The Metropolitan Transit Authority’s financial health depends on packed buses and people wedged into subway cars during the morning and evening rush, shoving past each other to beat the signature warning, “Stand clear of the closing doors.”
Two weeks ago, subway ridership reached four million on a single day for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic pushed the MTA to the brink of financial collapse. A one-day peak is great news, but not enough to recoup the losses from COVID lockdowns and commuters lost to hybrid work. The MTA faces a $3 billion hole in the 2025 budget.
The only way to generate enough money for infrastructure repairs and upgrades is implementation of long-delayed congestion pricing, which is expected to create $1 billion for public transportation annually while improving air quality. The program, which was approved by Albany lawmakers in 2019, would provide badly needed revenue for the MTA, reduce vehicle emissions, tackle road congestion and increase commuter rail and bus investment.
I strongly support the plan. Congestion pricing is now critical because the recent report from the International Panel on Climate Change said that we have now reached a tipping point and must do all we can to reduce carbon emissions to avoid a climate catastrophe by 2030. The urgency of the moment cannot be overstated; congestion pricing is a readily available solution with proven success in reducing carbon emissions.
What is also true is that many of our fellow New Yorkers cannot afford more fare increases, with low-income New Yorkers already straining under current fare burdens.
Despite the noise, congestion pricing is a solidly progressive solution. Businesses and individuals who can afford to pay the higher tolls would help those with less — people who rely on the bus and subway networks tend to be poor and low-income workers.
The primary concern of opponents – that congestion pricing would unfairly impact the poor and low-wage essential workers – is misguided. Officials haven’t decided on a fee scale yet, but an MTA study of various fee scenarios suggested the tolling program would mostly impact commercial trucks and the well-heeled drivers in private vehicles who can afford to pay.
A study of congestion pricing by Community Service Society of New York found the impact on poor and low-income people is not as severe as naysayers suggest. The study found 57 percent of outer-borough residents depend on MTA commuter bus and rail service, and would directly benefit from system repairs and upgrades. What is more, only four percent of outer-borough workers (about 128,000 people) would pay congestion fees as part of their daily commute. The study also found only two percent of outer-borough workers who live in poverty (about 5,000 people) would be asked to pay congestion fees as part of their daily commute.
It is worth pointing out that other cities have had success with congestion pricing programs. According to research prepared for the U.S. Department of Transportation, London, Singapore and Stockholm all experienced less traffic after setting up their own tolls.
That said, there are legitimate concerns. Activists in the Bronx are anxious that their neighborhood would face traffic gridlock from diverted traffic. Others fear it would place an unfair burden on people from the outer boroughs and around the region who must travel into Manhattan for business. What groups are going to be exempt or eligible for discounts? Is there an accommodation for low-income workers? What’s a bargain to shelter New Jersey drivers?
Like all matters involving the MTA, Gov. Kathy Hochul will have the final say. However, exemptions from paying or discounted rates mean higher charges on the remaining drivers to meet the program’s revenue-raising goals. Concessions, therefore, are the politically charged fault line in the parley to get the program underway.
The tolls are intended, in part, to cut down on traffic congestion, which is a growing NYC problem. While train and bus ridership remains 40 percent below pre-pandemic levels, bridge and tunnel traffic volumes across the city are now nearly back to 2019 levels. It shows in the traffic jams during the morning and evening rush. The situation only promises to get worse: New vehicle registrations in 2021 were up 34 percent over the previous year. More cars on the road feed the vicious cycle of more gridlock and more air pollution.
The congestion pricing plan, championed by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would toll vehicles entering Manhattan south of 60th Street. The zone runs from 60th to the Battery, but omits the F.D.R. Drive Eastside artery and the West Side Highway along the borough’s edges. Roughly 7.7 million people flowed through this district on an average weekday before the pandemic and about 24 percent traveled by car, taxi, van or truck.
New York City has overcome bigger issues than this through the years. With negotiation, compromise and sacrifice, we can fairly and fully address all the pushback. After years of discussion, the time for congestion pricing has arrived.
David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 175 years and a member of the MTA Board. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.