New York’s transportation sector is in an extreme fiscal crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority observed historic lows in bus and subway ridership earlier this year that left the regional agency with a $12 billion deficit. MTA officials are hopeful that President-elect Joseph Biden Jr. and his administration will extend financial support for the MTA and issue an approval for New York State’s congestion pricing plan.
Biden’s climate plan calls for cleaning up municipal transit systems by implementing reliable, emission-free public transit by 2030. It also offers cities flexible federal spending for improvements to existing public transit and light rail networks, as well as aid infrastructure investments for pedestrians, cyclists, and other micro-mobility transportation.
On December 21, 2020, U.S. Congress agreed on a federal stimulus package, allocating $4 billion to the MTA. This relief will allow the MTA to continue transit operations through 2021 without having to resort to drastic layoffs and service cuts. However, a considerable deficit still remains. The MTA will need more money to recover, as officials stated that ridership levels across the regional network are unlikely to reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024. MTA officials hope to secure more funding once the Biden administration officially takes office.
New York’s congestion pricing plan will also become more likely to move forward once Biden takes office. The Central Business District Tolling Program, enacted as a state law in 2019, has not been able to be implemented because the U.S. Department of Transportation has not approved an environmental review that the program needs to proceed. Once the program takes effect, most passenger drivers will be tolled when traveling into Manhattan below 60th Street. The program aims to reduce traffic and make transportation more efficient for commuters. Doing so will lower greenhouse gas emissions, reduce air pollution, encourage ridership for alternate modes of transportation, and prioritize streets for pedestrians and cyclists. Additionally, it would help fund the MTA by generating $1 billion a year in revenue and ultimately $15 billion in bonds.
President-elect Biden has two options that could finally put congestion pricing in motion. As President, he can issue an executive order, either specifying the review needed or removing it altogether. Alternatively, his Secretary of Transportation could take over the project and carry out the environmental review process. The biggest hurdle in that scenario is the Senate’s confirmation of Biden’s nominee, which could take months after Biden assumes office. Afterward, the Secretary of Transportation could implement an aggressive three- or five-month timeline for the environmental review process.
Additional pressure for federal approval within the administration may come from former NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who was recently selected to serve on the Biden-Harris transition team. NYLCV anticipates that Trottenberg will be involved in bringing the issue of congestion pricing to light.
Although Biden’s most urgent actions will be directly related to the coronavirus, NYLCV is hopeful that the Biden administration will prioritize the needs of public transit and congestion pricing. We also anticipate the President-elect’s swift actions to advance environmental protection and tackle climate change in 2021.