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The Vital Role of Community Involvement for Congestion Pricing

In seeking support for a plan aimed at easing traffic with vehicle tolls, cities need to reach out early on to those who would be affected and address their concerns.

Aerial view of a street in midtown Manhattan.
Midtown Manhattan
As New York continues to move toward implementation of the country’s first central-city congestion pricing program, in Manhattan, there are already lessons to be gleaned for other areas considering similar projects, such as Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. First and foremost is the need for community involvement.

Vehicle traffic in many cities continues to lag behind pre-pandemic numbers, but still poses major problems. According to the INRIX 2021 Global Traffic Scorecard, Boston, for instance, was ranked the fourth most congested city in the U.S., with drivers losing 78 hours sitting in traffic that year. Such gridlock cost $1,223 per driver and $2.3 billion for the city, according to the scorecard.

Like Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and several other cities have been studying whether to implement congestion pricing, with the goal of easing traffic, improving air quality, advancing equity for traditionally underinvested communities, and making streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

But even with the clear benefits already seen in cities overseas where congestion pricing has been implemented, the idea of paying new or additional tolls to drive into key parts of a city is relatively new in the U.S. and elicits strong opposition. That makes community involvement even more critical in order to not only better educate those who will be impacted but also to hear early on about potential issues that can jeopardize such projects.

Back in 2007, when then-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg first pushed for the state Legislature to authorize a plan to charge vehicles entering the heaviest traveled section of Manhattan, its Central Business District, he worked with top legislative leaders but virtually ignored rank-and-file lawmakers and the communities they represented. The outcome was not surprising. A year after Bloomberg unveiled his plan, the Legislature summarily dismissed the program.

Flash ahead to 2019, when then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo revived the idea of congestion pricing. Cuomo, ever the political insider, worked with rank-and-file lawmakers from the city’s other boroughs and suburbs, cutting side deals to win their needed support. Mass-transit advocates and business leaders, as they had a decade before, got on board, seeing congestion pricing not only as a traffic-buster but also as a critical revenue-raiser for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, North America’s largest public transit system.

This time, with broader support, the measure passed, putting New York on track to become the first U.S. city to follow the leads of cities such as London, Singapore and Stockholm, all of which experienced a dramatic drop in traffic and significant increases in travel speeds in their congestion pricing zones.

The difference between the failure of congestion pricing in 2008 and state authorization about a decade later is not just that it was an idea whose time had come. It also shows the importance of community dialogue. If we’ve seen anything in recent years, it’s that the days of a government or businesses simply dictating projects and their terms are over. Communities are demanding to be heard on the projects that will impact them. Consider, for example, Amazon’s bid to open a second headquarters in Long Island City in Queens, which collapsed after the community and its concerns were virtually ignored.

For cities looking to enact a congestion pricing program, the community outreach must begin before formal proposals are made. Even if governments can’t immediately provide specifics on how a congestion pricing plan would work and what it would cost motorists, they can start talking to communities about the benefits of the program while at the same time soliciting feedback to address pain points and other concerns when a plan is formally proposed. That can involve anything from potential toll exemptions to concerns about parking issues in areas just outside the congestion zone.

There will be many other factors, both big and small, that go into launching a successful program. New York’s MTA and the state and city departments of transportation, for example, are in the process of an extremely intricate environmental assessment required by the Federal Highway Administration. The process as directed by the feds is heavy on formal, required community outreach: a host of public meetings, including those focusing on environmental-justice communities made up largely of people of color, immigrant neighborhoods and low-income workers.

But the reality is that while such public meetings have value, they have little to do with genuine community dialogue. Those who do show up for public hearings, and New York’s experience is that it has been a relatively small number considering the millions who will be potentially impacted, give their statements, and that is it. Earlier outreach to the community in the planning stages — not just to local officials but to other influencers such as faith leaders, education officials and advocates — can help win support for the project.

For successful implementation, other cities considering congestion pricing can get ahead of the game while they watch to see the ultimate outcome in New York. By opening ongoing, wide-ranging community conversations now and starting to gather insights, they’ll be in a better position to avoid the pitfalls that pose the greatest risks.

Congestion pricing has the opportunity to make a significant impact in cities across the U.S., but that can only happen if it’s done right.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Leader of public-sector practice for Ichor Strategies and a former senior adviser with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority
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