New York’s first-in-the-U.S. congestion pricing gets the federal greenlight

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New York’s first-in-the-U.S. congestion pricing gets the federal greenlight

Manhattan’s busy streets could soon be a fair bit less crowded (Alex Azabache from Pexels)

Exactly two years ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s plan to implement a first-in-the-nation plan to charge drivers entering Manhattan’s central business district (CBD) was hailed as the first step in repairing New York City’s beleaguered subway system, as congestion pricing was expected to raise $1 billion annually in fees. Then, the entire plan was put on the back burner amid allegations that the Federal Highway Administration under former President Trump was intentionally slow-rolling approvals for the program.

Now, the U.S. Department of Transportation (currently headed by Pete Buttigieg), has formally given its approval to the program, although drivers into the city won’t need to pull out their wallets just yet.

“Congestion pricing is an internationally proven method to reduce traffic congestion, enhance the availability and reliability of public transportation, and improve our air quality, and it will play a critical role as New York and the nation begin to recover from the pandemic and build back stronger and better than before,” said Cuomo in a March 30 statement. “This advancement is also another step forward in generating the $15 billion the state needs to fund the MTA’s five-year $51.5 billion capital plan, which will transform the accessibility, reliability and convenience of the system for users of all ages and abilities.”

The State Legislature and the governor confirmed the pricing plan in March of 2019 for the 2020 budget based on the recommendations of the Fix NYC Advisory Panel, which had been studying potential implementation and released a report to that effect in January of 2018. Although the plan would only affect a swath of Manhattan below 60th Street (including taxing trucks and for-hire vehicles using EZ Pass cameras), a Traffic Mobility Board made up of representatives from across the state will be set up to manage the program. Eighty percent of the fees raised would go towards New York City’s subways and buses, while the remaining 20 percent would fund the Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Railroad (LIRR).

Aside from raising funds to shore up NYC’s public transit system, the plan was also expected to help ease congestion and corresponding air pollution as drivers would (theoretically) choose to take public transportation instead of hiring more expensive Ubers or taxis.

Congestion pricing was originally slated to roll out in January of 2021, but the Federal Highway Administration under former Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chow had reportedly refused to clarify what type of environmental impact statement the program needed to file before it could move forward. City and state officials couldn’t move forward without this federal approval because federal funding was used to construct many of the roads that would end up being tolled.

The next step still lies with the federal government as the congestion pricing plan needs to be evaluated for National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance, but things should move a bit faster with a new administration in place. It’s now estimated that congestion pricing won’t roll out until well into 2022 at the earliest.

Approximately 717,000 vehicles enter Manhattan below 60th Street every day; passenger vehicles could face new tolls of $10-to-$15, while a suggested toll for trucks was pegged at $25 previously.

“Mass transit is the present and future of this city, and this day is long overdue,” said New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a March 30 statement. “I thank President Biden, Secretary Buttigieg, my fellow elected officials, and every advocate who called for a smarter approach to congestion and more reliable funding for our city’s subways and buses. New York City stands ready to get this program started and build a recovery for all of us.”