UFT, Staten Island borough president sue to block congestion pricing

The lawsuit is the latest in a series calling for a more thorough environmental review of the program’s impact on surrounding areas.

Congestion pricing sensors installed over Lexington Avenue in Manhattan

Congestion pricing sensors installed over Lexington Avenue in Manhattan Liao Pan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

New York City’s largest teacher union is joining forces with the Staten Island borough president to file a federal lawsuit seeking to block the upcoming implementation of congestion pricing in Manhattan, arguing that rerouted traffic – a possible side effect of the plan – could worsen asthma rates in school districts that are already high.

“This city as far as I’m concerned is always about the children and the schools and the communities that we serve,” United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said at a joint press conference with Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella Thursday morning. “We are not going to sit by and allow more pollution to be put on children that we know are already suffering.”

Describing the nation’s first congestion pricing program as “regressive and discriminatory,” the lawsuit argues that congestion pricing can’t be implemented until a thorough environmental impact statement is completed that analyzes at least, in part, how the plan could affect air quality in Staten Island and the Bronx. Citing the environmental assessment of the congestion pricing plan, Fossella said the plan may reduce traffic in busy commercial districts throughout Manhattan as intended, but that burden will be shifted to places on Staten Island like the North Shore and in the South Bronx – areas that are already suffering from poor air quality and high asthma rates. He and Mulgrew charged that the environmental assessment “cut corners constantly” and that it should have been a full environmental impact statement.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, state Department of Transportation and New York City Department of Transportation are all named as defendants in the suit, which was filed in the Eastern District of New York Thursday morning.

“Their own study validates that things will get worse,” Fossella said of the environmental assessment. “People will alter their traffic, travel patterns because they’ll be less likely to go into Manhattan. They’ll circumvent and go through places like Staten Island.”

Congestion pricing is a years-long effort that’s been met with multiple lawsuits as New York gets closer to implementing the road-tolling program. Two lawsuits out of New Jersey since last summer have made similar arguments that the program will increase pollution in surrounding areas, seeking a fuller environmental review.

Despite legal challenges, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has moved along with its planning process, and an appointed board recently made recommendations on a tolling structure, including a $15 base toll, discounted overnight pricing and a crossing credit for drivers already tolled on tunnels going into Manhattan during the day. Throughout this planning process, exemptions to the toll have been requested on behalf of more than 100 different kinds of groups, localities, vehicles and professions – including teachers – but the board recommended only limited exemptions. A public comment period is now underway following the board’s recommendations, with public hearings set to start Feb. 29. 

Congestion Pricing Now, a coalition of transit and climate activists, expressed disappointment over what they described as a “misguided lawsuit.”

“Congestion pricing will reduce dangerous emissions from cars and trucks that are the leading cause of child asthma, it will reduce the amount of time students spend in traffic on buses getting to their schools, and it will improve subway and bus service for students who rely on public transit every day,” the group said in a statement. “Even more importantly, traffic-related crashes remain the leading cause of unintentional death among children in New York City. Congestion pricing will reduce the dangerous and worsening gridlock that blocks our crosswalks and endangers pedestrians.”

The Riders Alliance, another group of New Yorkers that’s been a staunch advocate of the plan, said congestion pricing will benefit students and schools by raising  “billions of dollars in new revenue for essential reliability and accessibility upgrades to the public transit network that makes public education work in New York City.”

State Assembly Member Emily Gallagher made similar remarks in favor of the toll plan and its benefits to students. “The vast majority of NYC students walk or use mass transit to get to school. They deserve a safe, functional MTA—which requires the capital investments that congestion pricing will provide,” the Democrat tweeted. “Disappointing + short-sighted for UFT's leadership to do this at the last minute.”

“We do not believe that city workers should be paying any more money to the city, the MTA in this program. But more importantly, I’m going to ask anyone here: What is the dollar amount for having more children with asthma and going to the hospitals. Are we really at that point in our society?” Mulgrew asked. “As an educator, I know what my position is.”

The UFT also recently sued the city over cuts to education funding.