Excessive traffic may become little more than a distant memory in much of Manhattan, if congestion pricing plans prove to be a success. Gone will be the days of gridlock, headache-inducing honking and air pollution — and of toll-free rides into what’s currently the heart of the hubbub.
The new initiative, signed into law in 2019 and anticipated to kick off in late 2023, would put a price tag on rides into Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD). It’s a first-of-its-kind effort in the U.S. that follows in the footsteps of several similar endeavors overseas. But details in New York still need to be mapped out — and not everyone is on board.
Pre-pandemic, the CBD, which includes all of Manhattan south of (and including) 60th Street, catered to over 700,000 vehicles per day, according to the MTA. The average speed of traffic clocked in at only seven miles per hour. “Congestion makes travel slow and unreliable,” the MTA states.
So the “Central Business District Tolling Program,” as it’s officially titled, was designed to provide relief. The West Side Highway, the Battery Park Underpass, “surface roadway portions of the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel connecting to West Street” and FDR Drive would all be excluded from tolls.
To enter anywhere else in the zone, possible prices will vary depending on the day and time. In the least expensive scenario, tolls could ring in at $5 overnight, $7 “off peak” and $9 during peak hours; on the high end of the spectrum, fees could reach $12, $17 and $23. Different scenarios published in an “Environmental Assessment” by the MTA in August account for varying levels of exemptions and caps on how many times vehicles re-entering the zone could be charged per day. Traffic entering the district could decline by nearly 20%, the study found.
“The price is steep,” Noble Thomas told Our Town over the summer. But even as a frequent driver, he said it could be “planned around.” Tolls will be payable via E-ZPass or by mail, according to the MTA.
Not everyone will be subject to the looming fees; emergency vehicles and those “transporting people with disabilities” would be exempt, while a state tax credit would be awarded to residents of the zone making under $60,000, the MTA states.
But some have raised concerns that there’s no clear way to avoid charges if people with disabilities travel in taxis or Uber cars, or for those with temporary mobility restrictions that don’t qualify under the New York State DMV’s guidelines for parking permits and license plates granted to those with “permanent” or “severe” disabilities.
“I really don’t know how you make it work,” said Leah Hanlon, an Upper East Sider, during a Community Board 8 meeting in early October. “And I’m not saying it’s impossible to make it work, I’m just mystified.”
Some scenarios studied by the MTA also include exemptions for taxis and buses.
Though it may take a while, congestion pricing is projected to lead to an appreciable improvement in air quality and decreased levels of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and other harmful substances in most of the city, especially in the CBD.
Specifically, the “Environmental Assessment” found that under one tolling scenario, carbon monoxide levels in the CBD could drop by over 6% by 2045. Levels of various types of particulate matter are projected to decline by roughly 11%. Noise levels, too, should see an improvement: the assessment states that “the overall Project study area would result in a net decrease in traffic noise exposure along most local roadways evaluated.”
While the projections show an environmental benefit to the city overall, levels of CO2 and other harmful compounds in Staten Island and Nassau County are actually projected to increase by a range of 1 to 9%, depending on the substance, under the plan.
The city expects to bring in about $1 billion annually from congestion pricing, which would be used to bolster a struggling MTA system.
“After paying the cost of running the CBD Tolling Program, 80% of the money would be used to improve and modernize New York City Transit, which runs the subway system and buses,” the MTA states. The remaining 20% would be split evenly between the LIRR and Metro-North systems.
With subway ridership rebounding more slowly than expected post-pandemic, the MTA is sorely in need of revenue, state officials have said. The money from congestion charges would help fund “infrastructure upgrades,” as reported by The New York Times.
Some New Yorkers, though, say drivers shouldn’t bear the burden of funding MTA projects. “I think it’s unfair to charge people who aren’t even using the subway — to raise funds for the subway,” said Tyler Atwater, 26, an engineer who drives mostly in Brooklyn but sometimes into Lower Manhattan. “It’s people who’re driving into Manhattan so they can’t use the subway in the first place. And you’re going to charge them to fix the subway? It doesn’t make any sense.”
The Global Context
Singapore and London have led the way with congestion pricing plans, with varying outcomes.
Singapore became the first country to launch a congestion pricing plan more than four decades ago, charging a flat fee — equivalent to roughly $1 — to enter the business district. The system was almost immediately successful in reducing congestion by 20%, according to a report published by Streetsblog NYC. Today, an updated system adjusts rates in real time based on traffic levels, time of day and type of vehicle. This system (along with an investment in public transit) has led to a significant reduction in both traffic and greenhouse gas emissions.
In London, congestion pricing began in 2003 and charges drivers roughly $16 to drive within a designated zone in Central London. A 2007 report by Transport for London stated that overall traffic levels for vehicles entering the zone had dropped 16%, compared to before the charge.
A 2011 study found that air quality, on the other hand, saw little to no change (though air quality improvement was never a stated goal of London’s congestion charge). In recent years, London has struggled with the increase in popularity of private-hire vehicle companies like Uber, which were only recently included in the tolling system.
While the system remains in effect, there’s been talk from London Mayor Sadiq Khan about overhauling and replacing it.
In New York, congestion pricing proponents are optimistic it’ll be a success. “Bottom line: congestion pricing is good for the environment, good for public transit and good for New York and the region,” said Janno Lieber, MTA chair and CEO.
“Bottom line: congestion pricing is good for the environment, good for public transit and good for New York and the region.” Janno Lieber, MTA chair and CEO