Honk If You Love Congestion Pricing

At least publicly, New York City’s commercial real estate industry stands behind this summer’s launch of traffic tolls for much of Manhattan

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In two months, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will launch a transformative new policy that will change how people move around Manhattan, but some New Yorkers worry the city won’t be ready for it. 

Still, the congestion pricing plan for most vehicles for Manhattan south of 60th Street enjoys the official support of much of the city’s business community, including its commercial real estate industry. 

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The MTA’s plan has been 17 years in the making and would mark the first time a U.S. metropolitan area will charge tolls to ease traffic congestion in its core business zone. It’s also expected to raise $1 billion in revenue annually for the New York region’s transit system while reducing traffic and slashing air pollution. But the city has made few tangible changes ahead of this once-in-a-generation shift in Manhattan’s traffic patterns.

Deputy Mayor Meera Joshi — a newly appointed MTA board member — told reporters at Mayor Eric Adams’s weekly press conference on April 9 that the Department of Transportation and the MTA would soon release a report about new bike paths, bus lanes and curbside parking management that could be instituted in the future. 

“Nobody likes to wait for a report,” Joshi said. “DOT is currently working with the MTA on what early interventions they can get in place with bike and bus lanes. But it also has to do with parking and curb space, and to ensure that movement, especially in the core, is as easy as possible, and especially for public transit.”

City officials had at least five years to plan for street improvements, once the legislature included a congestion pricing framework in the state budget in April 2019. Last year, Mayor Adams pushed the MTA to consider several exemptions for city employees, taxis and school buses, before the MTA board finalized its pricing plan this March.

But other major cities revamped their central business districts to be more pedestrian friendly well before instituting congestion pricing tolls. London, for instance, added new bus lanes and increased bus capacity, laid out a network of bike lanes, boosted tube service, and created pedestrian-friendly streets ahead of its own congestion pricing plan in 2003. 

This spring, advocacy group Transportation Alternatives released a report with several recommendations to ensure buses move more swiftly through the city by mandating all bus lanes to have 24/7 operation, adding more express routes, and expanding all-door boarding, while also making streets more accessible to children and seniors by raising crosswalks, removing parking spaces at intersections, and extending curbs.

“I’m sick of waiting for there to be real improvements that are happening,” said Alexa Sledge, director of communications at Transportation Alternatives. “Everywhere else they do congestion pricing, there’s so much other work going on to prepare for it … and we haven’t seen New York do much to prepare for it.”

The city has taken steps to make navigating streets safer by removing parking spaces from 1,000 new intersections. In addition, state Sen. Jabari Brisport of Brooklyn has called for $90 million to be included in the state budget to establish 15 free bus lines and make buses “more frequent and reliable.” Several Assembly members want to pass a law allowing New York City to lower speeds on local roads.

But business leaders agree that the city could do more to transform its streets before the summer.

“A lot is changing, and overall there’s a need to rethink both our public streets and sidewalk areas,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, which represents several hundred CEOs. “No one is happy with the way things are now.”

Regardless, starting in June, the MTA is set to turn on 110 toll readers installed throughout Manhattan that will charge drivers who enter the borough’s local streets below 60th Street through the Financial District, which the MTA is calling the “Congestion Relief Zone.”

Motorists would pay a $15 fee to enter the zone from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m. on weekdays and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends, but as little as $3.50 during overnight hours. 

Trucks would fork over higher sums — $24 to $36 depending on their size — while motorcycles would pay $7.50 when they enter that part of Manhattan. Taxis will add a surcharge of $1.25 to their riders’ trips, while rideshare vehicles such as Uber and Lyft would tack on $2.50 per trip.

Drivers won’t pay any additional fees once they are inside the congestion pricing zone, when they exit Midtown and Downtown Manhattan, or if they stay on elevated highways like the FDR Drive and West Side Highway and pass through Manhattan without exiting into the borough below 60th Street. And only one toll would apply each day, so vehicles could come and go several times but pay the $15 levy only once.

“Vehicles crossing into the Congestion Relief Zone, in Manhattan at or below 60th Street excluding statutorily excluded roadways, will be subject to a toll,” MTA spokesman Aaron Donovan said.

