The Biden administration is on the verge of permitting New York City to proceed with a groundbreaking initiative that will impose tolls on vehicles entering Lower Manhattan, known as the Central Business District Tolling Program or “congestion pricing.” This program, which is the first of its kind in the United States, aims to charge drivers for entering the traffic-heavy area below 60th Street in Manhattan. Proposed fees range from $9 to $23 during peak hours, with implementation planned for next spring.
After years of delay, the plan reached a significant milestone last month when the Federal Highway Administration approved the release of an environmental assessment. Following the end of the public review period on Monday, the federal government is expected to give its final approval. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) can then finalize toll rates and establish discounts and exemptions for certain drivers.
Congestion pricing advocates argue that the program is essential for New York City’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and for re-envisioning the city’s future. As Governor Kathy Hochul stated last month, “This program is critical to New York City’s long-term success.” The plan represents the culmination of over 50 years of efforts to implement congestion pricing in the city.
The primary motivation behind congestion pricing has been the need to enhance the city’s public transportation system. Lower Manhattan sees around 700,000 cars, taxis, and trucks enter each day, causing some of the worst gridlock in the country. The toll aims to reduce the number of vehicles entering the congestion zone by at least 10% daily and decrease the number of miles driven within the zone by 5%.
In addition to alleviating traffic, the program aims to minimize accidents, carbon emissions, and pollution. It also seeks to improve public transit, which accounts for approximately 75% of trips downtown. With public transit ridership currently 35% to 45% lower than pre-pandemic levels, the MTA anticipates that congestion fees will generate a vital revenue source to fund $15 billion in future investments to modernize the city’s century-old public transit system.
Kate Slevin, the executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, emphasizes the importance of public transit for the city: “We’re relying on that revenue to pay for needed upgrades and investments that ensure reliable, good transit service.” Enhancing public transportation is crucial for New York City’s post-pandemic economic recovery and for creating more space for amenities like wider sidewalks, bike lanes, plazas, benches, trees, and public restrooms.
Sam Schwartz, former New York City traffic commissioner and founder of a consulting firm, believes that prioritizing pedestrians is key to the city’s future: “But the future of New York City is that the pedestrian should be king and queen. Everything should be subservient to the pedestrian.”
Congestion pricing has been successfully implemented in cities like Stockholm, London, and Singapore, resulting in benefits such as reduced carbon dioxide emissions, increased average speeds, and decreased traffic congestion. For instance, London experienced a 30% drop in traffic congestion and a similar increase in average speeds just one year after implementing its congestion charge in 2003. In Stockholm, a study revealed that children’s acute asthma visits to doctors dropped by about 50% after the introduction of the program in 2007.
Despite these successes, New York City’s congestion pricing plan faces opposition from several groups, including taxi and ride-share drivers, who are predominantly low-income and immigrant workers. They argue that the program could harm drivers already struggling financially, with the MTA estimating that congestion pricing could reduce taxi demand by up to 17% within the zone. Commuters and legislators from outer boroughs and New Jersey also express concerns that the program unfairly targets drivers who have no alternative means of reaching downtown Manhattan, disproportionately affecting low-income residents. However, the MTA states that only around 16,100 low-income individuals commute to work via car in Lower Manhattan out of a region of 28 million people.
Critics also worry about the potential for increased traffic and pollution from diesel trucks in lower-income areas, such as the Bronx, which already experiences the highest rates of asthma hospitalization in the city. To address these concerns, the MTA and other agencies have developed mitigation measures. For example, taxis and for-hire vehicles will only be tolled once per day, while drivers earning less than $50,000 annually or enrolled in specific government aid programs will receive a 25% discount after their first 10 trips each month. Trucks and other vehicles will benefit from a 50% discount during overnight hours.
Moreover, the MTA has committed $10 million to install air filtration units in schools near highways and $20 million for an asthma-fighting program, along with other investments to improve air quality and the environment in areas where traffic could increase. The outcomes of New York City’s congestion pricing program are being closely monitored by leaders in other cities, as its success could pave the way for similar initiatives in US cities grappling with pandemic recovery, climate change, and aging public infrastructure. As the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board stated last month, “It’s good to see New York City’s program moving forward. Los Angeles should watch, learn, and go next.”