New York City has long been known for having some of the nation’s worst traffic and its longest commute times, but an innovative policy that may take effect within the next year could cut down on both.
Congestion pricing, in which private vehicles entering Downtown and Midtown Manhattan during business hours will be obliged to pay a fee, is in the final stages of review by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), with final approval expected this spring. The initial plan was passed by the New York state Legislature in 2019 as a way to raise funds for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs the subways, city buses and suburban commuter rail lines. During the Trump administration, the Department of Transportation refused to approve the congestion pricing plan, but with a more mass transit-friendly president in the White House, the plan is moving forward.
Advocates of the congestion pricing plan say that if it is successfully implemented — as it already has been in global cities such as London and Singapore — it could show the way for American cities to reduce traffic, improve mass transit and reduce pollution.
Under the current plan, TransCore, the vendor chosen by the MTA, “will have up to 310 days to finish design, development, and testing and begin tolling operations,” meaning that the proposed tolling system could be up and running by the end of the year.
Addressing New York’s ever-worsening traffic problem, however, may not be so simple. Objections to the plan have been raised by suburban New Yorkers, neighboring state politicians and even some New Yorkers who initially supported raising tolls during peak hours.
Under state law, New York City lacked the authority to implement road pricing on its own, and the state needed federal approval because some of the highways where tolls will be placed connect to the federal Interstate Highway System. While suburban politicians and interest groups such as taxi drivers look unlikely to successfully block implementation in the state capital or Washington, D.C., they are trying — and they may yet try to convince the courts that their rights have been violated.
New York City is by far the most transit-dependent U.S. city: 58% of commuters use public transit, compared to 5% nationally. But the nation’s oldest subway system is aging poorly, with outdated signaling systems and never-ending repair work causing less reliable and slower service. And more than 30 years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, only one-quarter of subway stations in the system are wheelchair-accessible. The agency has a $54.8 billion plan to update signaling, add elevators to 70 stations and make other infrastructure improvements, but it needs the congestion pricing revenue to pay for it — especially since the pandemic caused subway ridership to plummet, from which it has only partially recovered.
Transportation analyst Charles Komanoff has modeled how congestion pricing will alter how many cars and trucks enter the lower half of Manhattan. He estimates that congestion pricing will reduce New York’s carbon dioxide emissions by 1 million metric tons per year — the equivalent to taking 216,000 cars off the road entirely. That’s because some car trips will be skipped to avoid paying the toll and the tolling revenue will be used to improve mass transit service, he said, which would, in turn, induce more commuters to take transit instead of their car.
Alon Levy, a fellow in the Transportation and Land Use program of the NYU Marron Institute, has calculated that if every subway and bus arrived at six-minute intervals — a slight increase in transit service that would cost $250 million per year to implement — transit ridership would go up by 15%.
“The stick and the carrot are dividing the CO2 reductions roughly half and half — the stick being the immediate impact of the toll and the carrot being that, over time, subway service gets better, it gets more frequent, it gets more reliable,” Komanoff told Yahoo News.
After London began charging drivers who entered the Central Business District during the daytime in 2003, the city’s particulate and nitrogen oxides pollution decreased by 12% and carbon dioxide dropped by 20%, according to the FHWA.
New York’s 2019 legislation requires that the MTA set a fee that will raise roughly $1 billion per year. The surge pricing fees to achieve that could be anywhere from $9 to $23 for passenger vehicles and between $12 and $82 for trucks. The reason for that wide range reflects the difficult process that lies ahead: determining who gets exemptions from paying higher tolls.
Under the new law, the only two groups that must be exempted are vehicles carrying a person with disabilities and emergency vehicles. People who live inside the congestion zone itself and make less than $60,000 will get a tax rebate for what they pay in tolls. But many other groups want exemptions, including taxi drivers, drivers for ride-hailing apps like Uber and small businesses like commercial bakeries that deliver their products in Manhattan. Then there are NYPD officers, whose largest union is demanding an exemption on the grounds that their work schedule requires flexibility that only a private vehicle can provide.
