On Thursday, New York City officials announced a plan that would require drivers to pay $15 (on average) to enter Manhattan. The scheme is similar to the “congestion charging” that takes place in some of Europe’s largest cities and would make New York the first American locale to enact the concept. Though this isn’t the first time we’ve seen something like this being floated for Manhattan.
New York actually introduced the premise of adding driving fees several years ago, with similar plans dating back to the 1970s. However, formal congestion pricing didn’t come up until former mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested taxing vehicles for entering the busiest parts of NYC in 2007. The idea has been revisited every few years, with 2019 delivering the model that only needed to be approved by local transit authorities that have the most to gain.
Citing London as its blueprint, the scheme was limited to traffic making its way downtown below 60th Street. But the city still lacked the necessary infrastructure to track every vehicle that ventured south of Central Park and was getting pushback from neighboring areas playing host to people and businesses that routinely venture into Manhattan for work. While conjunction charging failed to manifest, the city still ended up increasing tolls on the tunnels that would drop you off there.
Your author would argue this accomplished the same goal. As with standard tolls, congestion fees typically go right back to the city with the local transit authority being the biggest beneficiary.
The new plan, which is much like the old plan, would have passenger cars entering Manhattan south of 60th Street being charged $15 electronically. Meanwhile, small trucks would be subject to a fee of $24 and large trucks would be charged $36. This is on top of whatever bridge or tunnel tolls they’ve encountered. Government vehicles are exempted from the fee and cabbies would receive a reduced rate that’s passed onto riders.
Revenue is estimated to yield roughly $1 billion annually for the city, with leadership vowing that the money would go toward modernizing the mass transit system. The city is also claiming this will reduce traffic and improve air quality, citing this as a “green initiative” promoting environmentalism.
But your author would argue this is another opportunity to fleece poor people living in urban areas. Owning a vehicle was already difficult in New York and has only grown tougher in recent years. Street parking is an absolute chore and purchasing a parking space results in drivers confronting some of the highest prices in the whole country.
However, it probably won’t be New Yorkers taking the hardest hits. It’ll be people living outside the city that need to decide whether they drive in or take the train. While London likes to praise its own congestion charging for reducing traffic and increasing annual revenues, tourism has declined and so has the city’s population. These are issues that are already being confronted by New York City and one wonders how imposing additional travel taxes might influence the trends.
“Absent this we’re going to choking in our own traffic for a long time to come and the [Manhattan Transit Authority] is not going to have the funds necessary to provide quality service,” Carl Weisbrod, chair of the traffic review board, said in presenting the report to MTA officials.
Some would argue that the MTA presently offers lackluster service. It certainly spends a significant amount of time reminding users that it’s $48 billion in debt despite having repeatedly raised rates for bridges, tunnels, and the subway. Residents have complained that the city spends the brunt of its cash on refurbishing outdated subway stations (many of which are in desperate need of repairs) with less attention given to delivering reliable service. The rest (not going toward the aforementioned debt) seems to be pushed into general maintenance and introducing automated tolling zones that don’t require traffic to stop.
City officials and MTA look eager to get more money via congestion charging. However, there is sizable opposition confronting their plans. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy absolutely hates the idea and has been joined by most NJ state officials in criticizing the plan. The state likewise launched a lawsuit against the city this summer, following claims that it disproportionately affected New Jersey residents.
“The Traffic Mobility Review Board’s recommended credit structure is wholly inadequate, especially the total lack of toll credits for the George Washington Bridge, which will lead to toll shopping, increased congestion in underserved communities, and excessive tolling at New Jersey crossings into Manhattan,” Murphy told the press.
Local businesses seem to have more mixed opinions. While some are concerned this will reduce the number of customers they see, the city has assured them that the scheme will improve foot traffic and promote commerce.
But there has already been an influx in the number of cars obscuring their license plate in recent years to skirt NYC’s ever-increasing tolls. MTA leadership says it’s something that will need to be dealt with through increased enforcement efforts.
“We have seen news reports on people shielding their license plates and getting away with murder,” said MTA Board Member Andrew Albert.
Also opposing congestion pricing is the NYC taxi alliance. They’re already furious with the city for allowing Uber and Lyft to move in on their territory and now claim this will be the final nail in the yellow cab’s coffin.
“The city has already decimated the taxi industry with years of unregulated, unchecked competition from Uber and Lyft, and the MTA seems poised to land a final blow to the prospect of stability and modest survival,” stated Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance. “If this proposal is implemented, thousands of driver families will get dragged back into crisis-level poverty with no relief in sight.”
It should be noted that while taxis are fined, it’s only supposed to be $1.25 per trip downtown. Uber and Lyft drivers will see an additional $2.50 charge. While not much, a cab or rideshare might be subjected to dozens of trips into congestion zones per day.
The MTA board formally approved the current congestion pricing plan on Wednesday, opening up a 60-day period where the city will seek public comments. Tweaks to the final plan may be made afterward and public hearings are scheduled to commence in early February. The plan is to have everything finished so that New York can begin charging drivers heading south of 60th by May.
“This is essential to the city’s future” said MTA CEO and Chairman Janno Lieber. “We are the most congested traffic city in the U.S. and it is a threat to our future economically.”
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