Exemptions begin at the forefront of congestion pricing review

The Traffic Mobility Review Board will look over more than 100 requested exemptions to the tolling structure.

Congestion pricing is meant to limit the number of vehicles coming into the core of Manhattan, but exemptions could undermine that goal.

Congestion pricing is meant to limit the number of vehicles coming into the core of Manhattan, but exemptions could undermine that goal. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

In the first meeting of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, ensuring that low-income New Yorkers don’t suffer under congestion pricing arose as a flashpoint as members of the board questioned Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials about a potential tolling structure. But that was just one of over 100 requests for potential exemptions and discounts submitted to the MTA during the public comment period.

MTA Deputy Chief External Relations Officer Juliette Michaelson, who gave an information presentation to the board, split up the board’s work into seven considerations that included deciding how to toll different types of vehicles, setting up a plan to address taxis and figuring out toll pricing for different times of the day. But aside from three statutory exemptions for emergency vehicles, vehicles carrying New Yorkers with disabilities and low-income residents who live in the congestion zone below 60th Street in Manhattan, all other parts of the tolling structure remain up in the air.

After New York City’s congestion pricing plan got the thumbs up from the federal government, supporters and opponents of the program began calling for exemptions and discounts in earnest. According to Michaelson, 122 different individuals and groups requested exemptions or discounts during the public comment period, and another 45 categories that requested no exemptions.

John Samuelsen, president of the Transport Workers Union and a member of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, focused intently on low-income drivers who live outside the congestion zone who would suffer under congestion pricing. “There’s no way to change driver behavior, especially for low-income New Yorkers, if they’re coming from a place where there’s no actual capacity to get into the city,” Samuelsen said to muted applause during the meeting. He added that even those who wanted to make the shift away from driving might not be able to if they don’t have a public transit option: “Low-income drivers that are barely making it as it is, and they have no transit option, are going to get hit with this and there has to be a way around that.”

The environmental assessment released earlier this year included a program for drivers outside the congestion zone making $50,000 or less to apply for a 25% discount on tolls after making 10 trips in a calendar month. Michael Wojnar, the MTA’s senior adviser for innovation and policy, pointed to that program as one that already exists to help mitigate the burden on low-income drivers. He also referenced statistics that showed nearly 90% of people who work in the congestion zone and live outside of it use public transit to commute into it.

But Samuelsen, along with fellow board member John Durso of the Long Island Federation of Labor, also pointed out that shift workers that work overnight could get hit with double tolling, even though passenger vehicles are only supposed to get tolled once a day. If someone drove in at 10 p.m. and left at 6 a.m. the next day, they argued, those workers would wind up paying twice. “I spent a lot of years working 4 (p.m.) to 12 (a.m.) and 11 (p.m.) to 7 (a.m.) shifts, not making a hell of a lot of money,” Durso said later in the meeting. “If I’m working those shifts, and I get hit twice … that’s taking money out of my kids’ mouth, or paying my rent. We’ve got to figure something out.”

Ahead of the meeting, the fate of taxi and for-hire vehicle drivers was one of the more contentious exemption debates. The MTA’s environmental assessment stipulated that both drivers of traditional cabs and those who work for companies like Uber and Lyft would only be charged a congestion toll once per day. But several lawmakers rallied with cabbies on Tuesday calling for a full exemption for both sets of drivers, arguing that even with just one charge a day, they could face an extra $8,000 in fees per year. “It’s a question of survival that the MTA can’t ignore for political convenience,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “Taxis, green cabs and liveries must be exempt entirely and Uber and Lyft drivers must be exempt.”

Taxi trips are already subject to a surcharge for trips below 96th Street in Manhattan – $2.50 for yellow and green cabs, and $2.75 for for-hire vehicles like Uber and Lyft. Yellow cabs are also charged $0.50 for every ride. Desai and lawmakers, including Assembly Members Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Brian Cunningham, also argued that the MTA should limit any new fees on cabbies to per-ride surcharges on Uber and Lyft riders that would be paid by customers.

A letter released Wednesday signed by a number of other lawmakers, including state Sen. Julia Salazar and Assembly Member Robert Carroll, came to a similar conclusion. “We write to you as strong proponents of the (congestion pricing plan) and look forward to doing our part to support the program’s successful implementation,” the letter reads. “However, we are concerned that the goals of the program … may not be met unless the toll structure put in place addresses the proliferation of … (companies) like Uber and Lyft.” The letter from state lawmakers also called on the Traffic Mobility Review Board to recommend removing the once-a-day congestion fee on for-hire-vehicles in favor of a higher surcharge on trips south of 96th Street, with discounts for overnight trips. And the letter also called for the total exemption of yellow cab drivers.

Fees on cabbies wasn’t the only controversial issue. Congestion pricing supporters have called attention to the potential problem of “toll shopping” – the practice of taking a roundabout route to avoid double tolling by traveling over untolled bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge to enter the congestion zone. But they don’t all agree on a solution. The Congestion Pricing Now Coalition, which includes Riders Alliance, the New York League of Conservation Voters, the Regional Plan Association and more than two dozen other groups, recommended this week offering toll credits or offsets “to reduce any incentive to drive further to avoid a particular toll as much as possible.” The Citizens Budget Commission, however, said the exact opposite when it offered five recommendations for the tolling structure. The fiscal watchdog group argued that while the issue of “toll shopping” required mitigation, “doing so through credits to the congestion charge would increase the program’s complexity and significantly increase the congestion toll paid by other travelers.”