Congestion pricing is (probably) a month away. Is New York City ready?

Advocates say transit improvements and strong public reporting will make congestion pricing a success, and maybe even win over skeptics. That is, assuming New York acts fast.

Congestion pricing toll readers hang above Broadway at Columbus Circle on November 30, 2023, in New York City.

Congestion pricing toll readers hang above Broadway at Columbus Circle on November 30, 2023, in New York City. Gary Hershorn/Getty Images

Seven decades after the idea first germinated in New York, congestion pricing might be moving out of the “valley of political death.”

Advocates for the road tolling program in Manhattan’s Central Business District use that term to refer to the five years since state legislators and ex-Gov. Andrew Cuomo authorized the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to toll drivers south of 60th Street in Manhattan. In that time, congestion pricing stalled amid holdups from the former Trump administration, a time-intensive environmental assessment, legislative pushes to block the program in Congress and debates over exemptions and the tolling structure. Even today, just a month from its scheduled implementation, the program faces a collection of lawsuits from New Jersey’s governor, the United Federation of Teachers and a bipartisan group of outer borough and suburban New York lawmakers, among others. Those suits are largely based on the argument that there hasn’t been a thorough enough study of the potential of the plan shifting traffic (and pollution) to areas outside the zone, including low-income communities already overexposed to pollution. In one recent poll, Siena College found that nearly two-thirds of New Yorkers – 63% statewide – oppose congestion pricing. 

Even still, the MTA and proponents of the program are projecting confidence. In Stockholm, one of the few cities that have rolled out congestion pricing, two-thirds of residents opposed the program before it was implemented. In a referendum six months later, two-thirds voted to make it permanent after seeing it successfully reduce traffic. “I think the principal lesson that we all have to bear in mind is there’s enormous political and public drama as you approach the implementation of congestion pricing, and then in most cases it dissipates, because people see there are real benefits,” MTA Chair Janno Lieber told City & State.

Barring progress in any of the lawsuits still challenging the program, New York is set to flip the switch on congestion pricing on June 30. But seeing the program become a success – and maybe winning over skeptics in the process – requires making public transit a hell of a lot more attractive. Advocates say it will also require public reporting – early and often – on progress in the program’s threefold objectives: raising revenue for sorely needed transit upgrades, reducing vehicle traffic in the congestion zone and, in turn, improving air quality. Advocates and proponents of the program said they’re encouraged to see the MTA and city take some of the steps they’ve long argued will help make the program successful, but some of that work is getting underway later than they’d like. “New Yorkers have to experience the promise spoken about for so many years with regards to congestion pricing, and they have to experience it in their day-to-day lives,” said Assembly Member Zohran Mamdani, a northwest Queens legislator who advocated for money in the state budget this year to expand bus service ahead of congestion pricing. “The way that we implement that and speak about that over the next six months will be critical in seeing where public sentiment lands.”

Supplementing the system

London preceded its 2003 rollout of congestion pricing with an expansion of bus service, and flooded in more than 300 new buses when the program launched. Four months before Stockholm began charging drivers in 2006, the city added 16 new bus lines and nearly 200 buses to its system. Both cities invested in bike infrastructure and thousands of park-and-ride spaces at nearby transit stations.

There’s no apples-to-apples comparison with either of those cities and New York, with its unique beast of a transit system. But they still offer positive takeaways and warning signs that New York can draw from – and has – to get its own program right. Boosting public transit in advance of turning on congestion pricing is the near-constantly cited takeaway from other cities.

New York, some advocates say with optimism, is on the right track by releasing plans for bus expansion and securing funding for both bus and subway enhancements. Last year’s state budget included $35 million in additional funding for subway service, while this year’s budget included $12.3 million for bus service. That falls short of the $45 million and an expansion of the MTA’s free bus pilot that Mamdani, other lawmakers and advocates called for, but Mamdani called it a step forward nonetheless.

But New York hasn’t entirely adhered to getting those projects across the finish line well in advance of congestion pricing starting. Some planned improvements await implementation, including redesigns of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan’s bus networks, as well as service frequency increases on several more subway lines scheduled for July. Also in July, the MTA will begin offering a 10% discount on monthly commuter rail tickets within New York City, targeting outer-borough residents along the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road.

“I think there’s the perfect, and there’s the good,” said Danny Pearlstein, policy and communications director at the Riders Alliance, when asked if the MTA is doing everything it needs to right now to make the program a success. “I think we’re in a good place.” 

Asked about its preparations, the MTA pointed to some of its already completed work, including frequency improvements on eight subway lines that began last summer, and the Staten Island and Bronx bus network redesigns implemented in 2019 and 2022, respectively. Others are scheduled to roll out when congestion pricing turns on, including service increases on express bus routes going into the congestion zone. 

Planning enhancements is one thing, but implementing them is another challenge. A rash of canceled express bus service trips recently – blamed on the MTA by a shortage of operators – has caused concern about the MTA’s ability to carry out its planned service increases among some advocates, The City recently reported. “For many in the outer boroughs, express buses are a lifeline,” New York City Council Member Justin Brannan, who represents Bay Ridge and Coney Island, wrote in a tweet responding to the story. “With congestion pricing coming, it's a very bad time for the MTA to be dropping the ball.”

“NYC Transit continues to aggressively fill bus operator vacancies, regularly onboarding dozens of new operators, while continuing to provide reliable service,” MTA spokesperson Michael Cortez said in a statement. “As more operators graduate from training they will be strategically deployed.” 

