Even more congestion questions


A plan under consideration in Albany would impose a toll on vehicles entering a congestion zone encompassing all of Manhattan south of 61st Street, with the exception of the FDR Drive. Image: Fix NYC Panel Report
State lawmakers could pass congestion pricing by the end of the month. What would it mean for Manhattanites?
By Michael Garofalo

More than half a century after policymakers first proposed congestion pricing as a tool to ease Manhattan’s traffic woes, and after numerous failed attempts to enact a plan in the ensuing decades, 2019 could well be the year congestion pricing finally crosses New York’s legislative goal line.

A plan put forth by Governor Andrew Cuomo would impose a toll on vehicles entering a central business district encompassing all of Manhattan south of 61st Street, with the exception of the FDR Drive. The toll, in combination with the recently introduced surcharge on trips below 96th Street in taxis and other for-hire vehicles, would create a new stream of dedicated revenue for the cash-strapped Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Cuomo — whose plan now has the support of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime congestion pricing skeptic — is pressing Albany lawmakers to approve congestion pricing by the April 1 state budget deadline.

In addition to funding sorely needed transit improvements, advocates say a congestion toll would serve as a disincentive against unnecessary car trips, turning away drivers who would otherwise clog Manhattan’s most crowded streets, resulting in smoother bus service and reduced travel times. But questions abound.

How would the plan impact traffic?

Many key details that will determine the ultimate impact of Cuomo’s plan — including the toll’s cost, the number and types of drivers who will qualify for medical and other hardship exemptions (such carve-outs are a key pillar of de Blasio’s support), and the share of revenue directed to subways and bus service as opposed to regional rail (to say nothing of how effectively the MTA spends it) — remain unclear and are subject to ongoing negotiations.

But if the legislature approves a plan as robust as the governor’s stated aims, the results will be immediately tangible, according to Charles Komanoff, a transportation and energy policy analyst who has studied congestion pricing extensively.

“The lion’s share of the benefits are going to accrue to residents of Manhattan,” Komanoff said, adding, “The number one benefit is drivers’ time savings.”

Komanoff’s traffic model projects a 12 to 15 percent increase in vehicle travel speeds within the central business district once congestion pricing is implemented, which under Cuomo’s plan would take place in 2021. Further benefits, he said, will manifest over time as congestion revenue investments translate into improved transit service and more New Yorkers opt to ride the subway. Within five to 10 years, said Komanoff, average travel speeds could rise 20 to 23 percent from current levels.

How much will the toll cost?

Cuomo’s plan does not specify rates for the congestion toll, which would be variable to provide discounts for drivers entering the zone during off-peak hours. Instead, the congestion toll amounts would be set next year by a new six-member panel. Key details of the panel — including who would hold responsibility for appointing its members — are under negotiation.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, an advocate of congestion pricing, cited an “unaccountable, unnamed panel that will eventually set the prices” as one reason he opposes the plan supported by the governor and mayor. Johnson also criticized the proposal for its lack of details on the types of MTA capital projects congestion revenue could fund. “I’m surprised the mayor would sign on to the plan without having a greater level of commitment on how the money was going to be spent,” Johnson said.

The governor has said that his congestion pricing plan would raise $15 billion for the MTA’s next capital plan, but he has not specified how much he thinks drivers should be charged. Last year, a commission formed by the governor recommended a peak-hour charge of $11.52, which would correspond to the two-way E-ZPass toll rate for the Queens-Midtown and Hugh L. Carey Tunnels. As of March 31, those toll rates will rise to $12.24.

The plan would not “double toll’ drivers who already pay a toll to enter the congestion zone from the East River tunnels, the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels or the Henry Hudson Bridge at the northern tip of Manhattan. Drivers paying a toll to enter Manhattan from the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel, for example, would have the cost of that toll offset from the full congestion charge, so that they would pay the same effective toll rate as a driver using the Brooklyn Bridge.

On the East River, this would have the effect of reducing congestion caused by the “bridge shopping” incentivized under the current system of tolled tunnels and untolled bridges. “You want to harmonize the tolls so it doesn’t matter which crossing you choose,” said Alex Matthiessen, the founder of the influential congestion pricing advocacy campaign Move NY.

But on the West Side, the peak-hour E-ZPass toll rate for the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels is $12.50 — meaning that if the congestion toll isn’t greater than $12.50, New Jersey drivers using these crossings to enter the congestion zone would see no change in the cost of their daily commute.

Komanoff said it might be worth exploring an added congestion toll on the Hudson River tunnels “to grab additional revenue and deal with the traffic disaster that is the West Side of Manhattan.”

What about Manhattan residents?

The lack of a further disincentive for out-of-state commuters would not sit well with some Manhattan drivers. who argue that they should receive relief or exemptions from the congestion toll, akin to existing toll discount programs for residents of Staten Island and the Rockaways.

“If you want to strangle congestion pricing in the cradle, go ahead and insist on Manhattan resident carve-outs,” Komanoff said. “If that drum is beaten loudly enough, then outer-borough and suburban legislators are going to fold their cards and say to hell with the whole thing.”

Another concern cited by some Upper West Side and Upper East Side residents is that congestion pricing will cause their neighborhoods’ streets to become crowded with the parked cars of commuters who formerly drove into the congestion zone but will instead park outside the boundary and transfer to the subway to avoid paying the toll. A bill sponsored by Manhattan City Council Members Mark Levine, Helen Rosenthal, Keith Powers and Diana Ayala would create a residential permit system to give locals parking priority.

But to dwell on “second-order” details that could be tweaked later is to risk missing the forest for the trees, according to Komanoff.

“I hope that New Yorkers can look at the big picture here,” he said. “This is a generational chance to pull the subways out of catastrophe and finally, after 100 years of streets ruled by traffic, to grab the solution.”