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NYC’s plan to ease gridlock and pump billions into mass transit? A $15 toll for Manhattan drivers

PHILIP MARCELO
February 29, 2024

NEW YORK (AP) -- Between bridge and tunnel tolls, parking fees and the ever-present risk of getting a traffic ticket, it can already cost a mint to drive into Manhattan.

Is forking over another $15 for the privilege of driving into the most traffic-choked parts of the island enough to finally get more people out of their cars and onto mass transit?

That's the hope, at least among some New York officials.

The Big Apple is close to implementing a plan that would use license-plate readers to turn all of Manhattan south of Central Park into one giant toll zone.

Most drivers in private cars would pay a congestion fee of at least $15, or $22.50 if they aren't enrolled in a regional toll collection program. That would come on top of the already hefty tolls to enter the city via some river crossings, like the $13.38 to $17.63 it costs to take a car through the Lincoln or Holland tunnels.

That price tag, it's hoped, will lead to fewer traffic jams, reduce air pollution and provide a desperately needed annual cash infusion of around $1 billion for the city's subway and bus systems, which carry some 4 million riders daily.

If the plan is finalized, New York would become the first U.S. city to join a handful globally with similar congestion pricing schemes, including London, Stockholm, Milan and Singapore, which is credited with pioneering the first such program in 1975.

But the lofty plan, which is aiming for a summer launch, still faces roadblocks and questions about whether it's worth it.

Public school teachers are among those expected to plead for an exemption at a series of public hearings that kick off Thursday.

Manhattan business owners are fretting about the impact on the local economy. Suburban commuters are furious over the prospect of even costlier workday drives.

The fee is a particularly tough pill for civil servants, many of whom don't have a choice where they're assigned, said Paul Caminiti, a public school teacher who drives in from Staten Island.

He says his options are either to swallow an additional $2,700 a year in fees to maintain his current half-hour drive or take as many as three buses that can take nearly two hours, including wait times.

"To the regular person that's paying all this extra money, that does mean a lot," Caminiti said.

For supporters of the plan, though, nothing less than the essence of New York is at stake. Only about 40% of city households own a car. People who don't drive need a reliable and affordable mass transit system, said Danny Pearlstein, of the Riders Alliance.

"New York is utterly and completely dependent on transit," he said. "New York has decided to invest in the infrastructure that makes New York possible."

American cities should take heed of London's experience, suggests Michael Manville, a professor who chairs the urban planning department at UCLA.

While use of private cars there plummeted in the early years, traffic has essentially returned to pre-fee levels more than two decades on, he says.

That could be because the city has granted many exemptions -- the city's famous black cabs, vehicles transporting people with disabilities and even electric vehicles don't pay the roughly $19 fee, according to Manville.

"There's always going to be carve-outs," he said. "But the further and further you start going down that road, there lies madness."

So far, New York's plan includes exemptions for emergency vehicles, transit buses, certain vehicles carrying people with disabilities and specialized government vehicles. Low-income city residents also can qualify for a discounted rate and a tax credit.

Passengers using Uber, Lyft and other app-based rides in Manhattan would be assessed a $2.50 surcharge per trip, while taxis and black car riders would be taxed $1.25. Those fees, which would come on top of a $2.75 congestion charge already imposed on for-hire rides in Manhattan, will be passed on to passengers, but will still hurt drivers if people forgo costlier rides into the city center, argues Raul Rivera of the driver advocacy group NYC Drivers Unite.

Trucks and for-profit buses, meanwhile, would pay stepped-up fees ranging from $24 to $36.

Congestion fees would be reduced during the quieter night hours, but would be in effect weekends.

John McCarthy, chief of policy at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which stands to benefit from the cash infusion, says the question is simply one of volume.

"We need to reduce the number using cars if we are serious about dealing with the congestion that's clogging roads," he said.

No less than five lawsuits are attempting to block the fee, including two legal challenges from neighboring New Jersey, where some 10% of the state's workforce commutes into the city daily.

Richard Galler, a Fort Lee, New Jersey, resident and a plaintiff in one of the suits, said he fears vehicle pollution in his neighborhood will only get worse if drivers who would have entered Manhattan via two tunnels south of Central Park divert to the George Washington Bridge, which is located outside the proposed congestion zone.

Residents in some of the city's more far-flung corners have similar concerns.

"What's in it for us?" said Staten Island Borough President Vito Fossella, a Republican leading another suit against the plan. "You're going to hurt our environment, make our traffic worse and expect us to pay for it?"

People with disabilities worry their unique transportation needs will once more become an afterthought.

Jean Ryan, a Brooklyn resident who heads the group Disabled in Action, says the MTA's proposed exemption for disabled people is too restrictive. She's also skeptical the transit windfall will truly be invested in elevator, ramp and other crucial accessibility improvements, as the MTA has promised.

"Most disabled folks live on a very, very low income," she said. "They don't have wiggle room in their budget."

Manhattan business groups, meanwhile, hope authorities can pump the brakes while New York City continues recovering from the pandemic, which changed commuting patterns substantially as many office workers shifted permanently to working from home much of the time.

Cristyne Nicholas, who chairs the Broadway Association, said her group is especially concerned about the impact on night shift workers who must drive to Manhattan because of limited mass transit options in the early morning hours.

"This is not the same New York City from five years ago," she said. "We are concerned that the proposed fee structure and hours will slow the recovery."

___

Follow Philip Marcelo at twitter.com/philmarcelo.

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