Congestion pricing: MTA gives the mic to the public and gets an earful

Over 16 hearings over the past three months, the public has spoken, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes not so, on the environment, taxes, commuting, the pandemic and, of course, those Jersey drivers.

Thomas C. Zambito
Rockland/Westchester Journal News
  • Three more hearings are set for early December for the public to weigh in on congestion pricing
  • If congestion pricing is approved, it would be the first such program in the U.S.
  • Drivers using E-ZPass during peak hours of the day could be charged between $9 and $23.
  • Those without E-ZPass could see charges of between $14 and $35.

Public hearings are sort of like karaoke night at the hotel bar or that dinner when grown children confess all the things they did in high school while their parents were away.

You never know what will come out of people’s mouths when you open up the floor.

And so it was when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority offered members of the public two virtual minutes to offer their take on congestion pricing these past few months.

Predictably, environmentalists praised the MTA’s plan to level tolls against drivers who enter Manhattan’s Central Business District south of 60th Street for creating a financial incentive to get people out of their cars. Fewer emissions would improve air quality and help lower asthma rates in the outer boroughs, one woman said.

A Brooklyn man declared driving in New York City “a selfish decision that punishes other people.” Others said it will give the MTA a new revenue stream – $1 billion a year – to improve subway, bus and commuter rail travel.

Traffic travels north along 10th Avenue and West 57th Street in New York City, Nov. 19, 2021.

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Naysayers said it would be unfair to impose a tax on drivers during the pandemic. Motorcyclists said they shouldn’t have to pay the full tax.

From Rockland County came a chorus of boos from transit-slighted folks suffering from train envy. Why are you going to punish us for driving when you don’t put enough trains in the schedule to get us into Manhattan?

And then there was the New Jersey crowd.

They wondered why Jersey drivers should pay a tax to drive into New York City when their struggling mass transit system will receive none of the revenue.

“The fact of the matter is you need $15 billion to fix your stuff because you haven’t maintained it and now you want New Jerseyans to pay it in the cost of their commute,” offered Ron Simoncini, the head of the Fair Congestion Pricing Alliance, a collection of Garden State business interests. “But you know what we’re going to do instead? We’re going to do what we’ve been doing during the pandemic. We’re going to stay in New Jersey.”

Over 16 hearings over the past three months, the public has spoken, sometimes thoughtfully, sometimes not so, on a topic that intersects the hot-button issues of the day: the environment, taxes, commuting, the pandemic and, of course, those Jersey drivers.

Congestion plan would be a first in the U.S.

Three more hearings are scheduled for early December. They will focus on the impact the plan will have on minority or low-income communities, also known as environmental justice communities.

After that, the public input will be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, which will assess the plan’s environmental impact and issue a report in May. After that, another round of hearings on the draft report.

Then, if the FHWA signs off, the board of the MTA's Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority will decide tolls, discounts and exemptions for a plan that was authorized by state lawmakers in 2019. If approved, it would be the first such program in the U.S. The earliest the tolls could go into effect would be late 2023.

No decisions have been made yet on what the tolls will be, but MTA officials have offered a range. Drivers using E-ZPass during peak hours of the day could be charged between $9 and $23. Those without E-ZPass could see charges of between $14 and $35. Off-peak tolls will be less.

Only drivers in the business district will be charged. The FDR Drive and state Route 9A, better known as the West Side Highway, will be excluded as will spots near the Battery Park Underpass and the Hugh Carey Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel.

Emergency vehicles and those transporting people with disabilities would qualify for exemptions.

The $1 billion collected annually will be used to support $15 billion of bonding for the MTA’s capital program. Eighty percent will go to New York City Transit projects, while Metro-North Railroad and the Long Island Rail Road would split the remaining 20%.

Janno Lieber, the MTA’s acting chief executive officer, said the tax will provide a dependable revenue stream for an agency that relies on fares and bridge and tunnel tolls for nearly 50% of its $18 billion budget.

The MTA decided against raising fares this year to lure back commuters who’ve been working at home during the pandemic, creating unprecedented ridership declines.

“The amount of value we get out of that fare increase dwarfs the size of the real problem, which is the MTA needs recurring revenue because we need to have predictability and we don’t need to put all of our financing on the backs of the riders,” Lieber said this month.

The federal government has given the MTA $10.5 billion to keep operating through 2024.  

The plan has the support of groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Regional Plan Association, Reinvent Albany and the Real Estate Board of New York.

Opposition crosses political boundaries.

State Sen. James Skoufis, a Democratic, and Assemblyman Mike Lawler, a Republican, agree that the tax is unfair to commuters in Rockland and Orange counties.

Skoufis said his constituents look across the Hudson River to Westchester County and see train schedules chock full of trains, while at some stations in his district riders must wait hours between arrivals.

“There is simply inadequate public transit from west of Hudson into the business district,” Skoufis said at a September hearing. “So there really is very little opportunity for my constituents to migrate from driving, if they do that now, to train service.”

Lawler agreed.

“The simple truth is it is a regressive tax on middle-income and low-income familes who are struggle to make ends meet in our high-taxed state,” he said at the same hearing.

MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan declined to comment on the lawmakers' claims.

Jersey's got a problem

In recent months, the loudest challenge has come from New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy opposes the idea.

A Murphy spokesman told The Record last month that "the governor will explore every possible avenue to prevent New Jerseyans from being double-tolled.”

New Jersey Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a Democrat, called the tax “simply an attempt to mooch off New Jersey.”

“When New Jersey commuters drive across the GW Bridge and into Midtown they’ll get whacked,” Gottheimer said at a September hearing. “Not only with the GWB $16-a-day toll, which is ridiculous, but now an additional $15 congestion tax when they drive south of 60th street. That’s up to $31 a day or more in total for a nurse just to drive to work in New York City or to see family at a time when we all need a comeback.”

Simoncini’s group is not opposed to the concept, but says the revenue generated should go toward improving New Jersey’s mass-transit options.

“I can’t say that congestion pricing is a bad idea,” Simoncini said. “The issue is if you’re going to have congestion pricing because you want to shift people from a car to a bus or a train you have to have capacity on buses and trains and they don’t.”

A recent study by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign found that less than 2% of those who commute from 21 New Jersey legislative districts into the business district drive while nearly 80% take public transportation.

Simoncini called the public hearings “a sham.”

“I think in this case MTA essentially enters this beauty contest and it’s the judge, and so when it comes time to decides who the prettiest girl is, they pick themselves,” he said.

Transportation expert Charles Komanoff has spent the past decade studying the impact congestion pricing will have on the average commuter – those who live within 15 miles from the business district.

He’s heard the recent outcry from New Jersey lawmakers and insists their math just doesn’t add up.

Congestion pricing will remove roughly 15% of traffic that flows into the business every day, taking cars off the road that slow down other drivers, costing them time and money, he said.

The hypothetical nurse invoked by Gottheimer, along with the van and truck driver will all benefit from congestion pricing, he said.

“The other 85% get to go faster and more predictably and with less stress and less cost to the people themselves and to everyone else,” Komanoff said.

“Every day that we don’t have it, the city and the region are leaving on the table $10 million worth of benefits,” Komanoff said. “More efficient travel, less time stuck in traffic. Fewer emissions, better health.”