Things keep getting worse for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), as another potential revenue source seems to have dried up. The Trump administration has reportedly delayed implementation of New York City’s first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan by at least a year.
In March 2019, the State Legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo locked in the congestion pricing plan in that year’s budget, following findings from the Governor’s Fix NYC Advisory Panel. The plan, which was due to be rolled out in January 2021, would charge drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district (i.e. below 60th Street) once per day, although the amount is still being negotiated. Trucks and for-hire vehicles would also be among those charged, with the end goal of reducing congestion across Manhattan’s normally clogged city streets. In addition to cutting down pollution, the plan would have put an estimated $1 billion annually in the MTA’s coffers; building off of this, the agency would have issued $15 billion in bonds backed by the new revenue source for its already imperiled 2020-2024 capital plan.
The holdup stems from the Federal Highway Administration’s refusal to clarify what type of environmental statement the tolling system requires, something MTA officials have been pressing Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao on for over a year.
“We’ve literally hired the consultants. We’ve designed the systems—the cameras and so on that are going to be implemented,” said MTA chief development officer Janno Lieber during a webinar with the Manhattan Institute on Monday. “We just can’t move forward without Trump administration action.”
“There’s a federal approval that’s needed because the federal government has funded a lot of our roadways,” he added.
When asked about actually implementing the system, Lieber reiterated that the technical aspect wasn’t what was holding the project up:
“It’s actually pretty straight forward. I think it’s roughly a year. I’ll have to confirm that, but it’s a fairly straightforward system, technologically, utilizing what you’ve seen on all our major bridges and other crossings. Basically, a camera system where your account gets billed afterwards using that. It’s not complicated, but it does need to be set in motion.”
However, with their budget tightening, the MTA has been forced to scale back the accessibility and maintenance projects specified under the new capital plan. Lieber projected that there would be “a lot of pain,” as cuts would deepen until the MTA gets a bailout from the federal government.
Recently, the system has seen falling ridership numbers as commuters steered clear of public transportation out of fear of COVID-19 infection. What’s more, New Yorkers are increasingly turning to cars to get around. Without a congestion pricing plan in place (now pushed to 2022 at the earliest) to curb this tendency, and the subway system continuing to fall into disrepair, gridlock on city streets could worsen exponentially. Bus riders wouldn’t be spared either; after all, the question of how timely busses are lives and dies on surface street congestion.