Motorists and trucks coming from Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey, who already pay an MTA toll fee when they take the Hugh Carey, Holland, Lincoln or Queens-Midtown tunnels, will get a crossing break to offset the cost of entry. Passenger vehicles will receive a $5 credit, small trucks will get $12, large trucks will receive $20, and motorcycles will get $2.50 off the congestion fee. 

Only a handful of vehicles — school buses, commuter buses and essential governmental vehicles — ultimately received exemptions. But drivers who earn less than $50,000 per year can apply for a 50 percent discount on the price of daytime tolls once they make 10 trips in a month. 

Congestion pricing could have a transformative effect on New York’s air quality, public safety and mobility.

The MTA estimates that its tolling plan will reduce the amount of traffic coming into Manhattan by 17 percent by encouraging more people to take mass transit and leave their cars at home. That could cut down on the costs of sitting in gridlock, which amounted to 113 million hours a year that cost the New York region about $20 billion annually, according to a Partnership for New York City study released in 2018.

Wylde, the partnership’s CEO who was instrumental in teaming up with business leaders, environmental advocates and city planners to ensure the plan’s passage in the legislature, said businesses would benefit by fewer people wasting time in traffic. 

“The No. 1 benefit is improved productivity,” she said. “Excess traffic congestion is not free. It’s far more expensive — 20 times more expensive — than $1 billion in tolls.”

The other benefits congestion pricing could bring to the city are even better. Air pollution from vehicles could dissipate significantly as drivers take fewer trips into Manhattan and shift to public transit. Fewer cars could lead to fewer traffic accidents as well — a welcome result after cars killed 101 pedestrians and 30 cyclists in the city in 2023.

“This can lead to real tangible improvements on the street,” Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, an original supporter of the plan, said. “There will be less noise, fewer traffic crashes, and a general feeling of being safer from being hit by a vehicle, and that really matters to a customer’s experience if you’re a small business.”

But the most significant beneficiary of congestion pricing could be the region’s revenue-strapped transit system. After losing billions of dollars in revenue from fare collection during the COVID-19 pandemic, the MTA will invest its congestion pricing funds into its five-year capital plan for fixing existing infrastructure, modernizing subway signals, and expanding the Second Avenue subway line.

Keeping the subway functional may be the most important development of the new tolling plan.

“Mass transit is New York City’s cardiovascular system and it is critical to the region’s long-term economic health,” Real Estate Board of New York spokesman Christopher Santarelli said. “Congestion pricing will create a much needed and sustainable revenue stream for our mass transit infrastructure.”

Of course, not everyone is on board with the new tolling plan.

Private citizens, New Jersey leaders and the city’s teachers union have filed lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration and the MTA to derail or delay the program from revving up this summer.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy argued that federal transportation officials rushed their environmental review of the plan, and he is seeking a more extensive analysis. Hudson Valley lawmakers called congestion pricing a cash grab for the MTA that would make their constituents’ lengthy commutes more costly. And the United Federation of Teachers claimed in a lawsuit filed in January that the toll violated their constitutional rights because of its “regressive and discriminatory pricing.”

“It is going to be up to the courts to prevent the huge environmental injustice that threatens families outside the Manhattan congestion zone, including communities that are already suffering some of the worst air pollution and asthma rates in the country,” Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, said.

Meanwhile, City Council members who worry that suburban commuters would park their cars in outer borough neighborhoods before getting on the subway proposed a pilot program for parking permits in Upper Manhattan and Central Queens. And some real estate leaders have refused to publicly support the plan because executives in the industry drive to work every day or because their tenants include parking garages that would be adversely affected by tolling, sources said.

The lawsuits are the last hurdle in the way of congestion pricing after years of delays. A federal judge’s decision could certainly sideline the tolling program for months, if not longer. But transportation advocates believe the last gasp from opponents will be snuffed out in the coming weeks.

“Congestion pricing sends a powerful price signal that driving on the streets of Manhattan is an immense privilege and people should be paying for that privilege,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at Riders Alliance, which advocates for more reliable transit. “It’s putting a price on something that is immensely valuable. It’s a market fix.”