After three years and a pandemic, New York finally got to look at the MTA’s Environmental Assessment (EA) for its darling—the Central Business District (CBD) Tolling Plan—and spent the next two weeks trying to decipher the nearly 900-page report and its thousand page plus appendices. Sadly, despite the length, the MTA did the bare minimum to assess the impacted areas. Insultingly, moreover, they settled upon a tolling plan that is little more than a greenwashed extortion scheme on our communities of color. Rather than a congestion toll, they should have called it the “Black and Brown Toll,” and I can’t stress how awful this really is, nor my opposition, hard enough.
I don’t hate congestion pricing conceptually. New York is horrifically congested and polluted by commuters. Our public transit system is aging, unsafe, and communities of color are underserved by it. Charging auto commuters could easily fix both problems, if done right. So you would expect the MTA, studying this idea since it was approved in 2019, would present a nuanced EA that examines the economic and environmental impacts of this issue on the city’s most affected communities, and tailor their scenarios with that in mind.
I was disappointed, but unsurprised, when the MTA’s brain trust delivered an EA that barely accounts for our communities. We, people of color, are New York’s unsung, underpaid heros; we keep this city running for a pittance. Some of us have to drive to work because we don’t have access to public transit and for some of us, driving is our work. Yet the MTA has decided that we, more so than the wealthy white suburbanites driving SUVs to New York because “public transit is for poor people and minorities,” should be their piggy bank. We can barely afford to live in the city already!
Especially damaging is the levy on for-hire vehicle drivers (FHVs), over 90% of whom are people and immigrants of color. Under every scenario, FHVs are excessively charged; in many cases being subject to an unlimited number of tolls! Moreover, these would be on top of surcharges we already have to pay on FHV trips, which were implemented in 2019 at the behest of the MTA to do the exact same thing the CBDTP is supposed to! What happened to that money, which we paid during the global pandemic on the few rides we did get? How is it fair, or equal, to DOUBLE tax FHVs as opposed to taxis, or the commuters and commercial delivery trucks that are actually causing the congestion and pollution problems?
The new tolls will destroy thousands of jobs held by immigrants and people of color in New York. FHVs will have no choice but to pass along the tolls to riders (up to $23!), inevitably reducing ridership and thus driver pay. Our drivers, as well as our outer borough commuters of color, have families to feed and are integral to their neighborhood economies. When our jobs and disposable income vanish, what will happen to the communities we support? Devastation, plain and simple.
The MTA made us a sacrificial lamb to avoid going after the actual problem: white commuters in the metropolitan area. The city and the big companies have a vested interest in defeating any attempt to make these commuters pay, sure, but the MTA didn’t even try to do the right thing. They instead did a bare-bones analysis, covered it with a lot of fluff and glitter in a report designed to keep us from discovering that fact, and are now trying to rush the public hearings so our voices are not heard. Well I did read it and I, along with The Black Institute, condemn the MTA for this half-baked, racist plan that will kill thousands of our jobs and disrupt our communities. We demand the EA be retracted, the environment properly restudied, and a new plan that will address the real problem: the white commuters with their gas-guzzlers. Otherwise, don’t insult us by calling this plan a “congestion pricing toll.” Call it what it is—a Black and brown toll.
Bertha Lewis is a community organizer and the Founder and President of The Black Institute (TBI), which states that it shapes intellectual discourse and impacts public policy uniquely from a Black and people of color perspective in the United States and throughout the Diaspora.