Congestion Pricing in Manhattan, First Such Plan in U.S., Is Close to Approval
New York moved closer to formalizing a congestion pricing plan for Manhattan, as the leader of the State Assembly indicated on Monday that his members were “ready to go forward.”CreditCreditDave Sanders for The New York Times
ALBANY — After years of hesitation, New York is poised to become the first city in the United States to introduce congestion pricing, which would put new electronic tolls in place for drivers entering the busiest stretches of Manhattan.
Though state leaders have not ironed out details, they had reached consensus on Monday that the plan was necessary to help pay for much-needed repairs to the city’s beleaguered subway system.
The proceeds from congestion pricing are expected to enable the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates the city’s public transit network, to raise billions of dollars in bonds to modernize the antiquated subway. Such a windfall overwhelmed lingering concerns about various aspects of the plan, including the cost to commuters in the boroughs and suburbs outside Manhattan who rely on cars.
Other American cities are exploring variations of congestion pricing, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. The idea dates back decades, with supporters often pointing to an array of health, safety and environmental benefits, including reducing air pollution and pedestrian injuries, and alleviating the stranglehold on gridlocked city streets.
Those arguments have been bolstered by the success of plans in places like London, Stockholm and Singapore, where congestion pricing helped unclog streets. Still, such plans have also been assailed by drivers and critics as an unfair tax that especially hurts poor people who do not have access to public transit.
In New York, for example, a 2008 proposal from Michael R. Bloomberg, then the mayor, died in the face of legislative apathy. But with the state currently facing shortfalls in income tax revenue and a subway crisis looming, Albany’s lawmakers on Monday finally agreed that it was an idea whose time had come.
“Safe to say that the Assembly is ready to go forward on congestion pricing,” Carl E. Heastie, the chamber’s speaker, said on Monday; the Democratic-controlled Assembly had been the holdout in endorsing the plan. “We’re at the point where the Assembly members understand the need to fund the M.T.A.”
The State Senate, which is also controlled by Democrats, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, have already expressed support for congestion pricing, with the governor suggesting that without it, subway and bus fares could rise by 30 percent.
Mr. Cuomo, a third-term Democrat, has pushed for it as a funding mechanism for the subway system; in late February, Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has had an uneasy relationship with Mr. Cuomo, also warmed to the idea, saying there was no way to address the problems in the subway “without congestion pricing.”
Mr. Heastie and other legislative officials stressed that specifics about the plan, including the exact price for entering Manhattan’s main business district, were still being considered, though he seemed confident that a deal could be brokered, likely before the state’s budget deadline on April 1.
Assembly members and Mr. Heastie have been hunkered behind closed doors in recent days, discussing a broad array of exemptions that would make congestion pricing more palatable, according to several members and aides. These include exemptions from the congestion fees for drivers who are poor, have disabilities or are going to medical appointments, among other things.
Calls for a congestion pricing plan had also increased. On Monday, prominent congestion pricing supporters, including Patrick Foye, the M.T.A. president, and Polly Trottenberg, the New York City transportation commissioner, came to Albany to meet with legislative leaders.
Kathryn S. Wylde, the head of the influential Partnership for New York City, a business group, was also pushing for such a plan, and praised Mr. Heastie shortly after he announced the deal for his “real skill” in “pulling together his diverse membership.”
In a sign of widening support this year, two separate grass-roots campaigns had emerged, as advocates lobbied legislators to gain their support, flooded local subway stops and urged frustrated subway riders to call and text their legislators.
“Transit riders were up in arms about the state of our subway system and it seems that our representatives in Albany really listened,” said John Raskin, the executive director of the Riders Alliance, which helped organize the #FixtheSubway coalition. “I think the visceral anger of subway riders stuck on yet another unreliable train played a pivotal role in legislators feeling the urgency of the problem.”
One congestion pricing plan backed by the governor and mayor is projected to raise about $1 billion annually from fees for driving into a congestion zone spanning Manhattan’s central business district, from 60th Street south to the Battery. That money would, in turn, be used to secure bonds totaling $15 billion for M.T.A. capital projects through 2024.
Drivers entering the congestion zone through tolled tunnels or the Henry Hudson Bridge on Manhattan’s West Side would receive a credit toward the fees. Those taking the Brooklyn Bridge directly to the F.D.R. Drive to go north past the congestion zone would be exempted from the fees.
The potential passage of congestion pricing would be a win for Mr. Cuomo, who was heavily criticized for his handling of the subways last year during his successful bid for re-election. He has pushed this year to overhaul the M.T.A., saying he will not sign a budget without reforms to the authority, and touting congestion pricing as a valuable source of funding for badly needed repairs.
“Congestion pricing is the greatest opportunity we have had,” Mr. Cuomo said last week, in an interview on WNYC. “We have talked about it for 20 years. It is the smartest idea I think for urban development.”
Suburban lawmakers have raised objections about the financial impact on those driving into the city and also have sought to ensure that some of the money from congestion pricing go to commuter railroads. But they seemed ready to make a deal.
“Long Island senators have stated clearly that a fair and equitable congestion pricing plan must include a dedicated revenue stream for infrastructure upgrades to the beleaguered L.I.R.R.,” said Senator Todd Kaminsky, who represents Nassau County. “I am optimistic that an agreement can be reached that benefits both the region and the suburban commuter.”
With the budget deadline still a week away, and Albany known for its fractious and fragile deal making, there could still be snags before such a plan becomes law.
Assemblyman David I. Weprin, a Queens Democrat and leading critic of congestion pricing, said on Monday that he remained opposed to it unless his request for an exemption for all city residents was included in the plan. He represents parts of Queens where he said many residents have to drive because they do not have ready or affordable access to public transit. “I know there are a lot of exemptions on the table,” he said. “They could exempt residents of the five boroughs.”
Mr. Heastie said that such details were still being discussed, though he seemed reluctant to allow too many exemptions.
“The more you carve out, the less you have in revenue,” Mr. Heastie said.
The speaker said several issues still remained to be addressed, including help for so-called “transit deserts,” tolling on bridges and possible discounts for commuter rail users. Still, he seemed confident that such tolling would soon be the norm in Lower Manhattan.
“I think we’re in a very good place,” he said.
Jesse McKinley reported from Albany and Winnie Hu from New York. Vivian Wang contributed reporting from Albany.