Apr 8, 2024 - Economy

New York City braces for congestion pricing

Illustration of the "I Heart NY" logo with a flat tire replacing the heart.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The biggest urban experiment in decades is coming to New York City in June, when vehicles will be charged $15 and up to drive in Manhattan below 60th Street.

Why it matters: It's a first-in-the-nation policy that other American cities — like Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. — might be eager to replicate.

  • Or not: There's rampant fury over the plan and half-a-dozen lawsuits in federal courts, any of which could halt or block its implementation.

Driving the news: New York City's congestion pricing plan, decades in the making, is scheduled to take effect mid-June.

  • Passenger cars will be charged $15 a day to enter Manhattan's so-called "central business district," with very few exceptions.
  • All of Manhattan south of 60th Street will essentially become a toll road — except for perimeter streets like the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway, which will remain free.
  • The goals: reducing traffic, improving air quality and raising $1 billion annually for public transit improvements.

By the numbers: The number of cars in the toll zone is expected to drop 17%, per a report from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA).

How it works: During peak hours — 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends — drivers will pay $15 in the zone.

  • Off-hours, the toll will be $3.75.
  • Trucks and buses will pay $24 or $36, depending on their "size and purpose."
  • Hailing a ride? That'll be a $1.25-per-ride surcharge. An Uber or Lyft will cost an extra $2.50.
  • No specific implementation date has been set, but here's an MTA fact sheet that spells out more.
A traffic scene in Manhattan.
Congestion pricing plate readers were installed over Lexington Avenue in Manhattan in December 2023. Photo: Liao Pan/China News Service/VCG via Getty Images

State of play: Public comments submitted to the MTA run 60% in favor of the plan, but there's powerful opposition.

  • New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has mounted the most serious legal challenge, based on arguments about the environmental impact.
  • Commuters, teachers, first responders, taxi drivers and small business owners in Manhattan all say they'll be grievously harmed.
  • "It's going to kill Broadway," says Susan Lee, president of New Yorkers Against Congestion Pricing, one of the groups suing the MTA. "You're going to charge me $15 to come in to see a play, in addition to what I'm already spending?"

Even former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who signed congestion pricing into law in 2019, says that now is not the right time.

  • "What impact will an additional $15 entry surcharge have on New York City's recovery in this moment — when the migrant crisis, crime, homelessness, quality of life and taxes are all pressing problems?" he wrote in a New York Post op-ed.

Zoom out: Other cities — most notably London, but also Stockholm, Milan and Singapore — have implemented congestion pricing successfully.

  • Gridlock is down, public transit use is up, and opposition is minimal.

Yes, but: Manhattan is more populous, crowded and obstreperous.

  • The city's buses, subways and commuter rails are dirtier, less reliable and more crime-ridden.
  • The tolls are also prohibitively expensive — and the $15-per-car fee is just a starting point.
  • "Honestly, we're just not at a good place," says Lee. "The MTA needs to assure the public, to regain the confidence that we need to use the subway."

Threat level: Justifiably or not, a vast number of New Yorkers have grown frightened of riding the subway.

  • Last month, New York governor Kathy Hochul sent the National Guard and State Police to patrol the New York subway and do bag checks.
  • Some New York women call themselves "bus girlies" and encourage people to shun the subway in favor of the slower-but-seemingly-safer bus.

The other side: The MTA says the new tolls will provide a reliable funding stream to fix the problems New Yorkers complain about.

  • "The toll will result in 100,000 fewer vehicles entering the zone every day, relieving crowding in what is today the most congested district in the United States," per the MTA.
  • Improved travel options will help visitors and low-income residents in particular, the agency says.
  • 80% of the tolls will be used to improve and modernize New York City subways and buses, 10% for the Long Island Rail Road and 10% for the Metro-North Railroad, the agency says.

What they're saying: "The policy is a very solid and strong one — the economics behind it are really unassailable," says Tom Wright, president of the Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit dedicated to improving life in the NYC tristate area.

  • "Roads, street space are a limited public good that sufferers from the classic crisis of the commons: We don't put a price on using it, so it's overutilized."

But what's perfect on paper could be a disaster on the ground, opponents say.

  • "Don't kill the goose that lays the egg," David Mack, the only MTA board member who voted against congestion pricing, said during a final approval meeting last month.

The bottom line: Congestion pricing is likely to change New York City in ways we can't predict — probably both good and bad.

  • "If it's successful, it'll be a model for places like Los Angeles and Chicago that certainly struggle with a great deal of traffic congestion as well," said Sarah Kaufman, director of the NYU Rudin Center for Transportation.
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