Congestion pricing takes a toll on local commuters

TRANSPORTATION. Congestion pricing is set to begin June 30. Commuters who enter Manhattan below 60th Street will pay a $15 toll each day.

| 16 May 2024 | 12:48

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has gone to great lengths to defend its controversial congestion pricing plan by arguing that it does the greatest good for the greatest numbers.

To wit, 1.2 million people commute into Manhattan’s central business district, 85% of them by subway, bus or commuter rail. Only about 11%, or 142,000, drive in. The rest walk, bicycle, skateboard, taxi or just stumble in.

Beginning June 30, the MTA will charge those drivers a toll to enter Manhattan below 60th Street, then use that revenue to support capital improvements for the mass transit that the rest are riding.

Local motorists object

Unsurprisingly, motorists don’t love this. But they are mostly outnumbered.

Mostly. On the periphery of the MTA’s sprawling three-state region, the numbers look quite different, and that may account for why some of the angriest resistance is coming from the greatest distance from the central business district of Manhattan.

“The MTA forced through an unfair, uninformed and unacceptable congestion pricing plan, ignoring the voices of countless Hudson Valley firefighters, police officers, union members, teachers and other hard-working families,” Rep. Pat Ryan, D-18, said the other day.

New York is the first American city to adopt a congestion pricing scheme to reduce traffic and pollution so this launch is being closely watched.

Ryan is one of several public officials on the edge of the MTA region who are continuing to fight the toll scheme, reflecting a basic political imbalance of power.

In New York City and the close-in suburbs, there are more drivers, but they are a small proportion of the many, many mass transit riders. New York is one of the few American cities where this is true.

On the edge of the MTA region, in Orange County, N.Y., and Sussex County, N.J., for instance, the balance tilts more to motorists – more like the rest of the country.

For example, from Orange County, 7,995 workers drive into New York City below 60th Street, which is half of all the Orange County residents commuting into the central city, according to census data compiled by the Regional Plan Association.

The only counties with even higher proportions of commuters driving to Manhattan are also out on the fringe of the MTA region: Ulster, Duchess, Putnam and Sullivan in New York and Hunterdon in New Jersey.

Of all Sussex County commuters who enter below 60th Street for work, 43% drive; this amounts to 465 residents potentially impacted by congestion pricing.

This data was compiled in 2019. Because motoring into the city has rebounded beyond pre-pandemic levels while mass transit use still lags, the proportion who drive is likely even higher than it was then.

Court cases pending

Unless one of the pending court cases upends things, those who choose to drive in will have to pay a $15 fee to enter what the MTA calls the “congestion relief zone” in Manhattan between 5 a.m. and 9 p.m. Between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. the fee will be $3.75, a 75% discount which the MTA says is in part to encourage vehicles who need to pass through lower Manhattan to do so at night.

The fee for trucks will be $24 or $36, depending on their size and function, and $6 or $9 overnight.

These fees are once a day. Taxis and rideshare vehicles, which are a major source of the congestion, will be tolled every time they enter the congestion zone, $1.25 per trip for taxis and $2.50 a trip for app-based for-hire vehicles. That fee will be passed directly to their passengers.

There are some discounts that may matter to drivers coming from New Jersey and the Hudson Valley. There will be a $5 credit against the congestion toll for passenger vehicles who pay the toll coming in through the Lincoln and Holland tunnels (or the Brooklyn Battery and Queens Midtown tunnels, for that matter). But this credit does not apply to crossing the George Washington or Tappan Zee bridges.

Commuter buses are exempted from the toll as are some government vehicles and buses contracted by the government to carry schoolchildren or the disabled.

There is also a discount for low-income motorists.

But the MTA panel that set the tolls denied pleas for a discount for city workers, who do make up many of the motorists from the outer edge of the region, if not quite the untold numbers that Ryan cited.

