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Manhattan's Congestion Pricing Saga Takes a Turn

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

It is true that New York City already has the lowest car ownership compared to other U.S. cities, but it’s probably not as low as you think. Although car ownership in the five boroughs is less than half of the rest of the country, 45% of them still own a car in the city, according to TitleMax.

For Manhattan locals, driving leads to congestion, a problem that the islanders have been facing for a while now. According to INRIX’s Impact Rankings, in 2022, New York City was the third most congested city in the country, behind only Chicago and Boston – both of which have higher rates of car ownership than New York – and ahead of even the notorious Los Angeles. With over 8 million residents across the five boroughs and millions more commuting daily, Manhattan’s streets and highways are heavily trafficked, leading to gridlock during peak hours.

Major bottlenecks occur at bridges, tunnels, and intersections across the city. Traffic speeds in Manhattan are also incredibly slow – the average speed in Midtown Manhattan is 4.7 miles per hour. Some residents report spending over an hour to traverse less than a mile from the exit of the Lincoln Tunnel into the city. Causes include high population density, limited public transit capacity, construction, traffic incidents, truck deliveries, ride-sharing services — and perhaps a lack of pricing signals to reduce demand.

Congestion Pricing Plan

Many of these causes are out of the hands of the local government, but that last one is not. So city officials have been developing a plan to address the congestion by imposing extra tolls. The was largely led by the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which is the body that handles the boroughs' public transit. The New York state legislature approved the plan before the pandemic, and it took four years to be rolled out.

Under the congestion pricing plan, most drivers entering Manhattan south of 60th Street during daytime hours would be charged an extra $15 toll. Larger vehicles would be subject to higher tolls, and the motorcycles and nighttime entrants would be charged less. The plan got the federal thumbs-up last year, was finalized this past March, and was scheduled to launch on June 30.

But there was pushback. In January, Staten Island filed a federal lawsuit against the MTA, which developed the congestion pricing plan. Staten Island is joined by the Municipal Labor Council of NYC police, firefighters, emergency responders, and sanitation workers. They claimed that the employees of the city who have to work in the “congestion zone” should not have to pay more to get to work. On May 30, the Trucking Association of New York filed its own lawsuit, arguing that the higher plan for larger vehicles targeted the trucking industry, and that it was unconstitutional. There are at least half a dozen other lawsuits that have been filed against MTA’s plan.

Governor Halts Toll Plan

Perhaps in response to all the challenges, New York Governor Kathy Hochul finally pulled the plug. Last week, she said she’d ordered an “indefinite halt” to the planned toll program.

Some critics have said that with the upcoming election, Governor Hochul was motivated to pull the plug on the program to appease constituents. The governor denied accusations that she changed her mind on the whole plan due to concerns about voters in suburbs who were against the idea of congestion pricing.

Consequences for MTA Funding

The decision to pull the plug comes at a great cost to 4 million daily riders of the city’s subways. It also puts many other improvement plans to local public transit on hold. The MTA has been promising for a while now to “fix” Penn Station. The transit hub is the busiest in the western hemisphere — ahead of its neighbor, Grand Central. Despite that (and partly because of it), Penn Station has had countless issues for as long as Manhattanites can remember. Just a few issues include overcrowding and congestion (partly due to its labyrinthine layout and poor signage), delays and cancellations, and lack of ADA-compliant ramps and other accessibility features.

For years, Governor Hochul has been touting plans to redevelop the problematic hub into a new “commuter-first” Penn Station. The project was meant to be carried out by the MTA — but the authority has had funding issues for some time. The various fixes that the MTA was supposed to carry out were estimated to require $15 billion.

How would it fund such a scheme? That is where the congestion pricing plan was a key player. The program was projected to raise about $1 billion per year. The revenue from the program was supposed to plug a gaping hole to keep the M.T.A. running and afford it the resources to fix things like Penn Station, among other projects.

Left With a Billion(s) Dollar Gap

Now, people are left wondering if revamping the city's more problematic subway stations will ever get done. Although Governor Hochul insisted at a recent press conference that the congestion pricing plan was only “on pause,” she didn’t give a timeline or bring up alternatives to the missing funding.

Locals are up in arms (or at least picket signs) over the last-minute change. They’ve taken to the streets, calling on Hochul to implement the plan and chanting, “Kathy, keep your word!” What will come of the crisis in North America’s biggest rapid transit system?

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