Will the MTA Sabotage Congestion Pricing?
The problem with double-tolling
This morning, I have a piece up for New York on the disastrous Yankees season. Have a read!
In Crain’s, where I write a weekly column, I dove into the latest fight over congestion pricing in New York City. At some point next year, automobiles will be charged to enter south of 60th Street in Manhattan. How much they will pay in tolls—and what trucks, Ubers, and various other vehicles will be charged—is still very much up for debate. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which will oversee the pricing scheme, will decide all of this in the coming months. If you live in New York, you know that many people are already paying tolls to enter Manhattan. The Hugh L. Carey Tunnel (or Battery Tunnel, as anyone over 30 will forever call it) between Brooklyn and Manhattan carries a $7 toll, and the Queens-Midtown Tunnel between Queens and Manhattan charges slightly more. The Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, which run under the Hudson River and join Manhattan and New Jersey, charge motorists $14.75 at peak hours.
Free rides, however, can be had on the bridges crossing the East River. Commuters from Brooklyn can dodge the Hugh Carey Tunnel and drive to the Brooklyn Bridge or Manhattan Bridge for free entry into Manhattan. The same is true of the Williamsburg Bridge. Congestion pricing, which exists in London and some other global cities, would place a toll around all of Midtown and downtown Manhattan. Considering the number of public transportation options that can get you there, this is logical. Car congestion has always been a problem and Covid has only made it worse. Hovering in a private vehicle or truck around Midtown shouldn’t be “free.” The question, of course, is how much to pay.
A number of transportation advocates want commuters who already pay tunnel tolls to also pay a congestion fee. Under this approach, a driver from Brooklyn would pay the usual tunnel toll—the $7 through the Hugh Carey—and an additional $15 once in Manhattan. A New Jersey driver would face the equivalent of a $29.75 toll. For certain transportation advocates and people who live on the West Side of Manhattan, this is great. Make the drivers pay more. It’s better for the MTA and better for the environment.
Much of the furious opposition to congestion pricing coming from New Jersey is built around the fear of the double-toll. Phil Murphy, the Democratic governor of New Jersey, is suing to destroy congestion pricing altogether, and other opponents in the outer boroughs will form the backbone of an entrenched political opposition if motorists have to pay a toll and a congestion fee. As of now, certain members of the MTA are insisting this must be done—there is simply no other way to raise the $1 billion a year required by law for congestion pricing.
Except many prominent transportation experts and traffic engineers believe that is wrong. The MTA could raise the $1 billion without collecting the normal toll and the congestion fee. A $15 peak toll around Manhattan with lower amounts during off-peak hours and holidays would do the job. Others believe the MTA can also give toll credits to truck drivers so they don’t try to dodge the congestion zone altogether and clog up the Bronx.
The double-toll is probably not necessary and could, politically at least, help to self-sabotage congestion pricing. So why is the MTA looking to do it anyway?
I don’t really know. The MTA is notorious for crunching numbers in odd ways and blowing through budgets. It spends wildly on infrastructure projects that other transportation agencies around the world can do for a fraction of the cost. Gov. Kathy Hochul, who controls the MTA, supports congestion pricing and is not a political sociopath like her predecessor, Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo was the governor who signed the congestion pricing legislation into law. He was the kind of executive who, when the political winds shifted, would have found a backdoor to unraveling what no longer seemed popular. In a Cuomo world, Murphy’s lawsuit and the budding opposition to new tolls would be the first move toward forced budget negotiations in Albany that would have defanged congestion pricing permanently.
If motorists are charged for tunnels and for a congestion fee afterwards, it’s hard to see the politics behind congestion pricing ever working. A well-meaning idea, already being implemented at a fragile moment, would face the sort of backlash that could eventually kill it, even with Hochul as governor. Consider that Cuomo signed the legislation in 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic. Commuting patterns have radically shifted since. Midtown and downtown Manhattan were bustling before Covid. While the outer boroughs have, economically speaking, fully recovered from the pandemic, the city’s traditional core appears to have been impacted permanently. Office buildings aren’t filled. Remote work has changed how people move through New York City. The commercial real estate industry is teetering.
None of this means congestion pricing shouldn’t happen. What it does mean is that it will happen under very different circumstances than what were imagined in 2019. It must be remembered, too, that the original concept of congestion pricing floated in the 2010s—the so-called Move NY plan—called for new tolls on the East River bridges that would lessen the toll burdens on other expensive crossings, like the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island. Transportation advocates don’t like to hear this, but it’s going to be hard for many New Yorkers to accept a new congestion zone when public transportation isn’t getting any better. The MTA is incapable of building out new train lines in a timely and affordable fashion like transportation agencies in London, Rome, and Tokyo. The public transportation product in New York is no better than it was 10 years ago and there are enough people, given the rise of homeless and the mentally ill wandering the subway system, who think it is worse. I am not necessarily one of those people; I still genuinely enjoy riding the subway and use it to get most of my reading done. I also know people who have vowed never to ride the subway again.
Congestion pricing critics are right that the MTA can’t really be trusted to spend the tolling revenue meaningfully. There may be no major public agency in the world that is a bigger money pit. It’s also true, given declining ridership numbers on the commuter railroads and the subway, the MTA will need that $1 billion to remain functional. New York City would crumble if the subway system fell into genuine disrepair. The revenue is needed and more people have to get out of their pandemic era habit of driving everywhere. Trips to Manhattan, when necessary, should be public transportation trips.
But that’s easy for me to say! I live near the R train and can readily switch to the express N or D lines. An express bus stops a half block from me. If I drive to Manhattan, it’s out of sheer laziness. Congestion pricing was invented to punish people like me and I’m fine with that. What about the commuter in Fresh Meadows or Bellerose or New Dorp? Where’s their subway line? If you live in New York, you know they don’t have one, and never will. The proposed subway extensions of the 1920s were never built. Transportation bureaucrats had more ambition a century ago than they do today. It’s all very dispiriting. And it’s why a new toll ring around Manhattan will always be resented by the outer boroughs. They aren’t getting anything in return. They’re paying more for the same, or even less. In the future, they may just stay home. Manhattan, with all its glories, just won’t be worth the price of admission.