Driving Dystopia: NYC Stalls Congestion Charging Scheme


driving dystopia nyc stalls congestion charging scheme

New York City was to become the first metropolitan area in the United States to implement European-style fees for people driving through high-traffic areas. It even spent hundreds of millions of dollars installing camera systems across Manhattan to achieve this. However, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Wednesday that the plan would be delayed just days before it was to go into effect so that the state could reconsider the program — a complete reversal of her earlier position.

Hochul’s current claim is that the scheme might harm working families who are still suffering from economic hardships she attributed to the pandemic. Her stated fear was that congestion charging could slow an economic rebound in NYC.

“After careful consideration I have come to the difficult decision that implementing the planned congestion pricing system risks too many unintended consequences,” Hochul was quoted by The New York Times as saying, before adding that she has officially “directed the [Manhattan Transit Authority] to indefinitely pause the program.”

The plan for New York to become the first place in America to implement congestion charging was supposed to launch on June 30th. Drivers would be required to use their E-ZPass to pay between $9 and $23 (with an average of $15) when entering Manhattan south of 60th street — or be billed by mail after the automated enforcement system snaps a picture of their license plate. Government vehicles are exempt and the assertion was that the plan would boost revenue, improve the environment, and steer more people toward public transportation in a bid to reduce traffic.

“Let’s be real: A $15 charge may not seem like a lot to someone who has the means, but it can break the budget of a hard-working middle-class household,” she said.

Pricing was a major concern for commuters and business owners dependent on deliveries into the city. Congestion charging likewise wasn’t appreciated by the trucking industry, car services, or The State of New Jersey — the latter of which plays host to loads of people that drive into NYC for work. But local leadership seemed wholly on board, with Hochul clearly among them.

From The New York Times:

The program was also being contested in court by eight separate lawsuits, with plaintiffs including the Trucking Association of New York and Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey.

Mr. Murphy’s case in particular, which is being argued in Federal District Court in Newark, was regarded as the most serious challenge to congestion pricing. State officials are seeking a more comprehensive environmental study of the program.

But in New York, most Democrats had made a grudging peace with the plan after decades of debate, hearings, studies and planning — none more publicly than Ms. Hochul, who had defended it as a necessary step toward rebuilding New York’s economy.

Just two weeks ago, the governor told attendees at the Global Economic Summit in Ireland that implementing congestion pricing was critical to “making cities more livable.”

Many key players in New York politics, from Albany to New York City, expressed dismay at the reversal, which cast the transportation authority’s finances into uncertainty.

“I’m very upset that suddenly, out of the blue, this would pop up,” State Senator Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, said on Wednesday, adding: “If we stop congestion pricing now we’re never going to get it.”

Kate Slevin of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit urban research and advocacy group that has championed the tolling program, called the move “a total betrayal of New Yorkers and our climate.”

The president of the Partnership for New York City, Kathryn Wylde, said the governor’s decision was a disappointment and that she hoped the pause would be temporary.

Considering that the governor had previously defended the program as essential to both the environment and local economy, there has been loads of speculation as to why she changed her opinion so late in the implementation process. She changed her tune this week, with rumors that she had been notified to temporarily shelve the concept due fears that it was broadly unpopular with voters.

driving dystopia nyc stalls congestion charging scheme

While Hochul did meet with House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries shortly before the announcement regarding congestion charging, claims that he had directed her to scrap the plan as a way to improve political optics during an election year have been disputed — inside sources have instead been claiming that she had notified him, rather than things being the other way round.

Opposition to the plan was definitely growing and clearly spiked after residents saw cameras going up outside the previously agreed-upon areas. Voters likewise appeared to take their concerns to the relevant government officials at a time when local Democrats are hoping to get reelected. The Times even referenced a few occasions where local officials attempted to take partial credit for stalling the program — using U.S. Representative Pat Ryan as an example.

But, if you take a gander at the official press release, it’s basically a lengthy list of local officials (many of whom likewise previously supported the plan) expressing their full support of Hochul’s new take on the matter.

The real question is whether the program is being shelved ahead of an election year to placate voters, postponed so officials can reconsider its implementation, or scrapped entirely for reasons unknown. While your author would certainly like to see the latter option take place, NYC has spent a fortune on the program thus far and the resulting funds were supposed to support the city’s ailing subway system.

The initial contract was between the Manhattan Transit Authority (MTA) and Nashville-based TransCore, which already operates automated tolling systems that were installed on numerous NYC bridges and tunnels several years ago. The congestion program was originally priced at over $507,200,000 for the latter entity to design, assemble, and maintain a network of over 100 toll-enforcement cameras through 2025. However, the program was ultimately extended to 2030 and upgraded to cost $555,800,000.

All the new tolling cameras have already been installed and TransCore has been paid. Sources have said the entire system is effectively operational already and was just waiting to be switched on at the end of the month.

The city also stands to lose a projected $1 billion per year that was supposed to go toward the MTA’s subway systems and bus lines. Advocates for the program have suggested that NY transit could fall into serious trouble without the money while critics have claimed that the MTA has been absolutely terrible at managing its own budget and would simply find a way to waste another billion dollars per year.

Whatever your feelings, this all seems like a lot of work and money to simply abandon something. However, we’ve seen European cities fumbling with similar congestion schemes and even speed cameras for over a decade. Locals have protested their installation and even taken to destroying them in the night. While we haven’t seen anything like that in New York, the public backlash against the cameras has been quite robust. Polling has likewise shown the plan as extremely unpopular with voters.

My assumption is that the cameras will still be used for “data collection” as stipulated in the original contract and that local leaders will revisit the congestion charging aspect in a few months. There is simply too much money being left on the table for this to all go away, meaning we may yet see New Yorkers cutting down road-tax cameras in the early morning hours.

[Images: TransCore; Gov. Kathy Hochul]

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