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Lawsuit: Congestion Pricing Must Be Stopped for the Sake of Teachers Who Drive From Montville, NJ

Just how many teachers drive into Lower Manhattan for work every day?

10:42 AM EST on January 5, 2024

Manhattan Gridlock

Times Square traffic jam in New York City / joiseyshowaa

Should millions of New York City mass transit riders throw years of planning in the garbage and lose out on billions of dollars in improvements to their commutes because a tiny percentage of workers choose to drive into Lower Manhattan?

Yes, they should, according to a lawsuit filed on Thursday by the United Federation of Teachers and Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, against the MTA, the City, and the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA).

Like the complaint filed by the state of New Jersey against congestion pricing in late 2023, their two main arguments are essentially the same. The first is that tolling the bridges in Lower Manhattan will make traffic worse in certain parts of Staten Island, the Bronx, and New Jersey. The second argument, made with much more brio, boils down to, Whaddya mean we gotta pay $15 to drive into the city? Can't you see we're public servants who have no choice?!?!

"This is simply a money grab because they’re going to raise the money off the working- and middle-class of this city," UFT leader and Staten Island resident Mike Mulgrew told the Post.

"Those are the folks who are going to pay for this program. We’re sick of this. We’re sick of people just trying to shove things through."

There is slightly more desperation to this lawsuit than Jersey's. Congestion pricing, which was passed by the state legislature in 2019 and approved by the feds in the spring of 2023 after years of political delays and environmental reviews, is set to begin later this year, likely in the late spring. Opponents are running out of time, and so is the MTA, which desperately needs the $1 billion in annual revenue to put into its capital budget. 

While the suit gestures toward the widely reported projections that congestion pricing would increase air pollution in some areas of the city—mostly in the Bronx, much less so on Staten Island—it glosses over the $130 million in mitigation the MTA has allocated to address those problems and get final federal approval.

So the lawsuit mainly relies on some sad stories of educators, some of whom travel great distances to teach the children, including one who drives into Chelsea from Montville, New Jersey, every morning, and others who live on Staten Island. 

"The average commuting cost for a Staten Island resident, for example, would increase to approximately $74 each day; the average Bronx commuter’s daily expense would rise to $61," the lawsuit states, citing the MTA's assessment, which are "amounts that many cannot afford."

Except—they already can afford them. Those numbers the lawsuit cites are actually the MTA's analysis for what drivers currently pay, before congestion pricing takes effect.

(Appendix 4A.3 of the MTA's environmental assessment / MTA)

The MTA analysis includes gas mileage, parking, and other factors that drive up the costs of a car commute into the city. (Those transit figures include external costs, like "the single or combination of fares and an added level of origin parking and destination travel cost," per the MTA.) This aligns with what we already know about people who own cars in the New York City metropolitan area: They tend to have much higher incomes than those who do not. Citywide, car owners have an annual median income of $85,000, while non-car owners make $40,630. On Staten Island, where more than 80 percent of households own cars, that gap is wider. Households with cars have a median income of $93,280, while those that do not earn $25,000.

The further out you live, the more expensive—and let's face it, ludicrous—it is to drive into Lower Manhattan every single workday. This is common sense, but the lawsuit pretends the plaintiffs aren't all adults who choose to live where they live and choose to get to work by car. If I live in Pittsburgh, and fly to Newark Airport every morning on a $59 Spirit Airlines flight, and rent a car, and drive into Lower Manhattan for my teaching gig, should I have to make some life changes, or should the nation's first congestion pricing scheme have to go back to the drawing board for another indeterminate number of years?

Which brings us to the bigger question: How many teachers are we talking about here? According to the MTA, 1.5 million people from across the region work in Lower Manhattan, and 1.3 million take mass transit; only 11 percent, or 143,000 of them, drive. Not all of these people will pay the $15 congestion fare for regular vehicles: After 9 p.m., that toll drops down to $3.75.

But teachers working below 60th Street driving to work will shell out—how many of them are there?

According to this IBO survey from 2012, some nine percent of all New York City teachers—6,794 people—commute to Manhattan from other boroughs. If 11 percent of them drive, that's 750 teachers, or 0.02 percent of the average weekday ridership on the subway in 2022, though it's probably safe to assume that more teachers tend to drive to work, considering that a City-issued parking placard is a perk of the profession for any teacher who wants one. 

The UFT didn't respond to our list of questions, nor did the Staten Island borough president's office. The FHWA said they don't comment on pending litigation, and the Mayor's Office pointed us to the statements Eric Adams has made in favor of congestion pricing, which also sound a lot like the arguments made in this lawsuit.

"We want the process to take them into consideration," Adams said last month when asked whether public servants, including teachers, should have exemptions. "Those who drive on necessity, I've made this clear, should be different from those who drive on luxury." 

Bumper to bumper traffic in Manhattan.
Views of traffic and congestion in the Central Business District on Wednesday, July 6, 2022. 59th Street from Third Avenue (Marc A. Hermann / MTA)

To hear from teachers who work in the congestion zone, we stood in the cold and waited for some to exit the NEST+m K-12 school on the southwest corner of Houston Street and Columbia Street, a few blocks from the FDR and a 15-minute walk from the closest subway stop. Erica and Nadia, who teach English and social studies and live in Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively, said that driving to school means getting to work considerably earlier than required to secure a coveted spot in the parking lot, which was not something they were keen to do. So they take mass transit, though Erica said she has a car.

"There's no reason to have a car—we do things after work. Like, we're going to Trader Joe's now," Erica said. "You just don't want a car in the city."

"People who live in Queens, Jersey, Long Island, they all drive," Nadia said of her colleagues. "I think it's the transferring of trains to buses, and you never know if you're going to catch one."

"I think it can be unfair," Nadia said of congestion pricing. "Because honestly, it's so expensive to live around here."

A technology teacher, Richard, was jumping on his bike for his 20-minute ride back to Brooklyn when we asked him what we thought of congestion pricing.

"I think it could be prohibitive in a way that could hurt people. I think it could make the city more enjoyable by not having as many cars, so pluses and minuses," he said. "In general, I feel like the car infrastructure does need to be improved. It's kind of chaotic and busy and crowded, and filled with pollution."

Richard said he used to have a car, but he was "basically just moving it from one side of the street to the other." 

"I'm okay biking. And if I really need a car, I'll just rent it, it's way cheaper than insurance and paying all the maintenance, and the tickets you inevitably get," he said. "And I would probably stop driving if I was driving in and it became an extra $15."

This reporter waved at some folks exiting the parking lot in their vehicles, but none slowed down to chat.

(Photo: joiseyshowaa / Flickr)

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