The MTA and the Biden administration have reached an agreement to begin a long-stalled environmental review of New York’s congestion pricing program — setting in motion a roughly two-year process to begin tolling drivers entering Manhattan’s core.
In a statement on Friday, the MTA announced they had received federal approval to begin a 16-month environmental assessment. The process will involve “unprecedented levels of public outreach,” according to MTA Acting Chair Janno Lieber, with a slate of 20 public meetings set to begin in the coming weeks.
Once the process is complete, the vendor will have approximately 10 months to install the tolling technology, according to sources familiar with the plan.
The first-in-the-nation congestion pricing plan passed as part of the state budget in 2019. It will create a new tolling zone below 60th Street, with exemptions on the FDR Drive and West Side Highway, with the aim of raising $1 billion in annual funds for the MTA and reducing air pollution and gridlock. Initially slated to start in early 2021, the program stalled under the Trump administration.
Both local officials and budget watchdogs have sought to fast-track the project in recent months, as the city’s traffic worsens and the MTA weathers a “fiscal tsunami.” In a report this week, the good government group Reinvent Albany warned that the slow rollout could threaten the MTA’s $55 billion signal repair and modernization plan.
Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and incoming Comptroller Brad Lander have slammed the 16-month timetable as ridiculous and unnecessary.
But transit experts say the MTA is largely hamstrung by a 1970 federal law intended to prevent haphazard highway projects — such as the Cross Bronx Expressway — from devastating communities. Because the toll would be imposed on roads that receive federal dollars, the MTA was blocked from even determining the the cost of the fee until it received the blessing of the Federal Highway Administration.
“It’s deeply ironic in a way that a bill was intended to protect communities from harmful infrastructure is now in essence delaying New York’s own ability to cut traffic and improve transit,” said Danny Pearlstein of the Riders Alliance.
The lengthy review will also be necessary to sell New Yorkers on the benefits of the new tolling scheme, according to advocates.
Already, car-owning Manhattan residents who live below 60th Street and outer-borough politicians looking to score points with their constituents have been clamoring for exemptions.
Kathy Hochul, who will become governor on Monday following Cuomo’s resignation, raised eyebrows this week after suggesting that she would continue to evaluate her previously stated support for the program.
But Tom Wright, the president and chief executive officer of Regional Plan Association, said he expected the environmental review process to convince many of the doubters.
“When people ask me what the single most important thing we can do to prepare for climate change, I tell them congestion pricing,” Wright added. “Because New York is the first city in America to do this, it’s important we do it right.”