New Yorkers have major qualms with congestion pricing. That much became overwhelmingly clear on Thursday evening during Community Board 8’s Congestion Pricing Task Force meeting, which produced more questions than concrete solutions on the topic of the plan’s looming impact on people with disabilities.
“I really don’t know how you make it work,” Leah Hanlon, a community member, said. “And I’m not saying it’s impossible to make it work, I’m just mystified.” Her late ex-partner, she explained, had a mobility-related disability and commuted to work in Midtown Manhattan via a hired car; Hanlon has spent multiple months of each recent year using crutches and traveling for medical appointments Downtown herself, but does not “qualify as disabled.” Many worry the plan lacks consideration for people in either scenario.
Congestion pricing — more formally referred to by the MTA as the “Central Business District Tolling Program” — would charge vehicles anywhere from $9 to $23 to enter Manhattan’s Central Business District (CBD), south of 60th Street, during peak hours, with FDR Drive and the West Side Highway as notable exceptions. More than 700,000 vehicles entered the zone each day pre-pandemic, according to the MTA, and the plan has been touted as an environmental balm and a means of raising funds for public transportation.
Originally passed by state legislature and signed into law in 2019, it would be the first program of its kind in the country, anticipated to start in late 2023. As it stands, there are three built-in carve-outs: residents of the zone making less than $60,000 would receive tax credit for tolls paid, while “qualifying authorized emergency vehicles and qualifying vehicles transporting people with disabilities,” the MTA states, would be exempt entirely. But the ins and outs of how such exemptions would work appear to be up in the air — and the plan has no lack of fiery opponents.
“I’m under no illusion that they’re even considering people like us,” said Erica, a community member who joined Thursday night’s meeting. She’s lived with multiple sclerosis for 14 years and relies on taxis and Ubers to traverse the city.
Tethering Disability Status To A Vehicle
An environmental assessment of the project, task force co-chair Craig Lader explained, currently details plans for cars with registered disability license plates and “fleet vehicles owned or operated by organizations used exclusively to provide transportation to people with disabilities” to be recognized as exempt from any tolling.
But confusion still remains as to how such an identification system would play out on the road. “You need an algorithm,” said Evelyn David, a member of the public. “Is that what you need? I don’t know. I don’t know how they’re going to set it up.” She and others raised concern that people’s disability statuses ought also to be recognized if they travel via Uber or taxi, not just in a personal vehicle.
Concern over maintaining privacy also came to light during the meeting, with some expressing discontent at the prospect of having to share medical statuses or reasons for travel with hired vehicles, one idea floated as a way to avoid tolls. “That is patently wrong,” Erica said.
Disabilities In Different Forms
Not all disabilities are created equal, as was driven home by multiple speakers who pointed to the difference between “permanent” and “temporary” conditions, the latter of which is not included in the New York State DMV’s guidelines for special license plates and parking permits. Regardless of duration, decreased mobility restricts some New Yorkers from using public transportation.
“There’s a distinct lack of elevators in most of our subway system,” said community member Michael Murray. “Door-to-door” transportation, others noted, is sometimes essential.
Some voiced a desire to continue fighting against congestion pricing outright, rather than attempting to adapt the plans that are moving forward. The task force ultimately voted unanimously in favor of a resolution calling for the MTA to create a council to address public transportation and the impact of congestion pricing on those with disabilities; a mode for those who are “temporarily or permanently disabled” to avoid or pay discounted fines whether in a personal or hired vehicle; and annual reports from the MTA on the travel of those with disabilities into and out of the new zone, among other actionable steps.
“The MTA has a responsibility to come up with the plan and ideas,” said Elaine Walsh, a former CB8 member.
“I really don’t know how you make it work.” Leah Hanlon