NYC Hopes To Push MTA To Fast-Track Congestion Pricing

Mayor Bill de Blasio is hoping to pressure the MTA to move forward—and more quickly—with its congestion pricing program. He said he’ll appoint the city’s representative to the six-person panel that will determine the charges and exemptions drivers will face, and is asking the MTA to have it up and running by next year.

Congestion pricing would create a tolling zone in Manhattan below 60th Street, excluding the FDR Drive and the West Side Highway. The plan was passed by the state in 2019, in hopes of raising $1 billion in annual revenue, but was held up by the Trump administration for two years. Now, it appears to be stalling again as the MTA is working on a routine environmental review.

“Congestion pricing will reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, eliminate toll shopping, and lower vehicle emissions, all while encouraging New Yorkers back to mass transit. Revenues will provide billions for the subway system’s signals, track, accessibility, and other critical transit infrastructure,” Mayor de Blasio wrote in a statement.

The MTA shot back that it’s been working on it since the Biden administration gave them the green light in March to conduct an environmental review of how congestion pricing and the tolling equipment might impact the city.  

“Since then, we have been in deep, detailed and productive discussions with the Federal Highway Administration over exactly what that entails. We will move forward on a timeline that meets all requirements set out for us,” Ken Lovett, Senior Advisor to the MTA Chairman and CEO, wrote in a statement.

A spokesperson for the Federal Highway Administration confirmed that they’re working on it.

”FHWA is in touch with local New York stakeholders—MTA, NYSDOT, and NYCDOT as they work towards the submittal of a complete draft EA,” a spokesperson for the agency wrote in a statement.

Transit advocates, and lawmakers in the region have been urging the MTA to get congestion pricing up and running as a way to reduce pollution and congestion, and raise funds so the MTA can quickly upgrade its aging equipment.

“As the first U.S. city to potentially adopt congestion pricing, New York has the opportunity to serve as a model for others on how to maximize the benefits of this system,” Tom Wright, President and CEO of Regional Plan Association, wrote in a statement. ​“Now is the time to move forward so we can all have a fair and effective system that will make our transit system better and our environment healthier.”

But the MTA doesn’t seem to have the same urgency. At a board meeting in June, the Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran said the MTA doesn’t need that potential $1 billion a year congestion pricing might generate, which the MTA has said it could use to raise $15 billion in bonds. Before the pandemic, the MTA had planned to use that money to modernize the system with the projects in its last $51.5 billion capital plan.

As ridership remains far below pre-pandemic levels, it’s unclear how much of that capital plan the MTA will embark on. The agency is expected to give an update on its financial situation at a board meeting next week.

On Thursday, de Blasio appointed Department of Finance Commissioner Sherif Soliman as his representative of the six-person panel that is supposed to agree on the contention details of the program, such as charges and if there are any vehicles that may not have to pay. By state law, there must be one representative on the Traffic Mobility Review Board who lives in New York City, one who lives in the region served by the Long Island Railroad, and one for the Metro-North region. 

The MTA has yet to name any other members to the board or a chairperson.

De Blasio appointed a panel during the pandemic to address what a return to the city might look like, in which he was advised to restrict vehicle access to Lower Manhattan to avoid the kind of gridlock the city is now facing. The mayor did not act on their suggestions.