With the passage of the state budget and the long-awaited and hard-fought approval of congestion pricing for Manhattan, New Yorkers worn down by endless subway delays and clogged city streets may see some light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Congestion pricing, after all, has been promised as the silver bullet that will fix the subway and free Manhattan from the endless sea of cars that clog streets, crowding out pedestrians and polluting our air.
Advocates fighting for a traffic pricing plan have promised the world. A fee for cars entering Manhattan will clear the borough of crippling congestion while guaranteeing funding for Andy Byford’s comprehensive Fast Forward plan to fix New York City’s subways and buses. The dollars will unlock billions in capital spending, and limiting traffic will clear up the city’s air at a time when the catastrophic global impact of constant carbon emissions could not be more clear. (Or so the argument goes.)
But passing congestion pricing was just the first battle in a longer war, and for congestion pricing to be a success—for it to solve the problems it is supposed to solve—the next 21 months will be key as the MTA’s new Traffic Mobility Review Board develops the details of the plan, including any exemptions for those who drive into Manhattan but do not have to pay the fee. Congestion pricing will live or die by these carve-outs—and the board must ignore any political drum-beating related to them.
As I wrote in these pages last summer, congestion pricing is a progressive solution for New York City’s transit funding woes. Drivers in the city are wealthier than transit riders, and imposing a fee on them for access to limited road space to fund transit—whose benefits are enjoyed by millions in NYC—is the very definition of a progressive charging plan. But the benefits will take a few years to materialize. Fixing the subways—installing modern signal systems so that more trains can run through 100-year-old tunnels with fewer delays—is a multi-year (or multi-decade) fix, while congestion pricing will become a reality within the next two years. To successfully introduce congestion pricing, the MTA will roll out transit upgrades before the fee goes into effect, including more bus service and bus lanes, but in the near-term, drivers will face a new tax while high-capacity transit upgrades will be years away. And they won’t be happy.
As a rule, popularity for congestion pricing hits a valley in the period between approval and implementation as the narratives focus on fees rather than results. In recent polls, congestion pricing is already under water by 13 percentage points, and politicians may try to drive up approval numbers by kowtowing to groups seeking exemptions. But for New York City to experience the benefits of congestion pricing, politicians will have to provide cover for an initially unpopular plan.
Since the legislation authorizing congestion pricing punted on the details, special interests are going to push hard to shape the plan. To develop the details of a pricing scheme, the state mandated the MTA to charge for entry to Manhattan south of 60th Street beginning in 2021 and dictated how the pricing plan would be established. A six-panel Traffic Mobility Review Board with appointees from the city and the areas served by Metro-North and the Long Island Rail Road will recommend tolling amounts with a variable pricing structure, including any carve-outs or exemptions, to generate enough revenue to fund $15 billion in MTA capital spending between 2020-2024.
Yet Albany imposed some legislative limitations from the outset. Cars that enter the congestion pricing zone via the West Side Highway or FDR Drive and never exit those roads onto local streets will not be charged. Additionally, emergency vehicles and those vehicles transporting people with disabilities are exempt from the fee, and Manhattan residents who live within the so-called Central Business District and who make less than $60,000 per year will be exempted from the fee. Plus, the fee will be levied only once per day, so cars that repeatedly enter and exit the congestion pricing zone will not be charged multiple times. The remainder of the exemptions will be in the hands of the review board, and that’s where the fight will be.
Already, this battle is playing out in predictable and noisy ways. Take, for instance, State Senator James Sanders, a Democrat who represents the 10th district, who wants to have his cake and eat it too. The Senator represents parts of South Ozone Park, Jamaica, and the Far Rockaways, and very few of his constituents drive into the Manhattan central business district on a daily basis. In fact, according to an analysis of Census data conducted by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Sanders’ constituents in Queens are overwhelmingly not driving into Manhattan. Only around 21 percent of workers in his district head into Manhattan every day, and of those commuters, a whopping 84 percent use the subways, the Long Island Rail Road, or buses. TSTC reports that just 3.1 percent of Sanders’ commuting constituents drive or take taxis into Manhattan south of 60th Street while nearly 50 percent are daily transit users.
Yet after voting for congestion pricing, Sanders is aiming to water down the plan. In a newsletter sent to constituents, Sanders stated that “more work needs to be done to lessen the impact on Queens’ motorists commuting into Manhattan, south of 60th Street.” Charitably, this could be read as a call to include more transit options for his constituents, but “lessen the impact” usually means create carve-outs so fewer people have to pay. This is, of course, self-defeating.
As congestion pricing guru Charles Komanoff detailed recently, even seemingly small carve-outs that exempt just 10 percent of all vehicles entering the pricing zone from the fee have a deep impact. Revenue declines by $100 million per year, and time savings from decreased congestion shrink by seven percent based off of his modeling for New York congestion pricing. Those benefits from the plan are precarious and can disappear in the amount of time it takes to exclude enough cars.
Queens isn’t the only source of lobbying for exemptions. The mayor has constantly pushed for what he calls “hardship exemptions” and has spent years creating the strawman argument out of New Yorkers who he thinks drive in great numbers to hospitals on Manhattan’s East Side. Without acknowledging the thousands of city residents who take subways and buses to their doctors each day, the mayor wants exemptions from medical-bound drivers. Meanwhile, commercial truckers who stand to benefit the most from increased productivity due to clearer streets want to avoid the fee, as do New Jersey politicians, tour bus operators, and motorcycle clubs. Who will pay if everyone gets an exemption?
The Traffic Mobility Review Board gives Albany an arms-length means of implementing pricing so long as the state legislature does not impose more carve-outs or revoke authorization. For the right amount of money to materialize, for traffic to decrease, and for congestion pricing to actually solve these problems, the plan must be thorough and robust. Just say no to exemptions.
Benjamin Kabak is the founder and editor of Second Ave. Sagas, the long-running site chronicling news and views from the New York City subway. You can find him on Twitter as well.