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Literally Everyone Wants a Break on NYC’s Congestion Pricing Tolls

No matter what these bureaucrats do, lots of drivers are going to hate them.

10:55 AM EDT on July 20, 2023

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)

On Wednesday afternoon, a group of bureaucrats sat around a table in a windowless room inside Metropolitan Transportation Authority headquarters, as an MTA employee displayed a slide that showed every single group or individual that has asked to be exempt from the impending congestion pricing tolls.

Here's just a sample: 

  • "Artists"
  • "Farmers"
  • "Residents—Manhattan Central Business District, with household incomes at or below 120% of AMI ($147,500)"
  • "Residents—Brooklyn"
  • "Residents—Staten Island"
  • "Residents—Rockland County"
  • "Vehicles—Hearses"
  • "Vehicles—Passenger Cars"
  • "Workers—Detectives, NYPD"
  • "Retirees—NYPD"

The 122 requested exemptions (our personal favorite: "Residents—Waterside Plaza," a luxury development in Kips Bay where one-bedrooms rent for $4,700) were written in tiny script and filled the entire slide. The list did not generate any reactions from the assembled bureaucrats, who are members of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, the group that will decide how much people will be charged to enter Manhattan below 60th Street next year once congestion pricing kicks in.

The slide acted as a kind of reminder to the group: No matter what you do, lots of people are going to hate you for it.

This was the first meeting of the TMRB, a six-member board mostly appointed by the MTA. The state law that created New York City's congestion pricing plan in 2019 gave the task of determining the exact details of how the tolls would work to the TMRB because it's complicated, and also, because no politicians wanted to be saddled with the responsibility themselves. 

After years of political delays and a massive environmental review, the federal government signed off on the plan earlier this year, and the tolls will be set up in the first half of 2024. 

Per the 2019 state law, congestion pricing must generate at least $1 billion every year for the MTA (each $1 billion in tolls means that the agency will be able to issue $15 billion in capital bonds). In addition, the law states that emergency vehicles and vehicles transporting disabled people are exempt, while Manhattanites who own a car and earn less than $60,000/year get a tax credit on the tolls. 

The rest is more or less up to the TMRB. And there are many unanswered questions, aside from how much the regular tolls are going to be during rush hour.

Do people entering Manhattan through any of the tolled tunnels and bridges get a discount? What about taxis and Ubers? How much should tolls cost during off-peak hours? What about buses? What about trucks? What will prevent drivers from creating bogus out-of-state license plates to avoid the toll? Who, if anyone, should be exempt from paying? (Definitely residents of Waterside Plaza. Also, shout out to "teachers, only New York City Department of Education, not Charter schools.")

Juliette Michaelson of the MTA gives a powerpoint presentation at the meeting. (Screenshot)

One message was constant. "Keep in mind, every discount and exemption, every time we give some drivers a break on the CBD (Central Business District) toll, that will increase the toll rate for everybody else," said Juliette Michaelson, the MTA's deputy chief for external relations and a special advisor to the TMRB. Michaelson, who also pointed out that some public commenters requested there be no exemptions, was one of a small army of MTA experts who were at the meeting to answer any questions the board had. 

The questions from the TMRB were mostly big picture, abstract ones, but they underscored how difficult it is to think about congestion pricing without just plugging in some numbers and working through all the variables. Perhaps it would have been easier to just toss out a figure—say, $15?—and go from there, but that didn't happen.

"Can you articulate what's the most effective way to ensure the lowest congestion price on the broadest group of commuters?" asked boardmember John Banks, the former president of the Real Estate Board of New York.

"The most effective way to ensure the lowest toll, in essence, really, is to give the fewest exemptions, discounts or crossing credits," the MTA's congestion pricing czar Allison de Cerreño replied.

Not all of the TMRB members seemed acquainted with how congestion pricing will work, but perhaps it was good to have these questions on the record. ("So how does the MTA plan to use the money, specifically, that they are raising through congestion pricing?" Long Island AFL-CIO head John Durso asked. The answer, which is already written into the law: desperately needed capital expenses that will increase the MTA's capacity to provide better service.)

A slide from the MTA's presentation. (Screenshot)

John Samuelsen, the fiery TWU leader who was Mayor Eric Adams's sole appointee to the board, and who also sits on the MTA board, took issue with the fact that the MTA's data showed that traffic into Lower Manhattan does not relent until midnight or later, because this meant that "blue collar" overnight shift workers from New York and New Jersey who work 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. and drive into the city would not receive an overnight toll discount. 

"I mean, low-income drivers that are barely making it as it is—and they have no transit option—are gonna get hit with this, and there has to be a way around it. We have to think that out," Samuelsen said. 

Samulsen did not cite any specific examples of the people he was referring to, but they are a tiny fraction of the people who commute into Manhattan below 60th Street for work.

According to the MTA, 1.5 million people from across the region work in the CBD, and 1.3 million take mass transit; only 11 percent, or 143,000 of them, drive. Of this sliver, nine percent, or 12,870, are considered low-income, and an ever smaller percentage of this subset have no viable transit alternative.

Still, the MTA has already proposed giving toll discounts to people with incomes of $50,000 or lower who drive into Manhattan—25 percent off their trips after their tenth trip of the month.

This did not placate Samuelsen or Durso.

"I'm listening to this, and it's like my neck is vibrating," Durso said. "If I'm working those shifts, and I get hit twice, once when I come in and once when I get home, and I wasn't making $60,000 a year or $50,000 a year, then that's taking money out of my kid's mouth or paying my rent. We got to figure something out. John is 100 percent right in what he's talking about, I lived it for years." 

It's not clear what Durso meant when he was talking about being "hit twice," because the toll only applies to people entering the zone below 60th, not leaving it. Durso's remarks were met with applause from members of the public.

After an hour, TMRB chair and former City Planning Commissioner Carl Weisbrod started to make his concluding remarks—next meeting date TBD—when some people began screaming from the back of the room. "Say no to congestion pricing! I'm a native New Yorker!" one man yelled.

"Thank you very much," Weisbrod responded. "Thank you."

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