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Are we losing sight of what congestion pricing is all about?

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There are signs one of congestion pricing’s core goals is being placed on the back burner: improving outer borough transit

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Congestion pricing is supported by a staggering swath of interest groups and lawmakers, but the yet-to-be-determined revenue generated from the yet-to-be-enacted scheme is already getting tapped to fund far more than it can pay for.

An incomplete list includes, but is by no means limited to, Andy Byford’s $40 billion plan to fix the subway and buses, canceling fare hikes, more frequent subway and bus service, plugging the massive MTA budget shortfall, and buying electric buses.

In fact, the projected maximum of $1.5 billion in annual congestion pricing revenues would not even cover Byford’s Fast Foward plan, which would cost an average of $4 billion per year. Most troublingly, amid the rush to prescribe congestion pricing as the cure for what ails all of New York transportation, there are signs one of its core goals is being placed on the back burner: improving outer borough transit.

One of those signs was buried earlier this week in the MTA’s cost-cutting proposals for the next four years. The MTA Bus Company, which runs the express bus services relied on by 400,000 riders per day, was hit with a $73 million cut over four years. The MTA did not provide additional details on which routes would be flagged for reduced service, but the cuts will be severe enough that they will require public hearings before being enacted.

Danny Pearlstein of the advocacy group Riders Alliance, which has been one of the staunchest proponents of congestion pricing, agreed that the cuts to express bus service as congestion pricing is implemented would be a bad look. But he referred to a Riders Alliance study that found reduced traffic as a result of congestion pricing would save express bus commuters up to two hours per week in reduced travel times. This would, he hopes, lead to higher ridership and therefore eliminate the MTA’s need to cut costs on low-ridership routes, although it’s unclear what would happen if the cuts are made before congestion pricing is implemented. The MTA did not respond to a request for comment on the express bus cuts before publication.

Those cuts highlight the delicate balance lawmakers must strike to get congestion pricing passed. State Senator Michael Gianaris, who represents a large swath of Queens and is a member of the working group tasked with figuring out how to make the MTA a financially stable authority, estimates the votes aren’t necessarily there in either the state Assembly or Senate at this time. He added there is “a lot of work to be done” to get more lawmakers on board.

Some of that work will require convincing outer borough lawmakers—and therefore their constituents—which Gianaris hopes will be accomplished more with educating them on the benefits congestion pricing will bring rather than horse-trading. Fellow working group member and president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City Kathryn Wylde observed a similar dynamic. “There is a lot of focus and recognition that this is not going through the legislature unless there are commitments to improvements” for transit deserts, she says.

However, Wylde cautioned there are problems with doing these improvements ahead of congestion pricing that boil down to a chicken-and-egg situation. These improvements require money and time, but congestion pricing needs to be a key revenue driver for those fixes.

Wylde was also a member of the FixNYC panel convened last year to study congestion pricing. The report released by the panel recommended “the MTA must first invest in public transportation alternatives and make improvements in the subway system before implementing a zone pricing plan to reduce congestion.” However, the panel did not make recommendations for what those improvements might be. For example, $50 million of the for-hire vehicle surcharge, a recommendation by the FixNYC panel that will go into effect next year, will go towards outer borough transit improvements, but the MTA has not yet determined what that money will be used for.

Unlike London—which made significant transit improvements such as adding more than 500 buses to peak-hour service before rolling out congestion pricing—the fixes for outer borough transit are not as simple as flooding the zone with buses. The subways need a new signaling system, coupled with more robust power substations to power more trains, to even approach the frequency and reliability needed to adequately service outer borough lines. The MTA has averaged about a decade per line to upgrade the L and 7’s signals. And it’s only going to get more complicated from here. The L and 7 are the two simplest lines because they don’t share track with other lines. This is to say nothing of adding or extending subway lines, which the MTA has proven unable to do in a time period measured by years rather than decades.

Even the buses need time and money to get better. The MTA is undergoing much-needed network redesigns for straighter routes with fewer stops. All-door boarding would drastically speed up service, but that needs a new fare payment system that won’t be fully implemented until 2023. On top of that, the most important element to speeding up buses—more and better-enforced bus lanes—is a city issue and outside the MTA’s control. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who won re-election last year, has shown little desire to take buses seriously.

Commuter rails provide yet another frontier for better outer borough transit service, but yet again improving these systems will require time and money. Wylde said the working group has looked at proposals for making LIRR and Metro-North fares cheaper for borough commuters, but they’re concerned the trains don’t have the capacity right now to accommodate that many more riders. East Side Access, which will bring LIRR service to Grand Central, will drastically increase capacity and open up the possibility for significantly reduced fares for passengers traveling within the city, but it won’t be finished until December 2022 at the earliest, after a decade of delays and more than $7 billion in cost overruns.

It’s also worth remembering that congestion pricing won’t take effect overnight. Wylde estimates it will take at least two years to put in the system. There will be time for some of these improvements—such as more bus lanes and perhaps a few network redesigns—to be implemented by then.

Still, Pearlstein of Riders Alliance thinks improving outer borough transit might not require as much horse-trading between elected officials as it might have in the past. The subway crisis has created an impetus for congestion pricing that nobody can deny. “Plenty of folks in those areas do take transit to work,” Pearlstein says. “Many of them have miserably long commutes and those commutes are now miserably unreliable because the subway is broken. And so fixing the subway is crucial to improving commutes.”

If anything, outer borough residents have been impacted harder by the subway crisis; if a subway line is down, there are fewer nearby alternatives. An MTA study this summer found that the steepest subway ridership drops have been within the outer boroughs and that “the acceleration in the bus ridership decline corresponds to the large increase in for-hire vehicle/taxi growth.” In other words, the overwhelming evidence suggests people are taking to more expensive private transit options when the subway or bus fails them.

This is why Gianaris and Wylde both stressed their focus on making sure outer borough residents aren’t forgotten in the congestion pricing debate. “I think everybody understands when you’re counting votes for congestion pricing,” Wylde says, “the progress and commitment to the transit deserts is going to matter.”