State Senator Leroy Comrie Credit: Bill Moore photo

Transit activists, and Senator Leroy Comrie, have been outspoken on making sure the funds raised through congestion pricing will be poured into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) and other transit systems that essential workers rely on.

“Congestion pricing was designed in order to raise revenue to repair the subways and to do subway improvement so that essential riders, Black and Brown commuters, would be able to have a modern and updated system [into] the foreseeable future,” said Comrie, who currently serves as the chairman of the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which gives him oversight over the MTA and Port Authority.

Congestion pricing, meaning an extra charge for cars traveling into the core of mid- to lower-Manhattan, is creeping closer to being a reality in 2023 for drivers. The congestion toll plan was initially passed in 2019, but really gained traction after 2020’s pandemic crippled the MTA, Metro North, and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) ridership.

The plan was proposed as an alternative to putting tolls on all bridges into the city. It’s required to raise upwards of $1 billion annually and the funds will be dedicated to capital investments in transit, such as new traffic signals, elevators for accessibility, and the next generation of subway cars. There is also an element of sustainability to congestion pricing, which aims to reduce New Yorkers’ reliance on cars for travel and their carbon emissions.

Former Mayor Bill de Blasio called for expediency in implementing the congestion toll plan as well as current Mayor Eric Adams last July. “I think what the mayor, both de Blasio and Adams, appreciate is that congestion pricing solves two problems at once,” said Daniel Pearlstein, director of policy and communications for Riders Alliance. “It helps make the streets work more efficiently so the traffic can move more effectively. The streets are clogged and this will unclog the streets. And at the same time, by raising money from people who do need to drive, we can invest in crucial upgrades in the subway system.”

Pearlstein said that studies have shown that low-income Black and Brown essential/service workers are “38 times as likely to depend on transit as to drive into Manhattan.” He said congestion pricing would pay for the faster, more reliable transit that workers need.

The 2019 plan had three exemptions: for emergency or government vehicles, for cars carrying disabled passengers, and for drivers who live inside the Manhattan congestion zone and make less than $60,000 per year. Pearlstein added that the low-income exemption is understandable because very few low-income drivers drive into the core of Manhattan since parking is so expensive and the amount of time it takes is so unpredictable.

“It’s important to make sure that the revenue is actualized and if you give exemptions to anybody, that revenue will never be realized,” said Comrie, following comments he made in a MTA committee meeting. “And the reason I’m saying no exemptions is because how do you give exemptions to one category and not the other.”

Pearlstein said that congestion pricing without exemptions would be a unilateral “fair toll” across the board for all drivers.

Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w

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