Recently hundreds of New Yorkers, and those who move about the city, signed up to give their opinions on a new congestion pricing plan, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's (MTA) idea to combat traffic in the southern parts of Manhattan and raise revenue for infrastructure improvements.
The MTA is holding six of these town halls to help assess the possible impact of adding a new, potentially hefty toll for private vehicles entering the designated business district. With three minutes apiece to speak, supporters and detractors at Tuesday's hearing voiced their takes on the hot-button issue, at times very passionately, late into the night.
Congestion pricing itself is an idea that has been used — or at least considered — by municipalities across the globe for some time. The city-state of Singapore implemented a zoned toll scheme in 1975 while London added its own system in 2003, followed by Stockholm in 2006. A few other European cities have implemented some form of it, and now the Big Apple is looking to bring the idea to the U.S.
What would the NYC Plan Entail?
While the details haven't been settled, what the proposal shows so far is a zone in the heart of Manhattan south of 60th Street that would require a fee ranging from $5 to $23 for a single entry depending on the time of day and type of vehicle. The zone includes many of the city's most popular attractions, like Times Square and the Empire State Building, business centers like the Financial District, and many of the bridges and tunnels used to enter the borough. The tolls would be collected by automated systems that would either charge via a tag connected to an electronic toll collection system, like E-Z Pass or mail a bill to an address tied to the license plate, which is how payments are already handled on the bridge and tunnel crossings into New York City.
Why the Push for More Tolls?
First and foremost, the MTA describes the congestion pricing proposal as an effort "to reduce traffic congestion in the Manhattan CBD [Central Business District] in a manner that will generate revenue for future transportation improvements." Additionally, environmental benefits in the form of improved air quality, fewer carbon emissions, and reduced consumption of gasoline are touted in the environmental assessment for the program. Multiple speakers at the hearing who took the pro-congestion pricing position noted that with the climate crisis accelerating, the new tolling scheme was practically a necessity.
An organizer with the Justice for App Workers rally in Lower Manhattan and member of the Independent Drivers Guilt on Wednesday, August 31, 2022. Photo credit: Mike Nam
What's the Pushback?
Despite the promised benefits, there are quite a few stakeholders who either have concerns or are outright opposed to the measure. The most vocal groups of detractors have been taxi and rideshare drivers, as each group demanded carveouts that would protect them from having to pass along exorbitant costs to riders, thus deterring customers. A coalition of for-hire and delivery drivers called Justice for App Workers protested in Lower Manhattan Wednesday, holding aloft signs arguing that the new fees would be an additional tax, deriding the MTA as being mismanaged, and expressing feelings that despite having once been called "essential workers" they are now being mistreated.
A rallygoer and member of the United Delivery Workers Association at the Justice for App Workers rally in lower Manhattan on Wednesday, August 31, 2022. Photo credit: Mike Nam
Other town hall speakers against congestion pricing expressed outrage on behalf of outer-borough residents, from the Bronx to Staten Island, who often live outside of areas with convenient public transit options, and still, others blasted the proposal for those with disabilities who need a personal vehicle to get anywhere at all. More than a few questioned the security of the subway system, despite its relative safety, due to multiple recent high-profile violent crimes. New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy also weighed in on behalf of his constituents saying in part, "maybe it’s a good idea, but it’s an idea whose time has not come."
Where Else Could This Pop Up?
If congestion pricing goes into effect and shows signs of success, other major U.S. cities may also try to institute something similar. Los Angeles has already funded a study and is looking at multiple options, the Massachusetts legislature sent a transportation bill to Governor Charlie Baker last week that had a section on studying congestion pricing in Boston (which he sent back unsigned), and other cities from Chicago to San Francisco have been taking a look at the idea as well.