But the group that threatens to do the most to undermine congestion pricing isn’t even in New York, it’s in New Jersey. Drivers from New Jersey already pay tolls on the bridges and tunnels across the Hudson River and many of their elected officials are demanding that those tolls be reduced from their fee for entering the congestion zone, a carveout that would require higher tolls for entering the congestion zone to make up for the lost revenue. Reps. Josh Gottheimer, D-N.J., and Nicole Malliotakis, R-N.Y., who represents Staten Island — the only borough without a subway stop, whose drivers pay to cross the Verrazano Bridge to Brooklyn on their way to Manhattan — have introduced a bill in Congress that would block congestion pricing.
Malliotakis and Gottheimer argue that it’s unfair for drivers to subsidize the MTA, which they say does not spend money efficiently.
“Go after toll evaders, turnstile jumpers, and make New York City’s transit safe so more residents and tourists ride, but stop treating New Yorkers and American taxpayers like ATMs,” Malliotakis said when she and Gottheimer introduced their bill last August. “The MTA is a notorious black hole and the inspector general should audit every federal dollar the MTA has received.”
“[The MTA] spends far more than other large transit agencies and wastes several times the amount that congestion pricing would raise,” Connor Harris, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in a piece in City Journal in 2018 that claimed the MTA spends 50% more to move a subway train one mile than the London Underground or Paris Metro.
Observers say the bill put forth by Malliotakis and Gottheimer has no chance of passing Congress, but New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has stated he will try to extract concessions from New York Gov. Kathy Hochul by threatening to be uncooperative in areas of shared power, like the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. There is also the threat of lawsuits from various interest groups like the taxi drivers.
Elected officials from the suburbs within New York state are raising similar objections.
“A lot of us view it as essentially a commuter tax,” New York state Assembly Member Edward Ra, a Republican from Long Island, told Yahoo News. “The thing that needs to happen to get a lot of my constituents on board, from what I see from them, is to see the structural changes within the MTA.”
Transit advocates, who unanimously support congestion pricing, counter that these politicians are being more responsive to the relatively affluent minority of their constituents who drive to Manhattan over the majority who commute by public transit or don’t work in Manhattan at all. A 2021 data analysis found only 1.6% of commuters from northern New Jersey drive into Manhattan’s congestion zone.
“The Jersey folks have acted as though everyone in Jersey gets up in the morning and drives into Manhattan, because that’s true for the wealthy donors to the congressmember [Gottheimer], but it’s not true for the average person in Jersey,” said Danny Pearlstein, the spokesperson for the Riders Alliance, an advocacy organization for mass transit users. “Eighty percent of people [from New Jersey] who come into Manhattan take the train or the bus.”
Even some elected officials from New York City’s outer boroughs who supported congestion pricing have begun to voice some concerns after the MTA’s environmental assessment of congestion pricing acknowledged the possibility of worse air quality in certain areas outside the congestion zone if trucks go around it to avoid paying the fee. Rep. Richie Torres, D-N.Y., whose poorest-in-the-nation congressional district covers much of the South Bronx, is concerned that more truck traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway will worsen already high asthma rates.
“I am a supporter of congestion pricing in principle,” Torres said in a statement last year. “That being said, any plan that threatens to intensify diesel truck traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway would raise serious concerns about public health and racial equity.”
Komanoff and others say that, thanks to better transit service and less traffic passing through while heading to Manhattan, congestion pricing will end up benefiting the outer boroughs.
“The average trip that lands in Manhattan occupies 10 times more road space outside the [central business district] as in it,” Komanoff said. “For every trip eliminated, there will be far more miles eliminated outside than inside.”
And any unintended consequences on traffic patterns can be fixed with changes to other roads that reroutes traffic, proponents say.
“In the highly unlikely event that the air quality is negatively impacted outside the congestion zone, there are always mitigation steps that can be taken,” Pearlstein said.
In 2021, transportation accounted for 38% of U.S. energy-related emissions, according to the Congressional Budget Office, and decades of studies have shown that widening highways doesn’t fix traffic congestion, as it brings more drivers onto the road. The only solution to traffic and climate change, climate activists say, is to get Americans to drive less. But if that doesn’t work in New York, can it work anywhere?