Weighing the cost of clogged streets

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Officials consider potential impacts of congestion pricing


  • A proposal designed to ease traffic on Manhattan streets and fund transit improvements would impose a congestion fee on drivers travelling below 60th Street. Photo: Steven Strasser

Local leaders are mulling the possible effects of a proposed congestion pricing plan that would impose a new fee on traffic travelling below 60th Street in Manhattan.

Under a plan recommended by an advisory panel created by Governor Andrew Cuomo, a fee of $11.52 would be imposed on passenger vehicles entering a congestion pricing zone encompassing all of Manhattan south of 60th Street. The electronically-assessed charge would apply to all passenger vehicles entering the zone between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays. Buses, taxis and for-hire vehicles would be exempt from the congestion fee, but a new surcharge would be applied to taxi and for-hire vehicle trips in the zone.

The measure is designed to reduce the number of cars on the road in the congestion zone by an estimated 13 percent by incentivizing drivers to adjust commutes and delivery schedules to off-peak hours where possible. It also would provide a new revenue stream for the beleaguered Metropolitan Transportation Authority. And advocates note that reduced traffic would come with the added benefit of improved air quality.

The plan calls for a three-phase implementation scheme that would begin this year with improved enforcement of blocking-the-box and bus lane violations and an overhaul of the city’s parking placard program. It would expand to include a new congestion surcharge on taxi and for-hire vehicle trips, and culminate in the launch of the zone pricing system for all vehicles beginning in 2020.

The proposed location of the congestion zone boundary at 60th Street could result in a significant impact for residents who live just outside the zone on the Upper East Side and Upper West Side.

Apart from the concerns of those who drive below 60th Street regularly for work or to take children to school, some have speculated that the streets north of the boundary could become clogged with the cars of non-resident drivers seeking to park just outside the zone and walk or take transit south to avoid paying the fee.

“I’m very supportive of congestion pricing, but we have to understand that there might be some folks who will drop their cars off at 60th Street,” state Sen. Brad Hoylman said this week at a budget hearing. “So we should be looking at things like residential parking, like the last plan a decade ago considered.”

State Sen. Liz Krueger, whose East Side district includes areas both north and south of 60th Street and has supported the concept of congestion parking during earlier efforts to enact the policy, said she is more concerned that a final plan won’t adequately reduce congestion caused by delivery trucks and for-hire vehicles than with a potential influx of street parking north of the boundary. “If one has spent any time in the 60s on the East or West Side of Manhattan, I dare them to tell me where they’d all be parking,” she said.

Community Board 7 is set to consider a resolution requesting that the congestion zone boundary be located as far north as possible, with consideration given to the impact the boundary will have on the surrounding neighborhood and the transit system. The resolution will request that community input be included in the any final proposal considered for implementation and call for all revenue generated by the plan be dedicated by law exclusively to the MTA.

The plan outlined in the Fix NYC report could generate over $800 million in new annual revenue.

“The MTA sorely needs this money,” said Andrew Albert, who serves as co-chair of Community Board 7’s transportation committee and also sits on the MTA board.

“There are all kinds of minor issues that have to be worked out, but I think overall that this is an important thing that New York needs to do to keep our streets moving, to improve our transit system and I think our way of life, really,” Albert said at a January community board meeting held before the FIX NYC plan was released.

According to a study conducted by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, the percentages of commuters who would be impacted by the congestion charge on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side are among the highest in the entire region.

The study, which is based on census data and organized by state legislative districts, found that 9.7 percent of commuters in Assembly Member Dan Quart’s Upper East Side district would be subjected to the charge, the highest rate of any district covered in the analysis. According to the Fix NYC report, 4 percent of outer borough residents commute to jobs in Manhattan in a vehicle.

In Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright’s Upper East Side district, 7.8 percent of commuters drive to work in the congestion zone and would be affected by the congestion fee, while 58.1 percent of commuters in the district take public transit. In an emailed statement, Seawright said that while the “fundamental intentions of congestion pricing are much appreciated,” a number of important questions should be addressed as the legislature considers congestion pricing during the state budget negotiation process.

“What safeguards will there be to prevent the Upper East Side and Harlem and other contiguous or nearby neighborhoods from becoming ‘parking lots’ for those drivers seeking to avoid midtown fees?” Seawright wrote. “How will the need of residents of my district with disabilities or our senior citizens who rely on vehicles to conduct their business be addressed, particularly those on fixed incomes? And is congestion pricing the very best way to generate vitally needed funding to improve the mass transit system or are there less regressive alternatives that should be considered? Robust discussion of these and related questions with key stakeholders is needed before new policies are enacted through the state budget process.”

Krueger said that the eventual passage of a plan will likely require leadership from Cuomo, who convened the Fix NYC task force but has not yet endorsed a detailed congestion pricing policy. “I’m actually getting pretty negative responses from a lot of the legislature,” Krueger said. “There seems to be less support than there was for the earlier proposal six years ago, and that didn’t go anywhere. It’s still not clear to me what the governor is going to do and if he’s actually going to propose anything specifically.”

Krueger, Holyman, Seawright and other elected officials will host a March 1 event at CUNY Graduate Center to discuss congestion pricing and other potential measures with a panel of transportation experts.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who said last summer he “does not believe” in congestion pricing, has called the Fix NYC plan an improvement over earlier proposals. While de Blasio has proposed a new tax on millionaires as a new dedicated revenue source for the MTA, he called the Fix NYC model “the best I’ve seen to date” in a Feb. 5 state budget hearing.

The mayor said that any plan should come with guarantees that revenue be dedicated to improving bus and subway service, and that the needs of low-income and disabled drivers should be taken into account. “There are plenty of people who are not well-off who have reasons they have to go into the core of Manhattan for medical appointments and other matters,” de Blasio said. “We need to think about how we handle that.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has spoken more enthusiastically about the prospect. “We need new, smart, sustainable revenue streams,” Johnson said in a Jan. 30 speech. “And one piece of that puzzle is congestion pricing. We need congestion pricing, this year, this session.”

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