Congestion Pricing: The Road to Improving New York’s Transit System

Manhattan has a residential population of 1.63 million, rising to 3.9 million during the workday with commuters. Getting around the central business district is a notable problem. Below ground, mass transit is becoming riddled with delays, signal failures, and decades-old infrastructure while above ground, it’s usually faster to walk than to hop on a bus. As a result, bus ridership has rapidly decreased, and even the subways face a loss in passengers. These failures encourage commuters to use less environmentally-friendly modes of transportation such as driving. As more and more travelers choose for-hire vehicles including Uber, Lyft, and Via instead of public transportation, streets have become clogged with traffic and pollution increases.

One solution is to implement congestion pricing.

Congestion pricing would impose a toll on vehicles entering the city during specific times in predetermined traffic-heavy areas, such as Manhattan from Midtown south. This could mean charging cars that drive south of a certain street, like 60th Street, and adding tolls to the East River bridges that are currently free to cross.

These tolls would raise much-needed funding for long-term improvements to the region’s transit system, reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from cars, and decrease traffic congestion by encouraging the use of public transportation. For these reasons, NYLCV supports and is advocating for congestion pricing.

The idea of congestion pricing is not a new phenomenon to New York, and while the concept may seem simple, policymakers, transportation experts, and advocates have been debating different versions of this proposal since the 1970s.

In 1973, transit-advocate Sam Schwartz (also known as Gridlock-Sam) worked with Mayor John Lindsay to create a congestion pricing plan that would add fifty-cent tolls on the East and Harlem River bridges in order to comply with the Clean Air Act. At this time, New York City was in violation of the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1970. Cars were the city’s primary form of air pollution at that time and a congestion pricing plan would directly respond to this problem. In order to reduce the number of cars on the road, the congestion pricing plan would incentivize travelers to carpool and use the public transit system. Governor Nelson Rockefeller approved the plan because it would improve air quality, reduce traffic, and raise money for the transit system.

However, convincing travelers to pay more proved harder than expected. While there was some support, Schwartz realized the people who would be most affected financially by a toll would need convincing. These opponents included taxi drivers, the trucking industry, parking garage owners, and the hotel industry, who all either crossed the bridges regularly or provided parking for those who crossed.

Mayor Lindsay’s successor Abraham Beame faced most of this backlash, and in 1974 he tried to call off the plan. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Protection Agency pushed back, calling for the implementation of the tolls. However, the New York delegation to Congress created the Moynihan-Holtzman Amendment to the Clean Air Act, removing New York City’s previous violation. The amendment permitted Governor Hugh Carey to abandon the congestion pricing plan under the condition that New York used available finances to improve the public transportation system. Without the pressure from the Clean Air Act, Mayor Beame no longer needed to implement a congestion pricing plan.

In 1980, then-Deputy Department of Transportation Commissioner Schwartz continued his advocacy for congestion pricing and proposed an alternative plan that would charge single-occupancy vehicles only at morning rush hour. However, this proposal was taken to court, this time by the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the Metropolitan Parking Association, who would be most financially affected by congestion pricing. Fewer travelers driving and parking would decrease business for car associations and parking associations. The court concluded that New York City did not have the power to discriminate against single-occupancy cars and subsequently, could not toll the bridges under this plan. The court also ruled that all potential tolls must be approved by the State Legislature.

Schwartz did not give up on the concept of congestion pricing and created a similar plan in 1987. However, over a thousand opponents from the business community protested, marching on City Hall.

Flash-forward to 2006, when the U.S. Department of Transportation offered funding to New York to implement a congestion pricing plan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg took this opportunity to propose one as part of PlaNYC, his strategy to address climate change. Bloomberg’s proposed three-year pilot program would charge drivers to enter Manhattan below 86th Street with an exemption for taxis, transit cars, and emergency vehicles.

Although the City Council approved the proposal, the New York State Legislature refused to even vote on the matter. As a compromise, the Traffic Congestion Mitigation Commission was authorized to analyze the potential of congestion pricing, and in 2008 they proposed a plan that featured a smaller charging zone of Midtown, starting south of 60th Street.

Even with the commission’s modifications to Bloomberg’s plan, strong opposition came from some elected officials who represented areas with poor access to public transportation or who worried about a backlash from car-owning constituents. Some officials questioned how to ensure that the funds would be used on public transportation infrastructure. The State Legislature again declined to hold a vote on the plan, and the deadline for the federal funding passed, ultimately killing the bill.  

In 2015, Schwartz formed the advocacy group MoveNY, which introduced the NY Fair Plan, which would create tolls on the East River bridges. This plan also proposed a reduction of charges on existing toll bridges in an attempt to evenly disperse the tolling. While the MoveNY plan was the most well-received congestion pricing plan to date and was championed by legislators like Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, there was still not enough legislative support to move forward.

While New York continues to debate the details of congestion pricing, the narrative has not changed much since the 1970s. Manhattan is still congested, still polluting the air, and still needs public transit repairs.

Where is congestion pricing now? Stay tuned next week for another blog post with more details on the current status.