the same as those for cars. This is expected to reduce truck diversions, though at the cost of a smaller reduction in daily truck trips though the charging zone. The EA promises air-quality monitoring for the selected pricing option, which could be adjusted based on changes in traffic patterns. In addition, the MTA promises to give priority in some of the affected neighborhoods for newly acquired zero-emission buses. The longer-term electrification of trucks in urban areas will also be an important component of public acceptance of congestion pricing.
Another significant concern for the sponsors is the effect of the plan on taxi and for-hire vehicle (FHV) drivers. The charging scheme needs to deter taxi and FHV trips into the Manhattan core in order to prevent more such vehicles from using any new street capacity. The EA finds that the effects on these drivers are magnified by pricing schemes that charge their vehicles each time they enter the charging zone, rather than once a day. The proposed mitigation of the adverse effects of pricing schemes that reduce demand for taxis and FHVs would include making opportunities available to drivers to work for the MTA or to become paratransit drivers.
Some findings of potential adverse effects are less convincing. One such is the effect on low-income drivers. The state legislation includes a tax credit for congestion tolls paid by low-income drivers who reside in the Manhattan charging zone. The EA promises that the MTA will provide assistance to affected customers to take advantage of the tax credit, and adds other measures intended to help people in this supposed category. But the number of affected drivers is likely very small.
The EA also includes projections of adverse impacts on elements of subway stations like stairs and escalators, as a result of added ridership. These effects are highly speculative, particularly at a time when ridership seems to have been permanently impaired by the pandemic.
The process for setting up congestion pricing now moves toward a battle at public hearings, and before the Traffic Mobility Review Board, over pricing, deductions for existing tolls and charges, and exemptions. During Bloomberg’s mayoralty, many observers worried about the plan’s effects on low-income drivers who lived outside the charging zone and commuted to Manhattan. Planners on Bloomberg’s team (I was one of them) mined the data to demonstrate that few, if any, such commuters existed. This conclusion is reinforced by a recent Community Service Society analysis finding that “with relatively few exceptions, congestion pricing will not be a regressive surcharge on New Yorkers in poverty.”
Instead, many of those asking for exemptions will be relatively well off. That includes suburban commuters whose elected representatives want deductions for existing bridge and tunnel tolls, and public-sector employees represented by politically powerful unions who already enjoy free parking on public streets. Several influential public officials, and members of the review board, have vowed to limit exemptions. The more vehicles that are allowed not to pay, or to pay a discounted rate, the higher charges will be on those who do pay, to meet the program’s revenue-raising goals. Like all matters involving the MTA, the governor will have the final say.
New York does not have a good record of denying favors to politically connected insiders. Congestion pricing will provide an interesting test.
Photo by Noam Galai/Getty Images