MTA gives final approval to congestion pricing plan

Though several lawsuits against the plan are still pending, the MTA board took a major step in approving details of the road tolling program on Wednesday.

Congestion pricing plate readers after they were installed over Lexington Avenue in Manhattan on December 18, 2023 in New York City.

Congestion pricing plate readers after they were installed over Lexington Avenue in Manhattan on December 18, 2023 in New York City. Liao Pan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

Nearly five years to the day that the Legislature first passed congestion pricing, the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has given final approval to the plan to toll vehicles in Manhattan south of 60th Street.

The 11-1 vote on Wednesday, while expected, nonetheless marked a milestone in the years-long effort to pass, plan and eventually implement a road-tolling program that is intended to ease congestion and cut down on associated greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to generate much needed revenue for the MTA’s capital plan. Much of the work of actually implementing that plan lies ahead, and several pending lawsuits challenging the program could still pose threats.

But the MTA board’s near-unanimous vote on Wednesday reflected broader agreement on the importance of congestion pricing at the agency, even among those who still have quibbles about the particulars of the plan.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams has raised concerns about some of those particulars in recent months, calling for full exemption to the $15 charge for taxi drivers, people driving to doctor’s appointments and school buses. One of Adams’ appointees to the MTA board, Deputy Mayor for Operations Meera Joshi, raised concern about taxi drivers during the board meeting on Wednesday but nonetheless voiced enthusiastic support of the program. “As a new board member and a representative of the Adams administration, I’m proud to say this is a true victory for our city and for our region," Joshi said.

Officially, the board approved the tolling structure for congestion pricing with Wednesday’s vote. Drawing from recommendations made by the appointed Traffic Mobility Review Board, the approved plan includes a $15 charge for passenger vehicles during the day, with reduced fees during the night. Motorcycles will pay $7.50, while taxi and for-hire vehicle trips will have further reduced fees, which will be paid by passengers. 

In addition to exemptions baked into the congestion pricing legislation for emergency vehicles, vehicles carrying people with disabilities, and a toll credit for low-income residents of the congestion zone, some other carve outs have been added to the tolling structure. That includes exemptions for school buses that contract with the city Department of Education and specialized government vehicles that are needed for public works. Government vehicles that are merely carrying personnel, including agency commissioners, are not exempt. There are also exemptions for buses providing commuter or transit services, a discount for people with household incomes under $50,000 who drive to work in the district after making 10 trips in a month, and crossing credits for drivers who have already been tolled on tunnels going into Manhattan.

The news of the MTA’s vote on Wednesday was swiftly met with praise from transit and congestion pricing advocates, as well as harsh backlash from its opponents, including some conservative politicians who are among the groups fighting the program in court. “The MTA Board’s approval of congestion pricing is a blatant assault on every New Yorker who’s already struggling to get by. It’s a disgusting cash grab that punishes our most vulnerable – those with no choice but to commute from transit deserts,” Council Member Bob Holden said in a statement sent immediately after the board’s vote.

Over the last five years, and particularly over the last couple of years as plans for the program and its tolling structure have solidified, backlash and legal challenges have proliferated. Opposition to the plan has been founded on a range of criticisms, from a lack of sufficient exemptions to outsized impact on neighborhoods with fewer transit options, and concerns about traffic, and resulting harmful emissions, being diverted to neighborhoods that drivers go through to avoid tolls. 

Supporters of the program have also continued to be vocal at the many public hearings and public comment periods on the plan, including the last round of public input during which Streetsblog NYC found supporters of the program outnumbered opponents nearly two to one.

In remarks before the vote at Wednesday’s board meeting, Samuel Chu, an MTA board member and the owner of two energy companies, drew attention to the broader environmental goals of the program. “We have a crisis so large that it’s hard for us to remember it’s there,” Chu said. “I’ve been working in climate and sustainability for 20 years this year. And this single vote could be the most impactful thing I ever do to mitigate climate change in my entire life.”