The gridlock over congestion pricing

Gridlocked traffic on the Queensborough Bridge.
Gridlocked traffic on the Queensborough Bridge.
Gridlocked traffic on the Queensborough Bridge.

The gridlock over congestion pricing

Lawmakers say it’s the only way to save the MTA. But will it get done in time?
February 15, 2019

Ever since Democrats in New York won big victories in the 2018 elections, there has been hope that 2019 would be the year when congestion pricing would finally pass in the state Legislature. Democrats control both houses of the Legislature for the first time in decades. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken up the cause with increasing urgency. “Let the Legislature cast their vote on the real choice,” he told business leaders this month. “Congestion pricing or 30 percent fare and toll increases.” And, perhaps most importantly, poor service in the New York City subway system has brought more attention to the deteriorating finances of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

By charging drivers to enter the central business district of Manhattan, the beleaguered transit agency would secure a significant chunk of the estimated $40 billion or so it needs to fund the fixes laid out in the MTA’s Fast Forward plan to bring the system back into a state of good repair. A new budget shortfall adds $2.3 billion worth of pressure to efforts to increase the state’s funding options – and Cuomo has doubled down on his argument that the only practical alternative to congestion pricing are fare hikes and declining service.

But it’s not at all clear that the governor has the support he needs to pass congestion pricing.

With an April 1 budget deadline approaching, a number of lawmakers are not on board. The Assembly Democrats remain evenly split on congestion pricing, several Assembly members told City & State. State Sen. Leroy Comrie, a Queens lawmaker who chairs the state Senate committee that oversees the MTA, is another obstacle at this point, while some suburban Democratic lawmakers have raised concerns. Despite these issues, the Cuomo administration remains confident that a deal can be struck by April. “The information is out there,” state Budget Director Robert Mujica said on Feb. 13. “We’re meeting with legislators. We definitely have enough time to get this done before April 1.”

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie have not committed to the governor’s plan and some lawmakers say they want to hear more from their constituents, activists and each other before they get behind the proposal, including through upcoming state legislative hearings on the issue.

While some outer-borough and suburban lawmakers acknowledge that it may be the most realistic option to raise much of the money needed for the MTA, they are not convinced the current proposal is the right one. More detail is needed, they say, on what congestion pricing would look like in practice and on Cuomo’s call to make it contingent on restructuring the governance of the MTA – presumably to give himself more power over a notoriously unwieldy agency that he recently mocked.

Complicating the equation are lawmakers who also want more funding for busing in the outer boroughs or improvements to public transit outside of New York City in exchange for their support, as well as exemptions for poor people and others who might have trouble paying a toll.

Comrie said that the real debate has not started yet. “I don’t think the March 30 deadline is really necessary for this discussion,” he said. “It’s going to take time for the mechanics, the infrastructure, the details to be fleshed out. … We have an obligation to get it right.”

But these barriers have not shaken supporters of congestion pricing who are pushing to secure its passage through a mix of lobbying, negotiations and warnings of what would happen if congestion pricing is not adopted.

“We risk a failed economy,” said Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, who supports congestion pricing and chairs a committee that oversees the MTA. “Because we rely on our subways, on our buses, and our commuter rail to get to Manhattan, which is the hub of where the financial industry and where all major industry is right now for us, and that fuels the entire state government.”

The governor’s 30-day budget amendments proposed that a six-person board of experts would have significant leeway in implementing congestion pricing by Dec. 31, 2020. This includes determining toll amounts and a “variable-pricing structure” that would ensure at least $15 billion can be raised through bonds for capital projects. For-hire vehicles would not have to pay such tolls because they are already subject to a separate congestion charge. Emergency vehicles would also be exempted, and drivers who pay tolls to take bridges and tunnels would be credited on their congestion charge.

In contrast to congestion pricing schemes in other cities like London and Stockholm, New York lawmakers are aiming to raise money for the MTA more than to address environmental concerns. The most popular plan to achieve that goal is the 2018 Fix NYC advisory panel report that was commissioned by Cuomo. The report recommended that cars entering Manhattan would have to pay $11.52 – commercial trucks would pay $25.34 – during normal business hours, with lower prices at night and on the weekends. The report also included proposals to reduce congestion, such as improving transit in the outer boroughs and suburbs, increasing traffic enforcement in the congestion zone and cracking down on parking placard abuse. Previous efforts in 2017, 2015, 2008 and 2006 all aimed to raise money and decrease congestion, but differed in the exceptions they would make to pricing schedules and who pays tolls.

“What the governor put out in his budget was a very strong starting point for a very complex conversation,” said state Sen. Tim Kennedy, a Western New York Democrat who chairs the Transportation Committee.However, he added that “the concept of congestion pricing depends on what legislator or individual you speak to.”

Determining who pays relative to everyone else is one source of contention. Advocates laid out their red lines in a Jan. 30 budget hearing in Albany. The AAA came out against the latest proposal in part because it would not include reduced tolls for people who live in areas lacking sufficient public transportation. Disability rights advocates raised similar concerns. “A congestion pricing scheme must exempt drivers who have accessible parking placards,” said Ericka Jones, a systems advocate with the Center for Disability Rights, in her budget testimony.

Adopting elements of Fix NYC or the Move NY plan could resolve complaints that Cuomo’s congestion pricing proposal lacks details, some lawmakers say. “I think it’s up to the Legislature right now to set up the parameters on, for example, a cap on the toll,” Paulin said. “I don’t know that we want or need the governor to put it forth anymore.”

What the governor must do, lawmakers say, is elaborate on how he wants to change the MTA’s governance. The six-person panel proposed in his budget amendments would have authority over reorganizing the MTA, as well as its capital and operating budgets. Who would appoint members of that board will be a matter of negotiation between Cuomo and the Legislature, according to a spokesman for the governor.

Currently, the governor picks six of the 23 MTA board members – not all of whom are voting members – with the rest being appointed by the New York City mayor, county executives in areas served by the MTA’s commuter rail systems, and others.Leaders of the state Senate and Assembly, the New York City mayor and the governor also have the power to review and veto the agency’s capital plans. Like congestion pricing, the idea of making the MTA more transparent and accountable has broad appeal in theory – but lawmakers want to see everything in writing before they sign on.

It remains to be seen whether Cuomo and lawmakers will reach a deal by the budget deadline, but lawmakers agree that something must be done to ensure new revenue streams for the MTA’s 2020-2024 capital program before it is released this fall. With Cuomo unwilling to support a millionaires tax, and lawmakers mindful of how a previous tax on commuters backfired, the most likely way that lawmakers can secure funding to save the New York City subways remains congestion pricing.

“People might not like it, but it’s what is on the table,” Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal told supporters of congestion pricing at a Feb. 11 rally outside the Assembly chamber in the state Capitol. Then turning as if to address critics who say congestion pricing would exact too high a price on some people, Rosenthal added: “It’s not all about you, the individual. It’s about saving the system.”

Yet other events in recent days are sowing doubts about the likelihood of passing congestion pricing. With issues like recreational marijuana legalization, local government funding and school aid dividing the Legislature and the governor – and dividing Democratic lawmakers among themselves – it’s possible that congestion pricing could fall by the wayside during the political give-and-take in upcoming weeks.

“God, a lot happens in Albany every time you go up,” said Long Island Assemblywoman Judy Griffin, who said she has yet to decide on the congestion pricing proposal. “So you never know, but it seems like an awful lot to accomplish.”

Zach Williams
is a staff reporter at City & State.