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Can Congestion Pricing Fix Traffic Woes?

An idea that flopped a decade ago -- to charge people who drive into the center of New York City -- now has powerful backers.

manhattan traffic 770
One day soon, drivers in New York City may be charged a toll to enter the heart of the city, the part of Manhattan from Wall Street to Central Park. Imposing such a fee would not only aim to cut traffic, it would also raise much-needed revenue to fix the city's struggling subway system. 

If the idea takes hold, it would be the first time a U.S. city imposes tolls to drive on its most congested roads. A handful of large cities in other countries -- including London, Singapore, Stockholm and Milan -- use similar “cordoned” toll systems.

New York City itself debated the idea a decade ago when Michael Bloomberg was mayor, but the proposal languished in the state legislature. This time, though, there's a key difference: It's Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the state’s most powerful politician, pushing the idea -- and amid a new sense of urgency to address the city’s increasingly clogged roads and frequently failing subways.

“As New Yorkers, we face two serious transportation crises on a daily basis -- one above ground and one below,” wrote Fix NYC, a group appointed by Cuomo to flesh out how congestion pricing would work, in a report released last month.   

New York is one of the most traffic-choked cities in the world. The average speeds of taxi cabs in Midtown, its most congested area, fell from 6.5 mph in 2010 to 4.7 mph in 2016. That's only slightly faster than walking.

Meanwhile, Cuomo declared a state of emergency for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), the state-controlled agency that runs subways and buses in the city. Subway ridership is at an all-time high, but the system, which relies heavily on track laid in the 1970s and signals that predate World War II, has struggled to keep up. The MTA said last summer that it would need $836 million in new money just to start addressing its most urgent needs.

Fix NYC suggests that the money collected from the new tolls would go to pay for those subway improvements. But the group stresses that the MTA should start improving its service before the tolls are introduced, and it says the tolls should be gradually rolled out.

The plan calls for imposing truck tolls of $25.34 and car tolls of $11.52, and it recommends new per-trip charges on ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft.

Even with a blueprint to go by, though, it’s unclear whether state officials will tackle such a contentious issue during an election year.

New York’s state budget deadline is April 1, but Cuomo hasn’t included the Manhattan tolling project in that must-pass legislation. And getting it passed as a stand-alone bill could be even more difficult.

Still, there are some signs that this year’s push could go further than Bloomberg’s doomed effort a decade ago.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has long had a contentious relationship with Cuomo, initially panned the idea when Cuomo started talking about it last year. The mayor initially wanted to raise money for the subway system with a new millionaires tax and worried that the tolls would hurt working-class residents. But since the Fix NYC plan was unveiled, he’s been more receptive.

“I’m someone who had a lot of doubts about congestion pricing, but I said what his commission did was actually a breath of fresh air compared to the previous proposals we had seen,” the mayor said after a meeting with Cuomo last week.

Still, de Blasio wants to protect the toll revenue from being used for other purposes, and he wants all of the transit money to be spent within New York City.

The Fix NYC plan would almost certainly be tweaked as it goes through the legislative process. Immediately after it was released, Cuomo himself said he wanted to adjust the tolls for bridges in other parts of the city as part of the effort.

“The tolling system is bizarre,” Cuomo said. “You have some bridges where the tolls are $11. You have some bridges where the tolls are $17. You have some bridges where the tolls are zero. Come up with a fair system.”

To get legislation to Cuomo’s desk, lawmakers will likely have to confront the argument that the new tolls could harm lower-income residents. The governor’s panel acknowledged as much in its report, although it called those criticisms “inaccurate.” According to the Community Service Society of New York, an anti-poverty group, only 4 percent of outer borough residents drive to Manhattan for work, and only 2 percent of the working poor in the outlying areas of the city would have to pay tolls to enter Manhattan for work.

Ultimately, Alex Matthiessen, founder and director of an advocacy group called Move NY, says adding a toll zone in Manhattan would be an equitable way to pay for needed infrastructure upgrades.

“The system we have now is incredibly unfair,” he says. Unless they’re walking or biking, “everybody who travels into the central business district now using tunnels, bridges, subways, buses or commuter rail is paying anywhere from $2.75 to $30 each way. But this one group is paying $0 to come into the same area using the same infrastructure. We’re just asking them to pay their fair share.”

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