New York City subway and bus fares were raised by 15 cents, from $2.75 to $2.90, this weekend and prices for drivers could also go up by April 2024 when the state implements congestion pricing and tolls in midtown and lower Manhattan, a move that local city officials are understandably wary of.
Majority Whip Selvena N. Brooks-Powers, who chairs the City Council’s Transportation Committee, held an oversight hearing with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) on August 17 to discuss how the city can prevent unintended hardships for vulnerable communities whose members might live in transit deserts and ensure an equitable rollout of congestion pricing.
“Congestion pricing can’t solely be about revenue being generated. It has to also be about how communities that are marginalized are going to be taken into account,” said Brooks-Powers.
Essentially, the city will set up smaller versions of no-stop E-ZPass tolling equipment over streets and highways—the first of its kind in the U.S. Drivers will be charged a toll to enter Manhattan below 60th Street with some credits, discounts, and exemptions for residents in that zone making less than $60,000, emergency vehicles and those transporting people with disabilities, and frequent low-income drivers.
Public Advocate Jumaane Williams testified to his support of congestion pricing as a tool to help everyday commuters without access to cars, but urged leadership to consider public concerns as well as those held by already cost-burdened medallion taxi, Uber, and Lyft drivers. He said that ride-share companies should carry the fees, not drivers or passengers.
“It is my hope that they follow through to mitigate negative impacts to low-income, working-class New Yorkers,” said Williams.
Williams added that Black and brown neighborhoods in the South Bronx, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and Harlem that experience high levels of air and traffic pollution should not have to suffer with additional drivers attempting to avoid tolls.
The coming of congestion pricing, first proposed by former Mayor Mike Bloomberg in April 2007 as a way to reduce traffic, produce cleaner air, and fund transit goals, has been foretold for decades in the city. The proposal was ultimately blocked by the state assembly, but the idea lingered with city and state officials until it was picked back up by former Governor Andrew Cuomo and former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2019. The MTA was grappling with a transit crisis that was exacerbated by the COVID pandemic in 2020. This led to final approval of congestion pricing in New York City on a federal and state level in June of 2023.
Congestion pricing, referred to as the Central Business District (CBD) Tolling Program, has a surprising amount of support from local environmentalists and transit groups, such as WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Regional Plan Association, Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), and Reinvent Albany.
Representatives of these groups testified that the tolling program will be a great opportunity to fund, expand, and improve train and bus services for everyday New Yorkers who are dependent on reliable mass transit. The program is expected to raise at least $15 billion for critical transit projects, such as upgrading to the signaling system, accessibility improvements, and expanding access to the transit system, according to the MTA.
An environmental assessment study conducted by the Federal Highway Administration, New York State Department of Transportation, MTA Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, and Department of Transportation (DOT), said congestion pricing would have “widespread benefits” for the city’s finances and regional air quality.
The study found that “85% of existing work trips to the CBD are made by transit, 5% by car from New York City, 3% by car from New York suburban counties, 3% by car from New Jersey, 0.2% by car from Connecticut, and 4% by other modes, including taxis, for-hire vehicles, bicycling and walking.”
The MTA testified that it is prioritizing CBD funds to the city’s transit deserts, service improvements, more electric bus fleets, and meeting the mandated climate goals set by the state.
Richard A. Davey, president of the New York City Transit Authority, said at the hearing that ridership totals have swung back up compared to COVID numbers and subway crime is down. The congestion pricing program was included in the $35 million enacted state budget for transportation for fiscal year 2024, and the MTA and Authority are “moving full steam ahead on” after completing the federally mandated environmental assessment. Cameras and detection points are currently being installed, he said.
“As president of New York City Transit,” said Davey, “I need to say that I am an enthusiastic supporter of congestion pricing, and we need it now.”
Many of the council members were for congestion pricing but worried about the impact to working-class drivers and how the revenue generated will benefit communities disproportionately affected by under-investment.
Meanwhile, some council members were very vocal about their absolute disapproval. “It’s robbing the middle class once again,” said Republican Councilmember Vickie Paladino. “Congestion pricing doesn’t work. Period.”
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about politics 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://bit.ly/amnews1.