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Fine-Tuning the Trade-Offs of Congestion Pricing Is Like Assembling a Mechanical Watch in the Middle of a Firefight

The board in charge of figuring out the toll structure for congestion pricing met on Thursday, and many questions remain unanswered.

5:33 PM EDT on August 18, 2023

(Joiseyshowaa / Flickr)

Congestion pricing is coming. Despite ongoing complaints from people accustomed to driving a personal vehicle into the heart of one of the busiest cities in the world, where cars move at an average of roughly five miles per hour, it is a done deal (unless the Hail Mary federal lawsuit recently filed by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy somehow gets traction).

But the very technical questions about how to implement congestion pricing, and how to do so equitably and effectively, are still being hammered out. How should the tolls be structured? What should trucks pay? What should taxis and app-based for-hire vehicles pay? What should people who have already paid bridge and tunnel tolls pay? How should tolling be structured such that overnight workers who come to work in the central business district on one day and leave on the next aren't charged twice for a single shift? Who, if anyone, should be exempted? Every one of these questions has implications for the two mandated goals of congestion pricing: reducing gridlock in the central business district, and raising $15 billion to fund improvements to mass transit. And every one of the questions affects the others, and affects the baseline toll that typical motorists will pay.

Figuring out the answers to these questions is the job of the MTA's Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB), which met Thursday for its second hearing on congestion pricing. The board didn't come to any decisions on the issues, but the information that was presented made it clear that achieving a fair and functional toll policy will be both politically and technically delicate.

Take people driving their cars from New Jersey into Manhattan below 60th Street. They're already paying substantial tolls to enter the City, and as Governor Murphy has vividly argued, paying a further fee to enter Manhattan would be an even greater burden. One argument is that these car drivers should get a discount on the congestion pricing toll, perhaps up to the full value of their tunnel or bridge toll, so that everyone steering their carbon-spewing hulks into the city center shells out the same amount.

But that policy would undermine one of the goals of congestion pricing, because drivers from New Jersey wouldn't face much of a disincentive to not spew their exhaust in New York City. People would continue to drive into Manhattan from New Jersey and contribute to gridlock, while paying less for the consequences of that gridlock, while New Yorkers coming from outside the central business district would have to pay more. If drivers coming from New Jersey were given a $14 credit, the MTA calculates that they would make up 21 percent of traffic in the central business district, while only paying 11 percent of the cost. 

What about Uber and Lyft drivers? Should they pay a daily fee or a per-ride surcharge every time they cross into the central business district? Juliette Michaelson, the special advisor guiding the board through these questions, noted that app-based vehicles for hire pose a particular challenge. The environmental assessment conducted for the congestion pricing plan commits it to charging taxis and for-hire vehicles only once per day. But projections also show that a once-a-day fee will actually result in an increase in traffic from taxis and for-hire vehicles, which already make up more than half of the traffic in the central business district.

The board is interested in finding a way to assess a per-ride fee to be paid by the person hailing the ride, and not by drivers, who are already squeezed by the brutal economies of the app services. "The driver should not be paying the charge at all," said TMRB board member John Samuelson, the former head of the TWU. "We should figure out a way to build it into the structure and put our minds together and figure out how the drive does not get shackled with the charge."

Many of the opponents to congestion pricing have argued that it puts an unfair burden on low-income people who they argue have no choice but to drive into the central business district for work. "These are simple blue-collar workers, and yet you chose to strangle them!" City Councilmember Vickie Paladino declared at a council hearing Thursday morning, calling congestion pricing "a pure attack on the middle class."

Michaelson presented the board with some information that puts that argument in context. Of the 1.5 million people working in the central business district, 1.3 million take transit.  About 143,000 people drive. Of those who drive, only 16,100—roughly one percent— are in low-income households. The number of people who earn less than $50,000 and commute into the central business district from a home that's more than half a mile from public transportation is just 1,560.

Just because you live within half a mile of mass transit doesn't mean you have an easier commute via that mass transit. In areas poorly served by public transit, a commute to the central business district can require multiple transfers and hours of time. "You're putting a day's work in just to get to work," board member John Durso, a Long Island labor leader, said. 

But improving public transit options for everyone is exactly what the congestion pricing fees are going to be funding. "We shouldn't be thinking about this in the context of exempting certain drivers," Kathryn Wylde, a board member and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, said, "but rather providing public transportation efficient options to all those who are seeking to get to work in an efficient way."

It is not yet known when the board will next meet to make decisions on the implementation of the congestion pricing tolling.

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