That may contribute to the palpable sense from Ryan and others that the periphery is being dissed. He made his comments in a denunciation of the MTA’s decision to grant a discount to commuters who ride Metro-North or Long Island Rail Road trains solely within the five boroughs, to discourage them from driving.

“This is yet another example of Hudson Valley residents paying their hard-earned tax dollars to the MTA, only to watch all the benefits go to New York City,” Ryan said. “That’s why we’re demanding they extend these discounts to all MTA riders and commit to substantive infrastructure upgrades in the Hudson Valley.”

At least some of this anger is misdirected, MTA chairman Janno Lieber said.

“One thing that needs to be clear is this was a decision by the state Legislature using a pre-existing program called the Outer Borough Transportation Account, which is, by the way, funded by surcharges on taxis and FHVs,” Lieber explained. “That was money specifically designated to help transit in the outer boroughs. So that’s where this came from. I have to defer to the state Legislature - they made the decision to put that on.”

An MTA spokesman noted that fares on the Port Jervis and Pascack Valley lines have held steady since 2015, a time when most prices, including fares on other parts of the MTA system, have risen.

“The MTA has exempted the Port Jervis Line and Pascack Valley Line from the last three fare increases, which took place in March 2017, April 2019 and August 2023,” said the spokesman, Aaron Donovan.

“The current leadership of the MTA and Metro-North have an unprecedented focus on Orange and Rockland counties and are directing $227 million in investment into the Port Jervis Line and Pascack Valley Line in the 2020-24 capital program, which is being funded in part with congestion pricing,” he said.

“The vast majority of this is going to the Port Jervis Line, where we have the most trackage. The investment includes $100 million for Port Jervis Line capacity improvements, and most of the remainder is for the kind of essential maintenance that keeps the line in a state of good repair and continuing to operate safely and reliably.”

These investments include $40 million for upkeep on the 115-year-old Moodna Viaduct near Cornwall as well as $16 million for track renewal and $11.4 million for rock slope remediation along the line.

“As we saw in rebuilding the Port Jervis Line after Hurricane Irene back in 2011, infrastructure resiliency upgrades like the slope work are becoming more important in an era where storms seem to be delivering greater volumes of water over a shorter amount of time,” Donovan said. “These are all massive investments in infrastructure.”

Massive, perhaps. But not ambitious enough to ease the burden of congestion pricing, suggested Orange County’s planning commissioner, Alan Sorensen.

“Congestion pricing may push some people to the public transit,” he noted “However, cutting the travel time from Port Jervis to Penn Station to 1½ hours would have a much greater impact.”

Currently, a trip from Port Jervis to Penn Station is 2 hours and 23 minutes each way, “which is a lot of time away from family,” he noted. The drive is an hour and 43 minutes.

“In order for the congestion pricing plan to work, there needs to be practical alternatives to get people out of their cars,” Sorensen said. “If the projected $1 billion in annual revenue was earmarked for capital improvements to reduce travel times and increase rider comfort on passenger rail as well as commuter buses, then it could have some positive benefit ... . If we provided world-class commuter rail service between the suburbs and NYC, you wouldn’t need congestion pricing as many more people would simply choose to leave their cars behind.”

Part of the purpose of the congestion toll is to distribute the cost for a commute more accurately on each commuter, said Rachel Weinberger, a transit expert at the Regional Plan Association. “The thing that’s hard to grasp is that congestion pricing asks people to pay for the delay they impose on other users of the road,” she explained. “Economists call that delay an externality, a cost that drivers haven’t been responsible for, a cost that they ‘externalize.’ Externalities are effectively subsidies. Congestion pricing eliminates that subsidy and provides a market correction, allowing people to make choices more in line with the actual cost of their alternatives.

“While congestion pricing might require an uncomfortable adjustment for some car commuters, it will be a clear win for others and for the region,” she said. “Winners are drivers who will enjoy a smoother, more reliable trip; drivers who switch to transit and find it’s pretty relaxing to let someone else do the driving; ... and transit riders.”