Manhattan looking at congestion tax to ease gridlock
In this Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 photo, traffic is seen making it's way across 42nd Street in New York. A proposal to make part Manhattan a toll zone, where drivers would be charged to drive into the most congested neighborhoods, is gaining momentum, despite continuing criticism from lawmakers representing car-heavy parts of Brooklyn and Queens. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
David Klepper And Frank Eltman, The Associated Press
Published Friday, January 19, 2018 1:01PM EST
Last Updated Friday, January 19, 2018 9:09PM EST
NEW YORK -- A proposal to charge motorists nearly $12 to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan provoked protests and complaints even before it was released Friday, though there are signs the idea of congestion pricing is quietly gaining momentum in the nation's largest city.
London, Stockholm and Singapore already have congestion surcharges. But calls to impose similar tolls in New York as a way to address gridlock while raising funds for public transportation have been rejected in the past over concerns about the cost to middle-class and poor commuters.
On Friday even some past critics of congestion pricing said the ideas hold promise for addressing gridlock while raising funds for the city's beleaguered subway system.
"Though I have been a critic of congestion pricing in the past and still remain skeptical, the plan released today ... offers a wide variety of innovative suggestions," Democratic Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said.
The recommendation announced Friday was crafted by a task force set up by Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo to examine congestion pricing. Under the proposal, motorists would shell out $11.52 to drive into the busiest parts of Manhattan, trucks would pay $25.34 and Uber rides and for-hire vehicles could be charged between $2 and $5 per ride. The pricing zone would cover Manhattan south of 60th Street.
The system would make use of electronic tolling, which charges drivers through the E-ZPass transponder in their vehicles or through bills mailed to the vehicles' owners.
The amounts of the proposed surcharges are likely to change as state lawmakers, Cuomo and city leaders debate the details. Officials could also vary the surcharges based on the time of day, with the highest fees during rush hour. Cuomo also has discussed a toll credit to reduce the cost for commuters who would already pay an existing bridge toll to enter Manhattan.
Yasmin Sohrawardy, who drives from Queens into Manhattan twice a week for her job as a financial software developer, opposes any proposal to charge drivers.
"The people in the outer boroughs, who don't have access to public transportation the way people do in Manhattan, can't possibly afford this," Sohrawardy said. "It's going to be extraordinarily expensive. If you live in Manhattan, you can take subways, buses or taxis."
Cuomo stopped short of fully endorsing the proposal's details but said New York must address traffic and fix a subway system beset by breakdowns and delays. He noted that as a Queens native he understands the concerns of commuters.
"I have outer-borough blood in my veins, and it is my priority that we keep costs down for hardworking New Yorkers and encourage use of mass transit," he said.
Only 4 per cent of the residents of Queens, the Bronx, Brooklyn or Staten Island, about 118,000 people, commute to Manhattan in vehicles, the task force says. Of those, fewer than 5,000 are considered poor.
The fees on taxis and for-hire vehicles could take effect within a year, followed by trucks and then cars in 2020. No fees would be imposed until mass transit repairs are made.
The task force calculated the amount of the fees based on existing bridge tolls. It suggested that tax credits could be created for low-income motorists to reduce the cost.
Uber said it supports congestion pricing if it's applied fairly and all revenue is earmarked for mass transit. But the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 60,000 drivers for Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies, said surcharges could be "devastating" if drivers are forced to absorb the higher costs instead of passing them to passengers.
AAA sharply criticized the plan, too, noting that it comes with no new investments in roads, bridges or tunnels.
Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio, a past critic of congestion pricing, said the new plan was an improvement over earlier versions. But he wants a guarantee that revenue would fund public transportation, and he said higher income taxes on wealthy earners might be a better way to raise the money.
Republican Senate Leader John Flanagan, of Long Island, criticized congestion pricing earlier this month, and on Friday his spokesman, Scott Reif, said Republican lawmakers remain wary of any proposal that makes New York City less affordable.
Congestion pricing has long been a goal of environmental groups and transit advocates. Nick Sifuentes, director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, noted that travellers using the subway, buses, ferries and trains already pay a fare to reach Manhattan.
"The only folks who don't pay at all are drivers -- and those cars are clogging our streets, polluting our air and harming the economy," he said.