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Congestion Pricing Conundrum: How Much Should Drivers From Long Island & New Jersey Pay?

The bureaucrats charged with setting the congestion pricing plan consider their most delicate task.

10:46 AM EDT on October 3, 2023

Gridlock in Manhattan.

42nd Street near Vanderbilt Ave in July of 2022 (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

On Monday, some of the confounding, interconnected components of congestion pricing became a bit clearer—but the biggest question remains unanswered: How much will it cost to drive into Manhattan below 60th Street?

The bureaucrats ultimately charged with determining this figure—the Traffic Mobility Review Board—met for the third time yesterday afternoon, and set some basic parameters for the tolling plan that will go into effect next year.

There will be some kind of discount for driving into the central business district at night, though what constitutes "night" is up for debate. Taxis and for-hire vehicles will likely not have to pay the full toll, but rides into the congestion zone will carry another per-ride fee paid by the passenger.

And New Jersey and Long Island drivers taking the already-tolled bridges and tunnels into Manhattan won't be exempt either, but determining how much they will actually pay is the biggest task the TMRB has.

That's because the more of a discount you give people taking the seven tolled crossings into Manhattan (who are currently paying as much as $14.75 at peak hours with an E-ZPass), the more you must then charge everyone else using what are currently the free crossings of the Queensboro Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, and Brooklyn Bridge. Giving Jersey and Long Island drivers a bigger discount is how you end up with a $23 congestion pricing charge, which was the highest tolling scenario presented by the MTA in its environmental assessment last year. (That sounds like a lot, but it's still a bargain compared to what it should cost—$100, according to a tally of all the negative externalities of driving a personal vehicle into Lower Manhattan done by the transportation economist Charles Komanoff.)

But if the discount or "crossing credit" is too small, then drivers will "toll shop" and head toward the cheaper entry points, creating more gridlock and pollution in areas outside of the congestion zone. Why pay, say, $35 to take the Queens-Midtown Tunnel when you could sit in your car an extra 30 minutes and pay $15 to take the Queensboro Bridge.

Juliette Michaelson, the MTA's special advisor guiding the board through the process, presented four different congestion pricing scenarios for the TMRB to consider, all with a range of crossing credits and nighttime discounts and for-hire vehicle fees.

With the TMRB unwilling to even publish a sample base fare on one of these slides (and there are sound political reasons for not giving the bajillion groups lobbying for exemptions a more specific target), the board members didn't have much to say about the scenarios. Instead, they preferred to ask more general questions or just sat there, soaking it all in. There were several moments of dead silence at this hour-long meeting.

Other pillars of the plan decided at Monday's meeting: Commuter buses will be exempt from congestion pricing, box trucks will pay twice what cars pay, and large trucks will pay three times as much. New Yorkers with an annual income of $50,000 or less and who must drive into Lower Manhattan for work will receive a 50 percent discount on their tolls after their first 10 trips each month, up from the 25 percent discount initially proposed. 

These features are in addition to those written into the law that created congestion pricing itself: The program must raise $1 billion each year for the MTA's capital budget, emergency vehicles and vehicles transporting people with disabilities are exempt, while Manhattanites who own a car and earn less than $60,000/year get a tax credit on the tolls. 

During the previous two TMRB meetings, John Samuelsen, the Transport Workers Union of America leader and noted congestion pricing skeptic (he's Eric Adams's appointee on the board), has hammered home the point that congestion pricing money will go toward the MTA's capital plan, not its operating budget, and thus will not provide the improved subway and bus service necessary to get outerborough drivers out of their cars and onto mass transit. And does the MTA even have capacity in its current system to handle these new customers?

On Monday, he made these points again, though MTA officials by now had rehearsed enough to address them: Capital improvements mean better signals, better signals mean more trains, more trains mean better service. And as to the capacity issue, daily subway ridership stands at 6.4 million, well below the 8.5 million the system had each day pre-pandemic, so there's plenty of room for the 70,000 to 110,000 people in the outerboroughs who currently commute in via car. (Bus ridership has plateaued at around 65 percent of pre-pandemic levels, but that will happen when the mayor, who controls the streets, refuses to do anything to make the buses go faster.)

"Clearly, to a significant extent, investment in our capital ultimately affects our operating," Carl Weisbrod, TMRB chair and former city planning commissioner, told his fellow boardmembers. "And I mean, we just have to look at last Friday and the impact of that terrible storm on the MTA and subway system and on Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road as well, and recognize how much has to be done to make our system more resilient."

This was the second moment at which members of the public viewing the hearing applauded; The first was when Weisbrod suggested that motorcycles should receive a discount, because they are smaller than cars.

New Yorkers (and the people who can't pump their own gas and are fighting a losing battle in federal court) will have to wait a bit longer to find out how much the base congestion pricing charge will be. The next TMRB meeting has not yet been scheduled, though Gothamist reported that they are looking to have the fee proposal ready sometime next month. In a delightfully dry Monday morning appearance on FOX 5's "Good Day New York" hosted by Rosanna Scotto, who is perhaps congestion pricing's most visible opponent, MTA CEO Janno Leiber scoffed at the $23 fee and tossed out "$15, whatever it is," a number that has been batted around in recent months. (After Scotto complained about the water in the subway system from last Friday, Lieber replied, "Yeah, you know, gravity's gonna do its thing.")

If all this feels overwhelming, there is a much more elegant and simple solution to this problem: Ban cars in Lower Manhattan, and use the money spent on road maintenance to fund mass transit.

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