In 2019, New York state passed a first-in-the-nation program to toll drivers for driving in the most congested parts of Manhattan. More than four years later, that program has still not started, thanks in part to delayed federal approvals from the Trump administration.
But while drivers won’t be tolled quite yet, New York City’s congestion pricing program came into clearer focus this week, as an appointed board released recommendations on a tolling structure – including everything from a $15 base toll, discounted overnight pricing and discounts for motorcyclists.The Traffic Mobility Review Board, which includes six members appointed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and Mayor Eric Adams, was convened to meet and make recommendations on the tolling structure to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which will review and hold public hearings on those recommendations before eventually voting to adopt a tolling structure.
“The guiding principle for us was, how do we satisfy, in the first instance, the many, not the few,” Carl Weisbrod, chair of the Traffic Mobility Review Board, said at a press conference on Thursday. The “few,” he said, refers to the roughly 150,000 people who drive into the core of Manhattan every day, while the “many” are the more than 1 million people who take mass transit into the district every day. The purpose of congestion pricing is not just to reduce congestion, but to produce at least $1 billion per year to fund capital improvements for transit and commuter rail.
Weisbrod added that a second guiding principle was equity. “We really wanted to make sure that as our recommendations came out, in general, the public would think that they were fair,” he said. “We know that this is a controversial issue, but we really did try to strike a balance of fairness.”The release of the board’s recommendations was accompanied by an internal shakeup, however, reflecting just how controversial congestion pricing has become. Transport Workers Union International President John Samuelsen – Adams’ appointee to the board – resigned from the board on Thursday. In his resignation letter, Samuelsen commended the work of his fellow board members, but he said he disagreed with some elements of the recommendations, such as a $36 toll for tour buses.
His greater objection, he said, was that the MTA didn’t couple the implementation of congestion pricing with the necessary enhancements to public transit service to make it more palatable for drivers to opt for public transit. “This will not create a system where outer borough New Yorkers gladly get onto a packed subway car and say, ‘Gee, this is wonderful for us,’” Samuelsen told City & State.
While transit advocacy groups and other proponents of congestion pricing praised the recommendations and urged the MTA to accept them, Samuelsen wasn’t the only one with complaints. The board received requests for exemptions from the toll from groups that fell into 122 categories – from outer borough residents and residents who live in the congestion pricing zone, to musicians and retired cops. But the board’s recommendations didn’t include much in the way of new exemptions.
Here’s what you need to know about where congestion pricing stands now, and what happens next.
How much will I pay to drive into Manhattan’s core below 60th Street?
Though nothing in the new recommendations has been officially approved, it’s likely most drivers of private cars will pay $15 to drive into midtown or lower Manhattan. Drivers won’t have to pay the toll more than once per day and will only be charged for driving into the zone, not for driving within it or exiting it.
The board recommended different tolls for other kinds of vehicles – including a discounted $7.50 toll for motorcycles, and a $24 or $36 toll for trucks and certain buses, depending on their size.
What about discounts and exemptions?
The law that created congestion pricing included only three required exemptions – for emergency vehicles and vehicles carrying people with disabilities, as well as a toll credit for residents within the congestion pricing zone who earn $60,000 or less annually.
Transit advocates said it was important to have as few exemptions as possible in order to keep the base toll low and ensure the program is effective at reducing congestion. But the fight for the MTA to include additional carve-outs beyond those three has been the biggest debate in the implementation of congestion pricing.
The board’s proposal mostly followed advocates’ recommendations that exemptions be limited. The board proposed exemptions for buses providing commuter or transit services, as well as specialized government vehicles like garbage trucks, but declined to provide exemptions for public sector employees, people with serious medical conditions and drivers of electric vehicles – just some of the many groups who requested exemptions.
Taxi and for-hire vehicles trips won’t have to pay the $15 toll, but surcharges of $1.25 and $2.50, respectively, will be tacked on to passengers’ rates. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has advocated for a full exemption for yellow cab drivers, who already pay two MTA surcharges, and who have suffered from crushing debt and fewer trips in recent years.
The board’s proposal did include discounts and off-peak pricing, as well as a crossing credit in the daytime for drivers already tolled on tunnels going into Manhattan.
Low-income drivers – those who drive to work in the district and have household incomes under $50,000 – could register for a 50% discount on the daily toll after making 10 trips in a month.
The board’s recommendation also expanded on a plan for discounted overnight pricing laid out in the environmental assessment for congestion pricing. Under this proposal, there would be a 75% discount between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. on weekdays and between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m. on weekends.
Asked about the recommendations at an unrelated press conference on Thursday morning, Adams suggested that people traveling into the Manhattan core for medical care should be taken into account, and said that these recommendations from the board should be the “beginning of the conversation.”
What happens next?
Despite Adams’ suggestion, the beginning of the conversation on congestion pricing might be over. (The MTA has said 60% of the tolling equipment has already been installed in the city.) But there will be more opportunity for public comment and more hearings on the tolling structure.
Now that the Traffic Mobility Review Board has made its recommendations, the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority board will begin a public review process, including a 60-day public comment period and public hearings to be held in February 2024, before a final vote of the MTA board.
Whether lawsuits to block the implementation of congestion pricing – of which there have been several – will hold things up is unclear. In a statement criticizing the recommendations for taxis, New York Taxi Workers Alliance Executive Director Bhairavi Desai mentioned the possibility of legal action: “We are going to fight this until the final hour and explore every strategy from legislation to litigation.”
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