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How New York City can get congestion pricing right

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A new report from the Regional Plan Association makes recommendations for the nation’s first congestion pricing program

Cars and trucks sit in traffic on a roadway. Shutterstock

Congestion pricing will soon be a reality in New York City—it’s due to be implemented before the end of 2020—but the specifics of a plan to charge drivers coming in and out of Manhattan have yet to be revealed.

But as a preview of what a congestion pricing plan could look like, the Regional Plan Association (RPA) has released a new report that includes specific policy recommendations, including four pricing schemes and ways to eliminate “toll shopping” (i.e. drivers clogging the cheapest bridges or tunnels to avoid a charge).

And if there’s one big takeaway from the report, it’s that in order for New Yorkers to see the biggest benefits of congestion pricing—reducing traffic in Manhattan’s crowded central business district, lessening pollution, and generating billions of dollars in revenue—drivers must be willing to pay more during peak traffic times.

While the RPA does not recommend one four pricing schemes over the others, of the four it mapped out, the most appealing in terms of financial gain, traffic reduction, and emissions reduction is one in which the charge during peak hours (defined as 6 to 8 a.m., and 2 to 8 p.m.) is close to $10, with the charge in off-peak hours around $3. Under this scheme, the net revenue would be around $1.9 billion; speeds could be increased by as much as 15 percent, while emissions could be reduced by around seven percent.

“Not every trip into the congestion zone is equal,” says Rachel Weinberger, a senior fellow at the RPA who worked on the report. Other pricing schemes—such as charging a flat rate of around $6 all day, with a half-priced charge at night—would generate similar revenue numbers. But if the goal of congestion pricing is to also reduce traffic and cut emissions, the higher price during peak hours is the clear winner in terms of hours saved and speed increases.

“Nobody wants to pay for something they’ve been getting for free all along,” Weinberger acknowledges, but the benefits of the highest charge outweigh the possible unpopularity of imposing a higher fee on drivers who’ve previously paid nothing to cross the Brooklyn Bridge.

Other recommendations in the report include implementing two-way tolling—so charging drivers as they enter and exit the central business district—in order to avoid the dreaded toll shopping. “It adds to pollution, it adds to congestion, especially in areas near the cheaper crossings,” says Kate Slevin, the RPA’s senior vice president of state programs and advocacy. Two-way tolling, however, will “permit prices to be tailored to most effectively reduce congestion since the traffic patterns of morning and evening peaks differ,” according to the report.

And as far as discounts and other exemptions go, the RPA recommends limiting those to what exists in the current congestion pricing legislation—which include discounts for people with disabilities and those who make under a certain amount per year—rather than opening up the program to ever more user-based exemptions.

There’s a lot to digest in the report—and a lot that will likely not sit well with drivers who will be impacted by the new fees—but RPA planners hope it will give lawmakers a toolkit as they work toward implementing congestion pricing, which must happen by the end of 2020.

“A lot of the specific policy pieces have not been finalized, and they’re going to be the subject of debate over the next 15 most or so,” says Slevin. “We wanted to lay out what we thought were some of the key points to be discussed, and lay out what we thought were the best recommendations.”

You can read the report in full here.