New Jersey Sues Feds Over Congestion Pricing Approval

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The State of New Jersey is trying to put a legal roadblock in front of the rapidly accelerating forward trajectory of a congestion pricing toll in Manhattan.

Gov. Phil Murphy announced a lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in New Jersey, to fight the decision by the Biden administration’s  U.S. Department of Transportation to give New York State the right to charge drivers heading into Manhattan’s central business district, arguing that the DOT was not compliant with the National Environmental Policy Act to conduct a “full” environmental review of the toll plan.

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Murphy claims that drivers that would normally pass through the tolled parts of Manhattan — below 60th Street — would instead divert traffic to other neighborhoods and towns in New Jersey, which he argued the environmental review did not take into account.

“Unfortunately, New York’s proposal will prompt toll shopping where more drivers seek circuitous routes to avoid paying the highest tolls resulting in more traffic and more pollution in certain areas,” Murphy said during a press conference. “We’re disappointed by the lack of a thorough environmental impact review of impacted communities and a lack of mitigation measures [for traffic] in impacted communities like Fort Lee, New Jersey.”

The governor emphasized that New Jersey having to pay for its own mitigation efforts was the most “unfair” part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s plan.

“The MTA is well aware of these consequences as evidenced by their plans to mitigate — not eliminate — these impacts in the Bronx, but there are no such plans to lessen the impact on New Jersey communities,” Murphy said. 

But Gov. Kathy Hochul didn’t find the argument for the lawsuit very compelling.

“It has gone through a long process of review at the federal level. The environmentals have already been studied. That’s why it was delayed another year last year,” Hochul said during an unrelated press conference. “Eighty percent of the people who work in New York City who are New Jersey residents … take public transportation. So, this is making sure that [funding for mass transit] is there long term, that it’s sustainable.”

The MTA agreed, calling the lawsuit “baseless” and arguing that people had plenty of chances to make their opinions on the plan heard before the federal approval.

“As for the adequacy of the outreach process and the contention that there wasn’t enough opportunity for New Jersey residents and officials to be heard — not only were there six public hearings lasting a total of 38 hours, there were 19 outreach sessions, in which dozens of officials from New Jersey agencies participated,” MTA chief external relations John McCarthy said in a statement.

The U.S. DOT declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The lawsuit, filed by Randy Mastro, the attorney retained by New Jersey’s democratic governor, follows the MTA’s first meeting of the real estate-heavy Traffic Mobility Review Board (TMRB) on Wednesday to discuss the implementation of the plan.

A pricing structure has not yet been determined by the TMRB.

Disgraced Gov. Andrew Cuomo first proposed congestion pricing during the subway crisis in 2017, which he dubbed the “summer of hell,” and the New York State Legislature passed a law in 2019 to impose the toll. 

But the plan, which needed federal approval, was in limbo for a long period of time as the White House, under former President Donald Trump, left New York State in the dark over what criteria would be needed in the impact study.

Things changed once Biden took office and the plan cleared its final federal hurdle late last month.

The congestion pricing toll could charge drivers entering Manhattan below 60th Street up to $23 for a rush-hour trip and $17 during off-peak hours, but those are only preliminary figures. It’s expected to generate $1 billion per year in revenue for the MTA.

Update: This story has been updated to add comments from Gov. Hochul and the MTA.

Mark Hallum can be reached at mhallum@commercialobserver.com.