There’s a $15 billion check with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s name on it, if only it can get an ambitious new road tolling program off the ground to fund it.
The state Legislature passed congestion pricing – a plan for tolling vehicles entering in Manhattan’s Central Business District – in 2019 as a way to generate revenue for mass transit and traffic and its harmful effects on the environment. Champions of the concept celebrated the state’s approval of congestion pricing in 2019, noting that New York City would be the first city in the country to have such a tolling plan. But two years later, congestion pricing is still not in place, little progress has been made toward actually implementing it.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio emphasized the urgency of setting the project in motion – and generating those funds for the MTA – at a Tuesday press conference in which he held up a mock game show-sized check made out to the MTA for the $15 billion in bonds that congestion pricing is expected to generate. Those funds would pay for badly needed and long-overdue projects in the authority’s capital plan, such as replacing over 1,500 old subway cars.
“Congestion, unfortunately, is back, and it’s starting to come back with a vengeance,” de Blasio said on Tuesday, citing a report from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that named New York City the most gridlocked urban area in the nation. “There is something we can do, and it’s staring us in the face. It’s called congestion pricing.”
Congestion pricing – officially called the Central Business District Tolling Program – will charge vehicles driving in Manhattan’s central business district, on or south of 60th street. In calling on the state to speed up the plan – which awaits an environmental assessment and the setting of a pricing structure – de Blasio pointed to the MTA’s ongoing problems, including the need for signal modernization and station upgrades. “When you look at the state of New York, when you look at the MTA, you hear the sound of crickets, because nothing is happening.”
A spokesperson for the MTA said Tuesday that the current holdup is related to the environmental assessment that’s required by the federal government. “An Environmental Assessment is complicated and we are working through issues with the Federal Highway Administration and our partners at the New York City and New York State Departments of Transportation,” senior adviser Ken Lovett said in a statement.
While we wait for those and other steps to be completed – and for more explanations for why they haven’t been yet – here’s what we know thus far about how New York will handle the major questions about congestion pricing:
Do we know how much the toll will cost?
No. While drivers should expect to be charged around $12 to $14 for driving in Manhattan’s central business district at peak hours, an official price has not been set, nor has a pricing model been created that would, for example, determine how the cost of the surcharge might vary throughout the day, potentially being higher at busier times like rush hour. Truck drivers are looking at a surcharge around $25.
Tasked with making those decisions are the Traffic Mobility Review Board – a six-member appointed panel – and the MTA’s Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority. The Traffic Mobility Review Board will make recommendations on pricing and more, which the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority will have to approve.
Who will have to pay the toll?
This is another question for the Traffic Mobility Review Board, and one that’s yet to be answered. Current exemptions include emergency vehicles and vehicles carrying disabled riders. Residents of the district won’t be charged while driving within the zone, just when reentering it.
Many other groups are clamoring to be exempted from the surcharge too. New Jersey officials called for a discount for their drivers back when the law was passed in 2019. Members of certain industries and professions, including police officers, have also called for exemptions. Transit advocates, however, have warned against allowing too many exemptions. Who has to pay and who doesn’t will be among the more controversial decisions for the Traffic Mobility Review Board.
Do we know who is on the Traffic Mobility Review Board?
Despite the law passing over two years ago, we still don’t know who will be on the board making recommendations for how the program will work. As of late July, most members of the Traffic Mobility Review Board have yet to be named, and the MTA has not commented on whether they are working on any deadline to name the members. A spokesperson for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
De Blasio, for his part, did take one step forward last week in nominating city Department of Finance Commissioner Sherif Soliman to serve on the board. Under the law, the board must be made up of a chair and five members, one of which must be nominated by the mayor of New York City, and the others appointed by the MTA. One member must live in the Metro-North region, and another in the Long Island Rail Road region. All must have some experience in public finance, transportation, mass transit or management.
How will tolling actually work?
The state has made some progress on deciding on the physical infrastructure that will enable tolling. While the state had several different kinds of tolling technologies to choose from, they landed on a proposal from the technology company TransCore to design, build and manage the infrastructure. The plan involves mounting toll reading equipment on existing infrastructure such as streetlight poles.
With little decided about how congestion pricing will work – or even who will be on the board making recommendations about how it will work – it’s unclear when the tolls will actually get up and running. Two essential next steps are completing the environmental assessment and naming the members of the Traffic Mobility Review Board. The MTA has said that it’s working on the environmental assessment with the federal government, but with an administration that seems much more willing to work with New York than the Trump administration did, it has at least the chance of moving forward.