Some of the world’s biggest cities keep turning to a simple tool to cut traffic, reduce emissions and raise much-needed revenue: Tolls.
From Stockholm to Singapore, taxing urban drivers is en vogue — and working. Parochial politics have prevented cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles from instituting so-called congestion pricing. Now, those same concerns are vexing its implementation in the core of the nation’s biggest city.
It does not matter that Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul is fully behind the plan, just as her predecessor was. It does not matter that the state no longer has to worry about Donald Trump, whose administration stalled the approval process.
What matters is the bipartisan pushback she’s getting at home and across the Hudson River in New Jersey.
A Staten Island congresswoman fears the city’s most far-flung and car-dependent borough would shoulder much of the cost. A Bronx congressman says the plan would burden low-income communities with more truck traffic and pollution. And New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy feels so strongly that he’s issued an escalating series of threats, even saying he could halt the operation through a key bi-state agency.
“It’s not going to happen,” Murphy has said of the plan. “If we have to, we’ve got options, which I don’t want to use, but we can use through the Port Authority.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) has threatened to “defund” the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and introduced legislation along with Staten Island Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.) to halt the program, which requires federal approval.
But congestion pricing works, and if New York wants to lead the way on this side of the Atlantic, it will need to deal with the pushback, according to an expert with London’s public transit authority, which implemented a similar program in 2003.
“You weren’t just trying to use the price mechanism. What you’re trying to do was change people’s travel behavior to make them more sustainable,” Christina Calderato, director of transport strategy and policy at Transport for London, said in an interview.
Hochul aims to raise money and reduce traffic by tolling drivers entering Manhattan below 60th Street. And a 2019 law clearing the way for the program requires it to generate $1 billion annually while exempting emergency vehicles, vehicles transporting people with disabilities and residents who live in the zone and make less than $60,000 annually.
Now authorities must balance how much to charge and who else to exempt — knowing that as the number of carveouts increases, so too must fees for those who are forced to pay. A six-member panel called the Traffic Mobility Review Board will ultimately propose the final arrangement, which the MTA board must vote to approve.
Transit leaders this week concluded six public hearings on the plan’s federally required environmental assessment, which weighs the impact of tolls ranging from $9 to $23 for passenger vehicles and between $12 and $82 for trucks. The Biden administration could decide by early next year whether to allow state officials to move forward.
Among the biggest sticking points in New York is how the state will handle taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers, who have been rallying outside the MTA’s headquarters this week to push for a blanket exemption.
Uber, Lyft and other app-based services have argued the new tolls are unfair because they already pay surcharges that generate revenue for the MTA. They also contend rising costs would unfairly burden passengers outside of Manhattan who have more limited transit options.
MTA Chair and CEO Janno Lieber has said he wants as few exemptions as possible, to ensure the plan works as intended. But he has voiced a willingness in recent days to work with the for-hire vehicle industry, particularly yellow cab drivers still reeling from a debt crisis where the secondary market for once-pricey taxi licenses imploded — and took many drivers’ life savings with it. Two scenarios presented in the environmental assessment exempted taxis, and others proposed capping how many times cabs and for-hire vehicles could be charged.
“As we work this through and look at the different options, we’re very attentive to not harming the for-hire vehicle business and the for-hire vehicle drivers,” Lieber said recently on public radio station WNYC. “It’s specifically identified as one of the issues that we have to mitigate, and we have to deal with as we select a strategy.”
London faced a similar issue when Uber and Lyft vehicles started popping up in city centers several years after it installed congestion pricing.
London saw traffic drop 15 percent afterward, but many of those gains were “eroded” by the growing number of for-hire vehicles, Calderato said. London now only exempts private for-hire vehicles if they’re wheelchair accessible, or one of the city’s famed black minicabs.
“What we were seeing though, was that where the congestion charge was successfully disincentivizing other people to stay away, [private for-hire vehicles] were uncharged and were then taking up that road space,” she said. “So essentially, you weren’t necessarily getting higher levels of traffic, but for all the other gains you were making, you were losing them again to the uncharged vehicles.”
Similar to New York, determining the rules for private vehicle operators was “a difficult consultation and decision” in London, according to Calderato. Operators ultimately bore the new cost, with Uber adding a £1 charge to every trip.
“There were different ways of doing it. But I think what we did see was that that market can adapt,” Calderato said.