New York City’s success in building out a stronger transit network is not just up to the MTA, but closely dependent on the work of the city Department of Transportation’s work to expand bus lane infrastructure. “We have been preparing for this moment for over a decade, and have implemented 47 bus, bike, and pedestrian projects since 2019 to make travel to and around the Central Business District faster, safer, and more convenient,” DOT spokesperson Vincent Barone said in a statement.

Earlier this month, the DOT released a report detailing 37 new bus priority and bike lane proposals in development for 2024 and 2025. But getting those proposals from planning to completion is no easy feat – particularly given the vocal backlash from some community members that bus and bike lane prioritization can often spark. The city DOT remains behind on the Streets Master Plan law that required building 50 miles of protected bus lanes and 80 miles of protected bike lanes by the end of 2023. The city fell short at 9.6 miles of bus lanes and 58.2 miles of bike lanes. “The hurdles are not legal. They are political, overwhelmingly,” Pearlstein said. “If the mayor and the administration have made a political commitment to support the implementation of congestion pricing, then they can speed these along.” 

Transit advocates said they’re happy to see both the city and MTA talking about prioritizing these projects, but called for urgency in getting them over the finish line. “I do think it's really critical that before and immediately around implementation, we're making it easier for people to get around in other ways,” said Sara Lind, co-executive director of Open Plans. “I think we've seen (the city) DOT and MTA doing some of the things in some ways. But I would just urge them to, no pun intended I guess, put the pedal to the metal and get this done.”

Accounting for side effects

Though the MTA’s environmental assessment of congestion pricing received a “Finding of No Significant Impact” – signoff from the federal government – opponents have pointed in lawsuits to concerns that congestion pricing could cause more truck traffic in already pollution heavy areas like the south Bronx, as well as additional traffic in other overburdened areas where drivers may reroute to avoid the toll. 

“We believe that the courts will agree that the current form of the congestion pricing program does not reduce pollution but merely moves it into struggling communities,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew, who initiated one of the lawsuits to block the program’s implementation, said in a statement.

The MTA is committing $155 million to environmental mitigation projects – $55 million for regional mitigation projects including expanding the city’s clean trucks program and reducing the overnight toll, as well as $100 million in place-based mitigation for 13 environmental justice communities that qualify, including in parts of the Bronx, Upper Manhattan, Staten Island and New Jersey.

Some of the Bronx projects have been laid out in more detail, with funds dedicated to replacing transport refrigeration units at Hunts Point Market and implementing electric truck charging infrastructure.

How funds for place-based mitigation will be deployed in New Jersey – where Gov. Phil Murphy has railed (and sued) against congestion pricing – is not yet clear. Kate Slevin, executive vice president of the Regional Plan Association, called the mitigation spending encouraging. “A lot of those investments should have been made regardless of congestion pricing. Hopefully, when the program is implemented, we're going to see traffic reductions across the region, including in the South Bronx,” she said. “But I think that goes to the need to really monitor the program.”

Tracking progress

Certain reporting requirements are built into New York’s congestion pricing program, and the MTA has committed to ongoing monitoring and reporting of traffic entering the zone, vehicle-miles traveled, transit ridership, bus speeds within the zone, air quality and emissions trends, parking and project revenue, according to the environmental assessment. A website will also be published with “data, analysis, and visualizations available in open data format to the greatest extent practicable.”

That kind of reporting will allow New Yorkers to see for themselves how congestion pricing is or isn’t achieving its goals, while the data will help the MTA see what kinds of tweaks might be needed to the system.

But advocates and proponents of congestion pricing are calling for that reporting and monitoring to begin now to establish trust with the public and familiarity with current conditions. “The baseline should be well-established and well-publicized now – before the program starts – so that it is harder for anyone to tell lies about the program once it’s in effect,” Pearlstein said.

Rachael Fauss, senior policy advisor at Reinvent Albany, suggested the MTA’s capital projects dashboard should be updated to reflect which crucial transit projects are being funded as a direct result of congestion pricing, giving the public a greater understanding of how toll revenue is being spent. 

While Lieber told City & State that the MTA is “100% ready for congestion pricing” there’s no question that hurdles in the transition will emerge. How well a planned crackdown on toll evasion and ghost plates will work remains to be seen, and complaints and questions from drivers about how the somewhat complicated tolling geography works will likely crop up in the immediate transition. And while the few exemptions to the poll are open for applications now, it’s not yet clear how a tax credit for low-income residents of the zone will work. The MTA’s congestion pricing website says that the state Department of Taxation and Finance will publish more info in the fall.

The more questions that can be answered and outreach conducted ahead of time, the better, advocates said. The MTA rolled out a public education campaign – including advertising, virtual and in-person outreach –  in the winter and has been expanding it as implementation nears. 

Unlike Stockholm, New Yorkers won’t be able to vote in an official referendum on whether to keep congestion pricing in place. Charles Komanoff, a traffic modeling expert and major proponent of congestion pricing, said that he wouldn’t have been a part of this if he didn’t expect it to produce substantial benefits, and for the public to come around to realize them.

“If I had to say yes or no I would say – actually, unequivocally – definitely yes,” Komanoff said when asked whether New Yorkers would vote in favor of congestion pricing in a hypothetical referendum in six months or a year. “And I can't wait for the Quinnipiac poll on this on June 30th, 2025.”